BIDEN’S OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE ECONOMIC SECURITY WITH PROGRESSIVE POLICIES

Looking ahead to 2021, many challenges face the country and President-elect Biden. Most of them have negatively affected the economic well-being of many Americans,  including the pandemic, the lack of racial justice, and the economic recession. All of them and others (e.g., climate change) can and should be addressed in a way that will improve the economic security of working and middle-class Americans. This would also go a long way toward restoring their faith in government and their belief that government can and is working for their benefit and not just for the benefit of big businesses and the wealthy.

Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party has joined the Republican Party in aligning itself with large corporations and the wealthy elites that run and own them through deregulation, trade deals, and tax policies that work to their benefit. As a result, the middle class has been decimated and blue collar, often unionized, workers have lost their economic security; 90% of Americans have lost ground economically over the last 30 years. Income and wealth inequality have spiraled to levels unseen since the 1920s and the economy of the 1950s and 1960s that lifted all boats has disappeared. [1]

Abandoned by the Democratic Party, which traditionally had stood up for them, white, blue collar workers and their families have been convinced to support demagogues, including Trump, who promote divisive, anti-immigrant, racist, reactionary, and undemocratic policies.

To address mainstream Americans’ loss of economic security, Biden must implement  progressive policies that will enhance their economic well-being. The public strongly supports such policies as poll after poll shows. For example, polls find that: [2]

  • 68% believe our tax system should require the wealthy to pay more,
  • 75% support paying higher income taxes to support health care, education, welfare, and infrastructure, and
  • 92% say they would rather live in a country with a low level of income inequality than one with high inequality.

There also was plenty of evidence of support for progressive policies and candidates in the 2020 election results. (See my previous post on this topic for some details.)

A key factor contributing to economic insecurity and inequality, and one Americans clearly understand, is that large corporations and their executives and lobbyists have undue influence on U.S. policies. By margins of more than two-to-one they don’t want President Biden appointing corporate executives or lobbyists to positions in his administration. Roughly 75% of poll respondents say that an administration official overseeing or regulating an industry they have a connection to is a “big problem” and about 90% say it is at least “a little bit of a problem.” The public knows that the so-called “revolving door” between positions in large corporations and ones in government lead to policies that benefit the corporations and their wealthy executives and investors. Sixty-seven percent of respondents, including 60% of Republicans, say that this revolving door is “corrupt and dangerous.” [3]

In government, personnel is policy. In other words, the personnel in key positions in the Biden administration will strongly influence who benefits from policies and their implementation – the working and middle-class or the upper class and big businesses. Therefore, it is important that Biden select people for his administration who are committed to working for the good of the people and not for the economic elites, many of whom are big campaign donors.

President Biden has two main avenues for creating needed policy changes: executive actions and legislation. These two are complementary and should both be used. Getting progressive legislation passed by Congress will be difficult even if Senate control is nominally with the Democrats (i.e., with a 50-50 split among Senators if Democrats win the two Georgia runoffs). But Senator Warren and others have shown that bipartisan legislation is possible even in the current contentious and polarized environment in Congress. Her successes include making hearing aids more affordable, enhancing consumer protection in various financial transactions, strengthening oversight and regulation of the financial industry, expanding access to affordable housing, and reining in abuses in housing financing. (I will write a post about this in the near future.)

There are also literally hundreds of executive actions that a Biden administration could take that are well within its existing authority. As many as 277 such actions have been enumerated by the writers at the American Prospect magazine and the document produced by the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce at the end of the Democratic primary last summer. They include steps to make our tax system fairer, to strengthen the safety net (including unemployment benefits and housing and food assistance), to expand access to health care and lower drug prices, to increase pay and benefits for employees of federal contractors, and to make it easier for workers to bargain collectively for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. (I will write a post about possible executive actions in the near future.)

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Senators and Representative to express your support for issues you would like to see them address in 2021, including policies such as the examples above that would improve the economic security of mainstream Americans. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

You can get information and sign-up for updates from the Biden-Harris transition at https://buildbackbetter.gov/.

[1]      Lemann, N., 10/19/20, “Losing ground: the crisis of the two-party system,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/let-them-eat-tweets-the-system-never-trump/)

[2]      Hightower, J., Nov. 2020, “Timeless truths for trying times,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/timeless-truths-for-trying-times/)

[3]      Demand Progress, Dec., 2020, “Americans want a progressive Biden administration,” (https://s3.amazonaws.com/demandprogress/reports/Americans_Want_A_Corporate-Free_Biden_Administration.pdf)

OUR FEDERAL COURTS HAVE BEEN PACKED WITH RIGHT-WING JUDGES

Republicans are rushing confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, which is emblematic of their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges. [1] (See my previous post for more details.) Rushing through the confirmation of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court – and to some extent the whole federal judiciary – by making it clear that the federal court system is not an  impartial arbiter of the law, but a fully politicized institution.

Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office (including over 100 that were carried over from the Obama administration due to Republican blocking of confirmations) and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [2] Right-wing Republicans have used a Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [3]

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing jurists, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer because their right-wing judicial philosophy favors corporations and the wealthy over workers, consumers, and the middle and lower classes.

These right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed judges typically claim to support “originalism,” a legal philosophy that claims the original intent and meaning of the Constitution, written in 1787, should determine judicial decisions. “Originalists” claim that government cannot constitutionally do anything that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This legal philosophy has been very effective in driving right-wing legal politics, although the appropriateness of applying the meaning of the words of the Constitution to today’s technology strains credulity; its writers couldn’t have dreamed of our current medical and health care capabilities, our transportation and communications systems, our financial instruments and guns, or our huge, multi-national corporations.

An alternative legal interpretation of the Constitution, as a living document that requires interpretation in the context of current times, was prevalent from the late 1930s into the 1980s. In the late 1930s, during the recovery from the Depression, judges interpreted the law and the Constitution to allow American democracy to live up to its principles. Right-wing politicians and legal theorists labeled this “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.”

The “originalist” legal philosophy was developed by right-wing scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to laws and judicial support for economic and civil rights. The New Deal worked to level the economic playing field, to regulate business, to provide voice and a balance of power for workers through unions, and to provide a social safety net. After World War II, these efforts continued with more of a focus on leveling the social playing field and treating all people as equals before law, by ending segregation and discrimination, protecting the rights of prisoners and those accused of breaking the law, and providing access to contraception and abortion. The judicial-established principle of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act worked to level the political playing field. Judicial decisions supporting economic and civil rights, many of them made by the Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger between 1953 and 1986, were, at the time, largely viewed as non-partisan. They reflected a belief that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws and governments, as well as at the federal level. [4] This dramatically expanded civil rights and overturned the “states’ rights” doctrine that had allowed states to, among other things, engage in discrimination, particularly against Black Americans.

“Originalist” judges have ignored and will continue to ignore precedents and are reversing 80 years of legislation and legal decisions on individual and civil rights, as the hearings on the latest Supreme Court nominees and recent Supreme Court decisions have made clear. While the attention of these hearings has been focused on social and religious issues, from abortion to affirmative action and discrimination to LGBTQ rights, the often-overlooked issues about our economy and capitalism, such as the balance of power between employers and workers, the ability to earn a living wage, and the availability of an economic safety net, are critically important as well.

Under “originalist” legal theory, the federal government has little power and much of what it currently does should be left to state governments. Under “originalism,” the federal government does not have the power to regulate corporations or the wealthy, including restricting their use of their money in our elections, as the spending of money is viewed as exercising free speech. Decisions by the federal judiciary at all levels make it clear that “originalist” theory favors private interests over public interests, corporations and employers over consumers and workers, law enforcement over defendants’ rights, and gun rights over voting rights. Such decisions deprive employees and other vulnerable populations of their civil rights. [5] [6]

Moreover, the “originalist” judges assert that the rights of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, are rights that belong to corporations as well as to natural human beings. I find it hard to believe that this was the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They clearly were focused on the rights of individual human beings. Furthermore, corporations, in anything approaching their current form, were unknown in those times.

Americans for Prosperity and other pro-business groups, many of them backed by billionaire, fossil-fuel businessman Charles Koch (and his deceased brother), have spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to pressure Senators to back controversial, right-wing judicial nominations, often using “dark money” (whose donors are hidden from the public).

The weak federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of “originalist” thinking. Some in the Trump administration simply didn’t believe it was the role of the federal government or within the legitimate powers of the federal government to respond, and, therefore, the response should be left to the states and the private sector.

President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate have packed the federal court system from top to bottom with hundreds of right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed, “originalist” judges who are on the fringe of what was previously considered appropriate for a federal judge. If our Founding Fathers had intended an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, I have to believe they would have realized frequent amendments would be required and they would have made it much easier to amend it. I believe that “originalism” is a rationalization for public relations purposes developed by wealthy corporations and individuals as a way to “justify” laws and court decisions that work to their benefit. This is just like their claim of non-existent voter fraud as the public relations rationale for voter suppression tactics.

Our federal court system is currently unbalanced and biased in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Right-wing judges will skew court decisions and harm the well-being of everyday Americans for the next 20 to 30 years unless Democrats are elected and actively work to rebalance the federal courts toward mainstream legal philosophy and historical precedent. This will not be easy given how skewed the system currently is.

Dramatic steps will need to be taken, including expanding the number of judges in the federal court system, possibly including the number of justices on the Supreme Court, given that removing judges is basically impossible. This is the only way to return to laws and government programs that protect and support a fair and just society with civil, political, and economic rights for all, women able to make decisions about their reproductive health, workers able to support their families and have safe working conditions, consumers able to use products and services safely, and a safety net that protects people when they hit hard times.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[3]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

[4]      Richardson, H. C., 10/23/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-23-2020)

[5]      Richardson, H. C., 10/14/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-14-2020)

[6]      Dayen, D., 10/13/20, “Judge Barrett’s record: Siding with businesses over workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/judge-barretts-record-siding-with-businesses-over-workers/)

TRUMP’S WAR ON WORKERS

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, his 2016 campaign promises, and an occasional symbolic gesture, his administration has shown a total lack of empathy or concern for the plight of American workers. He has:

  • Undermined workers’ health and safety, as well as job security,
  • Repeatedly supported employers and business interests rather than workers,
  • Depressed workers’ pay and benefits, and
  • Failed to support workers’ rights, including their ability to bargain collectively with employers through unions.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has consistently sided with employers and against protecting workers from the very contagious virus. It has refused to promulgate mandatory standards and safety measures to protect workers. The most notable example has been in the meat packing industry, where the Trump administration has ordered workers back to work using emergency powers meant to ensure the supply of “scarce and critical material essential to the national defense.” Local public health officials are prohibited from closing plants and workers have to obey employers’ orders to return to work or be fired and lose their eligibility for unemployment benefits. [1]

Over 200 workers in the meatpacking industry have died and tens of thousands have been infected. Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued any regulations to protect these workers. Its fines for violations have been a slap-on-the-wrist few thousand dollars, despite thousands of complaints from workers about unsafe working conditions. The neglect of workers’ health and safety has undoubtedly cost many thousands of lives. [2]

Trump has consistently appointed pro-corporate, pro-employer, anti-worker officials to his cabinet and government agencies, as well as to judgeships. His Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia (son of the right-wing Supreme Court Justice), and all but one of his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board have spent their careers fighting for corporate employers and against workers’ rights and protections, despite the fact that they are now, supposedly, enforcing workers’ rights and protections.

On the other hand, Trump has failed to appoint anyone to head OSHA and has reduced its number of inspectors to a 50-year low. It would take these inspectors 165 years to visit every U.S. workplace once, despite an annual toll of 14 workers killed and 5 million injured on the job (not including the impact of COVID-19). [3]

Trump’s Department of Labor (DOL) has relaxed rules on overtime pay, resulting in millions of workers being denied overtime when they work over 40 hours in a week. The DOL and the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have let McDonalds and other corporations that use a franchisee business model escape responsibility for franchisees who engage in wage theft (e.g., by failing to pay overtime, minimum wage, or for all hours at work) and other illegal practices.

The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have worked relentlessly to weaken and repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care), which has increased costs and denied health insurance to millions of workers, including many of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic. On the other hand, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have done nothing about increasing the minimum wage (which has been unchanged for a decade) or the Earned Income Tax Credit, which augments the income of low wage workers. They also have done nothing to increase the availability of paid sick time or to provide paid leave for new parents. [4]

The Trump administration has acted favorable on all ten items on an employer-friendly, anti-worker wish list from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying organization of large corporations. All of these items involved undermining workers’ rights and unions, such as allowing employers more opportunities to interfere in union organizing efforts. The Trump NLRB has stripped Uber drivers and other similar workers of their rights under labor laws and has also proposed a ban on union organizing by tens of thousands of graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants. [5]

Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation gave billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations, while neglecting workers. It also increased incentives for multi-national corporations to move jobs overseas.

The Trump administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has hurt the economy, increasing the number of jobs lost and the length of unemployment. The administration and Republicans in Congress have limited the amount and duration of unemployment benefits for those out of work. They provided limited pandemic relief for workers in general and have let it run out, refusing to extend it, even though the end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight, unemployment remains high, and millions of households are struggling to make ends meet.

The litany of the Trump administration’s anti-worker actions is long. Here are a few more examples:

  • Repealed the fiduciary rule that required investment advisors to act in workers’ best interests in handling their retirement savings. Instead, the advisors can select investments that pay them higher fees.
  • Relaxed or rescinded safety rules in numerous industries, such as more than a dozen rules protecting mine workers from such things as explosive coal dust and mining chemicals. However, the effort to relax safety inspections in coal mines was blocked by a federal court.
  • Made it easier to award federal contracts to companies with multiple violations of laws on fair wages, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and workers’ rights to form a union.
  • Relaxed rules on toxic chemicals that harm farmworkers and children.
  • Relaxed requirements on reporting of workplace injuries and ended requirements for large corporations to report payroll data by race and gender, which allowed analysis of possible pay discrimination.
  • Rolled back regulations on usurious practices of payday lenders who prey on financially struggling workers.
  • Supported, both through legal arguments and court appointments, a prohibition on class action lawsuits by workers against employers (instead requiring them to submit grievances to arbitration) and a prohibition on requiring public sector workers to pay union fees or dues for the benefits they receive from union actions on their behalf.
  • Is pushing hard for blanket corporate / employer immunity from lawsuits if workers or customers get sick or die from COVID-19, regardless of any failure by the business to implement appropriate or required protection measures.

I hope America’s workers and voters are paying attention and not letting themselves be fooled by Trump’s rhetoric. Even a quick look at the actions and personnel of the Trump administration make it clear that it supports corporations and employers to the explicit detriment of workers.

[1]      Hightower, J., July 2020, “Something is rotten at Big Meat, Inc.,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/something-is-rotten-at-big-meat-inc/)

[2]      Lee, T.M., 9/25/20, “Trump’s war on workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/labor/trump-war-on-workers/)

[3]      Hightower, J., Aug. 2020, “Behind his daily spectacle, Trump is pounding workers and their rights,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/behind-his-daily-spectacle-trump-is-pounding-workers-and-their-rights/)

[4]      Greenhouse, S., 8/30/19, “The worker’s friend? Here’s how Trump has waged his war on workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/worker-s-friend-trump-waged-war-workers/)

[5]      McNicholas, C., Rhinehart, L., & Poydock, M., 9/16/1/20, “50 reasons the Trump administration is bad for workers,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/50-reasons/)

THE U.S. IS AT A HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT FORK IN THE ROAD

Bob Kuttner has written another one of his eloquent, incredibly insightful and provocative articles. This one analyzes the historically significant fork in the road the U.S. is facing, puts this inflection point in historical and political perspective, and offers his views on where we should go and what it will take to get there. [1] He doesn’t mince words and is not afraid to speak truth to political and economic power. I will summarize the article here, but I encourage you to read the whole article at the link in the footnote as I cannot do it justice. The article is relatively short, under 2,000 words; it’s only two pages in The American Prospect magazine.

(Note: Kuttner is the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, eloquent, and insightful progressive policy analyst I know of. The breadth of his knowledge across policy topics and history leaves me in awe. He is the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, which is my go-to source for progressive policy analysis and proposals. He is a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School, where I got my Ph.D. in Social Policy with a focus on early childhood policies and programs.)

Kuttner starts the article with this statement: “We will soon know whether America will surmount its worst catastrophe since the Civil War. We have every reason to worry.” He goes on to note that “We Americans grow up learning our history as a chronicle of near disasters that narrowly come out right.” He cites the following examples of other historical inflection points where the U.S. surmounted significant challenges and put itself on a positive path for the future:

  • The Revolutionary War
  • The writing of the Constitution in 1787
  • The Civil War and the ending of slavery
  • The Great Depression
  • World War II

He states that “Now, we are at another inflection point where history could go disastrously wrong. … Things have already occurred that were inconceivable to most Americans.” He cites examples of the inconceivable that include:

  • The undermining of the U.S. Postal Service (at least in part to rig the election),
  • The failure to combat Russian interference in our elections,
  • The President stating he might not abide by the election’s results, and
  • The Attorney General failing to stand up for the rule of law.

Kuttner excoriates Republicans in Congress, governors’ offices, and state legislatures who have violated the fundamental principles of the historical Republican Party and our democracy to benefit their wealthy benefactors and maintain their political power.

He states that “America’s corporate and financial elite, given a corrupt, incompetent dictator who serves their economic interests, will choose the dictator over a democracy that might trim their billions. This is full-on fascism — the alliance of the business class with a tyrant who confuses the masses with appeals to jingoism and racism, while the plutocrats steal working people blind.”

His analysis concludes that “Trump is the logical extreme of a long downward spiral. … Trump merely makes flagrant what was tacit.” He states that in addition to Republican presidents, Presidents Clinton and Obama allowed a continuation of the 40-year slide where “money relentlessly crowded out citizenship, while economic concentration and political concentration [of power] fed on each other.” The concentration of economic power has occurred due to the emergence of huge corporations with monopolistic power in numerous industries due to the lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws. This economic concentration has led to great wealth in the hands of a small number of investors and corporate executives. They have used that wealth to gain great political power, which has led to policies that benefit them and their businesses. This self-reinforcing cycle has been a spiral leading to great inequality in income, wealth, personal well-being, and opportunity.

Kuttner states that reversing this long, downward spiral will be difficult and will require repairing damage to essential institutions in government, society, and the economy. These include facilitating voting rather suppressing it, using anti-trust laws to break up monopolistic corporations, reversing growing economic inequality, and supporting workers through higher wages, job security, and the right to bargain collectively with employers. Public agencies that have been hollowed out need to be rebuilt, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more.

He notes that there are two serious obstacles to accomplishing this revival even if Democrats win the White House and control of the U.S. Senate. First, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump (but also Republican presidents before him) have packed the federal court system at all levels with right-wing judges. Kuttner states that “Reclaiming democracy will require reclaiming an honest judiciary. … Republicans have been so relentless in their blockage of Obama appointees and their ramming through of far-right judges that the very legitimacy of the judicial system is in question.”  Kuttner makes a case for adding judges and expanding the federal courts at all levels as the only way to achieve balance and avoid judicial blockages of needed policy changes.

The second serious obstacle to revival of the American promise is the immense influence of corporate power brokers and the many corporate-leaning Democrats for whom current economic policies are the conventional wisdom. Kuttner believes that absent massive grassroots pressure the likelihood is that a Biden administration will not seriously challenge economic power and concentration, particularly in the financial and high-tech industries. The concentration of market and political leverage in huge corporations and in their executives and large investors has led to dramatic economic inequality, job insecurity, and hardship for American workers.

Kuttner proposes that the trillions of dollars the Federal Reserve has pumped into large corporations to bail them out in the current financial crisis should instead be focused on rebuilding infrastructure, addressing climate change, and ending racism, including paying reparations.

Kuttner closes by stating that if the U.S. returns to the path laid out by its core principles through the results of the November elections and subsequent actions that “it will be the narrowest of great escapes ever.”


[1]      Kuttner, R., 9/17/20, “The terror of the unforeseen,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/the-terror-of-the-unforeseen/)

PERSONNEL IS POLICY AND LARRY SUMMERS IS A DISASTER Part 2

As Senator Elizabeth Warren has stated on numerous occasions, “Personnel is policy.” The people who implement policies are the ones who ultimately determine what the policy is; their actions are more important than their or anyone else’s words.

Larry Summers is a classic example of this. My last post summarized his resume and his disastrous performance in President Clinton’s Treasury Department. It also noted that he is currently a senior adviser to Senator Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and that he may well aspire to a senior post under Biden if he is elected president. [1] Here are some additional reasons Biden needs to reject Summers and his policies.

After serving as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, Summers returned to Harvard as its president in 2001 after George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. At Harvard he:

  • Alienated faculty members by denigrating many of them, including the whole sociology department,
  • Questioned the scholarship of Cornel West (a high-profile black professor),
  • Also questioned the ability of women to succeed in math and the sciences, and
  • Commandeered investment decision making, despite Harvard’s well-paid and highly successful money managers. Summers’ investment mistakes cost Harvard roughly $1.8 billion and had serious effects on its budget. [2]

As a result of all of this, and after a no-confidence vote by the faculty, Summers resigned as Harvard’s president in 2006. In 2008, before returning to the government, Summers earned $600,000 as a Harvard “University Professor”, $5.2 million from the private equity firm D.E. Shaw, and $2.7 million from speaking fees, largely from financial corporations. Clearly, Wall St. was the butter on his bread.

In 2009, Summers returned to the federal government as head of the President Obama’s Economic Council. As the Obama administration formulated its response to the Great Recession from the 2008 financial collapse (for which Summers bears significant responsibility), he pushed to reduce the size of the economic stimulus, to minimize the support for state and local governments, and for the budget deficit to be kept as small as possible. As a result, the recovery was slowed and high unemployment persisted. Summers promised substantial spending to provide foreclosure relief for homeowners and a reform of bankruptcy laws so that underwater homeowners could reduce the principal on their mortgages. However, he did not deliver on this rhetoric and seemed much more focused on rescuing the banks than homeowners. He also opposed a financial transaction tax, which would have generated needed revenue and curbed short-term trading that can destabilize financial markets, even though in 1989 he had co-authored an academic article arguing for such a tax. [3]

To summarize, no single person bears more responsibility than Larry Summers for Democrats’ support for Wall St. deregulation, outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries, fiscal austerity at home and abroad (even in the face of recessions and economic hardship for the masses), and privatization of public assets and responsibilities both in the U.S.  and internationally. [4] Summers’ consistent policy prescription has been to apply free market theory (which benefits his cronies in the financial industry, wealthy individuals, and large multi-national corporations), even when this was inappropriate for the situation. Other economists and policy makers raised concerns about Summers’ policies, but he persisted even after they led to disaster after disaster.

For example, Summers’ catastrophic policy decisions or miscalculations led to:

  • The 2008 financial collapse whose key triggers were his blocking of regulations on the financial industry and of all regulation of derivatives,
  • The slow recovery and enduring high levels of unemployment from the 2008 Great Recession due to his prioritizing of support for financial corporations while minimizing support for homeowners, workers, and the economy as a whole, and
  • Hyper-inflation, economic hardship for workers, and the discrediting of democracy as an effective form of government in Russia and Third World countries due to his policies demanding rapid privatization and free marketization.

Although Summers’ rhetoric has turned more progressive lately as he jockeys for a role in the Biden campaign and in the government if Biden wins, he has denounced wealth tax proposals from Senators Warren and Sanders in the presidential campaign, which are supported by many progressives. Moreover, his actions speak louder than his words and he has consistently supported deregulation and policies that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations – including his own work in the financial industry.

If you believe that:

  • Economic inequality is a problem that the U.S. needs to address,
  • The financial industry should be regulated so it doesn’t crash our economy again and again,
  • Consumers should be protected from dangerous, predatory financial products,
  • The world should be protected from destructive free market privatization and speculation, and
  • Workers should be protected from trade treaties that benefit large multi-national corporations and drive a race to the bottom for workers,

then Larry Summers is NOT your man – and he shouldn’t be Biden’s man either. Personnel is policy and if Summers is influential in Biden’s campaign or administration these issues will NOT be tackled through any significant policy initiatives.

I encourage you to keep an eye out for Summers and his policies. If they appear to be gaining traction with Biden or his administration if he’s elected, please be ready to object.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 8/7/20, “Did Summers jump, or was he pushed?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/did-larry-summers-jump-or-was-he-pushed/)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, “Falling upward: The surprising survival of Larry Summers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/falling-upward-larry-summers/)

[3]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, see above

[4]      Dayen, D., 5/13/20, “Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Biden?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/dr-jekyll-or-mr-biden/)

PERSONNEL IS POLICY AND LARRY SUMMERS IS A DISASTER

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren has stated on numerous occasions, “Personnel is policy.” Platforms, policy statements, and rhetoric are nice, but the people who are in charge of implementing policies are more influential. In judging personnel, as well as candidates or elected officials, past actions are more important than words.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Larry Summers, who is a senior adviser to Sen. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Everyone seems to agree that he is brilliant, politically nimble (or some might say shifty), and a consummate bureaucratic infighter. He is known for his boundless self-confidence and his vindictive retribution against those who oppose or expose him. He is well-connected, particularly to powerful Wall St. elites, and has numerous proteges who are or have been in powerful positions in government and the financial industry.

Summers recently announced that he would not take a job in a Biden administration. This was likely due to the strong resistance to him from progressives, which may have led Biden to decide that Summers should not be part of his administration. Nonetheless, Summers is still likely to be, either directly or through this proteges, an informal and potentially influential adviser to Biden. Summers is also known to covet the job as Chair of the Federal Reserve, a position he previously tried to get. Because it is technically not in the Biden administration but is a presidential appointment at the independent Federal Reserve, this position may not be ruled out by his statement. So, Summers, his influence and his potential to play a major role in a government entity, cannot be ignored. [1]

As background, his resume includes:

  • Harvard economics professor (1983-1991)
  • Chief Economist and Vice President of Development Economics at the World Bank (1991-1993)
  • S. Treasury Department (1993 – 2001 under President Clinton) as Undersecretary for international affairs (1993-1995), Deputy Secretary (1995-1999), and Treasury Secretary (1999-2001)
  • President of Harvard University (2001-2006); faculty member (2006-2008)
  • Simultaneously, Managing Director, D.E. Shaw (private equity firm) and highly paid speaker, typically for Wall St. firms (2006-2008)
  • Director, National Economic Council (2009-2010 under President Obama)
  • Harvard faculty member (2011 – current)
  • Simultaneously, Managing Director, D.E. Shaw (private equity firm) (2011 – current)

In his time at the U.S. Treasury, Summers pressured the former Soviet Union and Third World countries to rapidly adopt free market economies and privatize public assets. These efforts repeatedly proved to be disastrous. Financial crises in Russia, Mexico, and East Asia were the result. Typically, inflation soared, workers’ wages fell, government services were cut, oligarchs became rich and powerful, and in Russia, Putin took dictatorial power after the supposed transition to democracy was a total disaster and democratic governance was completely discredited. [2]

As Summers was driving U.S. Russia policy, his close friend and Harvard colleague, Andrei Shleifer, got a government contract and engaged in insider trading based on it. Shleifer headed up a Harvard-based project in Moscow that was the lead contractor for USAID in helping with Russia’s economic transition. According to federal prosecutors, Shleifer and his wife were making investments based on insider information they got through the USAID project. The case was finally settled in 2004, when Summers was president of Harvard, and Harvard paid a $26.5 million settlement and Shleifer paid $2 million but retained his tenured professorship at Harvard. This was one of the issues that led to Summers departure as Harvard’s president.

