The low-wage business model of Walmart and McDonald’s, for example, is a choice, both of corporations and of our policy makers. In the restaurant industry, there are restaurants in Seattle and San Francisco that are paying their servers $13 per hour and are doing fine. Costco successfully competes with Walmart and In-N-Out-Burger with McDonald’s even though the former eschew the low-wage business model of their competitor. [1]

Economists have a label for the behavior of corporations that rely on a low-wage business model where employees need public assistance to survive: it’s called “free riding.” It’s a free ride for the employer, as public assistance programs are subsidizing their payrolls. It’s anything but a free ride for taxpayers and the workers.

In the fast food industry, over half of employees are enrolled in at least one public assistance program. The estimated cost to taxpayers is $76 billion per year. Ironically, the taxes paid by high-wage businesses and their employees, including those competing with the likes of McDonald’s and Walmart, help to pay for the public benefits that subsidize the low wages of these parasitic corporations. Until recently, McDonald’s actually assisted its employees in signing up for public benefits – to the tune of $1.2 billion per year. Walmart employees are estimated to receive $6 billion per year in public assistance. By the way, in 2015 McDonald’s profit was $4.53 billion and Walmart’s was $130.2 billion.

Economic theory states that workers get paid what they are worth. Clearly, this is an over simplification given the variations in pay that exist among employers within an industry, such as within the fast food or restaurant industries. It is more accurate to say that workers get paid what they negotiate, and that some employers are friendlier negotiators than others. At the top end of the pay spectrum, some CEOs negotiate to get paid far more than they’re worth, while many ordinary workers get paid far less than they are worth because they don’t have the power to negotiate better pay.

The U.S. labor market has a dramatic imbalance of power. Unless a worker is a member of a union, he or she has little or no power to negotiate with an employer. The rate of union membership has fallen from roughly 1 in 3 private sector workers in 1979 to only about 1 in 10 workers today. Unions negotiate higher wages and benefits for union members and also, indirectly, for nonunion workers. This occurs for several reasons: union contracts set wage standards across whole industries and strong unions prompt employers to keep wages high in order to reduce turnover and discourage unionizing at non-union employers. The decline in union membership has resulted in reduced wages for both union and nonunion workers. It is estimated that this decline is costing non-union workers $133 billion a year in lost wages. [2]

Individual workers lack bargaining power because there are relatively few employers and job openings but lots of workers looking for a job. Furthermore, a worker has an immediate need for income to pay for food and shelter, while most employers can leave a job unfilled for a while without suffering any great hardship. They can take the time to search for someone willing to take the job at whatever pay they offer.

Since 1980, employers have aggressively exploited this imbalance of power, while our federal government has stood aside and, in many ways, supported them in doing so. As a result, $1 trillion per year that used to go to workers now goes to executives and profits. Workers’ rewards for their contributions to our economic output (gross domestic product [GDP]) has dropped from 50% of GDP to 43%.

There is truth to the argument that in very competitive, price-sensitive industries producers have to squeeze workers’ wages to remain in business. However, this is where the role of government and public policy is critical. If every producer in the industry is required to pay a minimum wage, then a floor is set and all producers are on a level playing field, but with workers getting better pay. Without a good minimum wage, the competition drives wages down to the point where workers are suffering and public subsidies are required.

Public policies and laws, as well as collective action (such as unions negotiating on workers’ behalf), regulate the marketplace and affect the balance of power among competing economic interests. A market economy cannot operate effectively without the rules put in place by policies and laws. They are not antithetical to capitalism; rather, they are essential for markets to function.

Rules are necessary to prevent cheating, such as regulation of weights and measures of goods sold, and to protect the health and safety of consumers and workers. Laws and court systems enforce contracts between parties for the exchange of goods and services for money. Rules are needed to prevent companies from gaining an unfair advantage by being a free rider or externalizing costs (i.e., shifting the costs to others such as by polluting public air and water or by paying such low wages that employees need taxpayer-funded support).

Our low-wage, parasite economy is a collective choice, made by corporations but allowed and abetted – and subsidized – by public polices enacted by elected officials. We, as voters, can change this by electing representatives who support:

  • Increasing the minimum wage,
  • Enforcing and strengthening laws that allow workers to bargain collectively through unions, and
  • Stopping the free riding and externalizing of costs by large, profitable corporations.

Increasing the minimum wage and strengthening unions are two key policies that would strengthen our economy and the middle class by reducing the prevalence of the low-wage business model of parasitic corporations. I encourage you to ask candidates where they stand on these issues and to vote for ones who support fair wages and bargaining power for workers.

[1]       Hanauer, N., Summer 2016, “Confronting the parasite economy,” The American Prospect

[2]       Rosenfeld, J., Denice, P., & Laird, J., 8/30/16, “Union decline lowers wages for nonunion workers,” Economic Policy Institute (


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