How Contemporary Antitrust Robs Workers of Power

Sandeep Vaheesan

Man Controlling Trade by Michael LantzThe political economist Albert Hirschman developed the idea that members of an organization can exercise power in two ways—through exit and voice. Market activity is associated with exit: consumers unhappy with the price or quality of service of their current wireless carrier can switch to a rival carrier offering lower rates or better service. Elections exemplify voice: voters can replace a corrupt or ineffective incumbent officeholder with a challenger promising to make the government work for ordinary people. For workers, both exit (joining a new employer) and voice (making demands of a current employer) are important. Despite the pro-worker aims of the framers of the Sherman and Clayton Acts, antitrust law today is an enemy of both exit and voice for workers.

For more than a generation, antitrust enforcers have permitted labor markets to become highly concentrated and have also interfered with the efforts of a large segment of workers to build collective power. Through their labor market actions, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reinforce, rather than tame, corporate power. To create a progressive, pro-worker antitrust, legislators and policymakers must adopt a radically different vision for the field.

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Bloom on Abood’s Mistake in Jacobin

Will Bloom —
Last Tuesday, I argued in Jacobin that, for all the ways in which Justice Alito’s Janus decision was wrong, it made one important point. Justice Alito correctly noted the false distinction drawn by the Abood court between union’s “ideological” work in the electoral sphere and its “non-ideological” work in collective bargaining and contract enforcement. Abood‘s insistence that there was nothing ideological about collective bargaining reinforced and reified a trend towards the depoliticization of American workplaces, which in turn dampened the development of class consciousness and working class power. My piece focused on a key LPE concept: the ability of the law to lock in and even create power dynamics between parties, and the need to denaturalize and challenge those baked-in relationships.
Will Bloom is a labor and immigration attorney in Chicago. He is a member of the National Organization of Legal Service Workers, UAW Local 2320, and the Democratic Socialists of America.

How Shareholder Primacy Hurts Jobs and Wages

Lenore Palladino— 

The debate around stagnant wages and job creation seems well-settled: scholars point to globalization, or skill-biased technical change, or the decline of union density.  Others point to the ‘rise of the robots’, claiming that automation and technology are driving us towards a jobless future. But few consider that the dominance of shareholder primacy within America’s public corporations has contributed just as much to economic inequality as these more commonly-cited factors.

I define shareholder primacy as the shift within public companies from investing corporate profits within the firm or its workers to instead sending corporate profits back to shareholders, and, in some cases, holding increasing amounts of financial assets. Companies today care more about their financial metrics than they do about producing goods and services more efficiently over time. That’s why corporations are on track to spend $1.2 trillion this year simply rewarding shareholders by purchasing back their own stock and paying dividends.

For a current example of the dominance of shareholder primacy, take the response to the big tax reform legislation of 2017, which lowered the corporate tax rate to twenty-one percent. According to Trump and the GOP, the legislation was meant to incentive companies to create jobs. What have companies done so far? $171 billion dollars have been spent on share buybacks, whereas only $6 billion has gone to workers’ bonuses and small wage bumps. When the point of corporate activity is to return money to shareholders, investing in productive workers who can grow the business over time is beside the point.

Much of the public still thinks that America’s largest businesses function as they did in the post-World War II era: they earn profits, use those profits in part to enrich their top CEOs, and also invest in their workforce, innovation, and in better prices for us all. But somewhere along the way, in the Reagan administration, government regulations and reforms in corporate governance broke this productive cycle. Some companies focused on shareholder payouts, while others focused on profiting more and more off of financial activity. This shift was led by our industrial mainstays: the paradigmatic American firm, General Electric, earned 43% of its profits in its banking arm, GE Capital, as recently as 2014.

Firms made these choices in direct response to rising pressure from capital markets to move money out of the firm and into the pockets of shareholders, and in order to keep share prices steadily rising—choices sweetened by the fact that CEOs were increasingly paid in company stock.

When investing in a stable and productive workforce is not essential, worker bargaining power declines. Before the 1970s, American corporations paid out 50% of profits to shareholders, while retaining the rest for investment. Now, shareholder payouts are over 100% of reported profits, because firms borrow in order to lift payouts even higher.

