OLIGARCHY OR DEMOCRACY: CORPORATIONS VS. WORKERS

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Robert Reich’s latest book, The System, presents his analysis of how our democracy is more like an oligarchy these days, how it got that way, and how to fix it. Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” (page 13-14) [1]

Reich identifies three major systemic changes that have occurred since 1980 that have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. They are:

  • The shift of big corporations from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism (see my previous post for a summary of this change),
  • The shift in bargaining power from unions to large employers and corporations (see below), and
  • The shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street.

The shift in power from workers and their unions to large employers and corporations began in the 1980s. It included three components:

  • The increased size and marketplace power of corporations,
  • The increased influence of large corporations and employers in policy making, and
  • The weakening of the power of workers and their unions.

The increased size, marketplace power, and political influence of corporations has occurred in large part because the federal government has, starting in the 1980s under President Reagan, basically abandoned enforcement of anti-trust laws limiting mergers and acquisitions. As a result, two-thirds of the business sectors of our economy have become more concentrated since the 1980s. This means that ever larger corporations have gained monopolistic power, allowing them to raise prices or reduce customer service or quality without losing business to the competition, because there is little or no competition in many local markets.

The resultant large companies have the resources to engage in extensive political activity including lobbying, making sizable campaign donations and expenditures, and moving employees through the revolving door to positions in government (and often back again). This has provided them with substantial political power and influence.

Because payroll costs are typically 70% of a business’s costs, reducing personnel costs is the quickest way to increase profits and share prices, the goals of shareholder capitalism. The increased size and reduced number of employers inherently suppress worker pay by leaving workers fewer choices of whom to work for in many locales. This means there is less competition among employers in hiring workers, and therefore less need to increase pay or benefits to attract workers.

On the policy front, a central focus of large companies’ political influence has been on undermining and weakening enforcement of laws supporting unionized workers. In addition, relaxed laws governing international trade have allowed employers to shift jobs overseas to cheaper labor markets. Finally, a bankruptcy filing, a technique frequently used by vulture capitalists (i.e., private equity investors and corporate raiders), allows employers to void union contracts, as well as benefits for retirees. Simply the threat of bankruptcy has become enough to get unions and workers to agree to cuts in pay and benefits. All of these factors mean that large employers have gained the ability to undermine and eliminate unionized workers, as well as to block the formation of new unions.

As a result, unionization of private sector U.S. workers has dropped precipitously from 35% in the 1950s to 6% today. Reduced unionization leaves employees with less power to bargain for good pay and benefits. It also means employers are able to effectively require workers to agree to disadvantageous employment conditions such as signing agreements prohibiting them from working for a competitor (i.e., non-compete agreements) and agreeing to engage in arbitration rather than going to court with a lawsuit when mistreatment or other grievances occur. Moreover, the economy-wide boost to pay and benefits due to employers having to compete against unionized jobs to attract workers, has effectively disappeared as unionization has dropped to today’s very low levels.

In addition, large employers have gotten states to enact so-called “right-to-work” laws. These laws allow workers at a unionized workplace to refuse to pay union dues, even though they benefit from the union’s negotiation of pay, benefits, working conditions, and grievance procedures. This undermines the financial resources and bargaining power of unions.

The increased size and reduced number of businesses has increased corporate profits and economic inequality. It has also stifled innovation as large companies block access to customers for newer companies and buy up smaller companies that are seen as threats to their monopolistic dominance. The rate of new business formation today is half of what it was in 1980.

The economic result is that today a greater share of businesses’ income goes to profits and a smaller share to workers’ compensation than at any time since World War II.

The societal result is that workers are economically insecure, frustrated, and angry. Therefore, they are susceptible to demagogues like Donald Trump selling racism, xenophobia, and oligarchic authoritarianism as the solution to their insecurity and anger.

The declining value of the minimum wage since 1968 is indicative of the decline of workers’ power and compensation. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2025, as is currently being proposed in Congress, would be a step in the right direction but would still not give workers the full value of their increases in productivity. Using 1968 as the reference point, today’s current federal minimum wage of $7.25 would be roughly:

  • $11.00 if it had kept up with inflation. (In other words, the minimum wage today has roughly 1/3 less purchasing power than it had in 1968.)
  • $22.00 if it had kept up with the increases in workers’ productivity, i.e., the increases in the value of the output of today’s workers over those in 1968. Instead, this increased value is going to profits and shareholders. [2]

I will summarize Reich’s book’s description of the shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street, the last of his three big systemic changes, in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, I urge you to read Reich’s book or check out his writing and videos at https://robertreich.org/ and/or https://www.inequalitymedia.org/. His analysis of the current economic and political landscape is always insightful and clear, and often entertaining as well.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Lee, T.M., 2/25/21, “Our deeply broken labor market needs a higher minimum wage,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/our-deeply-broken-labor-market-needs-a-higher-minimum-wage-epi-testimony-for-the-senate-budget-committee/)

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