Summers also promoted trade agreements that benefited Wall St. financial businesses and large, multi-national corporations, at the expense of American workers. For example, he advocated for admitting China to the World Trade Organization and promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also opposed reviving enforcement of antitrust laws, despite the clear growth in size and market power of huge corporations, and ignored the need to address climate change.

Summers aggressively opposed regulation of derivatives (financial instruments / investments based on or derived from other financial instruments such as mortgage-backed securities, options to buy or sell securities, credit default swaps, etc.). Through his efforts and those of his cronies regulation of derivatives by the federal government was banned by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. It also banned states from regulating them.

Predatory lending practices (where borrowers had a high risk of default) proliferated under Summers’ deregulation of financial markets. “The interaction of predatory subprime lending with unregulated and opaque derivatives such as credit default swaps was the single most important cause of the 2008 financial collapse.” (page 23) [3]

Summers returned to Harvard as President in 2001 after George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. My next post will present a summary of his performance at Harvard and his return to government under President Obama.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 8/7/20, “Did Summers jump, or was he pushed?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/did-larry-summers-jump-or-was-he-pushed/)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, “Falling upward: The surprising survival of Larry Summers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/falling-upward-larry-summers/)

[3]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, see above

ENHANCED UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS NEEDED BY WORKERS – AND BUSINESSES

The enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the federal government expired this week and whether Congress will extend them is unknown. The federal program added $600 per week to the unemployment benefits provided by the states, which vary substantially from Mississippi’s $235 per week to Massachusetts’s $795. The amount received typically depends on how much a worker was earning and, in some states, the amount can increase based on the number of dependents a worker has.

Republicans are claiming that the added $600 per week serves as a disincentive for people to return to work and therefore this program should not be continued. It is possible that a few people would choose to continue to collect the enhanced unemployment benefit and not go back to work, but this number and its impact would be negligible, especially when compared to the positive effects of continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit.

The assertion that large numbers of workers wouldn’t go back to work is a myth with racist overtones as its premise is that many of “those people” are lazy and happy to collect welfare or other public benefits rather than work. [1]

Here are five reasons that make the case for continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit and that rebut the argument that doing so would mean workers wouldn’t return to work.

First, roughly 24.5 million Americans are unemployed, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and need financial assistance. Many of these workers simply cannot support their families on the unemployment benefit amounts provided by their states and a significant number of these families would fall into poverty without the enhanced benefit.

Second, given that consumer spending is roughly two-thirds of economic activity in the U.S., the enhanced unemployment benefit means people have money to spend, which keeps our economy and businesses going. Putting this money directly into workers’ pockets is one of the most effective ways to counter the economic slowdown of the pandemic. If all 24.5 million people without jobs were collecting the $600 per week federal supplement, that would be $14.7 billion that workers would be receiving. The great majority of that would be spent immediately on living expenses. That’s $14.7 billion a week that would not be spent in the U.S. economy if these benefits stop. It is estimated that the loss of this spending would result in the loss of 5.1 million jobs. [2]

Third, Americans were returning to work in record numbers and the unemployment rate was falling in May and June even though the enhanced unemployment benefit was being paid. Clearly, people want to work even if their unemployment benefit is greater than what they would get paid to work, given that for two-thirds of those who qualify for unemployment benefits the enhanced benefit is greater than what they were paid at work. (The fact that the enhanced unemployment benefit is more than they earned is a sad commentary on our low minimum wage and the low wages paid by many employers.) Workers know that the unemployment benefit is temporary and that they can lose the benefit if they aren’t actively looking for work, so if a job is available, the great majority of them will take it. [3]

Fourth, the still high unemployment rate (over 11% at the end of June) reflects the lack of available jobs. Workers can’t be incentivized by reduced benefits to take jobs that don’t exist. Moreover, the biggest disincentive to returning to work is the danger of becoming infected with the coronavirus, which is killing over 1,000 Americans a day.

Fifth, cutting unemployment benefits, when paid sick leave is far from universal, increases the risk that workers will go back to work even if they don’t feel well or have been exposed to the coronavirus because they would need the income from work if they aren’t getting the enhanced unemployment benefit. This obviously increases the risk they will spread the coronavirus to co-workers, customers, and others they come in contact with at work or in getting to and from work. This risk is exacerbated by the difficulty of getting a test for COVID-19 and the lack of quick availability of test results.

For all these reasons, not to mention a basic sense of fairness and humane decency, the $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefit from the federal government should be continued. I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and ask them to support the continuation of this emergency unemployment benefit. Please do this NOW as this decision may well be made this week as part of the pandemic relief bill currently moving through Congress.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

 

[1]      Editorial, 7/30/20, “No, unemployment benefits do not discourage work,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Sainato, M., 7/13/20, “Millions of U.S. workers still unemployed as enhanced benefits set to expire,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/millions-workers-still-unemployed-as-benefits-expire/)

[3]      Editorial, 7/30/20, see above

RECENT EXAMPLES OF A RIGGED ECONOMIC SYSTEM

Here are some recent examples of how our rigged economic system favors wealthy individuals and big corporations.

In the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus pandemic response, Republican Senators slipped in a tax break that will give each of 43,000 wealthy business owners a $1.6 million tax cut, on average. Hedge fund investors and owners of real estate businesses (including President Trump and his family) will receive the great majority of this tax cut windfall. [1]

Overall, the CARES Act provides $135 billion in tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans. This is money that could have been used to provide aid to workers who lost their jobs or to buy personal protective equipment for front-line workers.

Moreover, the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress are considering a variety of additional tax cuts for investors and businesses for the next pandemic relief bill. [2] Supposedly, these tax cuts will stimulate the economy and help it return to normal, but what they really do is make the rich richer. And while Trump and the Republicans claim that there should be no more spending on unemployment and payments to individuals because we’ve spent enough, tax cuts are simply spending before the fact of revenue collection rather than after the fact. Conceptually, there is no difference, other than who gets the money.

Perhaps the ultimate indication of how rigged our economic system is, is that the wealth of billionaires in the U.S. increased almost $600 billion or 20% between March 18 and June 17 as the pandemic crushed the lives and livelihoods of mainstream Americans. The 643 U.S. billionaires, who are overwhelmingly white males, saw their aggregate wealth increase from $2.9 trillion to $3.5 trillion, an increase of about $1 billion a piece, on average. [3] [4]

Meanwhile, working and middle-class households lost $6.5 trillion in wealth and over 45 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance. The 643 billionaires’ increase in wealth was twice as much as what the federal government spent on the one-time stimulus checks that went to 150 million Americans.

The billionaires and other wealthy individuals have used their incredible wealth to gain extraordinary influence over our politics and policy making. This led to the tax cuts in the CARES Act, in the 2017 Tax Act, and on numerous other occasions. As a result, the taxes paid by these billionaires decreased by 79% as a percentage of their wealth from 1980 to 2018. [5]

As another indicator of a rigged economic system, as the pandemic hit in early 2020 only the richest 20% of U.S. households had regained the same level of wealth that they had had prior to the Great Recession of 2008. The other 80% of households were still struggling with the economic hangover of the 2008 financial industry crash. The 400 wealthiest billionaires, on the other hand, recovered their wealth in three years and in ten years had increased their wealth by over 80%.

On the corporate front, corporations are rewarding their investors, i.e., shareholders, while laying off their workers. For example, Caterpillar closed three facilities in late March and two weeks later made a $500 million distribution to shareholders. Levi Strauss announced on April 7th that it would stop paying workers and furloughed about 4,000 over the following month. Nonetheless, it paid $32 million to shareholders in April. Stanley Black & Decker announced furloughs and layoffs on April 2nd, but within two weeks issued a $106 million dividend to shareholders. [6]

You may recall that in August 2019 the chief executives of 181 companies from the Business Roundtable released a statement announcing that companies should deliver value to customers, workers, and suppliers, as well as shareholders. To-date, three of the executives who signed that statement – ones from Caterpillar, Stanley Black & Decker, and Steelcase – have furloughed workers while paying dividends to shareholders.

In our rigged economic system, the capitalists in government bailout capitalists (i.e., business owners and investors), not workers, home owners, parents, students, schools, states and cities, our social services, or our so-called safety net. Even small businesses get left behind as wealthy investors and corporations are taken care of first and foremost. This was evident in the 2008 bailout after the collapse of the financial and mortgage sectors and it’s evident again in the response to this pandemic.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to tell them that pandemic relief should go to workers, middle-class and low-income households, and small businesses. Not only is this what would be fair and democratic, this would support our economy because two-thirds of economic activity is consumer purchases. If consumers can buy, they will keep the economy going and create demand for the goods and services businesses produce. Bailouts to corporations and investors will make them wealthier but will do little to keep the economy going and very little to help the mainstream residents of America.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Stein, J., 4/14/20, “Tax change in coronavirus package overwhelmingly benefits millionaires, congressional body finds,” The Washington Post

[2]      Tankersley, J., 5/6/20, “Trump considers tax-cut proposal for new bill,” The New York Times

[3]      McCarthy, N., 6/22/20, “U.S. billionaire wealth surged since the start of the pandemic,” Forbes

[4]      Americans for Tax Fairness, 6/18/20, “3 months into COVID-19 pandemic: Billionaires boom as middle class implodes,” (https://americansfortaxfairness.org/issue/3-months-covid-19-pandemic-billionaires-boom-middle-class-implodes/)

[5]      Collins, C., 5/11/20, “Billionaires are getting even richer from the pandemic. Enough is enough,” CNN Business (https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/28/perspectives/inequality-coronavirus-billionaires/index.html)

[6]      Whoriskey, P., 5/6/20, “Amid layoffs, investors reap dividends,” The Boston Globe from The Washington Post

EFFECTS OF RACISM Part 2

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers facilitated the killing) has put the racism of U.S. society in the forefront. The attention to racism is going beyond this specific episode and is including the underlying, long-term racism of the U.S. economy, our society, and the policies, funding, and practices of federal, state, and local governments. (See my previous post here for more background.)

The effects of racism – of racial prejudice and discrimination – on black people today are broad and pervasive. They are the aggregation of current policies, practices, and characteristics of the U.S. economy and society, as well as the cumulative effects of 400 years of racism. I can’t do justice to all the effects in a couple of posts (Even long ones. My apologies.), but I will start by highlighting some of them. Some, particularly the better-known ones, I will just mention and for some I will present more detail. They are presented in no particular order, in part because they are all intertwined and the relative importance or severity of them is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. (See my previous post for effects in Education and Health and health care.)

Some of the detrimental effects of racism on black people that are evident today include:

Economic inequality

  • The median income for black households is only 60% of that of white households ($37,000 vs. $60,000).
  • Median wealth (assets minus liabilities) for black households is only 8% of that of white households ($11,000 vs. $134,000).
  • Most Blacks were excluded from many of the benefits of the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, including the minimum wage, union membership, and participation in Social Security. Much of this was corrected in the 1960s and 1970s, but the loss of 30 to 40 years of these economic benefits is a big contributor to today’s economic inequality. (See more detail in this previous post.)
  • One-third of low-income black households (incomes under $30,000) do not have a bank account (versus one-ninth of low-income white households). This means they must rely on check cashing services and payday lenders for financial transactions, which involve high fees and often usurious interest rates. This made it difficult (or expensive) for them to get their coronavirus relief checks, for example. [1]

Housing (See my previous post for an overview of government policies and practices that led to housing segregation and low levels of black home ownership.)

  • The effects of federal government and bank redlining are still discernible in the segregation patterns of our cities. Black people disproportionately live in areas with high concentrations of low-income households, poor air quality, and low social capital. These neighborhood characteristics are strongly linked to a whole range of negative life outcomes, including lower educational attainment, more unemployment and lower-wage jobs, shorter life spans, higher stress, and worse health and health care. On the other hand, the (white) suburbs created wealth for their residents and provided strong social capital and healthy, low-stress environments. [2] For example, in the post-World War II period, homes in the suburbs, which typically excluded Blacks, were purchased by whites for around $15,000. Those homes are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a substantial increase in wealth that was denied to Blacks.
  • The home ownership rate for black households is over 30 percentage points lower than for white households. This home ownership gap has increased from just over 20% to over 30% during the last 40 years. It had been relatively stable at just over 20% for the previous 30 years. Given that equity in a home is the primary source of wealth for middle-class and working families in the U.S., the lower rate of home ownership among black households is a significant contributor to racial economic inequality, as well as other unequal outcomes. Equity in one’s home is frequently used to pay for college for children or to cover a short-term financial setback such as the loss of a job or a medical emergency. It is also a key source of retirement savings and inheritance for children. The lack of the economic security that home equity provides also is presumably linked to the higher levels of stress that black people experience.
  • Today, in 2020, interest rates on mortgage loans for black home buyers tend to be higher than for whites because the Federal Housing Finance Agency requires that mortgage interest rates be adjusted based on the borrower’s credit score, down payment, and mortgage type. These adjustments may double the interest rate on a mortgage loan and disproportionately harm black borrowers, either by pricing them out of the market or making the cost of home ownership significantly higher. These mortgage rate adjustments are a dysfunctional and discriminatory holdover from the early 2000s and could and should be changed. [3]

Criminal justice (The pervasive racism of the U.S. criminal justice system – from policing to prosecution and sentencing – that has led to mass incarceration of black males is well known, so I won’t go into it here. I have written about it previously here and here.)

  • Lynching is not a federal crime. Although bills to make it a crime have been introduced in Congress multiple times, no bill has ever been passed and become law.
  • Black people are 23% of those shot and killed by police but are only 13% of the population. Recently released statistics show that in 2019, 69% of the people subject to stop-and-frisk by police in Boston were Black, although Blacks are only 25% of the population. [4]
  • The police (and others) tend to presume that black people, particularly black men and boys, are dangerous and criminals. Being stopped for driving while black is a frequent experience for Blacks, especially if driving a nice car or in a white neighborhood. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick experienced this while he was Governor, riding in an official car. [5] This racial profiling also occurs when shopping while black, walking down the street in a white neighborhood while black, and on and on. In May 2020, a tall, (6’ 8”) black man, a home owner in Newton, MA, an upper-middle class, largely white, Boston suburb, was walking to the supermarket with his wife when four police cruisers descended them. One of the five officers drew his gun. When asked for identification, the black man knew better than to reach into his pocket – a motion police officers in other situations claimed they found threatening and a reason to shoot. He told the officers that his wallet was in his back pocket and let them retrieve it. [6]

Voting

  • Republicans have been leading efforts for decades to make it harder or impossible for black people to vote – stealing an essential democratic right they were supposedly given after the Civil War. Multiple states have enacted laws that make it harder to register to vote and harder to vote through onerous voter ID requirements. States have also imposed what are effectively poll taxes, reduced the number of polling places in black neighborhoods, and reduced the hours for voting (including early voting that many blacks took advantage of, in part because it can be difficult for them to get to the polls on a work day). All these disproportionately harm black voters. In addition, states have purged lists of registered voters in ways that, again, disproportionately remove black voters. States have banned convicted criminals from voting, sometimes for life, which again disproportionately affects black voters. Finally, the boundaries of voting districts, especially for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, have been manipulated (i.e., gerrymandered) to reduce the impact of black voters.

The documentation of the detrimental effects of racism is not new. For example, the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on the “race riots” of the 1960s, stated that “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most of white Americans. … White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” It noted that not only had the racism of white society created this situation, but that the (white) public and policy makers were apathetic to the issue of black poverty. The Report recommended large-scale government programs to undo segregation and build wealth for black communities. Obviously, the Report was largely ignored. [7]

As one Boston Globe columnist recently wrote of the racism in the U.S., “I’ve spent years calling the system broken, but it wasn’t. This system was designed to dehumanize and exploit Black folk and other people of color.” [8] As former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who is black noted, “For America, where freedom was the point from the start, only equality, opportunity and fair play make freedom possible.” [9] He probably should have clarified this by saying freedom for ALL or for black people.

It is long past time to address the racism that has persisted in the U.S. for the 140 years since the Civil War and indeed for the last 400 years since black slaves were first brought to America. We need to reform our police and criminal justice system, our housing policies and practices, and all the factors that lead to economic, environmental, and social injustice.

We need to have a serious discussion about reparations – remedies for the enduring harm that past and current policies and practices have caused to Blacks in the U.S. More on this in a future post.

I encourage each and every one of us to think long and hard about how we can contribute to the effort to end racism in our society and to erase its enduring scars. I’d appreciate your comments and questions on this post, including about:

  • Other policies and practices that need to be remedied,
  • Steps we should take to change policies and practices, and
  • How we should tackle the question of reparations for the enduring, cumulative harm that racism has done to Blacks in the U.S.

Thank you for your comments with reactions, suggestions, and questions. This is a discussion we need to have – and to turn into action.

[1]      Guzman, L., & Ryberg, R., 6/11/20, “The majority of low-income Hispanic and Black households have little-to-no bank access, complicating access to COVID relief funds,” National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families (https://www.hispanicresearchcenter.org/research-resources/the-majority-of-low-income-hispanic-and-black-households-have-little-to-no-bank-access-complicating-access-to-covid-relief-funds/)

[2]      Baradaran, M., 6/17/20, “No justice. No peace. Underlying the nationwide protests for black lives is the racial wealth gap,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/civil-rights/no-justice-no-peace-fix-the-racial-wealth-gap/)

[3]      Levitin, A.J., 6/17/20, “How to start closing the racial wealth gap,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/how-to-start-closing-the-racial-wealth-gap/)

[4]      Osterheldt, J., 6/17/20, “An oppression that should have been so clear,” The Boston Globe

[5]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, “America is awakening to what it means to be Black. Will we also awaken to what it means to be American?” (https://medium.com/@DevalPatrick/america-is-awakening-to-what-it-means-to-be-black-3eb938969f7f)

[6]      Krueger, H., 6/6/20, “A walk to the grocery store, interrupted,” The Boston Globe

[7]      Baradaran, M, 6/17/20, see above

[8]      Osterheldt, J., 6/17/20, see above

[9]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, see above

CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS WEAKNESS OF PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. These include the neglect of public infrastructure that led to the inability of governments to respond effectively to a pandemic.

Although the Trump administration’s disorganized and incompetent response to the pandemic (aided and abetted by some in Congress) bears significant responsibility for the high death rate in the U.S. (as documented in this previous post), the long-term neglect of public agencies and capacities shares some of the blame.  [1]

For forty years the U.S. has been neglecting, weakening, and, in some cases, literally dismantling public infrastructure, including government agencies, programs, and capabilities. Much of this has been done because of tax cuts and reductions in government revenue. (By the way, these have disproportionately benefited wealthy individuals and corporations.) When a politician tells you he can cut taxes without harming the services government provides, remind him that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; this pandemic has painfully shown this to be true.

At both the federal and state levels, bipartisan neglect of investments in government infrastructure, typically with Republicans leading the way but with many Democrats jumping on board, is now painfully obvious. Often the people who use the government’s safety net infrastructure are our poor and vulnerable residents who have the least political influence. Now, middle-class Americans are discovering the shortcomings and challenges of these programs, which include unemployment insurance. One particular area of weakness is information technology, where investments in updating and enhancing computer systems has been sorely lacking. It’s important to note that other wealthy countries are not experiencing the same breakdowns of government systems. [2]

A successful response to a disease threat requires not only treatment capacity (personnel and equipment), but the ability to identify individuals who have contracted it, track them and their contacts, and quarantine those individuals to contain, slow, and eventually stop the spread of the disease.

The U.S., theoretically, learned all of this from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. However, the Trump administration ignored the response plan prepared by the Obama administration. It disbanded or weakened the agencies needed to respond. So, in the face of the current pandemic, these lessons learned were ignored. (See more here.) The lack of investment in pandemic preparedness has left the U.S. with an insufficient supply of ventilators, protective masks, and other medical supplies. It also lacks a plan to obtain these supplies, a trigger to initiate a pandemic response, and the capacity to implement testing, tracking, and containment of a deadly disease.

The threat of a deadly virus shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Bill Gates (the Microsoft billionaire) did a TED Talk in 2015 entitled, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” in which he states that the biggest threat of mass deaths is not war or terrorism – it’s a virus. Gates states that the U.S. needs to treat pandemic preparedness the same way we treat military readiness: we need to have people, equipment, and plans in place and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Other warnings were ignored as well. In the fall of 2019, a government exercise revealed that the U.S. was woefully unprepared for a pandemic. In January 2020, U.S. intelligence agencies’ warnings that a pandemic was on its way went unheeded. Also in January, a medical mask manufacturer in Texas contacted senior federal government officials and offered to increase production of masks but was ignored. [3] The country – and the world – later scrambled to address serious shortages of these masks.

In addition to providing a direct response to the disease, public infrastructure is critical to supporting society and the economy in the wake of a pandemic. An essential response to the economic shutdown is to provide unemployment benefits. However, the state unemployment systems that deliver these benefits are a case study example of public sector systems and agencies that have been under-invested in and allowed to decay. State unemployment agencies have been completely overwhelmed and unable to deliver benefits, despite the availability of funding for emergency benefits. Applicants in states across the country report an inability to get a response from their state unemployment agencies. [4] An important factor has been old computer systems that are unable to support the workload and respond to changed eligibility requirements and benefits.

Similarly, the Small Business Administration has been overwhelmed by requests for emergency relief. Its staff and technology have been unable to process applications, let alone get money out the door. The Internal Revenue Service is struggling to get stimulus checks to people due to years of cuts that have resulted in reduced staffing and antiquated computer systems. It has had problems identifying recipients and delivering checks accurately. The people most in need are likely to be the last ones to actually get checks.

The neglect of public investment has left our economy less resilient and our public and private, physical and social infrastructure less able to respond to a crisis, such as this corona virus pandemic. Basic democratic institutions and capabilities, such as holding safe and fair elections and delivering the mail, have been undermined.

In the response to this pandemic, as with the 2008 financial industry implosion, the government has stepped in to bail out corporations (and their wealthy executives and investors) first and foremost, providing them the protections of socialism for their losses in bad times, after having let them take the out-sized profits of capitalism in the good times.

However, despite the public bailout of the private sector, the private sector has let workers go by the millions, leaving them to depend on the public sector for a safety net of unemployment benefits, food and housing subsidies, public health insurance, and other essentials. The pandemic has shown that a capitalistic economy and society built on catering to the rich and their large corporations (a plutocracy), promising (falsely) that some of the riches will trickle down to the masses, is literally willing to sacrifice the lives of its elders and others vulnerable to disease for the sake of the wealth of its plutocrats. [5]

I hope we will learn some lessons from and implement long-term fixes for the critical issues in the U.S. economy and society laid bare by the pandemic. These lessons include the need to invest in public infrastructure (such as pandemic preparedness), address inequality and racism in our economy and society, and provide an effective safety net.

In my next post I’ll explore how the pandemic is exposing the underlying racism in U.S. society and the devastating effects it’s having on Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and immigrants.

[1]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, “Our uniquely American virus,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/our-uniquely-american-virus/)

[2]      Cohen, M. A., 4/12/20, “Decades of neglect in basic services now exposed,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Davis, A. C., 5/10/20, “HHS turned down offer to manufacture N95 masks,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Cohen, M. A., 4/12/20, see above

[5]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, see above

CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS ILLS OF U.S. ECONOMY AND SOCIETY

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. These include the economic inequality, insecurity, and instability of plutocratic economics, where the playing field is tilted in favor of wealthy corporations and individuals and workers struggle to survive, in some cases literally, with this pandemic.

The neglect of public infrastructure is another such issue highlighted by the pandemic, including the inability of the government to respond effectively to the crisis and the weakened safety net that is now literally leaving people at risk of dying. The pervasive racism of U.S. society has been highlighted by the disproportional rate at which Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have gotten ill with COVID-19 and have died from it.

Although the Trump administration’s disorganized and incompetent response to the pandemic (aided and abetted by some in Congress) bears significant responsibility for the high death rate in the U.S. (as documented in this previous post), the larger context is important and provides many lessons that should be learned.

The pandemic has highlighted the value of and risks to front-line workers who meet essential needs, such as providing food, transportation, and care services. They typically receive low pay and often limited benefits (such as paid sick leave and health insurance). They are disproportionately people of color. They interact with the public and therefore are disproportionately likely to be exposed to the virus. Increasing numbers of them are part-time or contract workers who have little if any job security and typically no benefits, including not being covered by unemployment insurance.

Over the last 40 years, safety, health, and economic protections for workers have been undermined. This includes the weakening of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and more recently the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (see previous posts on this here and here). Unions, which provide important protections to workers, and the ability to unionize have been weakened. This has resulted in stagnant wages, deteriorating working conditions, and increased economic insecurity for the middle- and lower-income households.

One result has been the highest level of economic inequality in the U.S. in one hundred years. Over 40% of households don’t have $400 for an emergency expense, let alone the savings to support months of self-quarantine. Furthermore, over 40% of full-time workers get no paid sick time. And, given the employer-based health insurance system, a worker (and often his or her family) has no health insurance once he or she loses a job – as over 20 million Americans have by early May 2020. [1] (By the way, the Trump administration has refused to allow these workers to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces.)

Plutocratic economics’ beliefs that the private sector is the best solution for all of society’s needs and that bigger businesses are better have led to policies that have benefited the private sector and corporate shareholders and executives over everyone else and over the greater public good. Examples include corporate-friendly trade treaties, the failure to enforce antitrust laws, and the relaxation of corporate regulation, or perhaps more accurately, the skewing of it to benefit large, often multi-national corporations.

