Curious Capitalist

What Are the Jobs Figures Really Telling Us?

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Sandy Huffaker—Getty Images

Current and former military personnel stand in line for interviews at the Opportunity Job Fair on Sept. 6, 2012 at the old Naval Training Center in San Diego, Calif.

Has anything really changed in the labor market? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since last Friday’s jobs figures, the most positive in three and a half years, came out. Unemployment is finally below 8%, and there was pick up in surprising areas, like public sector employment. No, that had nothing to do with the Obama administration manipulating BLS data, as Jack Welch would like us to believe. The improvements were at the state and local level, rather than the federal, in areas like education and healthcare, and they probably had a lot more to do with seasonal adjustments than anything else, at least according to the smart folks in JP Morgan’s economic research division. What’s more, if the President actually had the ability to tweak the figures, he probably would have focused on manufacturing, an area that was still shedding jobs thanks to the slowdown of Europe and many emerging markets, which is hitting U.S. exporters.

It’s that last bit that worries me. The Obama administration and everyone has been counting on the nascent manufacturing resurgence in the U.S. to create some of those better paying middle class jobs that we’ve lost so many of over the last few decades. And indeed, the forces that have been fueling the manufacturing resurgence in this country aren’t gone – energy prices are high and may get higher if Iran tries any funny business in the Straight of Hormuz. Higher energy means more risk and higher shipping costs, which makes companies more inclined to source parts and jobs closer to home. What’s more, American manufacturing is becoming more competitive – the Boston Consulting Group estimates that by 2016, the gap in total manufacturing cost between producing in the U.S. and China will have narrowed to just 7%. Yes, we’re getting more globally competitive. But that’s partly because a lot of us are not making any more money than we did in 1968.

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That’s the thing about today’s labor market that’s perhaps most troubling: Income growth is still basically flat. More people have jobs, but almost nobody outside of the very top tier is getting a raise. Paul Ashworth at Capital Economics told me recently that he believes that unemployment would have to get below 7% for there to be any real increase in wages in this country. Many others agree with him. That’s a problem when the bulk of your economy is still based on consumer spending: No raise, no real spending bump.

So, what’s to be done? That is becoming a very interesting question, economically and politically. Classical economics would have us believe that the market simply sets the wages we all deserve. Supply, demand, and the relative productivity of each worker get thrown into a pot, and the most productive, in-demand people get paid more. But as the FT’s John Kay pointed out in a very smart column last week, that’s not the only way to think about wages. In the complicated world of modern work, where a lot gets done in large teams across many divisions and time zones, it’s very, very difficult to determine exactly who should be getting credit for what. Contacts, connections, and lobbying power (both at the personal and industry level) have a lot to do with how much people get paid, too.

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If you buy the idea that the market isn’t actually quite as fair as we’ve always thought, that opens up a whole host of possibilities, like government intervention in wage setting — and I’m talking about more than just raising the minimum wage. Sure, it’s still possible to work up a lot of Americans by crying “redistribution,” as the Romney camp, desperate to deflect attention from Mitt’s 47% gaffe, tried to do a couple of weeks ago by releasing an old video of Barack Obama arguing for just that.

But those cries don’t have the power that they would have even a few years ago, before the Great Recession made it clear just how bifurcated our labor markets have become. And I suspect we may be headed towards an era in which there’s at least some government push-back against laissez faire labor markets. Peter Atwater, the head of the market research firm Financial Insights and a behavioral economist whose work I very much admire, recently told me he thinks we may in the next few years see the U.S. government start to charge multinational firms for laying off American workers. After all, why should the state have to pick up all the downside of globalization (in the form of more benefit payouts) while companies get to keep a record share of the upside, in the form of the largest profit margins in history? It could be just a hop, step, and jump to more government intervention in wages, particularly if the current system doesn’t evolve in such a way that the proceeds of the pie are shared more fairly. I’m talking to you, Jack Welch.

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(Updated 10/8: This post was updated to reflect that the Boston Consulting Group projects that the gap in total manufacturing cost between producing in the U.S. and China will by 2016 narrow to 7%, not 7 cents per hour.)