PLUTOCRATIC ECONOMICS HAS FAILED WORKERS

Forty years of right-wing, plutocratic economics (see this previous post for background) has produced stagnant worker compensation, decimating the middle class and leaving growing numbers of low-wage workers struggling to survive. The plutocratic economics of wealthy, elite members of society has intentionally and dramatically weakened public policies that provide support for workers and an economic safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and the right to join a union).

After adjusting for inflation, workers’ compensation has barely increased since 1980, in large part because:

  • The minimum wage’s value has been eroded by inflation and
  • Workers’ negotiating power with their employers has been decimated by concerted attacks on unionization and by the growing size and economic power of employers.

Currently, we are in the longest period since the establishment of the minimum wage, 12 years, without an increase in it. The $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage (about $15,000 per year for a full-time worker) has lost 17% of its purchasing power (or more than $3,000) over those 12 years. Since its peak value in February 1968 at about $22,000 per year for full-time work (adjusted for inflation), the federal minimum wage has lost 31%, or almost one-third, of its purchasing power ($6,800). [1]

As a result, minimum wage workers at Wal Mart, fast food outlets, and elsewhere do not earn enough to survive without public benefits such as food stamps, housing subsidies, subsidized health insurance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. These public benefits for workers mean that the government and we as taxpayers are subsidizing large, very profitable companies when they pay their workers too little to live on. This is one example of government welfare for companies.

The proponents of plutocratic economics claim that raising the minimum wage will reduce the number of jobs and, therefore, hurt workers, but this ignores the obvious benefits for workers. A high estimate is that 1.3 million jobs might be lost – half of them for teenagers and many of those for adults being part-time jobs. On the other hand, wages would increase for over 27 million workers (roughly one out of every six workers). With an increase to $15 per hour (up from the current $7.25), workers would receive an overall increase in income of $44 billion. This would lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty and significantly increase consumer spending in local economies. On the downside, companies would raise prices by an estimated 0.3% and business owners would lose $14 billion of profits (a small amount [0.07%] in a $21 trillion economy).

A study of the actual experiences in states and cities that have recently raised their minimum wages found no reductions in the number of jobs or hours at work. It did find that workers’ incomes increased and that poverty declined. [2]

Unionization is important because it allows workers to band together and increase their negotiating power when bargaining with employers for pay and benefits. The rate of unionization in the United States today is 10.5% overall (down from over 25% in the 1950s) and only 6.4% of private-sector workers are unionized. In the early 1950s, unions included over 40% of workers in manufacturing, over 60% in mining, and over 80% in the construction, transportation, communications, and utilities sectors. The attacks on unions have been very successful, to say the least, in reducing unionization and workers’ negotiating strength. By way of comparison, the rates of unionization in Scandinavia range from 81% in Iceland to 71% in Sweden to 52% in Norway. Under pressure from global trade, these rates have come down in recent years; for most of the postwar period the rate in Sweden was in the mid-80s, for example.

The disparity in unionization rates between the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries has produced a dramatic difference in economic inequality. The best measure of economic inequality is a nation’s Gini Coefficient, where a higher number indicates greater economic inequality. The scale is from zero to one with zero indicating complete economic equality (everyone has the same income) and one indicating that all of a nation’s income goes to just one person. In Denmark and Sweden, the Gini Coefficient is 0.25; in Finland and Norway, it’s 0.27; and in Iceland, it’s 0.28. However, in the United States, it’s 0.47. [3]

Employers’ power over workers has grown, not only due to reduced unionization, but also due to the growing economic power in the marketplace of fewer, larger employers. Overall, workers’ compensation has grown less than their increases in productivity since 1979 (productivity has grown 69.3% while compensation has grown only 11.6%). Previously, compensation tracked productivity growth quite closely (from 1948 to 1979 productivity grew 108.1% while compensation grew 93.2%). [4] In other words, workers are not receiving increases in pay despite increases in the value of their output per hour of work.

Instead of paying workers more for their increased output, companies have increased profits and, therefore, returns to shareholders, owners, and executives –  in other words, they have increased income and wealth for plutocrats. As a result, income and wealth inequality have increased dramatically. Just three white men ‒ Jeff Bezos of Amazon, investor Warren Buffett, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates ‒ now own more wealth (a combined total of $248 billion) than the least wealthy half of all Americans (160 million people with combined wealth of $245 billion). The wealthiest 1% of Americans own 40% of all wealth. This is the highest level in at least 50 years and is higher than in any other country with an advanced economy. (Germany is closest with 25% of wealth in the hands of the top 1%). The 400 wealthiest Americans own an astonishing $2.9 trillion. [5]

Government policies set the rules for our economic markets and balance the power and interests of various parties. For 40 years, plutocratic economic policies have put returns to owners (i.e., wealthy investors including executives) ahead of the interests of workers. The result of these policies has been a dramatic growth in income and wealth inequality; the U.S. has the most unequal income distribution of any well-off democracy. [6] Economic security and the standard of living for many in the middle class has fallen dramatically, while many low-income workers are struggling just to make ends meet.

Future posts will review the politics of plutocratic economics and how it has damaged our democracy. They will also identify progressive policies that are needed to reverse its harmful effects.

[1]      Economic Policy Institute, 7/15/19, “Minimum wage,” (https://www.epi.org/research/minimum-wage/)

[2]      Dayen, D., 7/9/19, “Conservatives grasp at straws after CBO minimum wage analysis shows clear benefits,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/conservatives-grasp-straws-after-cbo-minimum-wage-analysis-shows-clear-benefits)

[3]      Meyerson, H. 7/2/19, “How centrists misread Scandinavia when attacking Bernie and Elizabeth,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/article/how-centrists-misread-scandinavia-when-attacking-bernie-and-elizabeth)

[4]      Economic Policy Institute, 8/27/19, “How well is the American economy working for working people?” (https://www.epi.org/files/pdf/174081.pdf)

[5]      Anapol, A., 12/6/17, “Study: Wealthiest 1 percent owns 40 percent of country’s wealth,” The Hill (https://thehill.com/news-by-subject/finance-economy/363536-study-wealthiest-1-percent-own-40-percent-of-countrys-wealth)

[6]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, “The codetermination difference,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/codetermination-difference)

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