Plutocratic economics have resulted in near-monopolistic corporations in everything from the food industry to medical equipment suppliers and medicine manufacturers. The pandemic has highlighted the lack of capacity in the U.S. to produce important goods, including reliance on China for medical supplies needed to respond to a pandemic, such as medical masks and ventilators. It has also highlighted dependence on a few huge corporations and their plants for key food items, such as meat.

In the health care industry, forty years of deregulation, lack of antitrust enforcement, and increasing numbers of for-profit entities have led to, among other things, mergers and closures of hospitals in search of greater profits. This has left the U.S. with some of the lowest numbers of both doctors and hospital beds per capita among countries with advanced economies. This is particularly surprising given that the U.S. spends almost twice as much per capita on health care as other wealthy nations. (The U.S. also has notably worse health outcomes than these other countries, even in good times.) Many localities now have a single provider of hospital services and many rural communities have no local hospital services. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Another example of the failure of this privatized, for-profit health care industry, is that the federal government’s plan to produce thousands of ventilators for pandemic preparedness collapsed in 2012 when the government’s contracted supplier was purchased by a large manufacturer that shut the supplier because it didn’t produce sufficient profit.

Another industry where the vulnerability of our dependence on large, dominant corporations has been exposed is meat processing. The presence of a few dominant meat processors and weak regulation has created the conditions for the inability to supply meat that we are now experiencing. The spread of COVID-19 in the huge processing plants is forcing them to shut down. Fourteen major slaughterhouses, each of which may process 10,000 animals a day, have had to close at least temporarily. The huge Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota, which had to close, produces about 4% of the country’s supply of pork. [2]

In pork processing, after decades of mergers that receive little or no antitrust scrutiny, the four largest corporations control at least 70% of the market. This is bad for producers and consumers. Pig farmers often face a single local purchaser for their pigs, leaving them vulnerable to monopolistic business practices. Furthermore, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation favors large slaughterhouses over small ones. The USDA inspection regime for large slaughterhouses has been relaxed to the point that most health and safety inspections are self-performed. The regulation of speed on production lines has been rescinded and workers now report they must move so fast that they can’t stop to cover their faces if they cough or sneeze. In addition, it means they are working shoulder to shoulder, conditions that make it impossible to stop the transmission of disease, such as COVID-19. In the beef market similar concentration has occurred. As a result, the large slaughterhouses are now making a profit of about $550 per cow, while the ranchers make only about $25.

My next posts will discuss the neglect of public infrastructure and the pervasive racism in the U.S. and how they have been exposed by this pandemic.

[1]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, “Our uniquely American virus,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/our-uniquely-american-virus/)

[2]      Knox, R., 5/4/20, “Monopolies in meat: Endangering workers, farmers, and consumers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/meat-monopolies-endanger-workers-farmers-consumers/)

WORKERS’ PAY NOT GROWING AND INEQUALITY STILL HIGH

Despite what President Trump said in his State of the Union speech, workers’ pay is still not growing. While the January 2020 monthly data on the dollar amount of earnings showed an increase from a year earlier, when adjusted for inflation and fringe benefits, workers’ overall compensation has declined.

The detailed quarterly data released in December 2019 showed that the dollar amount of average wages had increased 6.8% over the last three years, but that total compensation had declined after adjusting for inflation and fringe benefits. Over the three-year period from 2016 to 2019, the average dollar amount of wages (i.e., “nominal” wages) had increased from $22.83 to $24.38 per hour (i.e., $45,660 to $48,760 per year).

After adjusting for inflation (i.e., the decline in the purchasing power of a dollar), “real” wages had increased only 0.4% over the three years from 2016 to 2019. [1]

Total compensation (including fringe benefits such as health insurance, retirement contributions, and bonuses) declined 0.2% over the three years. The inflation-adjusted value of fringe benefits declined 1.7%. Since fringe benefits are almost one-third of total compensation, their decline wiped out the small increase in wages.

Meanwhile, income inequality continues to grow as compensation for high income individuals grows substantially while the average workers’ compensation is declining.

For workers with the lowest 10% of wages, increases in the minimum wage have boosted pay. Between 2013 and 2019, 26 states and D.C. (but not the federal government) have increased their minimum wages. This led to wage growth of 17.6% over this six-year period for low-wage workers in these areas, as compared to only 9.3% growth in states that did not increase their minimum wages. [2]

The black-white wage gap is growing and is substantially larger now than it was in 2000. After adjusting for differences in education, age, and other relevant worker characteristics, the black-white wage gap as-of 2019 is 14.9%, up from 10.2% in 2000. (The gap is 26.5% without the adjustment for worker characteristics.) Meanwhile, the Hispanic-white wage gap narrowed to 10.8% in 2019, down from 12.3% in 2000 (adjusted for worker characteristics). [3]

The gender pay gap is still substantial. A woman earns 77 cents for each $1 a man earns: a 23% gap after adjusting for differences in education, age, and other relevant worker characteristics. (The gap is 15% without the adjustment for worker characteristics.) The gender wage gap narrowed slightly from 2000 to 2019.

The defining features of the U.S. labor market over the last 40 years have been slow growth in wages and rising inequality, despite steady increases in worker productivity. The median hourly wage is $19.33, less than $40,000 a year. (The median wage is the point in the distribution of wages where half of workers get less and half of workers get more. The average wage is higher than the median wage because of the very high wages at the top of the distribution.)

The slow growth of wages, despite growing productivity, cannot be explained by education levels, increases in fringe benefits, or factors other than the decreasing clout of workers and the increasing power of employers and corporate executives. This is the result of policy decisions, largely by the federal government, that have reduced the power of workers, mainly by making it harder to organize unions and more difficult for unions to bargain collectively on behalf of workers. [4]

[1]      Salkever, D., 3/1/20, “Blue collar bust,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Gould, E., 2/20/20, “State of working America wages 2019,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/swa-wages-2019/)

[3]      Gould, E., 2/27/20, “Black-white wage gaps are worse today than in 2000,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/black-white-wage-gaps-are-worse-today-than-in-2000/)

[4]      Gould, E., 2/20/20, see above

REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY TO END PLUTOCRATIC ECONOMICS

This is the final post of an eight-part series on the failures of forty years of plutocratic economics that have harmed workers, the middle class, our economy, and our democracy.

The basic arguments of plutocratic economics are 1) markets work and government doesn’t and 2) markets are the best way to foster life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Supporters of plutocratic economics believe that the highest form of freedom is the opportunity to engage in individual transactions in the marketplace. However, they oppose public or community-based efforts to ensure an equal opportunity for all to participate in the marketplace. (See this previous post for more details.)

Supporters of plutocratic economics believe that markets and businesses, on their own without regulation or oversight by government, are efficient and will meet human and societal needs. They believe that an individual’s lack of economic resources to buy the necessities of life is indicative of a personal failing. This means that they do not support efforts to level the playing field when structural inequities exist (or have existed), including discrimination, oppression, and subjugation. [1]

Plutocrats (i.e., people whose power comes from their wealth) believe that power and privilege are rightfully earned. Therefore, they support public policies that systematically favor wealthy individuals and business interests. They view corporations as the ultimate expression of market efficiency and believe businesses should be endowed with the rights of persons (e.g., free speech) and the powers of sovereign states.

Plutocrats use their economic power (i.e., their wealth) to control markets and policy making. They control policy making by effectively buying elected officials through campaign spending and government bureaucrats through lobbying and the revolving door (i.e., by having either themselves or their employees become government bureaucrats or by promising lucrative jobs to government bureaucrats whenever they leave their government jobs). Plutocrats also have provided a scholarly veneer to plutocratic economics by funding think tanks and academic scholars to promote supportive theories and provide supportive data.

Plutocrats use their economic power to enhance their political power in what becomes a mutually reinforcing spiral. For example, they have gotten campaign finance laws changed to allow them to engage in unlimited campaign spending and to hide their identities when they do so. They have changed the rules of the market so their businesses can become ever bigger and more powerful (e.g., by weakening the enforcement of antitrust laws). (See these previous posts for more details on the weakening of antitrust enforcement and what we should do about it.)

In addition to efforts that actively promote plutocratic economics, plutocrats actively work to undermine support for democracy. They work to discredit the belief that a democratic government can enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for its citizens.

For example, supporters of plutocratic economics have misused antitrust laws to discredit and undermine public support for antitrust enforcement. [2] They have used antitrust laws to prevent collective actions by workers and small businesses. [3] The Trump administration recently opened an antitrust investigation into four large automakers (Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW) for agreeing to abide by California’s auto emissions standards (which are more stringent than national standards). By politicizing the use of anti-trust laws, many experts feel that the administration is trying to create the public perception that all use of antitrust enforcement is simply political.

The forty-year track record of failures for plutocratic economics has shown it to be a smoke screen for a self-serving grab for wealth and power by economic elites, i.e., a vehicle for plutocrats’ greed and desire for political influence. The failures are big and small – the 2008 financial collapse, out-of-control carbon emissions and climate change, skyrocketing inequality in incomes and wealth, and repeated failures to protect individuals’ privacy and personal data – and have harmed everyone – workers, taxpayers, small business people and entrepreneurs, and consumers – as I’ve documented in previous posts. Market failures have been widespread in the absence of effective government regulation and oversight. [4]

When plutocratic economics’ effects overwhelm society and government, preventing many residents from enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is a significant risk that citizens will turn to authoritarian and tyrannical leaders who promise a return to the good old days. Whether in the U.S. today or at other places and other times, these politicians promise resurgent economic well-being (often falsely) through nationalistic and emotional rhetoric. They typically blame immigrants, minorities (racial, ethnic, gender identity, and / or religious), and even the growing presence of women in the job market for workers’ loss of economic security. Supporters of plutocratic economics will also use other emotional, hot-button issues (such as gun control, abortion, and contraception) and even voter suppression to win political support and elections so they can implement their economic agenda.

Real freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness requires government and community-based entities that work to equitably balance economic and social power among all members of society. Democratic governments and institutions, including civic associations, are the vehicles that can and should serve as the guardians of this true freedom.

The antidote to the plutocrats and their plutocratic economics is the revitalization of democracy through increased participation by informed citizens. We need our democratic government institutions to assert their power over the plutocrats and their economic and political power. This will restore policy making to being of, by, and for the people and to promoting the lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of all residents. (See this previous post for more detail on policies to reverse plutocratic economics and its effects.)

[1]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[2]      Dayen, D., 9/10/19, “Is Trump’s Justice Department trying to discredit all antitrust?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/trumps-justice-department-trying-discredit-all-antitrust)

[3]      Dayen, D., 6/24/19, “In the land of the giants,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/land-giants)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, see above

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)

THE PLUTOCRATS’ ECONOMIC CON

Since the late 1970s, a concerted effort has been made by right-wing, wealthy elites to promote a new brand of “free market” capitalism, which I refer to as plutocratic economics. [1] Their broad, well-funded initiative was successful in reversing and undermining the progressive, managed capitalism that was put in place in the 1930s and 40s in response to the failure of the largely unregulated markets that led to the Great Depression.

After 40 years of experience with these plutocratic policies, the results are in: they don’t work. Wealthy elites (the plutocrats) have benefited substantially, but the consequences for the economy, workers, and the middle class have been very negative.

The plutocrats’ basic argument is that markets work and government doesn’t. They assert that government is inherently incompetent, in part because it and its regulators have been “captured” by the special interests they were supposed to regulate. [2]

The wealthy individuals and large, often multi-national, corporations pushing plutocratic economics invested in politicians, academicians, think tanks, and advocacy organizations to promote their theories, rationales, and policies. Academicians and think tanks were hired and funded to give a scholarly veneer and rationale to what otherwise would have been seen for what it was – a raw power grab. The resultant public policies greatly benefited the self-interest of the wealthy elites and corporate executives.

On the political front, the plutocrats use multiple strategies to achieve their policy goals. They employ lobbyists who work to convince policy makers to support their policies. They place supporters (often former corporate employees) within the government bureaucracy (a.k.a. the revolving door). They make campaign contributions and “independent” expenditures on behalf of candidates to elect supportive individuals and to buy access to elected officials. They promote trade policies and a type of globalization that undermines American workers. They got U.S. policy makers to choose trade policy options that put the interests of multi-national corporations and investors first and those of workers last. [3]

Proponents of the plutocratic economics promised that markets and businesses would regulate themselves for the good of all, that markets would be more efficient without government regulation, and that social goals could be more effectively achieved by using market forces. They also argued that social programs that supported low income workers and families were inefficient, unnecessary, and provided disincentives to work hard and make positive contributions to our economy.

In concert with their economic and political theories, the plutocrats pushed to reduce progressive taxation, eliminate government regulation and anti-trust enforcement (which had limited the size and marketplace power of corporations), and dramatically weaken public programs that provide support for workers and a safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, unions, and welfare payments to the poor). Their trade policies allowed U.S. multi-national corporations to ship five million jobs overseas over the last 20 years. As a result, multi-national corporations now have a smaller portion of their global workforce in the U.S. than the portion of their sales that are in the U.S. [4]

The plutocrats and their hired experts developed rationales for their policies based on economic theories and assumptions about markets that were not supported by actual experience (and have since been disproved by actual experience). For example, they assumed ideal and efficient markets where perfect information was available to buyers and sellers, where prices were set solely by supply and demand, where sellers and buyers were numerous and no one had any marketplace power, and where there were no significant externalities, such as pollution. Supply-side economics is a classic case of an economic theory with no actual evidence for it and with substantial evidence refuting it today. It claims that cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy and businesses, will 1) stimulate economic growth and 2) do so to such an extent that government tax revenue will actually increase. Despite multiple experiences where tax cuts have been enacted and have not produced the promised effects, the plutocrats still use supply-side theory to justify tax cuts, as they did successfully with the December 2017 $150 billion a year tax cut.

It is important to note, that despite the rhetoric, markets under plutocratic economics are NOT actually free markets. All markets require rules to function, such as rules about ownership of property including patents, copyrights, and other protections for intellectual property; laws governing contracts and courts to enforce them; standards for what constitutes unfair competitive practices; laws and courts to determine liability for accidents and harm from products; and standards for credit, debt, bankruptcy, financial transactions, and investments.

The issue for policy makers is how the markets’ rules balance the power and interests of various parties. The bottom-line questions are who makes the rules and who benefits. For 40 years, plutocratic economic policies have put returns to shareholders (i.e., primarily wealthy investors) and, by implication, corporate executives, ahead of the interests of workers and also of investment in a company’s future. As a result, compensation for workers has been flat while their productivity has continued to grow. Overall, the result of these plutocratic policies has been dramatic growth in income and wealth inequality, leaving the U.S. with the most unequal income distribution of any rich democracy. [5]

Future posts will 1) summarize the evidence that plutocratic economic policy has failed, 2) discuss the politics of plutocratic economics and how the plutocrats have reacted as the failure of their policies has become clear, 3) review the harm that plutocratic economics has done to our democracy, and 4) identify progressive policies that are needed to reverse the harmful effects of plutocracy.

[1]      Technically, among policy wonks and economists, this form of capitalism has been labeled neoliberal economics. This is confusing because liberal in the economic world means something quite different than liberal means in common political usage. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, liberal in economics refers to individualism – an every person for him or herself approach.

[2]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[3]      Kuttner, R., 6/4/19, “Warren’s astonishing plan for economic patriotism,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/warrens-astonishing-plan-economic-patriotism)

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

[5]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, see above

PROGRESSIVE POLICIES #1: UNIVERSAL CHILD CARE AND EARLY LEARNING

Access to affordable, high quality early care and education (ECE) for children under school age is essential for allowing parents to be productive members of the workforce and for putting young children, especially those from families facing economic or other challenges, on a trajectory for success. Therefore, providing universal ECE is an important progressive policy priority.

For 65% of children under age six, all parents are working. The lack of affordable ECE means that some parents can’t afford to work, reducing the labor force participation of parents – a loss to our economy. In addition, reduced productivity due to employees’ inadequate or undependable ECE costs businesses billions of dollars a year because of absenteeism and other impacts on parents’ ability to work productively.

Low-income families spend, on average, over 17% of their incomes for ECE. The federal government’s benchmark for affordability is that ECE should cost no more than 7% of income. With two or more children, ECE often costs more than a parent can earn. Therefore, it can make economic sense for a parent to drop out of the workforce and care for the children.

Because providers of ECE must make their services affordable for parents, in many cases they cannot afford to provide high quality services. In particular, they cannot afford to pay ECE teachers enough to consistently attract and retain top notch staff. ECE teachers are paid much less than what they would make in other positions, for example as a public school teacher. Despite the push to have ECE teachers have a Bachelor’s degree, as public-school teachers do, their pay is about half that of public school teachers.

ECE teachers make less than $24,000 on average; pay so low that roughly half of them require public assistance, such as Food Stamps, to make ends meet. Therefore, turnover is high – which does not provide the stability of consistent relationships that children need or the quality of services that an experienced, stable workforce can deliver.

Investments in young children and their families can produce a high return on investment (ROI) – up to $17 for every dollar spent – according to numerous studies. High quality ECE for children, coupled with support for low-income parents, reduces the need for special education and grade retention in schools, reduces high school dropout rates and involvement with the criminal justice system, and increases children’s educational attainment and their future earnings. More recent studies have identified long-term improvements in health and mental health, as well as benefits for the next generation of children. These more recently identified outcomes have not yet been factored into the ROI calculations; they will undoubtedly increase the ROI for investments in young children and their families, probably substantially above the 17 to 1 return calculated by the Perry Preschool Study.

Current federal ECE programs serve only a fraction of eligible children because funding is limited. Head Start serves fewer than 50% of eligible 3 and 4 year olds (i.e., those in families below the poverty line, which is only $21,000 for a family of three that not infrequently consists of a single parent with two young children). Early Head Start, for families with a child from birth to three, serves fewer than 10% of those eligible. Finally, the Child Care and Development Fund, which subsidizes ECE for all other families, serves only about 16% of the eligible families (1 in 6).

Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren has made a detailed policy proposal for universally accessible ECE. Her Universal Child Care and Early Learning plan would:

  • Provide universal access to locally run ECE in centers, homes, or other settings so every family can choose the ECE it would prefer and every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.
  • Ensure affordability by providing ECE free to families below twice the poverty line (about $51,500 for a family of 4) and on a sliding fee basis to other families so no family pays more than 7% of its income for ECE.
  • Guarantee high quality services, including comprehensive support for children’s growth and development, such as health, dental, and other services to ensure a safe, nurturing early childhood experience.
  • Compensate ECE teachers at the same level as public school teachers and provide them with professional development opportunities, which will improve quality and reduce turnover.

An independent economic analysis estimates that such a program of universal, affordable, high quality ECE would cost about $70 billion per year. Senator Warren proposes paying for this with a wealth tax that would generate $275 billion per year. (See my previous post for more details and options on how to pay for progressive policies like this one.)

Universal, affordable ECE would increase labor force participation and productivity, thereby stimulating economic growth and increasing tax revenue. Therefore, universal ECE would, at least in part, pay for itself in the short-term, and over the long-term the return on investment due to improved outcomes for the children would more than pay for this investment in our young children and their families.

WHO WAS BAILED OUT AFTER THE 2008 FINANCIAL CRASH?

The 2008 financial crash and resultant bailout have been in the news recently for two reasons: 1) some critiques have been leveled at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement on the presidential campaign trail that no Wall St. executives went to jail and that they got a trillion-dollar bailout, and 2) a new book has come out: Crashed: How a decade of financial crises changed the world by Adam Tooze. The book has been described as insightful and telling a story that is both “opaquely complex and dazzlingly simple.” [1] In terms of Sen. Sanders’ statement, it takes a real spin doctor to dispute the truth of it (see below).

In the aftermath of the 2008 implosion of the huge Wall St. corporations, the U.S. government and Federal Reserve Bank came to the rescue. The government quickly made $700 billion available to bailout the Wall St. firms. Otherwise, twelve of the 13 largest ones probably would have gone bankrupt in late September or October of 2008 (as Lehman Brothers did before the rescue was in place and the scale of the disaster was clear). The government also bailed out the auto industry, insurance companies (e.g., AIG), and the quasi-public mortgage-purchasers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

In addition, the Federal Reserve Bank (Fed) made unprecedented purchases of assets from the technically bankrupt financial corporations under the innocuous-sounding banner of “quantitative easing”, to the tune of over $4 trillion. The six largest firms alone (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) also borrowed about $500 billion from the Federal Reserve Bank in peak periods of need. [2] Furthermore, the Fed extended what were effectively loans to the central banks of other countries of an also unprecedented $10 trillion. Estimates of the overall contribution of the Fed to the bailout range from $7.7 trillion to $29 trillion.

In addition, the U.S. government supported the big financial corporations in a variety of other ways. For example, short-selling of 799 financial stocks was banned in 2008 to protect these companies from free market speculation, which boosted their stock prices. Emergency bank charters were given to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley on Sept. 21, 2008, so they could borrow from the Fed as only banks can do. In October, the Fed, for the first time in history, paid interest to the banks on required reserve deposits. Shortfalls in required reserves and failed stress tests were effectively ignored. And except for one relatively low-level officer at Credit Suisse, no one and no company was criminally prosecuted or went to jail. The value of all these benefits is truly incalculable.

Therefore, pinning down a single figure for the total bailout is impossible because there were so many different pieces and the amounts in some of them fluctuated daily, given that banks borrow money from the Fed daily to meet their reserve requirements. However, to state that it was a trillion-dollar bailout is definitely true and to say that no Wall St. executives went to jail is also true for all meaningful purposes.

With all this bailout money and support for the financial corporations and the financial system, one might think that some significant money or support would have been made available to bailout out the workers and homeowners caught in the maelstrom of Wall St. malfeasance. However, precious little assistance was made available to the millions of homeowners trying to pay mortgages on homes where the mortgage was now greater than the value of the home, given that many homes had lost half their value. Very little was done for the millions of homeowners who suffered foreclosure. And it was not only individuals who suffered; whole communities – usually minority and low-income communities – were underwater due to predatory and discriminatory mortgage lending by the big financial corporations and their agents. Moreover, millions were unemployed as the economy went into a severe recession due to the malfeasance on Wall St. [3]

Two things make all this truly galling. The first is that despite the massive intervention of the U.S. government and the Fed, the rescued financial corporations were not required to change their basic mode of operation. The instability of speculative financial transactions that is endemic in their model of profitability and the huge financial rewards for employees, especially executives, was left intact, along with public insurance against losses that threaten consumers’ deposits.

The second galling outcome is that no executives of the financial corporations were punished, either through significant loss of compensation or criminal prosecution, let alone jail time. Remember, that in the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis, which was much smaller in scale, nearly 900 executives of Savings and Loan banks went to jail.

“The contrast between the solicitous care shown the culpable financial sector and the negligence shown to the innocent homeowner was startling.” [4] As a result, class-based economic inequality in the U.S. was exacerbated and economic gaps in income and wealth between Whites and Blacks grew dramatically.

The bailed out financial corporations were expected to make loans available to help households and businesses, as well as to avoid foreclosures whenever possible. When foreclosure was unavoidable, it was expected that the financial corporations would promptly resell those homes. These actions would have helped individuals, businesses, and communities recover. However, no requirements were placed on bailed out banks to do these things and, therefore, they did not happen.

The programs that were supposed to assist homeowners typically had draconian rules to prevent “undeserving” homeowners from benefiting. The story line from Wall St. and its backers on Capitol Hill was that home buyers were the ones at fault; they should have known better than to be duped by the predatory practices of the mortgage brokers or that the home buyers were simply trying to live above their means. This concern about benefiting undeserving individuals clearly did not extend to the undeserving bank and financial sector executives responsible for perpetrating fraud in the mortgage business and crashing their companies and the economy.

Similar opposition blocked the expansion of unemployment benefits and job training for workers who had lost their jobs. On the other hand, there were no significant limits put on the pay of executives whose corporations were bankrupt without the bailout, let alone requirements that executives pay back compensation they had received based on profits generated by fraudulent activities.

As the Great Recession lingered on and jobs, homes, and economic security did not return (still true today for many people), the deep anger and discontent that set in was the breeding ground for support for Trump.

The 2008 financial crisis and the bailout of the financial corporations and their executives, but not the homeowners and workers who suffered from the resultant crash, are exhibit one in the indictment of the corporate takeover of U.S. policy making. I urge you to contact your elected officials and ask them to stand up against corporatocracy and demand democracy back. Our government should work for the people, the workers and homeowners of America, not the big corporations.

[1]      Bloom Raskin, S., Winter 2019, “Whose recovery was it?” The American Prospect (This article is a review and commentary on Tooze’s book.)

[2]      Taibbi, M., 3/18/19, “Turns out that trillion-dollar bailout was, in fact, real,” RollingStone

[3]      Bloom Raskin, S., Winter 2019, see above

[4]      Bloom Raskin, S., Winter 2019, see above, page 86

RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE? FEDS: NO! VOTERS: YES!

The bad news is that Congress and the President have not raised the federal minimum wage since July 2009 when it was set to $7.25 (about $14,500 per year for a full-time worker). After adjusting for inflation, it is now worth only $6.19. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth $11.39 in today’s dollars. If it isn’t raised by this July, which seems unlikely, it will have been 10 years that low-income workers governed by the federal minimum wage have gone without a raise; the longest period without an increase since it was first establish in 1938. [1]

Failing to raise the minimum wage as inflation increases prices shifts money from low-income workers’ pockets and the local economies where they spend their earnings to the pockets of their employers’ executives and shareholders. This is borne out by the fact that executive pay and corporate profits are at record levels. The minimum wage does not get increased because employers are greedy and politicians cater to wealthy campaign supporters rather than regular voters and workers. By the way, the best data available show that increasing the minimum wage does NOT reduce overall employment.

The good news is that some states and communities, often driven by grassroots activists, are increasing the minimum wage. On January 1, 2019, the minimum wage in 20 states and 24 communities went up, increasing pay for over 5 million workers. Over the course of the year, workers will earn over $5 billion more as a result. In eight states, the minimum wage is linked to inflation and is automatically adjusted each year. Alaska is one; there the minimum wage will go up, but by just $0.05 per hour, the smallest of the increases. [2]

The minimum wage increases were set by legislative action in six states and by local governing bodies in the communities where the wage increased. In New York City, for example, the minimum wage went up by $2.00 per hour.

In six states, increases in the minimum wage were the result of ballot measures that voters approved. Increasingly, as the federal government and some state governments (Arkansas and Missouri for example) are refusing to increase the minimum wage, grassroots activists are taking matters into their own hands and putting increases on the ballot.