Thus the changing nature of work—the rise of the fissured workplace and the gig economy—is driven not just by a generic drive for profit or the attributes of the “knowledge economy,” but a structural shift within corporations from a productive to financialized use of corporate cash. The relentless search for short-term profits expresses itself through squeezing employees’ pay, transforming employees into independent contractors to avoid paying benefits or pensions, and outsourcing work to contracting firms that compete to pay lower and lower wages. If firms don’t count on their employees to come up with the next big productivity improvement or exciting product idea, there’s no reason to invest in employee efficiency or longevity with the firm.

Demands on firms intensified with the rise of ‘activist investors,’ formerly known as corporate raiders. As institutional investors became large shareholders of major corporations, they pressured firms to push up share prices by maximizing short-term profits. Since such institutional investors could move their investments around easily, firms grew more responsive to capital markets than to their customers. For public companies, key regulatory and legislative changes allowed for a greater focus on stock prices. In 1982, Congress passed the safe-harbor provision for buybacks, which formerly would have been considered market manipulation. Further, the shift to allow CEO ‘performance pay’ to be deducted from corporate tax incentivized corporations to pay CEOs in stock. On the private firm side, the rise of private equity and the increase in leveraged buyouts has led to extractive financial strategies in which private firms cut jobs and reduce wages in order to extract maximum wealth for the holders of equity.

Though the literature is still nascent, several scholars have examined the direct negative impact of corporate financialization on income inequality. One study found that financialization, net of other factors, could account for more than half of the decline in labor’s share of income in the nonfinancial sector of the economy, and is comparable to the effect of de-unionization, globalization, and technological shifts.  Others look directly at the impact of financialization on declining corporate investment, finding that the financial profit rate is correlated with a significant decline in investment, especially for large firms. Less investment can mean less to spend on improving the skills and productivity of one’s workforce.

Corporate financialization is not the only driver of labor market challenges. It has become impossible, though, to think about how to solve problems in the labor market without taking on the primacy of shareholders. It is not simply that firms want to spend less money on workers—it’s that they actually need them less, and so the incentive to invest in a high-quality workforce is much reduced. In order to have a stable and productive workforce, and for workers to have the bargaining power they need to take home a fair wage, the incentives that drive shareholder primacy must be reformed.

A modified version of this post will be published as part of the article, Eleven Things They Don’t Tell You About Law & Economics:  An Informal Introduction to Political Economy and Law, forthcoming in Volume XXXVII of Law and Inequality:  A Journal of Theory and Practice (Law & Ineq.) of the University of Minnesota.

Lenore Palladino is Senior Economist and Policy Counsel with the Roosevelt Institute, a Lecturer in Economics at Smith College, and Of Counsel with the Law Firm of Jason Wiener, p.c.

Libertarian Doublespeak: Obscuring Distributional Struggles Under the Banner of “Economic Liberty”

Jamee K. Moudud

The expression “economic liberty” is a form of conceptual doublespeak. The word doublespeak refers to a kind of “language used to deceive usually through concealment or misrepresentation of truth.” This strategy of redefining reality with the clever use of language is central to the way in which power is exercised in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. But it also applies to the Public Choice Economics literature. It requires obeisance to the rule of law and “economic liberty,” while ensuring that the majority of the population cannot reduce the wealth of the richest few. This effect evokes a1984-like dynamic, well described in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. MacLean describes how Public Choice’s libertarian ideology aims to restrain society’s ability to regulate the controllers of capital under the guise of “economic liberty.” And of course, a crucial goal is to contain the power of labor. The ideological justification as MacLean put it is that “[I]n a true, undistorted market society, wages should only rise with increases in productivity.”

One could rephrase MacLean’s conclusion a little by saying that in the neoclassical paradigm, wages will rise with productivity under “free markets.” This conclusion follows from marginal productivity theory (MPT). In MPT, production and distribution occur in a context devoid of politics, in which output arises from a technological relationship called the production functionvia the inputs of the capital stock and labor. Given perfectly competitive markets (meaning those populated by small firms without any ability to set prices of their products or influence wages), each firm chooses that level of employment in which the additional cost of hiring one more worker equals the revenue that the output produced by that worker generates. This ensures the condition that real wages equal the marginal product (additional product) produced by each worker, in line with the Lockean view that each person should live by the fruits of their labor. The supplies and demands for the aggregate labor and capital stocks, respectively, determine wages and profits, i.e. the economy’s endowment structure determines the distribution of the output that arises from the production function.

