Friday, October 22, 2010

Maybe Things Have Changed

During my professional career, three things have seemingly dominated the American culture. First, the labor unions; second, the manufacturing industries; and the third was home ownership.

I spent my formative years in Michigan and nothing dominated the newspapers more than the activity of labor unions and the car industry. That was just a part of the society there. Of course, there was the steel industry and in the case of unions there was the coal industry and so on. Nothing is more vivid to me than the role of manufacturing and labor unions in the culture of my youth.

If anything else came close it was the idea of home ownership and the suburban sprawl. It was especially important to put the returning soldiers into homes and to help them live the “true” American life.

These days are gone, but the role they played in this earlier existence still dominates our national life and our political philosophy. Maybe that needs to change. Maybe we need to re-direct our attention.

The manufacturing industries have become a smaller and smaller part of the United States economic machine…for better or worse. The economy has shifted toward information and “information goods”. An “information good” is broadly defined as anything that can be digitized. Besides the computer industry, three other major subcategories in this area are in financial services, higher education, and government. Finance, colleges and universities, and government deal, primarily, with information and “information goods”.

The “new” structure of commerce in the United States is tilted toward the more educated, the more mobile, and the modern urban community. The “old” structure relied more on physical effort, the stationary, and the suburban life.

That is, the driving forces in this new modern world are not cars, and steel, and manual labor.

The thrust of the labor unions has also changed and it seems as if unions have spread into the area of government as the presence of government has grown in the society over the last fifty years. Back in “the good old days”, unions were connected with industry and hard and dangerous jobs and “national” monopolies. International competition was not a threat at that time.

Today, the presence of unions has radically shifted. In the United States most union members are connected with government. This is also the case in the rest of the western, democratic nations. Labor unions are still important in the automobile industry, but the automobile industry is just not as important any more. I have seen figures that indicate that something like 60% of the membership in American labor unions these days is related to government. This move has completely changed not only the location of labor unions in the United States; it has also changed the focus.

The desire to get Americans into their own homes has been present in the country since the country was started. This was felt to be important not only for individuals themselves, but for the substantial positive externalities that were felt to accompany the growth of home ownership.

Today, we may find that renting may become more prevalent in the faster-moving, more educated, “urban” workforce of the 21st century. And, this mobility is becoming more global than just national.

The economic policies of the government have been built around the above factors which, I contend, are not as prevalent as they once were.

Monetary and fiscal stimulus were more effective in an age of “heavy manufacturing” because these industries relied upon fixed capital, huge plants and machinery, and a “local” labor force. When unemployment happened, labor stayed “at home”, both in terms of location, but also in terms of skills because the workers needed to know little else. Monetary and fiscal stimulus put these workers back to work in their old jobs as sales picked up. New investment also was created as the economy rebounded.

The same is not true in the Information Age. “Information” companies do not have huge plants and large machines to maintain. Downsizing and the shifting of the employees occurs incrementally and more rapidly than in the past. People move and re-train and change. Monetary and fiscal stimulus is not so effective because the companies and have “moved on” and do not re-hire people back into their old jobs as did the manufacturing firms. The employees have also “moved on”. Furthermore, these companies do not have large capital investments to undertake that help the economy to re-start.

The labor union issue is surfacing in another way. Labor unions connected with government workers have become very important in recent years and have been very successful in gaining large settlements related to health benefits and retirement. A recent edition of the Economist magazine has covered some of the issues here. The problem: “One California mayor estimates that the effective cost of employing each police officer and fireman is $180,000 a year. That sum is not their take-home pay. For police and firefighters, the big costs occur when they stop working—retirement at 50, combined with inflation-linking, health benefits and lump sums for unused sick leave…California is also shelling out fortunes to retired state and municipal managers; more than 9,000 have retirement incomes of over $100,000 a year.”

And, these pension promises have been subject to “Alice-in-Wonderland accounting.” The Economist presents figures that pension liabilities are estimated to be around $5.3 trillion, compared with $1.9 trillion of assets. “The total shortfall of $3.4 trillion is the equivalent of a quarter of all federal debt.”

So, when it comes to governmental employees, the fighting is not over peanuts. And, this is a worldwide issue as can be noted in the riots taking place in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and France over their government’s retirement and pension payments. And, yesterday it was revealed that the new austerity budget of the British government contains a reduction of 500,000 public sector jobs. “Today, the fight begins,” states the general secretary of the largest government union in the UK.

The role of labor unions in the 21st century society seems to need to be re-addressed going

Finally, the pressure of the government to achieve high rates of home ownership must be re-visited. We, in the United States, have paid a major price for the emphasis placed on this goal and the resources that were allocated toward its achievement. Payment is still coming due in the area of foreclosures, commercial real estate bankruptcies, and the resolving of government support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It is very likely that we, the people of the United States, will be paying for this bailout for many years to come.

The whole point of this post is to argue for a change in some of the assumptions behind the economic policies of the leaders of the United States government. The world has changed. Maybe our leaders need to change their outlook as well.

Or, is that too much to ask?

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