The bad news is that in Michigan and the District of Columbia (D.C.) legislators blocked, reduced, and/or delayed increases in the minimum wage that had been put forth by voters! In D.C., city councilors overturned a law approved by 55% of voters that would have increased the minimum wage of tipped workers so that over time it would be the same as the minimum wage for other workers. [3]

In Michigan, the Republican legislature and Governor went out of their way to deny the will of the voters. Over 300,000 citizens had signed a petition to put a minimum wage increase on the November ballot, where its approval seemed certain. The ballot measure would have increased the minimum wage from $9.25 to $10 on January 1, 2019, to $12 by 2022, and then had it increase automatically based on inflation.

In September, the Michigan legislature and Governor, in an effort to circumvent the proposed minimum wage increase, adopted the language of the ballot initiative. This meant it would not appear on the ballot, thereby denying voters the opportunity to approve it. Then, the legislature voted for (and the Governor signed) a delay in the minimum wage increases with the increase to $12 delayed from 2022 to 2030! They also eliminated the automatic increases based on inflation. This would likely mean that minimum wage workers would see their real wages (after adjusting for inflation) decline over this period.

The good news is that the Michigan law that allows the legislature and Governor to intercept a ballot measure and prevent it from appearing on the ballot by approving it, states that the approved measure cannot be amended in the same legislative session. However, this is exactly what they did. Therefore, a lawsuit to the state’s Supreme Court is likely and would appear to have a good chance of succeeding. [4]

Given the almost 10 years since the federal minimum wage was increased and the 40 years of other policies that have left workers’ wages stagnant, raising the minimum wage at the state or local level is perhaps the most effective way to lift the incomes of our lowest-paid workers. Unfortunately, 21 states still rely on the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

The resistance of our elected officials to increasing the minimum wage reflects the extent to which many Republican and some Democratic elected representatives are more responsive to large employers and their wealthy executives and shareholders than to every day workers. The fact that every minimum wage increase that’s appeared on the ballot has been approved by voters shows the strength of support for a higher minimum wage among the voting public.

[1]      Ingraham, C., 12/27/18, “Here’s how much the federal minimum wage fell this year,” The Washington Post

[2]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, “Over 5 million workers will have higher pay on January 1 thanks to state minimum wage increases,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/12/28/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-january-1-thanks-state-minimum-wage) or Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-on-january-1-thanks-to-state-minimum-wage-increases/)

[3]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, see above

[4]      Anzilotti, E., 12/6/18, “Michigan Republicans decide that people can live on $9.25 an hour for the next decade,” Fast Company (https://www.fastcompany.com/90277788/michigan-republicans-decide-that-people-can-live-on-925-an-hour-for-the-next-decade)

INVESTING IN INFRASTRUCTURE AND A GREEN ECONOMY: THE PROPOSALS

My previous post outlined the need for investing in our infrastructure while simultaneously taking advantage of opportunities to make our economy more environmentally friendly and fairer for workers. Here are overviews of some of the infrastructure investment proposals that various groups have developed to address these issues.

The Democrats have proposed “A Better Deal to Rebuild America” which calls for a $1 trillion federal investment in infrastructure that would create more than 16 million jobs. It would invest in green infrastructure and ensure opportunities for small businesses. It would incorporate strong environmental protections and labor standards. It proposes investing in roads, bridges, rail, and public transit; high-speed internet; schools; airports, ports, and waterways; and water and energy systems.

The infrastructure proposals from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, [1] the Campaign for America’s Future, [2] and Demos [3] have much in common and share similar underlying visions. The Campaign for America’s Future’s proposal is put forth as a “pledge to fight for good jobs, sustainable prosperity, and economic justice.” It incorporates investment in traditional and green infrastructure along with ensuring that workers can form unions to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits. It supports a living wage, affordable health care and child care, and paid family leave, sick and vacation time for workers. It advocates for full employment with particular attention to helping individuals and communities harmed by discrimination, de-industrialization, and privatization.

Demos proposes an economic agenda that addresses issues of race and class, while motivating working people to “engage in the civic life of their communities and our nation.” Its 25 policies mirror the goals of the Campaign for America’s Future’s pledge. They also call for investment in affordable housing and for guaranteed employment for everyone who wants to work, with the federal government as the employer of last resort (as was done during the Great Depression).

In an article in The American Prospect, Jon Rynn recommends considering health care, education, and financial infrastructure as part of the infrastructure investment paradigm. This reflects the inclusion of human capital and public goods, not just physical capital, as important components of overall infrastructure. Universal health insurance, such as Medicare for All, would expand health care infrastructure and support the productivity of human capital. Affordable public college and early care and education (aka child care) are both pieces of educational infrastructure and are investments in the current and future workforce’s human capital. Finally, regulating the financial industry and creating public banks would be ways of strengthening and democratizing financial infrastructure. [4]

A recent addition to the infrastructure proposals being promoted in Congress is the Green New Deal. It isn’t as detailed as the proposals mentioned above; it’s more of a vision statement. It envisions a substantial investment in infrastructure and the green economy. It would transform our economy by decarbonizing it to address climate change, while also making it fairer. [5]

After the October release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that presented ominous data and predictions about global warming, a series of events occurred that have pushed the Green New Deal into the spotlight. After the November election, Representative (and soon-to-be House Speaker) Pelosi announced that she planned to revive the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to pursue bipartisan action. However, climate change activists viewed the Committee and a bipartisan approach as likely to continue to be fruitless.

So, the youth-led Sunrise Movement organized a sit-in in Rep. Pelosi’s office, calling for a committee charged with developing a plan to meet the goals deemed essential by the IPCC report. Sunrise approached Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez, who had campaigned in support of a Green New Deal, and asked her to help publicize the sit-in. She not only agreed to do so and to reach out to other new representatives, but agreed to attend the sit-in. Roughly 200 activists occupied Pelosi’s office on November 13 with significant media attention.

Sunrise, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and others in or coming into Congress developed a proposal for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal. By December 10, forty members of Congress had endorsed the proposed committee and an even larger occupation of Pelosi’s office occurred.

While the specifics of a Green New Deal are to be determined, its four core elements are:

  • Decarbonizing the economy
  • Large-scale public infrastructure investment
  • Federally-guaranteed employment for everyone who wants to work
  • A just transition to a green economy with remediation for those most negatively affected by historical discrimination, climate change, and the shift to a green economy

For any infrastructure investment program, the first question usually is, can we afford it? Many people would argue that we can’t afford not to make these investments and that the cost of climate change will be much larger than these costs if we don’t take aggressive steps to green our economy.

To put the suggested costs of roughly $500 billion per year for a significant infrastructure program in perspective, the Works Progress Administration’s budget in the 1930s was roughly 2.2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the size of the overall economy). This would be about $450 billion per year today with U.S. GDP at $20.66 trillion. The tax cuts passed in 2017 cost roughly $200 billion per year. Congress and President G.W. Bush approved, on short notice, a $700 billion bailout of the financial sector after the 2008 crash and, in addition, by March 2009, the Federal Reserve had committed $7.8 trillion, more than 50% of GDP at the time, to rescuing the financial system. So, the answer to whether we can afford the proposed infrastructure investments is YES; we can afford it if we have the public and political will to make the commitment to repairing and modernizing our infrastructure while greening our economy and making it work fairly for the benefit of all.

If Democrats are willing to commit to a Green New Deal (GND), which means standing up for a fair economy and taking aggressive steps to address climate change, they could reap the benefits of the current grassroots energy behind these issues. Some Democrats will resist endorsing a GND, fearing the loss of campaign donations and support from wealthy individuals and corporations. However, not supporting a GND would risk squandering a tremendous opportunity, both politically and to do what’s good for our people, our democracy, our country, and our planet.

I encourage you to communicate with your U.S. Senators and Representative about infrastructure investment and the Green New Deal. Nothing is more likely to persuade them to support a GND than hearing from constituents who care about climate change, well-maintained infrastructure, and an economy that works for everyone. I welcome your comments and feedback on steps you feel are needed to make our economy fairer and more responsive to regular Americans, as well as to tackle global warming and climate change.

[1]      Blair, H., 7/24/18, “‘The People’s Budget’: Analysis of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget for fiscal year 2019,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/the-peoples-budget-analysis-of-the-congressional-progressive-caucus-budget-for-fiscal-year-2019/)

[2]      Campaign for America’s Future, 2018, “The Pledge” (http://campaignforamericasfuture.org/pledge/)

[3]      Demos, 1/31/18, “Everyone’s economy: 25 policies to lift up working people” (https://www.demos.org/publication/everyones-economy)

[4]      Rynn, J., 6/28/18, “What else we could do with $1.9 trillion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/what-else-could-we-do-19-trillion)

[5]      Roberts, D., 12/26/18, “The Green New Deal explained,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/12/21/18144138/green-new-deal-alexandria-ocasio-cortez)

INVESTING IN INFRASTRUCTURE AND A GREEN ECONOMY

In previous posts, I’ve noted that with Democrats taking over control of the U.S. House in January, there’s a wide range of issues they might tackle. Even if many of the bills they propose, and hopefully pass, don’t become law (because they aren’t passed by the Senate or are vetoed by President Trump), they will frame the debate going forward and into the 2020 elections. Raising substantive issues will shift the political discussion to meaningful policies to address important problems rather than tweets and meaningless bluster.

Readers’ feedback on the list of topics in a previous post identified infrastructure investment and environmental policy issues as the two top priorities. Coincidentally, these two issues have become linked. They were described in my post as follows:

  • Infrastructure: repair roads and bridges; repair and improve mass transit including railways and airports; provide quality school buildings for all children; repair and enhance water, sewer, and energy systems; provide universal, high speed, affordable Internet access; restore and enhance public parks; provide good jobs with good wages and benefits through work on infrastructure projects.
  • The environment: move forward with the Green New Deal, which supports the development of renewable energy and green jobs while aggressively addressing climate change.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the U.S. a grade of D+ and estimated that an investment of $3.6 trillion was needed by 2020. No significant improvement has occurred since the report card was issued. (A new report card, which is done every four years, will be out on March 9, 2019.) ASCE describes infrastructure as the backbone of our economy and notes that there’s a significant backlog of maintenance and a pressing need for modernization. The overall grade is a summary of grades in 16 areas from schools to water and waste systems to transportation and energy systems.

Large portions of our deteriorating infrastructure were built in the 1930s under the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA built electricity generation and distribution systems, constructed dams and water distribution systems, restored ecosystems, built national parks, and rescued the Midwest from the Dust Bowl. During World War II, the government built factories that produced military equipment and supplies, which after the war produced consumer goods. After WWII, the government subsidized housing construction and invested in human capital through the GI bill, which subsidized education for veterans. In the 1950s, public money built the Interstate Highway System and our aviation system. [1]

By the late 1960s, public infrastructure investment began to slow and by the 1980s, with privatization, deregulation, cutting taxes, and shrinking government at the top of the political agenda, the decline in infrastructure investment accelerated. The public seems to have quickly forgotten that it was public investments that built the infrastructure everyone takes for granted in their everyday lives.

Today, recognition is growing that our failure to invest in maintaining and modernizing infrastructure is hurting our global competitiveness and inconveniencing our everyday lives. A growing number of voices are noting that infrastructure investment is needed and would be a much better use of public funds than spending $5 billion on a wall to prevent immigration from Mexico or $1.9 trillion over 10 years on tax cuts (largely for wealthy individuals and corporations) as was done in December 2017.

Investing in green industries, particularly clean and renewable energy, thereby addressing climate change, is one component of infrastructure investment. This is also an opportunity to revitalize the U.S. economy and to foster our ability to compete in the growing international market for green technology.

Infrastructure investment can also be a means to address under-employment and inequality. Although overall unemployment figures are low, many people who lost good, blue collar, union jobs to global trade are still earning less and are less secure economically than they used to be. Many recent college graduates are struggling to find good jobs and unemployment is still high for people without college degrees, especially those who are not white. Ensuring that the many jobs created by infrastructure investment are full-time jobs with good wages and benefits would be an important step toward reducing economic inequality and insecurity.

Although President Trump has expressed support for infrastructure investment, his approach would privatize public infrastructure, unfairly enrich private developers, and fail to build much of the infrastructure that’s need. (See my earlier post, Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: A Boondoggle, for more details.) Furthermore, it would not promote the greening of our economy or reducing inequality.

My next post will review some infrastructure investment proposals, including the Green New Deal, which has been getting a lot of attention lately.

[1]      Rynn, J., 6/28/18, “What else we could do with $1.9 trillion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/what-else-could-we-do-19-trillion)

VULTURE CAPITALISM IN ACTION

The term vulture capitalism refers to techniques of financial manipulation (aka financial engineering) used to extract profits from companies without regard to the health or survival of the companies. [1] Workers, consumers, suppliers, and the communities where a company is based, as well as taxpayers in general, typically end up getting the short end of the stick while the vulture capitalists realize significant financial gains. In my previous post, I outlined the vulture capitalist business model.

Recent examples of vulture capitalism include the bankruptcies of Sears, Toys R Us, the Hostess confectionery company (maker of Twinkies), and seven grocery store chains.

The bankruptcy of Sears is a classic case of vulture capitalism. In addition, there are conflicts of interest and self-dealing by the vulture capitalist that are even worse than usual. The vulture capitalist who bought Sears is Eddie Lampert. He is a hedge fund operator and used his ESL Investments fund (ESL) as a partner in the deal. He and ESL bought Sears in 2005 and he installed himself as CEO and board chairman. Lampert became Sears’ largest shareholder (31%) and ESL owned another 18%. What is unusual is that Lampert’s ESL and a related fund are also the biggest lenders to Sears, having loaned it roughly $3 billion. Sears was paying roughly $250 million per year in interest to these Lampert-affiliated entities. Also unusual is Lampert’s claim on Sears’ real estate. In 2015, Lampert, as Sears’ CEO, sold many of Sears’ real estate holdings for $2.7 billion in a sale / leaseback deal to a real estate investment trust that is 43.5% owned by ESL and where Lampert is the chairman. Sears has paid roughly $400 million to this REIT in rent and other payments since 2015. Therefore, Sears was paying Lampert and his affiliated funds over $600 million per year in interest and rent, while he served as Sears’ CEO and board chairman. [2]

In 2014, Lampert, as Sears CEO, sold the Land’s End clothing brand to a consortium that was two-thirds controlled by his ESL fund. In 2016, he sold Sears’ Craftsman tool brand to pay down debt that was largely held by him and his funds. He has proposed selling of other Sears assets and has made bids himself to buy some of them. Sears’ other stockholders have already won a $40 million settlement over Lampert’s self-dealing and selling of assets at bargain prices to entities in which Lampert holds a large stake. As Sears’ largest lenders, Lampert and affiliated entities are in position to control whatever entity and assets may emerge from the bankruptcy process, in what may be the ultimate conflict of interest in this story filled with such conflicts. [3]

Over the last decade, 175,000 workers at Sears and its subsidiary Kmart have lost their jobs and another 68,000 jobs are at risk due to the recent bankruptcy filing.

In the newspaper business, a vulture capitalist hedge fund, Alden Global Capital (AGC), has aggressively pulled cash and other assets out of newspaper companies while radically cutting staff (i.e., costs) and loading debt on the companies. AGC owns the Denver Post and hundreds of other newspapers through Digital First Media (DFM). AGC took control of DFM in 2011 and since then has eliminated two-thirds of the staff at the newspapers. Meanwhile, AGC has pulled $241 million in cash and millions more in real estate from the newspapers. It has loaded the newspapers up with $200 million in debt and “borrowed” almost $250 million from the workers’ pension funds. [4]

Earlier this year, 70-year-old Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy and closed all its U.S. stores with 33,000 people losing their jobs. In 2005, it was bought by vulture capitalists Bain Capital, KKR, and Vornado Realty Trust. They loaded up the chain with $6.6 billion in debt, extracted windfall profits, and then filed for bankruptcy. Forty percent of all retail chain bankruptcies between January 2015 and April 2017 were by companies owned by vulture capitalists. Sixty-one percent of all retail job losses over this period were due to vulture capitalism. [5]

You may remember the 2012 bankruptcy of the Hostess confectionery company, which made Twinkies. The company had filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and its unions agreed to massive pay and benefit cuts worth at least $150 million annually in an attempt to help the company survive. A vulture capitalist fund, Ripplewood Holdings, bought the bankrupt company for $130 million, saddling it with debt approaching $1 billion. Ripplewood installed new management who received big pay checks as the company struggled – CEO Brian J. Driscoll had his pay tripled to $2.55 million before he was pushed out after failing to turn the company around. The next CEO got a pay raise as the company was again headed for bankruptcy and while it was demanding 30 percent salary and benefit cuts from its employees. The company had also stopped contributing to the union’s pension fund, ignoring its obligations under collective bargaining agreements. Nonetheless, it filed for bankruptcy, eliminated 18,000 jobs, and asked the bankruptcy judge to permit it to pay executives $1.75 million in bonuses to oversee the dissolution of the company. [6] [7]

Since 2015, seven major grocery store chains, including A&P, have filed for bankruptcy. All seven bankruptcies were driven by vulture capitalists. More than 125,000 workers’ jobs are at-risk as a result. The case of Southeastern Grocers is a classic example of vulture capitalism. It was owned by Lone Star Funds, whose billionaire owner, John Grayken, renounced his US citizenship to avoid taxes. Lone Star sold $145 million of the company’s real estate – stores and a distribution center – that the company then had to pay rent to use in a classic sale / leaseback vulture capital deal. Between 2011 and 2018, Lone Star received $980 million in dividends, much of it paid for by loans that cost Southeastern Grocers tens of millions of dollars a year in interest. By March 2018, when the company filed for bankruptcy its debt was $1.1 billion. [8]

By way of comparison, Kroger, a conventionally owned company that is one of the largest supermarket chains in the country, whose stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is doing just fine. It has low debt and, because of low interest and rent expenses, can afford to invest roughly $3 billion per year in its facilities and operations. It is also investing in its workers through workforce development, increased pay and benefits, and pension benefits. These are things vulture capital-owned competitors are unable to do due to the interest and rent expenses foisted on them.

These are just a few examples among many of how vulture capitalism is hurting workers and our economy, enriching a few financial engineers, i.e., vulture capitalists, without producing any benefits for the companies, society, or anyone but themselves.

In my next post, I will identify policy changes that would rein in vulture capitalists.

[1]      Wikipedia, retrieved 10/24/18, “Vulture capitalist,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulture_capitalist

[2]      Dayen, D., 10/17/18, “How Sears was gutted by its own CEO,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/how-sears-was-gutted-its-own-ceo)

[3]      Cohan, W. D., 10/16/18, “The billionaire who led Sears into bankruptcy court,” The New York Times

[4]      Reynolds, J., 4/13/18, “Meet the vulture capitalists who savaged ‘The Denver Post’,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/meet-the-vulture-capitalists-who-savaged-the-denver-post/)

[5]      Dayen, D., 3/20/18, “Private equity: Looting ‘R’ us,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/private-equity-looting-r-us)

[6]      Adams, S., 11/21/12, “Why Hostess had to die,” Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2012/11/21/why-hostess-had-to-die/#41e34edb6dfe)

[7]      Blumgart, J., 11/20/12, “Vulture capitalism – not unions – killed Twinkies,” Salon (https://www.salon.com/2012/11/20/vulture_capitalism_not_unions_killed_twinkies/)

[8]      Appelbaum, E., & Batt, R., Fall 2018, “Private equity pillage: Grocery stores and workers at risk,” The American Prospect (https://read.nxtbook.com/tap/theamericanprospect/theamericanprospectfall2018/private_equity_pillage_grocer.html)

WHY WE NEED A POLITICAL REVOLUTION

Bill Moyers – one of the most savvy and respected commentators on US politics and society over the last 40+ years – just published an interview with the author of a book Moyers describes as the best political book of the year. [1] The author is Ben Fountain and the book is Beautiful Country Burn Again.

Fountain, an acclaimed novelist, was hired by The Guardian (a respected British daily newspaper with a US edition) to cover the 2016 US presidential race. His reflections on and analysis of the current US political environment are poignant and very relevant to this fall’s election.

Fountain found that millions of Americans are experiencing significant confusion, frustration, and anger. Working and middle-class people are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and, therefore, are feeling more and more beleaguered. Their financial and psychological security has been undermined by the shredding of the social contract of the 1950s – 1970s, which promised that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they would have a secure middle class life. They are working harder than ever but, nonetheless, are falling further behind in their efforts to have a decent life, provide for their children, and have a secure retirement. Meanwhile, they see the wealthy doing better and better, getting richer and richer.

Fountain states that this is “not a situation that can be sustained long-term in a genuine democracy.” (p. 3 of the interview transcript). The tremendous increase in the inequality in income and wealth over the last 40 years has led many Americans to have a “basic, pervasive sense that the system is not fair.” (p. 4) Given this legitimate sense of grievance among the millions living economically precarious lives, the declaration by candidate Trump, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and others that “The system is rigged” resonated strongly.

These beleaguered, aggrieved Americans are resentful and looking for an explanation for why they are experiencing such hard times. This makes them vulnerable to false narratives and scapegoating from politicians. This resentment is exacerbated by the fact that for many white Americans their position of power and privilege has been (rightfully) challenged over the last 50 years. The uncomfortable truths of the racism of America have presented “a challenge to some people’s identity and sense of personal integrity.” (p. 4)

Trump was a master at playing on this resentment, vulnerability, and discomfort. He gave many white Americans “psychological, emotional affirmation as an antidote for all the anxiety, all the resentment they’d been feeling.” (p. 5) Despite the obvious contradictions of Trump’s wealth, New York background, and anti-worker business practices, he provided easy-to-digest explanations and solutions for beleaguered white, working people (especially men). Fountain describes this as the “classic con man dynamic” that shows “how easily we’re taken in when we’re hearing what we want to hear … [which has] more to do with emotion and raw attraction than anything that might be called rational thought.” (p. 7)

Fountain says that the gullibility of the American public is in part due to what he calls the “Fantasy Industrial Complex.” The public believes in the possibility of the fantasy lifestyle we see in the advertisements and commercial propaganda that bombard us day and night from our screens in movies, TV, celebrity news, and social media. The cumulative effect is that this “numbs us out and dumbs us down.” (p. 8) As a result, “it takes a supreme effort of will on the individual’s part to distinguish advertising and propaganda from facts,” (p. 8) lies from truth, and fantasy from reality.

Fountain states that both of our political parties have lost their way. Trump, with the help and acquiescence of many others, has taken the Republican Party’s “politics of paranoia and racism, cultural resentment, xenophobia, misogyny and all the rest” to new extremes. The Democrats, during the 1990s with leadership from the Clintons, maintained their commitment to civil rights and diversity, including based on sexual orientation, but abandoned their commitment to workers, the poor, and Main Street for financial support from Wall Street and the wealthy. They stopped making the case for the important roles of government in maintaining a safety net and regulating business and the economy. As a result, the economic security of working and middle-class people collapsed, while income and wealth inequality skyrocketed.

The political power of the wealthy has been super-charged by changes in laws governing the financing of our political campaigns. Unlimited amounts of money can now be spent on campaigns and the sources of much of it may be kept secret. Without wealth, everyday citizens are left speechless in our elections and, therefore, underrepresented in the halls of government. The big campaign spenders have unprecedented access to and influence on policy makers, resulting in policy outcomes they favor and that benefit them further.

Democracy is overwhelmed by the hyper-capitalism in the US today with its great concentrations of wealth and power, both in our economy and in our political system and government. This is the result of the deregulation of business and the economy over the last 40 years, which has been supported by both political parties. The big corporations and the capitalists will overreach if they are unregulated and unrestrained. The 2008 crash demonstrated this again, as the savings and loan crash of the 1980s had, along with the dot com bubble crash and the crash that led to the Great Depression. Today, the system is indeed rigged, and the result is plutocracy – where the wealthy elites rule.

The American identity, and the exceptionalism of the US that the right-wing asserts, are based on democracy and the foundational principles of equality and representative government that is responsive to all the people. This is not the America we have today. Citizens can’t be equal with corporate CEOs and wealthy investors if they can’t earn enough to support a family and don’t have time to devote to public civic and political responsibilities, often because they are working multiple jobs or long hours.

Fountain concludes that “corporate power and concentrations of wealth have such a hold over our economic system that for the country to wrest some of that power from them, it can’t be incremental. It will take a political revolution.” (p. 12) The New Deal, responding to the 1929 financial crash and the Great Depression, was, in fact, a bloodless political revolution. It saved capitalism from itself, building the regulatory infrastructure that we relied on with great success for 50 years. It also built the physical infrastructure of sewers and water mains, parks, libraries, public buildings, the power grid, and many of the roads and bridges that we rely on to this day. We take all this largely for granted today, forgetting about the trauma that triggered it and the public sector response that turned the country around and built the foundation for the future.

Fountain notes that the American commitment to and understanding of the importance of public civic, political, and physical infrastructure “has been stunted the last 40 years by a very aggressive sales program on behalf of free-market fundamentalism and hard-core capitalism.” (p. 13) The subtitle of his book, Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, highlights his belief that we need a political revolution to save our democracy – and to save capitalism from itself.

You can be part of the political revolution:

  • By being an informed voter in this fall’s election, and
  • By encouraging and helping everyone you know to also be an informed voter this fall.

As I’ve written about previously, voter participation in the US is dismally low and higher voter turnout will produce different election and policy results. This is how the political revolution must happen.

[1]      Moyers, B., 10/12/18, “The bold bravery of ‘Beautiful Country Burn Again’”, Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/10/12/bold-bravery-beautiful-country-burn-again)

EVEN THE RICH RECOMMEND TAXING THE RICH

There are many arguments for increasing taxes on the rich. It’s interesting and noteworthy when the rich themselves argue for higher taxes on themselves and others like them. Warren Buffet, one of the richest men on the planet and an investor without peers, has been stating since 2011 that he pays a lower income tax rate than his secretary and that this isn’t fair. [1]

Other wealthy individuals also argue that the rich should pay more. First, there’s Douglas Durst, a billionaire New York City real estate magnate, who recently stated that he supports “higher taxes on people like me.” He noted that the US “has more of a revenue problem than a spending problem.” His father, also a real estate man, created the National Debt Clock (that displays the federal government’s overall debt) and put it on a building he owned near Times Square in New York in 1989. Durst, the son, maintains it today as the US government’s debt is growing by almost $1 trillion per year. Republicans, who campaigned on balancing the budget, have increased the annual deficit to this level (and even higher in the future) by cutting taxes and increasing spending. The US hasn’t had this high a debt level in comparison to the size of the overall economy (i.e., Gross Domestic Product [GDP]) since World War II.