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Against the Cult of Competition

Sandeep Vaheesan –

business-competition-1024x681

Competition is one of the talismanic words in law and economics and American life. It is often hailed as an unqualified good and touted as a solution to what ails society. The value of competition is endorsed across the ideological spectrum: Conservatives decry the lack of competition in schools and taxi cab services, while progressives highlight the dearth of competition among multinational corporations and call for a revival of antitrust law. Notwithstanding this trans-ideological commitment, we should not privilege competition at the expense of alternative means of structuring a democratic and egalitarian political economy. Three examples illustrate how competition is deficient as a general social organizing principle and should be promoted selectively, not categorically.

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Building on the Fight For $15: Lessons from the West Virginia Strikers

Will Bloom —

In a week chockful of major news about the American labor movement, no story has captured the imagination of workers and labor activists across the country like the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Despite having no legally protected right to strike or collectively bargain, and despite facing Republican control of both houses of the legislature and a newly Republican governor, teachers and school support staff have been on strike since February 22. They have enough statewide support to keep schools in all 55 counties shut down. The union leadership even cut a deal with Governor Justice in which he pledged to support legislation giving teachers a 5% raise, and still the workers refused to end the strike, holding out until the bill is passed and until the state addresses ballooning costs to workers of PEIA, the state employee health system.

Many have written about what this battle can teach us about the future of American class war. In light of the Supreme Court’s impending decision in Janus v. AFSCME, what happens to teachers in a non-fair-share state like West Virginia is especially significant for public sector workers nationwide. But it also has lessons to teach about a new form of labor organizing previously best exemplified by the Fight for 15 campaign (FF15). Though the two may seems very different in terms of industry and geography, both take a sectoral approach to collective bargaining that breaks out of the traditional employer-employee dyad and enlists public political actors . The West Virginia teachers’ surprising success shows what can happen when that structure is combined with a mass, militant movement of workers expressing their power through direct action.

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There is no necessary trade-off between good work and more work

Frank Pasquale – 

Mainstream economists tend to frame employment policy as a series of tragic trade-offs. If policymakers raise the minimum wage, they are told, employment will inevitably fall, perhaps precipitously. Requirements for vacations, too, might crash the job market. (Never mind that dozens of other prosperous countries mandate paid vacation time.) Technocrats of the center left complain about employer-sponsored insurance as a dreadful distortion of the labor market. Sick pay, family medical leave, maternity and paternity leave—all have been blasted by one economist or another as a drag on economic growth and employment levels. “You are only hurting the people you are trying to help,” labor activists are told, again and again.

Such models are intuitively plausible, thanks to what James Y. Kwak has called “economism:” simplistic perspectives resulting from mechanical applications of supply and demand models to complex social phenomena. In general, the more costly something is, the less consumers will demand it. That reasoning leads, in turn, to more sweeping claims about the need to deregulate labor markets. If there is one policy issue most likely to consolidate bipartisan consensus among economically minded technocrats, it is a suspicion of barriers to entry in the workforce, including occupational licensure and “credentialization.” They lament the former as a paradigmatic example of state power hijacked by private interests to enrich themselves. Credentialization is framed as a market failure: The unjustified preference of bosses for workers educated in ways not directly related to the tasks they will be performing at work.Supply and Demand diagram. Demand has negative slope. Supply has positive slope. further explained below

The bottom line of this economism is grim. To the extent the state requires certain qualifications of workers, or workers themselves demand time off or other entitlements, there will be fewer jobs. Economist Tyler Cowen asks whether “whether workers might not enjoy ‘too much’ tolerance and freedom in the workplace.” While cash wages are taxed, “perks” are not, so employers will be tempted to oversupply perks at the expense of wages (or, even more troublingly to neoclassical diehards, at the expense of shareholders).

