I’m putting up this post at the request of Yves Smith. She tells me that the conventional story of the 1970s is that corporate profitability declined as foreign multinationals became competitive with US multinationals. Thus, so goes the story, there was a real impetus to cut labor costs.
Now, I’m no wizard with economic data, so it’s quite possible I have this wrong. But It doesn’t look like corporate profits dropped. The story is more interesting than that. Here’s corporate profits against inflation.
So why the story of lost profits? Well, these narratives serve a purpose, and in this case that narrative is organized around the idea that labor costs needed to go down. Where did the corporate sector get that idea? Well, what grew even faster than corporate profits in the 1970s? Social insurance costs. You see, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson implemented this program called Medicare, and that increased the amount that corporations had to pay to cover the medical costs of older people. And this cost stayed with the corporate sector even during recessions, because it was a labor cost.
Eventually, the corporate sector got a handle on these costs, probably by offshoring labor, breaking unions, and financializing. All three of these reduce social insurance contributions to the corporate sector. Check out the following graph.
Today you can see there’s a massive difference between social insurance contributions (blue line) and corporate profits (red line), with roughly $1 in contributions for every $4 in corporate profits. Working your way backwards, there was a smaller yet significant bulge in the mid-2000s, a still smaller yet significant bulge in the mid-1990s, and a even smaller bulge in the early 1980s.
My sense is that this represents the corporate sector gradually shedding not just labor costs, but amount of profit generated by labor. That could mean financialization, increased monopolistic pricing power, offshoring, breaking unions, or all of the above.
Anyway, it’s an interesting phenomenon. Corporate America pays less in social insurance costs than it used to. That means that anyone who says that there used to be x number of workers for every y number of Social Security/Medicare recipients can be reminded that in the 1960s there used to be (roughly) one dollar of contribution to Social Security/Medicare for every dollar and a half dollars of corporate profits, whereas today there’s (roughly) one dollar of contribution to Social Security/Medicare for every four dollars of corporate profits.
Anyway, I’m not 100% sure I got this right. So any corrections/comments are welcome.