Durst is baffled that President Trump and the Republicans in Congress would give a tax cut to wealthy people like him. “We’re mortgaging our children’s future. … The tax cut was an overall step in the wrong direction. Nobody who has any background in economics thought the tax bill was a good idea.” [2]

Over the last 40 years, President Clinton is the only President who has balanced the federal budget and reduced the overall debt.

Second, there’s Nick Hanauer, a billionaire, venture capitalist, and serial entrepreneur, who recorded a 6-minute TED Talk in 2012 and this summer wrote an article in The American Prospect magazine, both of which argue that taxes on the rich should be increased. [3] He argues that “taxing the rich is the only plan that would increase investment, boost productivity, grow the economy, and create more and better jobs.” He states (correctly) that there is no observable evidence or plausible economic mechanism to support the claim that cutting taxes for the rich will spur economic growth. This did not happen when President Reagan cut taxes on the rich; it did not happen when President G. W. Bush did it. However, when President Clinton raised taxes on the rich, the economy boomed and the federal government balanced the budget. President Trump and the Republicans cut taxes on the rich in December 2017 and the economy has not boomed; it has continued its slow growth that began under President Obama. Furthermore, well over 90% of the benefits of current economic growth are going to the wealthy.

In Kansas in 2012, Governor Brownback and Republicans in the state legislature dramatically cut taxes on the rich, promising unprecedented economic growth. The reality has been that Kansas’s economy has under-performed neighboring states and the country. Because of the loss of state revenue, spending on schools (and everything else) has been cut dramatically and the state’s courts stepped in and ordered the state to spend more on K-12 education. The legislators have now overridden a gubernatorial veto and reversed some of the tax cuts.

Many (if not all) credible studies of the interaction between tax rates for the wealthy and economic outcomes show either that 1) increasing taxes on the rich increases economic growth and other indicators of economic success and well-being or 2) there is no link between top tax rates and the economic benefits the proponents of tax cuts and trickle-down economics claim.

In the 1950s, the top tax rate was 91% – and the economy was booming. It was 70% in 1980 when President Reagan took office and he cut it to 50%. The 2017 tax cut cut the top rate to 37%! As Hanauer states in his TED Talk, if cutting tax rates on the rich led to economic growth and job creation, our economy would be exploding and everyone would have great jobs given that today’s top rate is only 37%.

Finally, Hanauer notes (accurately) that consumer spending is what drive the US economy; it accounts for 70% of GDP. Current levels of inequality mean that rich people (and corporations) literally have more money than they know what to do with. With income and wealthy that is over 1,000 times that of the average American, they can’t buy 1,000 houses, or 1,000 times as many cars, clothes, and food items.

Therefore, putting more money in the hands of the middle class, workers, and low-income people will boost the economy because they will spend it in the local economy. They will also invest some of the money in human capital development, i.e., education and training, for themselves and their children. These investments in human capital are key to spurring future growth and success for our economy.

Hanauer states that anything governments spend money on will pump more money into our economy that what the rich do with their excessive amounts of money. Low wages and high levels of inequality cause slow growth. Therefore, increasing inequality by cutting taxes on the rich will not spur economic growth. A 2014 report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that growing economic inequality in the US had reduced its economic growth by 9% over the previous 20 years.

In conclusion, we need to reduce economic inequality in the US as a matter of fairness and to live up to our ideals of equal opportunity and that all people are created equal. We also need to reduce inequality to spur economic growth today and in the future.

To reduce economic inequality, we need to increase taxes on the rich and invest the revenue in good jobs (e.g., rebuilding our infrastructure), in human capital (e.g., education and training from birth and throughout careers), and in a safety net (e.g., unemployment insurance and guaranteed healthcare) to support people who fall on hard times.

These steps will allow the United States to live up to its ideals and principles of equal opportunity, will boost our economy, and will contribute to creating a fairer, more just society that supports all children and families.

[1]      Isidore, C., 3/4/13, “Buffet says he’s still paying lower tax rate than his secretary,” CNNMoney (https://money.cnn.com/2013/03/04/news/economy/buffett-secretary-taxes/index.html)

[2]      Long, H., 9/17/18, “‘I support higher taxes’: the billionaire behind the National Debt Clock has had it with Trump,” The Washington Post

[3]      Hanauer, N., Summer 2018, “Want to expand the economy? Tax the rich!” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/want-expand-economy-tax-rich)

A BETTER DEAL: A WIDE-RANGING POLICY AGENDA FROM THE DEMOCRATS

The Democratic National Party has been rolling out a series of policy proposals it calls A Better Deal. Its goal is to provide a campaign message that will win the votes of middle-income workers, many of whom voted for Trump because they felt they’d been forgotten by the Democratic Party. [1]

The first piece, presented in July 2017, focused on the economic well-being of workers and the middle class. It was subtitled: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future. It’s three major components are:

  • Higher wages and better jobs. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. Create 15 million good jobs by spending $1 trillion on infrastructure and supporting small businesses. Ensure that workers can retire with dignity by protecting Social Security, pensions, and Medicare. Fight the loss of jobs to other countries.
  • Lower the cost of living for families. Lower the costs of drugs, post-secondary education, child care, cable TV and Internet service, and credit cards. Curtail the monopolistic practices of large corporations that lead to higher prices and reduced consumer choice. Provide paid leave for a new child or a family member’s illness.
  • Tools workers need to succeed in the 21st century. Expand public investment in education, training, and other tools workers need to succeed in the 21st Provides incentives to employers to invest in their workers’ skills and knowledge, including through apprenticeships.

(See a more detail summary these policy proposals in my previous post and my post critiquing them.)

The second piece, unveiled on May 8, 2018, focused on housing and communities and was subtitled: Public Housing & Ladders of Opportunity for American Families. It has four major components:

  • Repair America’s aging public housing. Invest $6 billion a year for five years to eliminate the deferred maintenance in public housing, including eliminating all major lead and mold hazards, improving energy efficiency, and making units accessible for residents with disabilities. Provide $9 billion a year in ongoing operations and maintenance funding.
  • Empower residents to fully participate in governance of their public housing. Facilitate the active involvement and participation of public housing residents in governance and increase tenant protections during relocation for renovations.
  • Ensure public housing agencies have the tools to connect residents to opportunity. Provide resources and tools to improve employment opportunities, earnings potential, and health outcomes for public housing residents by investing in job training and counseling services; educational programs; after-school enrichment programs; and access to other services.
  • Provide comprehensive solutions for the communities surrounding public housing. Invest $2 billion annually to rehabilitate and transform neighborhoods where public housing is located, while leveraging private resources as well.

The third piece, unveiled on May 21, 2018, focused on elections and ethics and was subtitled: Fixing our broken political system and returning to a government of, by, and for the people. Its three major components are:

  • Empower the American voter. Protect every citizen’s right to vote and the security and accuracy of our voting systems. End partisan gerrymandering.
  • Strengthen our nation’s ethics laws. End the influence of big money in election campaigns and of lobbyists. Close the revolving door between government jobs and positions working for private sector special interests.
  • Fix our broken campaign finance system. Break the stranglehold of wealthy campaign donors on our democracy. Pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and end the undue influence of big money in our elections, especially of unaccountable “dark” money from undisclosed donors. Increase and multiply the power of small campaign donors, while supporting new and diverse candidates. Improve enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

The most recent piece, unveiled on May 22, 2018, focused on education and was subtitled: A Better Deal for Teachers and Students. It had five components, which it proposes paying for by rescinding the recent tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations:

  • Dedicate $50 billion over 10 years to increasing teachers’ compensation. Recruit and retain a strong, diverse workforce.
  • Establish a $50 billion fund for school infrastructure. Invest in up-to-date buildings and classrooms, as well as educational technology and materials, for all students.
  • Provide additional support to schools serving children from low-income families. Ensure all students have access to academic opportunities and a rich curriculum, including computer science, music, and civics.
  • Protect teachers’ right to join a union. Ensure that teachers can collectively negotiate for better pay and conditions.
  • Fulfill the federal promise to fund 40% of the cost of special education.

While A Better Deal’s four proposals present a wide-range of policy proposals and are fairly specific about some of them, they do not present a vision or comprehensive policy agenda in the way An Economic Agenda for America’s Future does. (See my previous post on this proposal from the Campaign for America’s Future.)

While A Better Deal’s proposals could excite some voters and increase voter turnout by addressing issues that matter to working Americans, they are less inspiring and more policy wonkish than An Economic Agenda for America’s Future. They present a set of nuts-and-bolts, pragmatic, and sometimes bold steps, rather than a vision.

There are gaps in A Better Deal. For example, it doesn’t address climate change and greening the economy; support for unions (other than for teachers); a more progressive, fairer tax system to address economic inequality; reducing the power of the huge corporations including on Wall Street; and reforming our health care system.

A Better Deal is viewed by some as timid and underwhelming. It doesn’t clearly renounce growing economic inequality and the greed of corporate executives. It doesn’t provide a truly inspirational message such as the one Senator Bernie Sanders delivered in the 2016 primary.

The support for A Better Deal from Democratic members of Congress and the Party’s leadership isn’t strong and solid, and, therefore, the Party’s messaging is not consistent and effective. Similarly, Democratic candidates don’t yet appear to have widely, let alone enthusiastically, adopted A Better Deal for their campaign messaging.

I’m interested in your comments on this post. Do you think A Better Deal will motivate voters to vote for Democrats this fall?

[1]      Cottle, M., 7/31/17, “Democrats pitch a kinder, gentler populism,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/the-struggle-to-sell-a-better-deal/535410/)

AN ECONOMIC AGENDA FOR AMERICA’S FUTURE

The policy agendas of progressive candidates (see my previous post for some examples) tend to be presented in a piecemeal fashion that makes it hard to grasp an overarching progressive vision or set of goals. In this post I will summarize the proposal from the Campaign for America’s Future for an overall progressive policy agenda for the US. This proposal highlights policies that could excite voters and increase voter turnout by addressing issues that truly matter to working Americans.

The Campaign for America’s Future calls its proposal An Economic Agenda for America’s Future. It consists of 11 components and at their website you can sign on and pledge to support their agenda. Here are its 11 components or planks:

  • Jobs of all. Provide jobs with good wages and benefits by investing in the rebuilding and modernization of our roads, railroads, water and sewer systems, energy systems, and public buildings including schools. These investments will make our economy more productive and reduce economic inequality. Public service jobs would also be a part of this initiative.
  • Invest in a green economy. Strategic public policies can support renewable energy and energy efficiency while moving us away from polluting, carbon-based fuels. The results will be good jobs in growing industries and sustainable energy sources that will reduce emissions linked to climate change.
  • Empower workers to reduce inequality. Workers need to be able to bargain collectively with employers through membership in unions. Otherwise, the power of employers overwhelms that of workers and the profits from workers’ labor are given to corporate executives and stockholders, not workers. As workers’ power has declined over the last 38 years, their wages have stagnated while executives pay has skyrocketed; their benefits have languished – pensions have disappeared, health insurance is more expensive if available, paid sick and vacation days are less common as part-time and contingent work has expanded – while perks for executives are ever more lavish. Policies that allow executives to benefit from short-changing workers need to be changed.
  • Opportunity and justice for all – with a focus on communities harmed by racism. Starting with Jobs for all (see above), targeted investments are needed to provide economic opportunity for all people and communities. Neglected urban and rural communities, along with workers victimized by trade policies and employment practices that benefit large corporate employers, should be targeted by policy changes and economic investments. Ending mass incarceration and racism in all phases of our criminal justice system, along with enhancing rehabilitation and re-entry for those incarcerated, are essential to providing justice for all. Fair and humane policies and treatment for all people regardless of immigration status, race or ethnicity, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation are required to live up to the promises of our democracy.
  • Guarantee women’s economic equality. Women should earn the same pay and have the same opportunities in the workplace as men. Women must have the supports necessary to balance motherhood, parenting, and work, including access to paid leave for childbirth and affordable, high quality child care. Women must be free from all forms of sexual harassment and must have the right to make their own choices about health and reproductive issues. Women should be able to look forward to a secure retirement, in part based on being awarded Social Security credit for work done in the home supporting a family.
  • High-quality public education – pre-k to university. Education is a public good that benefits all of society. Governments at the local, state, and federal level must together provide equitable financing so all children have access to high-quality public schools and educational opportunities across the age spectrum. Post-secondary education or skills development should be free at public institutions – as it was in many states in the 1950s and 1960s – and student debt should be canceled. This will stimulate economic growth and unleash the potential of students who are now restricted in their life choices by their education debt.
  • Medicare for all – and shared economic security. Health care is a right, which requires moving to a universal, Medicare for all health care system. Furthermore, everyone deserves a secure retirement and economic security in their working years through a publicly-funded safety net that supports them if they lose their job, have an accident, or suffer a medical problem. No one in America should be homeless, hungry, or without access to health care.
  • Make corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share. Large, often multinational, corporations and rich individuals are not paying their fair share in taxes. Nonetheless, they reap the greatest benefits from public investments. Their tax rates have been lowered time and again over the last 38 years and the portion of government revenue they provide has fallen dramatically. Furthermore, tax rates on income based on wealth – income from stocks and other investments – are lower than the tax rates on income earned through work, so the wealthy get wealthier and workers struggle to make ends meet. Closing tax loopholes and exemptions that benefit wealthy individual and corporations, along with a small sales tax on purchases of financial instruments, will make our tax system fairer, reduce economic inequality, and provide the revenue needed for public investments and a fair safety net.
  • A global economic strategy for working people. Our global trade and tax policies benefit multinational corporations. We need to change these policies to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. Our national security policies benefit the military-industrial complex and are biased toward military interventions. We need to change these policies to make war a last resort and to focus on diplomacy and the global threats of climate change, poverty, and inequality. We should reduce the military budget and support humanitarian programs at home and abroad instead.
  • Close Wall Street’s casino. Deregulation of Wall Street left us with huge financial corporations that devastate our economy when they fail, are too complex to manage, and are too powerful to seriously punish, as with jail time for executives. Their financial speculation presents risks to our economy and is economically unproductive. Meanwhile, workers and small businesses suffer from the financial corporations’ business practices and the volatility they create in the economy. We need to break up the giant financial corporations, institute a speculation tax, and provide safe, affordable banking services through local banks and the postal system. Payday lenders and others who exploit low-income and vulnerable working families should be shut down.
  • Rescue democracy from special interests. The great wealth and hence power of wealthy individuals and corporations are being used to corrupt our elected officials and public policies. Through campaign spending, lobbying, and other strategies, the wealthy have rigged our economy to their benefit, resulting in dramatically increasing economic inequality. We must reassert democratic values through 1) public financing for elections that rewards small contributions by large numbers of people, 2) banning huge expenditures by the wealthy, and 3) through voting procedures that encourage everyone to vote, not ones that place barriers in front of voters, particularly people of color, young people, and low-wage working people. We need progressive candidates who will work to take back our democracy and economy for everyday working people.

I’m interested in your comments on this post. Is there a particular plank of this proposal that would make you more inclined to vote for a candidate?

My next post will summarize the Democratic National Party’s A Better Deal proposal.

PROGRESSIVE POLICIES BUILT ON FDR’S ECONOMIC BILL OF RIGHTS

The policy agendas of progressive candidates (see my previous post for some examples) tend to be presented in a piecemeal fashion that makes it hard to grasp an overarching progressive vision or set of goals. In this and my two next posts, I will summarize proposals for an overall progressive policy agenda for the US. These proposals highlight policies that could excite voters and increase voter turnout by addressing issues that truly matter to working Americans.

The American Prospect magazine, the premier journal for US progressive policy analysis and proposals, recently published an article entitled “An Economic Bill of Rights for the 21st century” by Paul, Darity, and Hamilton. [1] It builds on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 proposal for a Second Bill of Rights, a set of economic rights that would complement the political rights guaranteed by the original Bill of Rights. FDR’s proposal was never adopted, of course, but the need for an economic bill of rights is as clear today as it ever was.

As FDR noted, people who struggle to make ends meet are not free to engage in the pursuit of happiness that our Declaration of Independence promises. He went on to say that “Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” True freedom, according to FDR, requires the following economic rights:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job,
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,
  • The right of every businessman … to … freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies,
  • The right of every family to a decent home,
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health,
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and
  • The right to a good education. [2]

FDR died before he could enshrine these economic rights in policies let alone the Constitution. Moreover, his New Deal, which had rewritten many of the rules of our economy to increase economic fairness and security, was the result of a political deal with southern segregationists, probably out of necessity for getting the New Deal passed, that excluded Blacks. US government policies since then have often explicitly, and almost always at least implicitly, excluded Blacks from economic justice and opportunity. The Jim Crow policies in the south exacerbated the racial discrimination of federal policies.

The civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign (which linked economic justice with civil rights), and President Johnson’s War on Poverty of the 1960s marked a resurgence of a focus on economic justice and security. Nonetheless, highly unequal economic outcomes are clearly evident today, especially by race and ethnicity but also to a growing degree by class.

For the past 40 years, our two major political parties have both embraced policies that rely on market forces and market-based solutions for meeting social and human needs, while reducing the role of government, deregulating business’s activities, and moving toward uncontrolled capitalism.

As a result, the middle class is under siege. Its incomes have stagnated for 40 years (when adjusted for inflation) and it is experiencing high levels of economic insecurity due to the instability of employment and reduced pay and benefits from the jobs that are available. Economic inequality has sky rocketed and economic mobility has declined. Poverty remains high, especially for children (who are most vulnerable to its long-term negative effects); 43 million Americans live below the official government poverty line, which is out-of-date and dramatically understates the cost of living in most, if not all areas, of the country.

This economic reality is the result of policy choices not inevitable economic evolution. FDR’s economic rights above are clearly still very relevant. Furthermore, the authors identify three additional economic rights that are necessary today to ensure an economy that provides opportunity and security for everyone:

  • The right to sound banking and financial services,
  • The right to a safe and clean environment, and
  • The right to a meaningful endowment of resources as a birthright.

This birthright endowment is an innovative proposal by the authors to address the high levels of economic inequality in both income and wealth. (Wealth is even more unevenly distributed, particularly across race and ethnicity, than income.) Wealth (i.e., savings or economic reserves) is an essential component of economic security and social well-being. The ability to be resilient when an economic shock occurs – a sudden loss of a job, a health emergency, an accident – is critical. Yet almost half of American households do not have $400 of wealth or savings to see them through an economic shock. Moreover, for every dollar of wealth or savings held by whites, Blacks and Latinos have only 5 cents and 6 cents respectively. In other words, white household wealth is, on average, 20 times that of Blacks and almost 17 times that of Latinos.

The authors’ proposal addresses this dramatic inequality by giving every American, at birth, an endowment that would be held in trust until he or she reaches adulthood. Then, the individual could spend the money on an asset building activity such as paying for higher education, buying a home, or starting a business.

The endowment would be universal, but its amount would vary: babies born into the wealthiest families would receive $500 and those born into families with no or minimal wealth would receive $50,000. This would attempt to level the playing field, given the implicit endowment that affluent families are able to provide to their children. Estimates indicate that the cost would be about 2% of the federal budget. The federal budget currently spends a similar amount on another policy that supports households in building wealth: the home mortgage interest deduction. By reducing this support for wealth building through home ownership, which provides its biggest benefits to already wealthy households, the federal government could pay for the proposed “baby bonds.” This would go a long way toward providing economic opportunity and security for every baby born in America, as well as reducing wealth inequality. As another option, the “baby bonds” could be paid for, in whole or in part, by cutting the budget of the Defense Department (which is about 15% of the federal budget), by up to 13%. (Many analysts believe the defense budget is bloated with unnecessary expenditures and waste that primarily benefits the wealthy corporations of the military-industrial complex.) Another option to pay for the “baby bonds” would be to reduce the tax cuts that were passed in December 2017; they will cost over twice as much as these “baby bonds” would and, rather than reducing economic inequality, the tax cuts will exacerbate inequality because they primarily benefit already wealthy corporations and individuals.

I’m interested in your comments on this post. What do you think of this proposal for “baby bonds” – a birthright endowment to give every new baby a more or less equal opportunity for success in life? In particular, would you be more inclined to vote for a candidate who supported “baby bonds”?

My next post will summarize the proposal of the Campaign for America’s Future, which it calls: An Economic Agenda for America’s Future.”

[1]      Paul, M., Darity, Jr., W., & Hamilton, D., 3/5/18, “An economic bill of rights for the 21st century,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/economic-bill-rights-21st-century)

[2]      Wikipedia, retrieved 7/28/18, “Second Bill of Rights,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Bill_of_Rights)

CONSUMER FINANCE PROTECTIONS UNDER ATTACK

Many in Congress and the Trump administration are openly working to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). It was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Law, the major piece of legislation passed to reform the financial industry after the 2008 crash. The CFPB protects consumers from abusive and fraudulent practices of financial corporations, such as mortgage loans that consumers can’t afford (which were a major element of the 2008 crash and the foreclosures that destroyed many families’ savings), abusive and discriminatory practices on student and auto loans, usury by payday lenders, and deceptive marketing. The CFPB also reduces the risk of future financial industry crashes by stopping the marketing of financial products that can create financial bubbles and lead to high rates of loan defaults and bankruptcies. These can threaten the stability of financial corporations, as happened with mortgages in 2008.

The CFPB’s role is to protect consumers from unsafe financial products and practices in the same way that the Consumer Product Safety Commission protects consumers from unsafe physical products – from appliances to toys. The financial industry has opposed the CFPB from when it was first included in drafts of the Dodd-Frank legislation. The financial industry does not want to be held accountable. It wants to be able to make profits with no holds barred. It has been lobbying hard to have the CFPB emasculated.

Despite the valuable roles the CFPB can and has been playing, Congress and the Trump administration, at the urging of the financial industry, have been working to keep the CFPB from being an effective advocate for consumers by:

  • Blocking or repealing its consumer protection regulations
  • Stopping its enforcement actions
  • Weakening its independence and effectiveness

For example, in April Congress passed and the President signed a law repealing a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) regulation that prevented car dealers and corporations making car loans from discriminating based on race. The CFPB had fined several lenders and dealers millions of dollars for charging higher interest rates to Black and Hispanic borrowers, even when they had the same credit scores as White borrowers. Consumer advocacy groups note that this discriminatory behavior is pervasive and repeal of this regulation will allow it to continue. [1]

In October, a law was passed repealing a CFPB regulation that allowed consumers to band together in class action lawsuits against financial corporations and prohibited financial corporations from forcing consumers into arbitration. Many financial institutions include mandatory arbitration clauses in the agreements consumers sign when they open a bank account, take out a loan, or get a credit card. This legal language, buried in the fine print, requires the consumer to pursue any claim against the company only through arbitration and not through the courts or a class action lawsuit. The arbitration process is skewed in favor of the financial institution and a typical consumer doesn’t have the time and resources to pursue their claim on their own. [2]

Forced arbitration language initially protected Wells Fargo and Equifax by preventing large-scale consumer scandals from coming to light. Forcing consumers to pursue claims individually in arbitration hid Wells Fargo’s opening of and charging millions of customers for unauthorized accounts. Only after many months did the authorities and the public become aware of the scandal and its scale, and force Wells Fargo to compensate customers. The same pattern occurred with Wells Fargo’s requirement that auto loan borrowers buy insurance they didn’t need and with Equifax’s huge data breach.

To respond to these problems, the CFPB issued a regulation banning the use of mandatory arbitration clauses by financial corporations in individual consumer agreements. However, at the behest of the financial industry, Republicans in Congress pushed through a bill repealing the regulation; Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

Separate from Congressional action, Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the CFPB appointed by President Trump in November 2017, has delayed regulation of payday lenders, who charge usurious interest rates and often trap customers into loans they can never repay, while the lender collects huge amounts of interest and fees.

Mulvaney has also stalled the CFPB’s investigation of the Equifax data breach, which allowed hackers to obtain the personal information, including Social Security numbers and birth dates, of 145 million people. Equifax’s breach was particularly egregious because it was preventable: Equifax did not install a software patch that had been available for months. Equifax failed to disclose the breach for months while people’s identities and accounts were at-risk. And Equifax executives sold $2 million of stock in the months between the breach and its becoming public knowledge. [3]

Not content to just attack the regulations and enforcement actions of the CFPB, Mulvaney, the Trump administration, and members of Congress (mainly Republicans) have worked to weaken the CFPB’s organizational effectiveness and independence. In June, Mulvaney fired the agency’s 25-member advisory board which included consumer advocates, experts, and industry executives. It had played, and was created to play, an influential role in advising CFPB’s leadership on regulations and policies. Two days before their firing, eleven of the 25 members held a press conference to criticize Mulvaney for canceling legally required meetings of the advisory board, ignoring them and their advice, and making unwise changes at the CFPB. [4]

Mulvaney has stripped enforcement powers from the CFPB unit pursuing discrimination cases. He has undermined the consumer complaint system. [5] He has asked Congress to weaken CFPB’s power and independence by giving Congress and the executive branch more control over its budget and regulations. [6]

The reasons we need a strong and independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are clear. Its enforcement actions have led to a $1 billion fine on Wells Fargo for a series of misdeeds in consumer banking, lending, compliance with regulations, and overall management, [7] [8] as well as to a $335 million settlement with Citigroup for overcharging 1.75 million credit card customers over eight years. [9]

Since its creation, the CFPB has protected consumers from financial corporations that violate the law. It has gotten compensation of over $12 billion for more than 31 million victimized consumers. In less than 8 years, it has responded to over 1.5 million consumer complaints and issued, for example, new standards that make home mortgage documents clearer and easier to understand. At CFPB’s website, you can find information that will help you understand your credit score and make a good decision about a car or student loan. (See my earlier post about the CFPB here for more information.)

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the very valuable work it does. The efforts to weaken the CFPB and regulation of the big financial corporations are putting consumers at-risk and increasing the likelihood of another collapse of the financial sector and our economy. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information here and your Senators’ information here.

[1]      Merle, R., 4/18/18, “The Senate just voted to kill a policy warning auto lenders about discrimination against minority borrowers,” Washington Post

[2]      Freking, K., 10/25/17, “Senate votes to end consumer credit rule,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[3]      Rucker, P., 2/4/18, “Exclusive: U.S. consumer protection official puts Equifax probe on ice – sources,” Reuters (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-equifax-cfpb/exclusive-u-s-consumer-protection-official-puts-equifax-probe-on-ice-sources-idUSKBN1FP0IZ)

[4]      Merle, R., 6/7/18, “Consumer bureau chief fires advisers,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[5]      Singletary, M., 4/8/18, “Switching from watchdog to lapdog,” The Boston Globe

[6]      Merle, R., 4/3/18, “Trump-appointed head of consumer watchdog asks Congress to hamstring his agency,” Washington Post

[7]      Dreier, P., 2/7/18, “Wells Fargo gets what it deserves – and just in time,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/wells-fargo-gets-what-it-deserves-and-just-time)

[8]      Flitter, E., & Thrush, G., 4/20/18, “US to slap $1b fine on Wells Fargo,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[9]      Hamilton, J., 6/30/18, “Citigroup will repay $335 million to customers,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg

IS THE DEMOCRATS’ “BETTER DEAL” A GOOD DEAL?