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California Bans the Box, Twice

Noah Zatz – 

A core LPE theme is the construction of markets through political choices institutionalized in law. Those choices create an economy structured by whatever matters politically, including race. My Bailey series has been developing this theme in connection to the criminal regulation of work, in particular the use of criminal punishment to compel work. The more familiar racialized criminal justice/labor interaction concerns how the state marks individuals with criminal records, which employers then use to deny work.

Over at OnLabor, I’ve got two new posts up on some of the more technical aspects of using employment discrimination law to counter criminal records exclusions. The first one flags a familiar rules vs. standards problem in deciding when criminal record screening is permissible. The second one explores what kinds of evidence appropriately demonstrate the disparate racial impact of criminal record exclusions. In both cases, my jumping off point is innovative new regulations issued under California’s state employment discrimination law.

At some point I will share some thoughts on how these coercive and exclusionary dynamics work together.

Is “the Market” the Enemy?: Racial Exploitation in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz –

vote communist

“In our current moment, anticapitalism and struggles against state violence and incarceration tend to be separate movements.” So wrote renowned historian Robin D.G. Kelley recently in a new preface to his classic book Hammer and Hoe, which examines the largely Black Communists of early-mid 20th century Alabama. Kelley’s protagonists, in contrast, saw struggles against economic inequality and exploitation and also against specifically racialized state violence as “inextricably bound together.” This same milieu produced the groundbreaking 1911 case of Bailey v. Alabama. There, the Supreme Court struck down under the Thirteenth Amendment Alabama’s use of criminal law to hold Black workers in peonage.

This post extends my prior treatment of Bailey. My focus here is on Bailey as a case study in “racial capitalism”, and I want to challenge specifically the common conflation of all things “economic” with the outcomes of “markets,” even markets understood in Legal Realist fashion to be structured by laws of property and contract. Like Kelley, I do this with one eye on the contemporary, and in particular on the separation between critiques of “precarious work” in today’s labor markets and those aimed at our racialized carceral state.

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The New Majority: Uniting the Old and New Working Class

Daria Roithmayr – 

This post picks up where Angela Harris and Noah Zatz left off in the conversation about race and class. The arguments in this post preview arguments I will be making in a new book, entitled “The New Majority.” It will surprise no one that I decided to write the book in November of 2016.

So here’s the central argument. To end inequality, and to defuse white working class backlash, progressives should work to unite both the old and new working class on issues that those two groups share—like the concentration of power at the top, economic precarity in the middle and bottom, access to health care, job growth, wages and quality, freedom from violence and addiction, and reducing exploitation. To name just a few.

If there is a silver lining to the 2016 election and the trail of destruction that has followed, it is this: in the midst of the chaos, progressives have begun a serious conversation about inequality, and about race and class. To be sure, the conversation doesn’t look all that illuminating at the moment. On one side, people like Mark Lilla and others on the economic left (or left of center, or okay, center) make totalizing claims that locate class as the centerpiece in the conversation about inequality. They argue that Democrats have failed to address the concerns of the white working class. They claim, for example, that the experience of plant closings in key districts, explains why many people in battle ground states voted for the GOP. Some in this group argue that progressives ought to jettison “identity politics” in favor of some more universalist principles of fairness or economic justice.

On the other side, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others on the cultural/material left make totalizing claims that race and racism are what stands in the way of true equality. This group argues that anti-black racism and anti-immigrant resentment drove last November’s results—after all, poor and working class voted disproportionately for Clinton, and voters who expressed fear of people of color were far more likely to have voted for Trump, even when they had voted for Obama or for Democrats in years past.

In addition to making totalizing claims, both sides appear to accept the common wisdom that long-standing racial divisions make a unified working class impossible. I want to challenge all of that. More specifically, I want to argue for the possibility of uniting the old and new working class around progressive commitments to things like shared prosperity and the end of precarity, access to health care, an end to violence and a lower cost of debt. This doesn’t mean that I side with the class folks—far from it. Or with race folks. It’s more accurate to say that I side with both. To unite the old and new working class, we must understand the way in which race and class interact, for a particular group of people at a particular historical moment in time. Continue reading