At the same time, corporate profits were booming. In 2006, the year before the Great Recession began, corporate profits garnered the largest share of national income since 1942, while the share going to wages and salaries sank to the lowest level since 1929. In the recession’s aftermath, corporate profits have bounced back while middle-class incomes have stagnated.
Today the prevailing cut-to-the-bone business ethos means that a company like Caterpillar demands a wage freeze and lower health benefits from its workers, while posting record profits.
Globalization, including the rise of Asia, and technological innovation can’t explain all or even most of today’s gaping inequality; if they did, we would see in other advanced economies the same hyperconcentration of wealth and the same stagnation of middle-class wages as in the United States. But we don’t.
In Germany, still a manufacturing and export powerhouse, average hourly pay has risen five times faster since 1985 than in the United States. The secret of Germany’s success, says Klaus Kleinfeld, who ran the German electrical giant Siemens before taking over the American aluminum company Alcoa in 2008, is “the social contract: the willingness of business, labor and political leaders to put aside some of their differences and make agreements in the national interests.”
In short, German leaders have practiced stakeholder capitalism and followed the century-old wisdom of Henry Ford, while American business and political leaders have dismantled the dynamics of the “virtuous circle” in pursuit of downsizing, offshoring and short-term profit and big dividends for their investors.