Congressional Democrats recently announced a package of policy proposals they are calling “A Better Deal.” It is apparently their policy platform for the 2018 Congressional elections and it seeks to re-establish Democrats as the party that stands up for working people. There is much in it for workers to like. (See my previous post here for a summary of it.)

However, some important pieces are missing from A Better Deal. [1] For example, it doesn’t clearly address:

  • Making it easier for workers to unionize and harder for employers to eliminate or prevent unionization. This would strengthen the collective bargaining power of workers so they could better balance the growing power of employers in negotiations over pay and benefits.
  • Creating a more progressive, fairer tax system to address economic inequality and provide the revenue needed for A Better Deal’s programs.
  • Reducing the power of the huge Wall Street financial corporations and the threat they represent to our economy. [2]
  • Reforming the health care system and its out-of-control costs. It doesn’t call for a Medicare-for-All type single-payer insurance system, despite strong evidence that this is the only way to both control costs and improve quality, and despite broad support for Medicare-for-All among the public and from over 100 members of Congress. (See my post here for why single-payer is the only way to address the problems with our health insurance system.)
  • Increasing the transparency of the process for developing trade agreements and eliminating the trade dispute resolution system that favors multi-national corporations and undermines workers, the public, and even national sovereignty. [3]

A Better Deal is viewed by many as timid and underwhelming. It doesn’t clearly renounce growing economic inequality and the greed of corporate executives. It could, for example, propose penalties and/or taxes on corporations where executive pay is over 20 times that of a corporation’s lowest-paid worker or over 20 times the national median wage. This is what the Labour Party in the United Kingdom has proposed. [4] In the US, this would mean penalties or taxes on corporations where an executive is paid over $290,000 and the corporation has a minimum wage employee, or where any executive is paid was over $605,000 (based on 20 times the national median personal income of $30,240). [5]

A Better Deal is a step toward counteracting the frustration of workers and the middle class and the resultant losses Democrats have sustained in recent state and national elections. However, it is not generating much grassroots enthusiasm. Although it is clearly targeting some of the issues raised by Senator Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign, it is not generating anywhere near the groundswell of grassroots support that Senator Sanders, or for that matter President Trump’s campaign, stimulated. Part of the lack of excitement about A Better Deal has to do with the shortcomings of its policy content and part of it has to do with its presentation.

Calling the proposal “A Better Deal” is not inspiring or visionary, which is what the Democratic Party needs to be if it wants to win elections. Simply saying that its proposal is better than what the Republicans are proposing or than the current status quo is not saying much. “Better” is not enough to get voters excited and enthusiastic enough to turn out and vote. Hillary Clinton lost the presidency because she did not inspire and excite voters. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was only 53% of eligible voters! If it wants to win the 2018 or subsequent elections, the Democratic Party needs a strong, inspiring message and a good media strategy that will energize people to get out and vote for its candidates.

I’m surprised the Democratic Party didn’t build A Better Deal and its 2018 election strategy on the People’s Budget that has been developed by its Progressive Caucus in the US House. (See my posts on the People’s Budget here and here.) The People’s Budget includes specific proposals for reforming our tax system to increase fairness and to generate the revenue needed to fund the programs it and A Better Deal recommend. The People’s Budget includes a larger program to build the infrastructure America needs and is specific about increases in domestic spending that are needed to support workers and the middle class, as well as to mend our safety net for people who fall on hard times. It also is specific about the need to strengthen workers’ ability to unionize and negotiate with employers for better pay and benefits.

On the other hand, A Better Deal has more specific proposals than the People’s Budget for rolling back provisions in trade treaties that favor multi-national corporations and undermine workers. It also is more specific about the need to restrict foreign countries’ currency manipulation and monopolistic behavior by large corporations (by strengthening anti-trust laws and their enforcement).

If the Democrats could unify in support of a proposal that combined the best elements of A Better Deal and the People’s Budget, and added an unequivocal call for a Medicare-for-All type, single-payer health insurance system, they would have a policy and election agenda that would be truly visionary and inspiring. The country needs leadership focused on a clear commitment to supporting workers and the middle class. The Democrats have a golden opportunity to provide it, but it isn’t yet clear whether they will seize the opportunity.

Clear, consistent promotion of A Better Deal is not yet evident. And actions will speak louder than its words. However, no action on its promises is yet evident in Washington. Its impact, both practically and politically, will depend on:

  • Clearly spelling out the details of its policy proposals and adding missing pieces,
  • Developing a strong message promoting its goals,
  • Taking definitive actions to move its agenda forward, and
  • Generating consistent and enthusiastic support for it from all Democratic members of Congress and the Party leadership.

[1]      Reich, R., 7/28/17, “How much better is the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’?” Yahoo! News (2 min. video) (https://www.yahoo.com/news/robert-reich-democrats-better-deal-211752649.html)

[2]      Carney, E.N., 7/27/17, “Is the Democratic Party’s ‘Better Deal’ good enough?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democratic-party%E2%80%99s-better-deal-good-enough)

[3]      Bernstein, J., & Spielberg, B., 8/17/17, “Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ on trade is better than what we have now,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democrats-better-deal-trade-better-what-we-have-now)

[4]      Pizzigati, S., 7/26/17, “Will Democrats in Congress go bolder or backwards?” Inequality.org (https://inequality.org/great-divide/democrats-congress-need-go-bolder-not-backwards/)

[5]      Wikipedia, retrieved 9/7/17, “Personal income in the United States” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States)

THE DEMOCRATS’ “A BETTER DEAL”

Congressional Democrats have announced a package of policy proposals they are calling “A Better Deal.” It’s apparently their policy platform for the 2018 Congressional elections and its focus is on re-establishing Democrats as the party that stands up for working people. It proclaims that too many American families feel that the rules of our economy are rigged against them. It notes that incomes and wages are not keeping up with the cost of living for many workers. It states that large corporations, the rich, and other special interests are avoiding paying taxes and meanwhile are spending huge sums of money to influence our elections. Democrats claim that A Better Deal will grow and strengthen the middle class and reverse the failure of so-called trickle-down economic policies (i.e., tax cuts for the wealthy) to do so.

A Better Deal has three overarching goals: [1]

  • Raise the wages and incomes of American workers and create millions of good-paying jobs,
  • Lower the costs of living for families, and
  • Build an economy that gives working Americans the tools to succeed in the 21st Century.

A Better Deal calls for raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024 and then increasing it automatically so it keeps up with inflation. A Better Deal promises that Democrats will fight the offshoring of Americans’ jobs by penalizing corporations that move jobs overseas and by cracking down on unfair trade policies of other countries, including currency manipulation. It calls for renegotiating the NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico to increase US exports and jobs, while also improving wages. Federal contractors who move jobs to foreign countries would be penalized and there would be Buy American requirements in government purchasing.

The Democrat’s plan calls for $1 trillion in federal spending on the infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, railroads, airports, and waterways, that is the transportation backbone of our economy. The plan projects that 15 million good-paying jobs would be created by these investments. It would also support job creation by prioritizing support for small businesses and entrepreneurs over benefits for large corporations. It would invest in research and innovation, as well as making high-speed Internet service available to everyone. It pledges to ensure that workers will be able to “retire with dignity,” by protecting pensions, Social Security, and Medicare.

A Better Deal calls for lowering the costs of drugs, post-secondary education, child care, cable TV and Internet service, and credit cards. It promises a crackdown on big price increases by pharmaceutical corporations as well as their practices that drive up drug costs. Medicare would be allowed to negotiate drug prices (which it is currently barred by law from doing!).

A Better Deal would curtail the monopolistic practices of large corporations that lead to higher prices and reduced consumer choice. It notes that concentrated market power leads to great political power, which has been used by big corporations to obtain beneficial policies from government. Strengthening anti-trust laws and their enforcement are identified as key strategies for achieving these goals. A Better Deal calls for eliminating unlimited and/or undisclosed spending by corporations and the wealthy in our elections, as well as reducing the power and influence of lobbyists and special interests.

A Better Deal promises paid leave for workers when they are sick or when a family situation merits taking time off. Paid leave for a new child or a family member’s illness would be covered. It notes that this will keep families healthy, both medically and financially.

In A Better Deal, Democrats commit to expanding government investment in workers’ access to the education, training, and other tools they need to succeed in the 21st Century. In addition, employers would receive incentives to invest in their workers’ skills and knowledge. Apprenticeships would be expanded and training programs would be better coordinated with businesses’ needs for workers.

There is much in A Better Deal for workers to like. Democrats appear to be recommitting themselves to putting workers first, ahead of monied interests, reversing their mid-1990s decision to cozy up to those with big money to get the funding they needed for their campaigns. Despite its good points, there are notable weaknesses in A Better Deal and its presentation that I will outline in my next post.

[1]      Schumer, C., retrieved 8/20/17, “A better deal,” U.S. Senate Democrats (https://democrats.senate.gov/abetterdeal/#.WZydEbpFzIU)

DEREGULATION AND THE ELECTION OF TRUMP

Thirty years of deregulation have produced a declining standard of living and reduced economic security for the working and middle class. This is causing them significant stress and anxiety. In particular, there is strong evidence of the toll this is taking on the members of the white working and middle class. After decades of increasing life expectancy among all Americans, the life expectancy of middle-aged (35 – 59 years old), non-Hispanic whites without a college education is now actually declining largely due to premature deaths from drug and alcohol abuse and from suicides. [1] These “deaths of despair” as they are being called, are linked to the stress of falling behind one’s own life expectations as well as relative to others. [2] [3] [4]

The loss of economic well-being for the working and middle class generally has produced real anger against the political establishment that has allowed and abetted it. Numerous books have been written on the alienation of this demographic group. [5] It’s no wonder many of them voted for Trump and against the Washington, D.C., establishment in 2016. Many of them felt they had no better way to express their anger or to demand change in our policies than to vote for Trump. The fact that Trump (despite some of his rhetoric) is the embodiment of everything that has driven workers to this brink of despair is the great irony of the election. It is also an indication of the incredibly deep frustration, anxiety, and despair felt by many in the middle and working class.

Both in the U.S. and internationally, democracy – the power of the people to drive policy making including regulation – has only been successful when corporate power is under control. Regulation of big corporations has historically been necessary for workers to have the economic security that allows them to realistically engage in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In a capitalistic society, a basic level of economic security is essential if individuals are to have the freedom to make important choices in their day-to-day lives (such as where to live and what education to obtain for themselves and their children). [6]

For a capitalistic democracy to work, market place rules and regulations are essential to maintain fair and competitive markets for consumers and workers. They are also necessary to keep large corporations from wielding controlling influence over government and undermining democracy. When President Teddy Roosevelt used anti-trust laws to break up giant corporations in the early 1900s, the focus was “less on the power of giant corporations to dominate markets and more on the power of giant corporations to dominate government.” [7]

The political establishment in Washington, D.C., appears either to have forgotten this lesson of the early 20th century or to have allowed themselves to be bought by the corporate elites. As a result, the anxiety, anger, and frustration of the working and middle class has grown to historic proportions. In the election of 2016, they voted for Trump for President to clearly repudiate the Washington establishment. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party both reflect this same rebellion against the political establishment, albeit from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

How this anxiety, anger, and frustration gets expressed in the future is very much up for grabs. We’re likely to be in for a rocky ride politically as individual candidates and the political parties battle to channel this energy and emotion in elections and policy making.

If we want to have a democracy instead of a corporatocracy and to revitalize our working and middle class, we must restrain corporate power, both in the private market place and in the public sphere of government. Strong regulations that control corporate power; protect the well-being of workers, consumers, and the public; and ensure that political power rests with the people are essential. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned in the 1930s, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” [8] Clearly, Justice Brandeis understood that great wealth also means great political power, which, when concentrated in the hands of a few, is antithetical to democracy.

[1]      Boddy, J., 3/23/17, “The forces driving middle-aged white people’s ‘deaths of despair,” National Public Radio (http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair)

[2]      Payne, K., 7/5/17, “Economic inequality goes well beyond the bank account,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Burke, A., 3/23/17, “Working class white Americans are now dying in middle age at faster rates than minority groups,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2017/03/23/working-class-white-americans-are-now-dying-in-middle-age-at-faster-rates-than-minority-groups/)

[4]      Case, A., & Deaton, A., 5/1/17, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/casedeaton_sp17_finaldraft.pdf)

[5]      Kuttner, R., 10/3/16, “Hidden injuries of class, race, and culture,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/hidden-injuries-0) This is an insightful review of nine books on the “decline of the white working class and the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump.”

[6]      Kuttner, R., 4/7/17, “Corporate America and Donald Trump,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/corporate-america-and-donald-trump)

[7]      Warren, E., 2017, “This fight is our fight: The battle to save America’s middle class,” Metropolitan Books, NY, NY. p. 159

[8]      Warren, E., 2017, see above, p. 159

TO REGULATE OR DEREGULATE? THAT IS THE QUESTION

Regulations put in place after the financial collapse of 1929 and the resultant Great Depression served the country well. The current push for deregulation began with the deregulation of the railroad and trucking industries in the late 1970s. The consensus at the time was that regulations in these industries were not serving the public interest. Initial deregulation efforts worked to eliminate regulations that favored existing corporations and prevented competition from start-ups and innovators.

In 1982, anti-trust laws were used to break-up the AT&T monopoly on telephone service and introduce competition into the long-distance phone market. This reflected both strong regulation – the breaking up of a large corporation using anti-trust laws – and a belief that deregulation of the long-distance phone market coupled with the introduction of competition would best serve consumers.

During the late 1980s, the focus shifted to deregulation that benefited corporations rather than the public interest. Deregulation became “a mantra that can be translated to mean: let corporate America do more of whatever corporate America wants to do.” [1]

A telling example of this change in attitude is seen in the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) history. It was created in 1972 to protect consumers from dangerous products. It is responsible for the safety of all consumer goods except vehicles, guns, food, drugs, and cosmetics. Initially, it had 786 employees. However, as the regulatory focus shifted to benefiting corporations, it fell out of favor. In 2016, before Trump’s election, it was down to 567 employees, despite significant growth in the economy and in imports. Many imported products come from low wage countries with minimal safety standards. Therefore, the need for the CPSC to inspect and regulate goods has increased, while its capacity to do so has decreased. [2]

In a glaring example of its failure to live up to its initial promise and goals, in 2007, imported toys for young children that had lead paint (a neurotoxin) were not detected until well after the fact. For example, 1.5 million Thomas the Train components that had been imported and sold had to be recalled. [3] The weakening of the CPSC is occurring even though it reports that deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product incidents cost more the $1 trillion each year.

Since the late 1980s, the push for deregulation has reduced product safety standards; relaxed regulation of mergers, acquisitions, and financial practices (including allowing virtual monopolies); reduced on-the-job protections for workers; and weakened enforcement in many areas. Simultaneously, deregulation of the labor market has weakened workers’ bargaining power. The regulations that supported workers’ ability to bargain collectively with employers, largely through unions, have been undermined and weakened repeatedly since the 1980s. The formation of a union is now more difficult, while the ability to eliminate unions by outsourcing jobs overseas or hiring “replacement” workers has been made easier. As a result, union membership for private sector workers has declined from 25% in 1972 to 6% today.

Weak labor market regulation has allowed dramatic growth in the number of part-time, temporary, contracted, and consultant workers. This has undermined the economic security of the middle and working class, which was based on a full-time job with benefits. The explosive growth of the “gig” economy reflects this trend. Corporate employers have used the weak regulation of the labor market to restructure the workforce and reduce workers’ pay and benefits. As a result, fewer and fewer workers have employer provided health insurance, and when they do have it, they are typically paying a greater share of the cost and/or are footing the bill for higher co-payments for seeing doctors or getting prescription drugs. The guaranteed retirement incomes of pensions are largely a thing of the past. Workers are now much more likely to have to self-fund retirement through contributions to retirement savings accounts (sometimes with employer matching contributions). Furthermore, the investment decisions and risk fall on the worker. This decreases economic security for workers and gives financial corporations and advisors opportunities to charge fees and make commissions that often undermine the return on investment for workers, who typically are not sophisticated investors. As a result, workers are much less likely to be able to afford to retire at normal retirement age and are less likely to be financially secure in retirement.

The financial collapse of 2008, which was caused by the deregulation of the financial industry, robbed many in the working and middle class of their living standard and the last vestiges of their economic security. It destroyed many of their middle-class jobs and also their equity in their homes. Over 60% of U.S. households experienced a decline in wealth and many of those who didn’t lose wealth simply didn’t have any savings or assets to lose (e.g., the young and the poor). Although the high unemployment of the Great Recession has now finally declined after 8 years, high under-employment remains. Many workers are now in lower paying jobs for which they are over-qualified or are working part-time or in the “gig” economy instead of in full-time jobs, let alone ones with benefits.

Simultaneously, these workers watched the federal government bailout the Wall Street corporations and allow their executives not only to avoid penalties or jail, but to continue to enjoy huge paydays. There was no bailout for homeowners or laid off workers.

Although Republicans have typically been the politicians leading the charge on deregulation for the benefit of big corporations, many Democrats have not been far behind in their support of the deregulation agenda. Somewhat surprisingly, big corporations themselves have largely escaped the wrath of workers and the public, at least to-date. [4] This is partly because neither of our major political parties or any other powerful group has pointed the finger in their direction. Conversely, there are well-funded media, think tanks, public relations, and other initiatives that have promoted the deregulation and pro-corporate message.

My next post will link deregulation and its effects with the election of President Trump.

[1]      Warren, E., 2017, “This fight is our fight: The battle to save America’s middle class,” Metropolitan Books, NY, NY. p. 79

[2]      Steinzor, R., 4/17/17, “The war on regulation,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/war-regulation-0)

[3]      Lipton, E., & Barboza, D., 6/19/07, “As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China,” The New York Times

[4]      Kuttner, R., 4/7/17, “Corporate America and Donald Trump,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/corporate-america-and-donald-trump)

LOW-WAGE BUSINESS MODEL CREATES PARASITE ECONOMY

The term the parasite economy is being applied to employers whose business model is built on low-wage jobs. These corporations take more out of their employees and society than they put in, hence they are parasites. The low incomes of their workers mean that the workers can only survive with the support of the publicly-funded safety net, including subsidized food, housing, child care, and health insurance, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit. [1] And to make matters worse, some of these corporations are ones that use loopholes in the tax code to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

As Henry Ford realized 100 years ago, if you don’t pay your workers enough to buy the products you make, your business model will struggle to be sustainable. In 1914, Ford began paying his employees $5.00 a day, over twice the average wage in the auto industry. He also reduced the work day from 9 hours to 8 hours. Ford believed he would get higher quality work and less turnover as a result. He stated, “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same, and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.” [2]

As Henry Ford acknowledged in the early 1900s, the U.S. economy is driven by consumers. About two-thirds of our economic activity today is consumer spending. However, low-wage workers have a very limited ability to purchase goods and services, either to support themselves and their families or to sustain our consumer economy. A strong middle class is essential for the vitality for our consumer economy.

Although some of our politicians deride those who use public assistance as “takers” (as contrasted with “makers”), the real “takers” in our economy and society are the low-wage paying corporations. These low-wage employers are subsidized by the tax dollars that pay for the public assistance programs their low-paid workers (and their families) rely on to survive. [3] This is corporate welfare and these corporations are truly “takers,” as opposed to “makers” who contribute to our economy and society. [4]

Low-wage corporations are parasites, making nice profits and typically paying high compensation to their executives while relying for their success on low pay and public subsidies for their workers. Walmart and McDonald’s are classic examples.

It is estimated that American taxpayers pay roughly $153 billion a year for public assistance programs that support low-wage workers and their families. Seventy-three percent or almost three out of every four people who use public assistance programs live in families where at least one person is working. Forty-eight percent of home care workers rely on public assistance, along with 46% of those providing child care and 25% of part-time college faculty. [5]

A large part of the restaurant industry is a classic example of the parasite economy. The industry association, the National Restaurant Association, is a leading advocate for the low wages of the parasite economy. It has lobbied hard and is actively engaged in election campaigns in its efforts to keep industry wages low by opposing increases in the minimum wage and supporting the existence of an even lower, special minimum wage for tipped workers. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers – most restaurant employees – is $2.13 per hour and hasn’t been changed since 1991. The median wage for restaurant servers including tips is just $9.25 per hour. As a result, restaurant servers are three times as likely to be in poverty as the average worker.

The effects of moving to a low-wage business model were seen in the 2009 outsourcing of hotel housekeeping by Hyatt Hotels in the Boston area. Ninety-eight housekeepers were fired and replaced by contracted temp workers at half the pay, with no benefits, and with almost twice the workload. The fired housekeepers, some of whom had worked for Hyatt for 25 years, had had average pay of $17 per hour with good benefits. They were financially stable and appeared secure – able to pay their bills, support their children including with college costs, and help aging parents. Today, seven years later, the effects are still being felt by some of them, who have depleted their savings, defaulted on loans, and have poor credit ratings. Some have experienced high levels of stress and health consequences. Taxpayers had to provide unemployment benefits, as well as food, housing, and health care subsidies. [6]

The low-wage business model is pervasive in the U.S. today. Seventy-three million Americans (nearly a quarter of our population) live in working poor households that are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This public program, the primary replacement for “welfare as we know it” that President Clinton ended in 1996, provides subsidies to workers who are paid so poorly they and their families cannot survive without public assistance. The federal government spent $57 billion on EITC benefits in 2014 and many states provided their own additional EITC benefits (roughly another $10 billion). Most of these workers – and you have to be working to qualify for this benefit – work for large, profitable corporations.

Between 2003 and 2013, wages (after adjusting for inflation) actually fell for the 70% of workers at the lower end of the U.S. income spectrum. Further contributing to the need for public assistance, fewer and fewer Americans have health insurance through their employers. As a result, working-poor families (as opposed to the unemployed) receive more than half of all federal and state public assistance. Beyond the EITC, public subsidies that go primarily to the working poor include ones for food and nutrition ($86 billion), child care ($71 billion), housing ($38 billion), and health insurance ($475 billion).

My next post will discuss why the parasite economy is so prevalent in the U.S. today and what we can and should do about it.

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

[2]       Nilsson, J., 1/3/14, “Why did Henry Ford double his minimum wage?” The Saturday Evening Post (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2014/01/03/history/post-perspective/ford-doubles-minimum-wage.html)

[3]       Hanauer, N., Summer 2016, see above

[4]       Johnson, J., 5/3/16, “McDonald’s, the corporate welfare moocher,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/05/03/mcdonalds-corporate-welfare-moocher)

[5]       Jacobs, K., 4/15/16, “Americans are spending $153 billion a year to subsidize low-wage workers,” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/15/we-are-spending-153-billion-a-year-to-subsidize-mcdonalds-and-walmarts-low-wage-workers/?utm_term=.7120f83f959f)

[6]       Boguslaw, J., & Trotter Davis, M., 9/5/16, “Lessons from the Hyatt 100,” The Boston Globe

THE TRUTH ABOUT RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE

 Whenever a proposal to raise the minimum wage is put forth, especially one for a significant increase such as to $15 per hour (the current federal minimum wage is $7.25), the business community and its allies among elected officials immediately warn that there would be dramatic negative effects on the number of jobs and the growth of the economy.

However, there is no actual evidence that raising the minimum wage to $15 over the course of a few years would reduce the number of jobs or slow economic growth. These assertions by the business sector are pure speculation based on the economic theory of ideal markets (which don’t exist in reality). The warnings are meant to create fear among voters and elected officials, and therefore foster opposition to increasing the minimum wage.

Past increases in the minimum wage have not led to increases in unemployment. In January 1950, the minimum wage was increased 87.5% (from $.40 to $.75). Over the next 15 months, the unemployment rate fell from 7.9% to 3.1%. A similar result occurred after a 33.3% increase in the minimum wage in March 1956. A study by the NY Department of Labor found that after six of eight increases in New York’s minimum wage between 1991 and 2015 employment increased.

When San Jose increased its minimum wage by $2 in 2013, the business community and particularly restaurants and small businesses predicted disaster. However, new business registrations grew and unemployment fell, including in the restaurant and hospitality sector where 4,000 jobs were added over the next year. [1]

Washington State has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.47, and it applies to tipped workers. (This is four and a half times the federal minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13.) And yet Seattle has the second highest concentration of restaurants per capita in the country (behind only San Francisco, where the city’s minimum wage is even higher). Washington State also boasts the highest rate of small-business job growth in the country.

In 2014, when Seattle raised its city minimum wage to $15, the restaurant industry and the business sector predictably claimed that disaster would follow. But six months later, Seattle’s restaurant industry was growing faster than ever. And in early 2016, Washington State was first in the country in job and wage growth.

International comparisons demonstrate that a high minimum wage does not reduce the number of low paying jobs or increase the unemployment rate of low-education workers. Among 18 countries with advanced economies, the U.S. has the highest proportion of low-wage jobs (25%) but only an average employment rate for low-education workers (57%). In other words, having lots of low-wage jobs in the U.S. has not led to high employment among workers with low levels of education.

It is the presence of a high minimum wage and collective bargaining for workers that explains the presence of jobs with good wages in other countries. Furthermore, most of the 18 other countries have stronger social supports for workers and families than the U.S. in areas such as health care, housing, education, and especially child care. The lower minimum wage and weaker social supports in the U.S. reflect the lack of political power of ordinary workers in America. [2]

It has been seven years since the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25. That’s seven years without a raise for many workers, while housing, food, and health care costs have risen. Not since the 1930s has the American workforce experienced such a low-wage and insecure labor market. Relatively high unemployment and very high under-employment, as well as the rise of part-time and contingent jobs with their uncertain incomes, are the symptoms of insecure jobs.

Today’s low wages (which have been declining with inflation) and job insecurity are largely the result of decreased union membership and weakened government regulation of the labor market. As Adam Smith wrote over 200 years ago, if workers negotiate wages and working conditions individually with employers, employers will always have the upper hand.

In competitive markets for goods and services, without government regulation (such as a strong minimum wage law) and collective bargaining for workers, the job market becomes a race to the bottom. Employers will drive down wages, benefits, and working conditions to maximize competitiveness and profits.

