First, capital income doesn’t flow just to “fat cats.” It also goes to small businesses, retirement accounts, college endowments, ordinary shareholders, landlords and people who collect interest.
Second, labor’s shrinking share isn’t necessarily a disaster for workers. What else is happening in the economy also matters. The inflationary 1970s, when labor’s share was rising, were turbulent. The period from the mid-1980s until 2007, when labor’s share was falling, was generally prosperous. If economic growth is strong, compensation can increase even if labor’s share drops.
The bargain that capitalism makes with society is that profits won’t simply be consumed but will also be reinvested. Jobs and living standards will increase. One reason for the recovery’s weakness is that there’s been a partial disconnect between swelling profits and higher investment. Companies are hoarding earnings. At year-end 2011, non-financial corporations had $2.2 trillion in cash and short-term securities, up 60 percent from 2008.
The caution partly reflects the Great Recession’s traumatic nature. Companies and consumers alike are more protective. But to hear Obama — his hectoring of oil companies, bankers, insurance companies and the rich — there’s something more. American capitalism has become more predatory and exploitative. Naturally, Romney and his former employer, the private-equity firm Bain Capital, are cast as symbols of this pillaging capitalism. Government must provide more direction.