This is what has happened in the U.S. since 1968 as government regulation and union membership have declined. Using 1968 as the reference point, today’s current federal minimum wage of $7.25 would be:

  • $9.63 if it had kept up with inflation; (In other words, the minimum wage today has roughly 25% less purchasing power than it had in 1968.)
  • $11.35 if it had kept up with the average wage in the economy; or
  • $18.85 if it had kept up with the improvement in workers’ productivity. [3] (In other words, the value of the increased production of today’s workers over those of 1968 is not getting paid to the workers but is going to managers and investors or shareholders.)

So, the truth about increasing the minimum wage is that it doesn’t increase unemployment and slow economic growth. In fact, the opposite may occur. Furthermore, there are many benefits to increasing the minimum wage (which I’ll discuss in my next post) that outweigh any possible negative effects.

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

[2]       Howell, D.R., Summer 2016, “Reframing the minimum-wage debate,” The American Prospect

[3]       Cooper, D., 7/25/16, “The federal minimum wage has been eroded by decades of inaction,” The Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/the-federal-minimum-wage-has-been-eroded-by-decades-of-inaction/)

A CONSENSUS ON TRADE TREATIES?

Most of the presidential candidates agree that past trade treaties have had negative effects on US workers and that future trade treaties need to take a different approach. This would appear to be bad news for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade agreements that are in various stages of negotiation and ratification. Bernie Sanders has been a long-standing opponent of the TPP, Hillary Clinton has recently converted to opposing it, Donald Trump appears to oppose it but with bluster and little substance, Ted Cruz has not been clear on where he stands, and John Kasich supports the TPP.

Support for the arguments against recent trade treaties has recently come from an unlikely source, Clyde Prestowitz, who served in a senior position in President Reagan’s Department of Commerce and as President Clinton’s vice chairman of the Commission on Trade and Investment in the Asia-Pacific Region. [1]

Prestowitz writes that after the 2001 agreement that let China join the World Trade Organization, our trade deficit with China soared from $80 billion to $370 billion. The best estimates are that imports from China have cost the US about 2.5 million jobs. This occurred despite assurances to Congress and the public that this agreement would dramatically reduce the trade deficit with China and create US jobs. These assurances were given by very senior members of the Bush administration including the Secretary of Commerce and the US Trade Representative.

The results of the US-Korea Free Trade agreement of 2012 are similar. Our trade deficit with Korea increased from $13 billion to $28 billion, costing the US roughly 90,000 jobs. However, the same promises of a reduced trade deficit and US job growth were made in promoting this trade deal.

Prestowitz concludes that “None of the trade agreements have eliminated [the trade deficit], or even reduced it, as promised, and none of them have come close to achieving other promised benefits.”

So, he poses the question of why both political parties and numerous well-educated officials have persisted in making and supporting these trade agreements, as well as using the same old arguments to sell them to Congress and the public. He gives two answers. The first is that the real reason for these trade agreements is to strengthen the US’s geopolitical position, not to improve the economic welfare of its workers. As an example of this, Prestowitz, to this day, defends the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada as an appropriate step to counter the growing geopolitical influence of China and other Asian countries.

His second answer is that many experts base their analyses on a theoretical and outdated model of trade and globalization. This model assumes full employment, fixed exchange rates, no flow of investments across borders, no transfers of technology, and no costs due to displaced workers losing one job and having to find another one. In reality, the US has rarely, if ever (depending on the standard you use), been at full employment. Exchange rates have been floating and not fixed since the 1970s and some countries, notably China, systematically manipulate the exchange rates for their currencies. The flow of investments, of financial deals and money, across borders is greater today than the flow of goods (traditional trade). China and Japan, among others, have made the transfer of technology to their countries a condition of allowing access to their workforces and markets. And we know how painful the displacement of workers has been. New jobs have been hard to find and, for those lucky enough to get a new job, the pay and working conditions are typically far worse than they were with their previous job.

Another answer, that Prestowitz doesn’t present, is that large, multi-national corporations have great power in Congress and our federal government. They are the main beneficiaries of these trade treaties. Through campaign contributions (largely by their senior executives), lobbying, and the revolving door between them and positions in the federal government (including the executive branch and Congress), they have tremendous influence on trade and other policies.

It is encouraging to see that when the public is paying attention, as it does during a presidential campaign, and when there is at least one candidate who presents a strong position and argument against the TPP and other trade treaties, that other candidates will forego their allegiance to corporate power (and money) and take a position in opposition to the TPP. It will be our job, as voters and constituents, to make sure that the next president follows through on his or her campaign commitment to oppose the TPP and to work to ensure that trade treaties benefit US workers and the US economy.

[1]       Prestowitz, C., 3/22/16, “Trading down and up,” The Boston Globe

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SANDERS ON DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech focused on defining what he means by democratic socialism and why he has identified as a socialist for his entire political career. Our mainstream corporate media can’t seem to cover him or his campaign without labeling him a socialist. The intent seems to be to identify him as outside the mainstream at best or as a dangerous radical. Often the implicit or explicit message is that a socialist is one step away from being a communist – and many Americans do not know what socialism or communism means or the difference between them.

To address this pejorative use of the term socialist, Sanders began by noting that many of the programs and policies that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) instituted in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression were called socialist: Social Security for seniors, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, the 40 hour work week, an end to child labor, collective bargaining for workers, job programs to reduce unemployment, and banking regulations. They were enacted despite the strong opposition of the economic elites and have become part of the fabric of our society and the foundation of the American middle class.

Similarly, when President Johnson provided health insurance through Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for poor children and families, these programs were called socialist and a threat to the American way of life.

Sanders stated that we need to transform our democracy and our country as FDR did in the 1930s. We are facing a political and economic crisis that requires dramatic change. He noted that the US is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and yet we have high rates of poverty that include over one-quarter of our children. He called for a political movement to take on the ruling, economic elite class, whose greed is destroying our democracy and our economy.

Sanders cited FDR’s inaugural address in 1944 as one of the most important speeches in our nation’s history. In it, FDR proposed an economic bill of rights, noting that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security. Sanders pointed to this economic bill of rights as reflecting the core of what democratic socialism means to him. It includes:

  • Decent jobs at decent pay with time off and the ability to retire with dignity;
  • The ability to have food, clothing, a home, and health care; and
  • The opportunity for small businesses to operate without domination by large corporations.

Sanders noted that Martin Luther King, in 1968, echoed FDR’s call for economic rights and stated that the US provides “socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”

Sanders went on to present specific examples of what democratic socialism means to him. He stated that the principle of economic rights for all is not a radical concept and that many countries around the world have done a far better job of providing economic security for their citizens than the US has done. In particular, he noted that almost all countries provide 3 months of paid family leave for new mothers and that all major countries provide health care as a right, not a privilege. The US does neither of these. He addressed climate change, racism, and economic and social justice issues including a fairer tax system and an end to excessive incarceration. He called for a more vibrant democracy with higher voter participation and the removal of barriers to voting.

You can listen to Sanders’ speech at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slkQohGDQCI. It’s an hour and 36 minutes long. You can listen to it while you’re doing something else or, if you want to listen to the highlights, listen to minutes 4 – 9 and from minute 24 for 5 – 10 minutes.

GOOD NEWS FOR US WORKERS

ABSTRACT: This Labor Day workers were able to celebrate falling unemployment, increased hiring, improved access to health insurance, and increases in the minimum wage. Expanded eligibility for overtime pay is also in the works. And the US Labor Department has proposed a new regulation that would cover home care workers under minimum wage and overtime rules. (They are currently exempted.) Policies could also be changed that would require more contingent or gig workers to be treated as employees under some or all of our labor laws and/or to require part-time employees to get pro-rated benefits.

Laws that support the right to unionize and bargain collectively could be strengthened, as could the enforcement of existing laws. Higher unionization correlates with lower inequality and a greater portion of national income going to the middle class.

Our public policies need to change, both to reinstitute workers’ bargaining power and to better serve workers in the gig economy. Workers in the US have been getting the short end of the stick for 40 years. Changes in public policies to address these issues are long overdue.

FULL POST: This Labor Day workers were able to celebrate falling unemployment and increased hiring. They could also celebrate improved access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care). Increases in the minimum wage in a number of states and cities are more good news, along with the growing momentum behind the Fight for 15, which is pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Grassroots activism in support of workers specifically, and the middle and working class in general, is on the rise. [1] A number of political leaders have taken on this fight as well, including Senators Bernie Sanders (who is running for President), Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, Al Franken, Tammy Baldwin, Brian Schatz, Mazie Hirono, and Sherrod Brown. Pope Francis is also advocating for fairer treatment of workers and a reduction in economic inequality.

The momentum for increases in the minimum wage is supported by examples like San Jose, CA, which are refuting the scare-tactic claims of the business community and its political supporters in opposing any increases in the minimum wage. In San Jose, the minimum wage has gone from $8.00 per hour to $10.15. As a result, 70,000 of the city’s 370,000 workers directly or indirectly got a raise. But rather than costing jobs as opponents always assert minimum wage increases will do, unemployment has fallen to 5.4% from 7.4% in March 2013. The hardest hit industry – the restaurant business – has seen a 20% increase in the number of restaurants in the last 18 months. Although restaurants raised prices by an average of 1.75%, business is good and most customers don’t seem to notice that prices went up by a bit. [2]

Expanded eligibility for overtime pay is also in the works. Currently, most hourly workers are required to be paid time and a half for overtime work, i.e., work beyond 40 hours per week. However, employers are not required to pay overtime to salaried workers who are classified as managers or supervisors and are paid over $23,660 per year. (This is below the federal poverty line for a family of 4 people.) This $23,660 cutoff was established in 1975 and has not been updated since. In 1975, 60% of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay; today, less than 10% do. The US Department of Labor is proposing to raise the cutoff to $50,440, which is roughly adjusting it for the inflation of the last 40 years. If implemented, this change in regulations would mean that over 10 million additional US workers would qualify for overtime pay when they work over 40 hours per week. [3]

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, it excluded domestic services workers and farm labor from its standards, such as the minimum wage and overtime pay. Many believe this happened because these workers were largely black and/or female. Amazingly, this exclusion remains in place today. Partly because of sub-minimum wages for their domestic services workers, the publicly-traded, national home-care corporations are very profitable – gross profits range from 30% to 40%. Furthermore, their CEOs’ compensation has risen 150% since 2004 (after adjusting for inflation), while their workers’ pay has declined 6%. [4]

In 2013, the US Labor Department proposed a new regulation that would cover home care workers under minimum wage and overtime rules. The coverage was supposed to take effect in January 2015, however the home care industry has been vehement in its opposition and has delayed the change by challenging the new regulation in court.

Policies could also be changed that would require more contingent or gig workers to be treated as employees under some or all of our labor laws, such as minimum wage, overtime pay, Social Security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance laws. Rules could be changed to require part-time employees to get pro-rated benefits under many of these laws. Or employers could be required to make contributions to “individual security accounts” for gig workers to help them pay for benefits. [5] [6] Workers would also benefit from laws that regulate their schedules so they have more predictable hours and incomes. (See my post Supporting families is an investment in human capital Part 2 for more detail.)

Laws that support the right to unionize and bargain collectively could be strengthened, as could the enforcement of existing laws. For example, laws could be changed to make it easier for workers in franchised businesses and gig work to form unions and bargain collectively. [7] Enhanced workers’ bargaining power and workplace precedents based on union contracts would benefit all workers and support the revitalization of the middle class. Data over the last 100 years document a strong correlation between higher unionization and lower income inequality. Data from the last 50 years show a strong correlation between higher union membership and a greater portion of national income going to the middle class. [8]

Our public policies need to change, both to reinstitute workers’ bargaining power and to better serve workers in the gig economy. Our policies need to reflect the change from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. Many current labor market standards, regulations, and economic security provisions were put in place around the Great Depression and responded to the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. They need to be updated and adjusted to better align with current economic realities. [9]

Workers in the US have been getting the short end of the stick for 40 years. The results are stagnant wages, growing economic insecurity for most workers and families, a dramatic increase in economic inequality, and a declining middle class that lacks the purchasing power to keep our consumer-based economy humming. Changes in public policies to address these issues are long overdue.

[1]       Hightower, J., Sept. 2015, “The rebellious spirit of Matthew Maguire’s first Labor Day is spreading again across our country. Join the parade,” The Hightower Lowdown

[2]       Clawson, L., 6/16/14, “In San Jose, a minimum wage increase and falling unemployment,” Daily Kos (https://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/06/16/1307351/-In-San-Jose-a-minimum-wage-increase-and-falling-unemployment?detail=emailclassic)

[3]       Wise, K., 9/3/15, “Labor Day 2015: Important gains, many challenges for MA workers,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (http://www.massbudget.org/report_window.php?loc=Labor_Day_2015.html)

[4]       Rogers, H., Summer 2015, “A decent living for home caregivers – and their clients,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/decent-living-home-caregivers%E2%80%94and-their-clients)

[5]       Ramos, D., 9/6/15, “The sharing revolution and the uncertain future of work,” The Boston Globe

[6]       Chen, M., 9/14/15, “This is how bad the sharing economy is for workers,” The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/this-is-how-bad-the-sharing-economy-is-for-workers/)

[7]       Johnston, K., 9/6/15, “Work’s dark future,” The Boston Globe

[8]       Clawson, L., 5/26/14, “The tight link between unions, the middle class and inequality in two charts,” Daily Kos (https://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/27/1301209/-The-tight-link-between-unions-the-middle-class-and-inequality-in-two-charts?detail=emailclassic)

[9]       Goodman, M.D., 9/6/15, “Public policies fail to keep pace with changing economy,” The Boston Globe

WORKING HARD, GAINING LITTLE

FULL POST: We recently celebrated the Labor Day holiday and workers in the US do have some things to celebrate, but in general the outlook is bleak. First, the bad news, and then in my next post the good news.

Wages (adjusted for inflation) fell 4% between 2009 (when the recovery officially started) and 2014. The fall was the greatest for low income workers – even in industries where hiring was strong – such as restaurant cooks (down 8.9%), home health aides (down 6.2%), and retail workers. Many workers are worse off than they were 20 years ago. [1]

Hourly wages for the typical worker have been basically stagnant since 1970, despite significant increases in worker productivity. From 2000 to 2014, for example, productivity grew by 21.6% while hourly compensation grew by just 1.8%. The value of the increased productivity has primarily gone to highly paid managers, business owners, and shareholders. Workers are not getting the fruits of their increased productivity because the rules of our economy have changed over the last 40 years to the benefit of employers. Workers’ power, through collective bargaining and other means, has been intentionally eroded by policy decisions by federal and state governments at the behest of powerful corporations. [2]

An important factor in these stagnant and falling wages is the growth of the number of workers who are not full-time employees; those who are temporary, part-time, or contract workers. This reflects the growth of what is called the gig economy. Roughly 40% of US workers were contingent or gig workers in 2010, up from 35% in 2006. [3] Roughly 27 million Americans are working as independent contractors or temporary workers, while another 24 million work at a mix of traditional and freelance work. These workers not only suffer from low wages, they also typically do not receive benefits and are not protected by labor laws covering health, safety, and working conditions, such as minimum wage and overtime pay laws. Furthermore, much of the safety net for workers in the US depends on being a regular, full-time employee: health insurance, retirement benefits, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation and disability insurance (for being unable to work due to an injury or a health issue). [4]

Our current employee-focused policies provide perverse incentives for employers because costs and administrative burdens are lower with non-employees than employees. As a result, employers actively work to maximize the use of contingent workers and minimize the number of full-time employees. They also misclassify workers as contractors to avoid paying payroll and unemployment taxes.

The gig economy means less economic security for workers now and in the future. Their jobs can disappear at any moment with no unemployment benefits to tide them over to the next job. Their weekly hours and income fluctuate. And typically they have no retirement benefits and no health insurance. If they buy health insurance on their own, they may have caps and high deductibles that could leave them in a financial crisis if a serious accident or illness were to occur. The risk of economic changes and recessions now falls primarily on employees, with little support from employers or our public safety net.

My next post will review good news for workers, including policy changes that would recapture workers’ bargaining power and better serve workers in the gig economy.

[1]       Schwartz, N.D., 9/3/15, “Pay has fallen for many, study says,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]       Economic Policy Institute, 9/2/15, “Gap between productivity and typical workers’ pay continues to widen,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/press/gap-between-productivity-and-typical-workers-pay-continues-to-widen/)

[3]       Johnston, K., 9/6/15, “Work’s dark future,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Ramos, D., 9/6/15, “The sharing revolution and the uncertain future of work,” The Boston Globe

PROVIDING ECONOMIC SECURITY FOR OUR SENIORS

ABSTRACT: We need to improve the economic security of today’s – and tomorrow’s – senior citizens. Strengthening and expanding Social Security is the third of the Ten Big Ideas to Save the Economy. Reliance on Social Security is increasing. Despite its maximum benefit of only $32,000 per year, for one-third of seniors it’s 90% of their income.

Some people are using scare tactics – claiming that Social Security is running out of money and that we have to cut benefits or raise the retirement age to preserve it. However, Social Security is not in serious financial trouble; a simple adjustment in how payments into Social Security are calculated will provide funding sufficient for the foreseeable future. There is $118,500 cap on the amount of annual income taxed to provide Social Security benefits. This is not sensible or fair. Scrap the cap and everyone alive today can look forward confidently to Social Security benefits.

Outside of Social Security, the federal government spends $68 billion every year on tax incentives for contributions to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), Keoghs, 401(k)s, and other tax sheltered retirement accounts. However, almost all of these benefits end up in the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. So these supposed retirement savings incentives for the middle and working classes, which significantly reduce government revenue, are primarily just another tax avoidance scheme for the well-off.

Our country both needs to and can afford to provide Social Security to its seniors. With all the challenges the middle and working classes are facing in saving for retirement, we should be strengthening Social Security and increasing its benefits, not cutting them as some people say we should.

FULL POST: We need to improve the economic security of today’s – and tomorrow’s – senior citizens. Strengthening and expanding Social Security is the third of the Ten Big Ideas to Save the Economy presented by Robert Reich and MoveOn.org. [1] We all want to be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living in retirement. However, fewer and fewer workers have pensions from their employers. And saving for retirement is harder than ever because middle class wages have been stagnant for 40 years while living expenses keep going up. In addition, student debt has grown dramatically and most Americans lost substantial income or savings (or both) in the Great Recession of 2008.

A recent study found that more than half of all American households with someone 55 or older have no retirement savings. Among those with some retirement savings, the median amount of those savings is only about $104,000 for those 55-64 and $148,000 for those 65-74 – nowhere near enough to maintain a reasonable standard of living in retirement. [2]

Therefore, reliance on Social Security is increasing. Despite its maximum benefit of only $32,000 per year, for two-thirds of seniors, Social Security represents half of their income; for one-third of seniors, it’s 90% of their income. Nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty if they weren’t receiving Social Security. So Social Security benefits should not be cut; they should be increased.

Some people are using scare tactics – claiming that Social Security is running out of money and that we have to cut benefits or raise the retirement age to preserve it. However, Social Security is not in serious financial trouble; a simple adjustment in how payments into Social Security are calculated will provide funding sufficient for the foreseeable future. Right now, we pay into Social Security on up to $118,500 of annual income; nothing is paid into Social Security on income over that amount. Therefore, a CEO or hedge fund manager making $10 million or more in a year pays the same amount into Social Security as someone who makes $118,500. If this cap on the income taxed for Social Security were lifted, and everyone paid the same rate on all their income (as we do for Medicaid), Social Security would have plenty of money to pay its promised benefits – and more.

The $118,500 cap on the amount of income taxed for Social Security is not sensible or fair. Scrap the cap and everyone alive today can look forward confidently to Social Security benefits when they are senior citizens.

Some people go so far as to say we can’t afford Social Security. However, they conveniently ignore the fact that the federal government spends $68 billion every year on tax incentives for contributions to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), Keoghs, 401(k)s, and other tax sheltered retirement accounts. Although these policies are presented as promoting retirement savings for average Americans, the way these tax breaks are designed results in almost all of these benefits ending up in the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. These wealthy individuals would be saving anyway, so rather than functioning as effective retirement savings incentives, these tax breaks are largely giveaways to the already well-off. [3] The maximum amounts that can be contributed to these accounts are something only the well-off can afford to take advantage of. For example, the maximum contribution one can make to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan is $18,000 per year or $24,000 if one is over 50. (For the sake of comparison, the median annual household income in the US is $52,000.) The huge amounts of money that can be accumulated in these accounts are far more than are needed to maintain a reasonable standard of living in retirement. The result is that these supposed retirement savings incentives for the middle and working classes, which significantly reduce government revenue, are primarily just another tax avoidance scheme for the well-off.

Our country both needs to and can afford to provide Social Security to its seniors. With all the challenges the middle and working classes are facing in saving for retirement, we should be strengthening Social Security and increasing its benefits, not cutting them as some people say we should.

[1]       You can watch the 3 minute video at: http://civic.moveon.org/expandsocialsecurity/share.html?id=116037-5637721-y4jZ7Rxn.

[2]       U.S. Government Accountability Office. 5/12/15. “Most Households Approaching Retirement Have Low Savings,” GAO-15-419: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-419

[3]       Ghilarducci, T., Spring 2015, “Senior class: America’s unequal retirement,” The American Prospect

BIG IDEAS TO HELP WORKING PARENTS

ABSTRACT: Working parents in the U.S. are struggling both to make ends meet and to be good parents. They need to be paid a reasonable wage so that full-time work provides a decent standard of living for their families (as it used to). Furthermore, employers and government should work together to ensure that workplaces are family-friendly. These are the first two topics of Ten Big Ideas to Save the Economy, presented by MoveOn.org and Robert Reich in 3 minute videos.

The first Big Idea is the Fight for $15 – the campaign for a $15 minimum wage. If the minimum wage had kept up with increases in productivity since 1968, the minimum wage would be over $21 per hour. If it had simply kept up with inflation it would be over $10 per hour. If we want to be a decent and fair society, we need to pay working parents a decent and fair wage. Also, a higher minimum wage would save employers money be reducing turnover.

The second Big Idea is a set of policies and practices that make work family-friendly. Working parents need:

  • Equal pay for women
  • Predictable schedules with regular hours
  • Reliable, high quality child care
  • Paid family leave

We don’t have a healthy society if we don’t have healthy families and we can’t have a strong country if we don’t have strong families. Providing basic economic security and family-friendly workplaces for our working parents is critical to having strong, healthy families. This is not only an essential investment in families and our economy, but also in our future – our children.

FULL POST: Working parents in the U.S. are struggling both to make ends meet and to be good parents. They need to be paid a reasonable wage so that full-time work provides a decent standard of living for their families (as it used to). Furthermore, employers and government should work together to ensure that workplaces are family-friendly. These are the first two topics of Ten Big Ideas to Save the Economy, presented in 3 minute videos by Robert Reich (President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor) and MoveOn.org (the progressive, grassroots organization promoting participation in our democracy).

The first of these ten commonsense ideas to make our economy work for everyone is the Fight for $15 – the campaign for a $15 minimum wage. A $15 per hour wage would mean that a full-time worker would make about $30,000 a year. [1] Even at this level, many families would still be struggling to make ends meet. Currently, with the federal minimum wage at $7.25, a third of all families live paycheck to paycheck. If, since 1968, the minimum wage had kept up with increases in workers’ productivity (how much the output of their work is worth), the minimum wage would be over $21 per hour. If it had simply kept up with inflation it would be over $10 per hour. If we want to be a decent and fair society, we need to pay working parents a decent and fair wage.

Minimum wage workers are not kids making a little spending money; half of them are over 35 years old, many are women, and many are supporting families. A higher minimum wage would save employers money be reducing turnover, which reduces the costs of recruiting and training new workers. A number of cities (e.g., Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) have made the commitment to raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour; the rest of the country should follow suit.

The second Big Idea is a set of policies and practices that make work family-friendly. [2] For starters, women should receive equal pay. Also, working parents need predictable schedules with regular hours so they can plan their families’ schedules and know how much income they will have. In some business sectors (such as retail sales, food service, and home care), the majority of workers don’t know their schedules a week in advance. Some only get a few hours’ notice and some show up at work and are told to go home (without any pay) because it’s a slow day. Many employers manage part-time workers’ schedules to make sure they don’t earn any overtime or qualify for benefits. [3]

Reliable, high quality child care, including for out-of-school time when parents are working, needs to be universally available and affordable. Parents (both mothers and fathers) should receive paid family leave when a new child joins the family and if a health emergency occurs.

The benefits of raising the minimum wage and instituting family-friendly workplace policies are broad and reach well beyond workers and their families. Employers would benefit from having more reliable, productive employees. Society (i.e., taxpayers) would also benefit, not only from improved economic efficiency, but also because the children of working parents would be more likely to be successful in school and in life. Other developed countries have implemented most if not all of these policies; we can too if we have the public will to make this a priority.

We don’t have a healthy society if we don’t have healthy families and we can’t have a strong country if we don’t have strong families. Providing basic economic security and family-friendly workplaces is critical to having strong, healthy families. Family values means supporting working parents, which also gives their children a fair chance to succeed. Helping working parents is not only an essential investment in our families and our economy, but also in our children who are the future of our nation and our economy.

[1]       You can watch the 3 minute video at: http://civ.moveon.org/fightfor15/share.html?id=114907-5637721-4VHTwex#watch.

[2]       You can watch the 3 minute video at: http://civic.moveon.org/helpworkingfamilies/share.html?id=115612-5637721-L2wvmQx#watch.

[3]       Loth, R., 5/29/15, “For workers, ‘flexible’ schedule means unpredictability,” The Boston Globe

WHY ECONOMIC INEQUALITY CONTINUES TO GROW AND WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

ABSTRACT: Despite many indicators that our economy is strong, most Americans are experiencing economic insecurity. Over half of US households have less than one month’s income in regular savings and median household income continues to decline. Low-wage workers at Walmart, McDonalds, and elsewhere are so poor they are receiving $45 billion in public assistance. This translates into the average US household paying $400 a year in taxes to support these workers.

So why are the majority of Americans falling behind economically? And why were things so different in the post-World War II period? The US job market has changed dramatically. Many full-time jobs have been replaced part-time jobs, contract work, and temporary work. Many large employers and some politicians have engaged in a conscious effort to undermine the bargaining power of workers and weaken the enforcement of labor laws. Policies that allow outsourcing of jobs overseas and high unemployment further undermine the availability of good jobs at good wages.

The ability of the public and voters to demand policies that support the middle class and workers has also been undermined. Wealthy individuals and corporations are now allowed to make huge contributions and expenditures in our elections, drowning out the voices of average voters. This means that economic inequality translates into political inequality and policies that favor the well-off. Furthermore, new barriers to voting and a strategy of paralyzing and denigrating government has fostered voter cynicism, which leads to “a downward spiral [of] depressed expectations and diminished participation.”

A genuine mass movement is needed to restore economic security and opportunity for the typical American worker. An opportunity to participate in building such a movement is available right now in the election of the Mayor of Chicago. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is unexpectedly giving incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a crony of wealthy business interests, a run for his money. You can learn more about Garcia and contribute to his campaign at http://www.chicagoforchuy.com/index.html. The success of candidates like Garcia is critical to turning around the direction of our politics and policies, and to re-establishing government of, by, and for the people.

FULL POST: As the stock market sets record highs, as unemployment falls, and as the economy grows, most Americans are experiencing economic insecurity. Since 2007, US wealth as grown by over $30 trillion, but the number of children in families receiving public assistance to buy food has grown by 6.5 million to 16 million children (20% of all kids). Over half of public school students are poor enough to qualify for lunch subsidies and over half of US households have less than one month’s income in regular savings (as opposed to retirement accounts or home equity). Median household income has continued to decline in the 5 years since the official recession ended; 95% of income growth since 2009 has gone to the richest 1%. The jobs that are being created pay, on average, 23% less than the jobs that were lost. [1]

Low-wage workers (those earning less than $10.10 per hour) at Walmart, McDonalds, and elsewhere are so poor they are receiving $45 billion in public assistance. This translates into the average US household paying $400 a year in taxes to support these workers. Walmart’s highly publicized $1 raise for its lowest paid workers will cost the company about $1 billion per year. Its profits last year were $25 billion and it spent about $6.5 billion to buy back its own stock, enriching its investors. It’s estimated that taxpayers spent about $6 billion providing public assistance to Walmart employees last year. [2]

So why are the majority of Americans falling behind economically when many measures indicate that our economy is doing well and when the wealthy are doing very well? And why were things so different in the post-World War II period when our economy was doing well and the majority of Americans were getting ahead? Bob Kuttner offers seven reasons, which I summarize below. [3]

The US job market has changed dramatically. Many full-time jobs with career opportunities have been replaced part-time jobs, contract work, temporary work, and so forth. Many large employers and some politicians have engaged in a conscious effort to undermine the bargaining power of workers and weaken the enforcement of labor laws. Policies that allow outsourcing of jobs overseas and high unemployment (while limiting unemployment benefits) further undermine market forces that would provide good jobs at good wages – and with benefits.

Pro-business Republicans and Democrats have supported these policies. Furthermore, the ability of the public and voters to demand policies that support the middle class and workers has been undermined. Laws and court decisions have allowed wealthy individuals and corporations to make huge contributions and expenditures in our elections, drowning out the voices of average voters. This means that economic inequality translates into political inequality, and wealthy special interests can promote their own good at the expense of the public.

Similarly, laws and court decisions have made it more difficult for many voters to vote. And finally, a strategy of paralyzing and denigrating government, particularly at the national level, has fostered voter cynicism. This leads to passivity and lack of involvement in political activity including voting – “a downward spiral [of] depressed expectations and diminished participation.”

Kuttner says a genuine mass movement is needed to restore economic security and opportunity for the typical American worker, as well as democracy to our political process. He notes that the Roosevelt Revolution and New Deal of the 1930s accomplished this. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s also made major changes in economic justice and democratic processes. So it’s time again to throw off cynicism and apathy, and to activate and organize.

An opportunity to do so is available right now in the election of the Mayor of Chicago. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is polling within 4 percentage points of incumbent Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a crony of wealthy business interests (and former Chief of Staff for President Obama and former US Representative). As Mayor, Emanuel closed 50 public schools, attacked teachers, and engaged in privatizing schools, parking meters, transit fare collection, and other public sector functions and jobs. He has focused on downtown development while ignoring the neighborhoods. He has raised taxes and fees on working people while providing sweetheart deals for business people, many of whom have contributed to his election campaign. Emanuel has raised over $13 million, ten times what Garcia has raised, and has a super PAC backing him as well. He is receiving substantial support from wealthy business people who are active Republicans. [4]

Garcia shocked everyone in the primary by keeping Emanuel from getting a majority of the vote, thereby forcing the run-off election on April 7. If you would like to contribute to the movement to restore democracy, reduce inequality, and support workers and the middle class, supporting Garcia is a good opportunity. You can learn more about him and contribute to his campaign at http://www.chicagoforchuy.com/index.html. Even if you contribute just a few dollars, the number of donors is an important indication of the breadth of support. You can sign-up to make calls from your home encouraging Chicago residents to get out and vote for him here: http://pol.moveon.org/2015/garcia_calls.html?rc=kos.

The success of candidates like Garcia is critical to turning around the direction of our politics and policies, and to re-establishing government of, by, and for the people. Even if they don’t ultimately win, they change the issues and policies that are discussed, and help build the movement for change.

P.S. I think it’s noteworthy that there hasn’t been much coverage by the mainstream (corporate) media of this unexpectedly contested mayoral race in our 3rd largest city.

[1]       Buchheit, P., 2/9/15, “New evidence that half of America is broke,” Common Dreams

[2]       Buchheit, P., 3/16/15, “Four numbers that show the beating down of middle America,” Common Dreams

[3]       Kuttner, R., 3/23/15, “Why the 99 percent keeps losing,” Huffington Post

[4]       Perlstein, R., Feb. 2015, “How to sell off a city,” In These Times (http://inthesetimes.com/article/17533/how_to_sell_off_a_city)

THE UNDERMINING OF THE MIDDLE CLASS

ABSTRACT: Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a great speech recently in which she laid out how actions taken by corporations and related policy changes have undermined the middle and working class. She also spelled out what we need to do to change the rules of our economy so it works for everyone, not just the wealthiest. Up until the 1980s, our economy and the wages of the middle and working class grew together. But since the 1980s, all the growth of the economy has gone to the wealthiest 10%. Wages for the 90% of us with the lowest incomes have been flat, while our living expenses for housing, health care, and college have grown significantly.

This change in our economy, where all the benefits of growth go to the wealthiest 10%, represents a huge structural economic shift. It occurred because of cutting taxes; trade treaties; financial manipulation via leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies; minimum wage erosion with inflation; reductions in health care, unemployment, sick time, and overtime benefits; cutting of pensions and retiree benefits; and restrictions on employees’ rights to negotiate pay and working conditions as a group. Furthermore, corporations have been allowed to turn full-time employees into independent contractors or part-time workers who get no benefits and no job security.

These changes affect all workers, those in the private and public sectors, as well as both union and non-union employees. The changes were promoted by corporations and their lobbyists. Senator Warren states that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make different choices and enact different policies that reflect different values. More on that next time.

FULL POST: Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a great speech recently in which she laid out how actions taken by corporations and related policy changes have undermined the middle and working class. She also spelled out what we need to do to change the rules of our economy so it works for everyone, not just the wealthiest. [1] She notes that up until the 1980s our economy and the wages of the middle and working class grew together. The rising tide of our growing economy did lift all boats. While the wealthiest 10% got more than their share of the growth (about 30%) in those years, the other 90% of us got 70% of the money generated by the growing economy.

But since the 1980s, all the growth of the economy has gone to the wealthiest 10%. The pay for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of corporations was 30 times that of average workers in the 1980s; today it is 296 times that of workers. And in the last 25 years, corporate profits have doubled as a portion of our economy, while the portion going to workers has declined. [2]

Wages for the 90% of us with the lowest incomes have been flat, while our living expenses for housing, health care, and college have grown significantly. Mothers have gone to work and parents are working more hours but this has not been enough to maintain a middle class standard of living. It certainly looks like today’s young people will be the first generation in America to be worse off than their parents.

Since 1980, the wages of the wealthiest 1% have grown by 138% (adjusted for inflation) while wages for the 90% with the lowest wages have received only a 15% increase (less than half of one percent per year). Workers have not received the benefit of their increased productivity, as was the case up until 1980. Since 1980, productivity has increased 8 times faster than workers’ compensation. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with productivity, it would be $18.42 instead of $7.25. And if it had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be $19.58. [3]

This change in our economy, where all the benefits of growth go to the wealthiest 10%, represents a huge structural economic shift. So how did the economy get rigged so the top 10% get all the rewards of economic growth?

In the 1980s, government was vilified by politicians who were supported by corporate money. The supposed evils of big government were used to argue for deregulation and cutting taxes. This turned Wall Street’s financial corporations and other large multi-national corporations loose to maximize profits with no holds barred. Furthermore, trade treaties allowed corporations to manufacture goods overseas and bring them back into the U.S. with low or no tariffs, few U.S. regulations, and no regulations on how foreign labor was paid or treated. In addition, the U.S. corporations were allowed to cut benefits and pay for U.S. employees, including by undermining workers’ bargaining power in multiple ways, and through financial manipulation via leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies, as well as changes in tax laws.

Middle class workers have been undermined by corporations moving (or threatening to move) their jobs overseas and by changes in state and federal laws. The minimum wage has been eroded by inflation; workplace safety and legal protections have been weakened; health care, unemployment, sick time, and overtime benefits have been reduced; restrictions on child labor have been lifted; and it has become harder to sue an employer for discrimination. Pensions and retiree health benefits have been cut or eliminated. Just 34 of the Fortune 500 list of the largest corporations offered traditional pensions to new workers in 2013, down from 251 in 1998. [4] And wage theft through failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime wages, or through manipulation of time cards and other means, has spread. Meanwhile, enforcement of labor laws has been weak.

Employees’ rights to negotiate pay and working conditions as a group have been restricted. In addition, the middle class has been hammered by labor laws that allow corporations to turn full-time employees into independent contractors or part-time workers who get no benefits and no job security.

These changes affect all workers, those in the private and public sectors, as well as union and non-union employees. The changes were promoted by corporations and their lobbyists, along with corporate-funded think tanks, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Manufactures, and other business groups. These efforts were also advanced by corporate-funded advocacy organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Tax Reform, and Americans for Prosperity. [5]

Senator Warren states that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make different choices and enact different policies that reflect different values. My next post will discuss those values and policies. In the meantime, I encourage you to listen to Warren’s speech (just 23 minutes while you’re doing something else) or to read the press release. (See footnote 1 for links to them.)

[1]     You can listen to and watch Warren’s 23 minute speech at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mY4uJJoQHEQ&noredirect=1. Or you can read the text in the press release her office put out at: http://www.warren.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=696.

[2]       Tankersley, J., 12/25/14, “Amid gain, middle class wages get no lift,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[3]       Economic Policy Institute, 12/24/14, “The 10 most important econ charts of 2014 show ongoing looting by the top 1 percent,” The American Prospect

[4]       McFarland, B., 9/3/14, “Retirement in transition for the Fortune 500: 1998 to 2013,” Towers Watson (http://www.towerswatson.com/en/Insights/Newsletters/Americas/Insider/2014/retirement-in-transition-for-the-fortune-500-1998-to-2013)

[5]       Lafer, G., 10/31/13, “The legislative attack on American wages and labor standards, 2011-2012,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/attack-on-american-labor-standards/)

40 YEARS OF CLASS WARFARE

ABSTRACT: Class warfare has been going on in the US for 40 years, but most people either haven’t realized that it is class warfare, or deny its existence. Inequality between the wealthy, elite class and the middle and working class has grown dramatically. This is the result of policy decisions made by federal and state governments not the accidental or inevitable result of non-political events or changes in our economy.

Since 1979, workers’ productivity has grown by 65% but their median pay has grown by only 8%. Large employers’ profits after taxes have increased 239% since 1980.

Since the 1970s, changes in government policies have tended to reward corporations, their executives and investors, at the expense of workers. Trade policies, deregulation, tax policies, and labor laws are key examples. As the incomes of the richest 1% have grown dramatically, the income tax rate for those with the highest incomes has been reduced from 70% to 39%, with even lower rates on income from investments (as opposed to income from work). Meanwhile, the minimum wage has failed to even keep up with inflation.

Increasing incomes for the working and middle class doesn’t just benefit them and their families, it will benefit the whole economy by increasing the purchasing power of the average consumer. Consumer spending is two-thirds of our economy.

It’s time to acknowledge that 40 years of class warfare has occurred, that government policies have been its weapons, and that tremendous (and growing) inequality has been the result. It’s time to work to improve the pay, benefits, and job security of the working and middle class. And it’s time for our wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of our taxes. Policy changes to achieve these results are possible and will be essential to strengthening our economy and reducing the startling inequality present in America today.

FULL POST: Class warfare has been going on in the US for 40 years, but most people either haven’t realized that it is class warfare, or deny its existence. The incomes and wealth of the wealthiest individuals and families in the US have grown dramatically, while the vast majority of Americans have seen their incomes stagnate, at best, and their wealth fall with the crash of home prices and the financial system in 2008. Large employers’ profits have grown significantly as well, while workers’ pay has stagnated or fallen.

As a result, inequality between the wealthy, elite class and the middle and working class has grown dramatically. This is the result of policy decisions made by federal and state governments, driven by wealthy campaign donors and lobbyists. It is not the accidental or inevitable result of non-political events or changes in our economy.

It used to be that as our economy and worker productivity grew, the rising tide lifted all boats. From 1947 to 1973, workers’ productivity grew by 97% and their median pay grew by 95%. That changed in the 1970s when the 40 years of class warfare began. Since 1979, workers’ productivity has grown by 65% but their median pay has grown by only 8%. The share of the national economy’s income going to workers in wages and salaries has declined from 67% (where it had been for decades) to 58% (the lowest level since this statistic has been recorded). Meanwhile, the share going to corporate profits is at a record high. [1] Large employers’ profits after taxes have increased 239% since 1980. [2]

Since the 1970s, changes in government policies have tended to reward corporations, their executives and investors, at the expense of workers. Trade policies, deregulation, tax policies, and labor laws are key examples. These policy changes have allowed and provided incentives for corporations to shift jobs overseas, reducing jobs and wages in the US. Financial deregulation has benefited Wall St. corporations and executives while hurting average American homeowners, credit card holders, and borrowers. Small businesses have been hurt by trade policies, deregulation, and tax policies that favor big corporations.

Changes in labor laws have shifted the balance of power toward employers, especially large employers, at the expense of workers. The use of part-time workers, “temporary” employees, and “independent” contractors instead of full-time employees has stripped workers of job security, benefits, and labor law protections, including the ability to unionize.

During the first 30 years of this class warfare, workers made up for the lack of income growth by working more hours (especially by women in two-parent households) and by borrowing, most notably against their homes (mortgages, second mortgages, and home equity loans), through their credit cards, and for the costs of higher education. Then, the Great Recession hit and the incomes and assets (primarily homes) of the middle and working class crumbled.

The result of this multi-faceted warfare against the working and middle class is the following (all figures adjusted for inflation):

  • Bottom 90% of the US population
    • Average household income: $31,000, down 24% since 1980
  • Top 10%
    • Average household income: $175,000, up 46% since 1980
  • Top 1%
    • Average household income: $700,000, up 124% since 1980

The top 10% of Americans as a group now have as much income as the bottom 90% for the first time in 100 years. And the average US CEO’s salary is now 331 times the average workers’ pay. [3] The inequality in wealth is even greater than the inequality in income; the top 1% have 76% of wealth in the US.

If the incomes of all classes had grown at the same rate since 1979, low and middle income families would be earning $6,000 – $8,000 more each year than they are. [4]

In perhaps the starkest example of this class warfare, as the incomes of the richest 1% have grown dramatically, and as inequality has grown dramatically, the income tax rate for those with the highest incomes has been reduced from 70% to 39%. And many of those with the highest incomes pay a far lower effective income tax rate because of tax loopholes (such as offshore tax havens) and even lower rates on income from investments (as opposed to income from work).

Another stark example of this class warfare is that as upper incomes have soared, the minimum wage has failed to even keep up with inflation. This is a clear example of the eroding power of workers and a significant factor underlying their eroding incomes. Although successful efforts to increase the minimum wage have recently occurred in some states and cities, this is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Much more will need to be done if workers are to regain the financial well-being and stability they enjoyed from the end of World War II until the 1970s.

Increasing incomes of the working and middle class doesn’t just benefit them and their families, it will benefit the whole economy by increasing the purchasing power of the average consumer. Consumer spending is two-thirds of our economy and the current economic recovery has been slow and weak because consumers simply don’t have money to spend.

It’s time to acknowledge that 40 years of class warfare has occurred, that government policies have been its weapons, and that tremendous (and growing) inequality has been the result. It’s time to work to improve the pay, benefits, and job security of the working and middle class. And it’s time for our wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of our taxes. Policy changes to achieve these results are possible and will be essential to strengthening our economy and reducing the startling inequality present in America today.

[1]       Meyerson, H., July / August 2014, “Why Democrats need to take sides,” The American Prospect

[2]       Gilson, D., Sept. / Oct. 2014, “Survival of the richest,” Mother Jones

[3]       In These Times, Sept. 2014, “Just the facts,” In These Times

[4]       Horowitz, E., 8/23/14, “Mass. Economy still hasn’t rebounded,” The Boston Globe

THE IGNORED DEFICIT IN PUBLIC GOODS

ABSTRACT: The federal government’s budget deficit is getting more attention than it deserves. It is half of what it was in 2009 and is at what economists consider a manageable level. Meanwhile, our deficit in investments in public goods is being almost totally ignored. Public goods are things of value to society but in which individuals, businesses, and other private organizations don’t and won’t invest.

These public goods are essential to a prosperous society. However, the US has been under-investing in public goods for decades. The paradox of public goods is that they are forgotten, unacknowledged, and in effect invisible when they are readily available.

Government spending on public goods has been in a relatively steep decline since the 2008 economic crash. And for the 30 years before that the investment in public goods had been in a slow decline.

Those opposed to a robust government, ideologically or due to self-interest, have engaged in an active campaign to get the public to forget the personal and societal benefits they receive from government. A discussion about public goods is largely missing from our media and society.

We need to correct this omission in our discourse and our investment in order to have a prosperous society. Without necessary public goods, we cannot maintain our health and productivity as individuals; nor will we be able to maintain the health and productivity of our businesses and ultimately those of our economy and society.

FULL POST: The federal government’s budget deficit is getting more attention than it deserves. It is half of what it was in 2009 and is at what economists consider a manageable level. (See post of 4/6/13. [1]) Meanwhile, our deficit in investments in public goods is being almost totally ignored.

Public goods are things of value to society but in which individuals, businesses, and other private organizations don’t and won’t invest. Public goods provide public benefits and require collective efforts and responsibility. Therefore, the public sector, namely government, must take responsibility for them. Children’s education, from birth through high school and beyond, is a classic example. Transportation infrastructure is another, including roads, railroads, bridges, airports, and ports. Other examples include parks, libraries, scientific research, public and individual health (including healthy air and water), and public safety (including safe communities, workplaces, homes, food, and medicine). A large, thriving, economically solid middle class may be the ultimate public good.

These public goods are essential to a prosperous society. [2] However, the US has been under-investing in public goods for decades. Part of the reason for this is that when they are present and functioning effectively, we forget about them – they are out of sight and out of mind. This is the paradox of public goods: they are unacknowledged and in effect invisible when they are readily available. We forget that there was a need or problem that has been addressed. Or we don’t realize that a problem, such as polluted drinking water, could occur if we don’t invest in protective and preventive measures. We forget that public expenditures by government were what met the need, maintain the solution, and prevent problems. [3]

However, here in the US, we are beginning to notice our public goods deficit. We’ve had bridges collapse or be closed because they are unsafe. Many of our school buildings are old, out-of-date, and in some cases unsafe. Students are leaving college with huge debts. Local governments are cutting police, fire, and school personnel. Our middle class and its economic security is dwindling. And so on.

Government spending on public goods has been in a relatively steep decline since the 2008 economic crash. And for the 30 years before that the investment in public goods had been in a slow decline. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith warned us way back in the 1950s that improper government budget priorities could lead to “private opulence and public squalor.”

In addition to the invisibility of public goods, those opposed to a robust government, ideologically or due to self-interest, have engaged in an active campaign to get the public to forget the personal and societal benefits they receive from government spending and actions. They have explicitly labeled government as the problem not a solution to problems. In fact, a survey of the public found that 94% of those who reported never receiving a benefit from a government program had indeed received benefits from one or more government programs and on average from four programs. [4]

A discussion about public goods is largely missing from our media and society. The notion of air, water, parks, and so forth, as shared public goods that require and deserve public investment is mostly missing from public consciousness. Our discussion of the production of wealth and goods by the private sector is robust, but the discussion is atrophied in terms of the role of the public sector and of the public goods that it produces, maintains, and protects.

We need to correct this omission in our discourse and our public spending in order to have a prosperous society. Without necessary public goods, we cannot maintain our health and productivity as individuals; nor will we be able to maintain the health and productivity of our businesses and ultimately those of our economy and society.


[2]       Hacker, J.S., & Loewentheil, N., 2012, “Prosperity economics: Building an economy for all,” Prosperity for All (http://www.prosperityforamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/prosperity-for-all.pdf)

[3]       Derber, C., & Sekera, J., 1/22/14, “An invisible crisis: We are suffering from a mushrooming public goods deficit,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Mettler, S., 9/19/11, “Our hidden government benefits,” The New York Times

HISTORY AND LEAKS MAKE CASE AGAINST “TRADE” TREATIES

ABSTRACT: Twenty years of experience with previous “trade” treaties and the recent leaks of draft language for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) make the case that the “trade” treaties currently in negotiation will not benefit the US economy, our workers, or our middle class. These treaties focus on and benefit multi-national corporations and investors, rather than trade and the public interest. (See my previous posts of 1/13, 1/8, 9/13/13, and 9/10/13 for more detail.)

The growing resistance to Fast Track authority and these new “trade” agreements in Congress and the public is fueled by growing data on the damaging impacts of the 20 year history of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The same claims are being made for the current trade treaties as were made for NAFTA: that they will promote economic growth, increase jobs, and reduce trade deficits or increase trade surpluses. However, the Mexican trade surplus ($2 billion in 1993) quickly turned into growing deficits, totaling $1 trillion over the 20 year life of NAFTA. With Canada, the other country in NAFTA, the story is similar.

It is estimated that NAFTA has eliminated almost 700,000 jobs in the US. NAFTA established the principle that US corporations could move production out of the US but import the goods produced back into the US without any tariffs or other disincentives. This undermines the wages and benefits of American workers and the middle class. In all three NAFTA countries, wages and benefits for workers have not kept up with increased worker productivity over the last 20 years.

Since NAFTA, the US has entered into trade agreements with Korea, China, and others. While the promise has always been growth in US jobs, our economy, and our trade balance, the result has typically been the opposite. The trade agreements of the past 20 years have cost our economy more than $1 trillion through increased trade deficits and close to a million jobs.

I urge you to contact your elected officials in Washington and tell them you have serious concerns about the “trade” agreements being negotiated. And that these “trade” agreements are too important and too far reaching to be approved quickly and quietly.

FULL POST: Twenty years of experience with previous “trade” treaties and the recent leaks of draft language for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) make the case that the “trade” treaties currently in negotiation will not benefit the US economy, our workers, or our middle class. These treaties focus on and benefit multi-national corporations and investors, rather than trade and the public interest. (See my previous posts of 1/13, 1/8, 9/13/13, and 9/10/13 for more detail.)

The latest leak has been of the environmental provisions of the TPP. They lack mandated standards and have weak enforcement provisions. They are even weaker than the provisions in previous trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). [1]

Those arguing for Fast Track consideration of the TPP and other treaties by Congress (i.e., short timeframe, no amendments, and no filibuster) argue that treaties should be negotiated by the President and the Executive Branch (and not fiddled with by Congress) and that treaties are generally negotiated behind closed doors. [2] However, the current trade negotiations have included extensive involvement and input from corporate interests but virtually no input from the public; from advocates for workers, the environment, or ordinary citizens; or from Congress and other elected officials (other than the President). Furthermore, the Fast Track process is not necessary to pass trade agreements. President Clinton implemented more than 130 trade agreements without the Fast Track process. [3]

The growing resistance to Fast Track authority and these new “trade” agreements in Congress and among the public is fueled by growing data on the damaging impacts of the 20 year history of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The same claims are being made for the current trade treaties as were made for NAFTA: that they will promote economic growth, increase jobs, and reduce trade deficits or increase trade surpluses. And TPP has specifically been described as NAFTA on steroids.

When NAFTA was being promoted for approval by Congress in 1993, it was stated that it would expand our trade surplus with Mexico, thereby creating 200,000 US jobs in two years and a million in 5 years. However, the Mexican trade surplus ($2 billion in 1993) quickly turned into growing deficits (of $16 billion in 1995, $65 billion in 2008, and $50 billion in 2013). Our trade deficit with Mexico has totaled $1 trillion over the 20 year life of NAFTA.

With Canada, the other country in NAFTA, the story is similar: our trade deficit of $11 billion in 1993 grew to $78 billion in 2008 and $28 billion in 2013. (The dramatic drop in the deficit after 2008 is due to reduced imports because of our Great Recession.) [4]

It is estimated that NAFTA has eliminated almost 700,000 jobs in the US, with 60% of them being in manufacturing. Most of the workers who lost jobs have experienced a permanent loss of income; if they have found other jobs, they pay significantly less. [5] Many workers have experienced long-term unemployment (more than 6 months), which is at historically high levels. Numerous other workers have simply dropped out of the labor force. All of this has led to increases in the costs of government assistance programs, including unemployment benefits and food assistance. [6]

NAFTA established the principle that US corporations could move production out of the US but import the goods produced back into the US without any tariffs or other disincentives. This undermines the wages and benefits of American workers and the middle class. It increases job insecurity and weakens labor unions’ ability to negotiate because of the threat that jobs will be moved out of the US. The result has been stagnant wages for all but the richest Americans and, therefore, growing income inequality. In all three NAFTA countries, the US, Canada, and Mexico, wages and benefits for workers have not kept up with increased worker productivity over the last 20 years. [7]

Even Mexican workers have not experienced any significant increase in wages. An important reason for this is that the export of cheap, subsidized corn from the US to Mexico undermined the livelihoods of an estimated 2.4 million Mexican farmers. This displaced Mexican farmers and led to increased immigration (legal and illegal) to the US. Due to the abundant supply of desperate workers, it also pushed down wages in the maquiladora factory zone (the area just south of the US border). [8]

Although Mexico has experienced increased trade and some job growth under NAFTA, the jobs, even those in manufacturing, have been at low wages. The average Mexican manufacturing wage is only 18% of the US wage and that percentage has grown only slightly. The poverty rate in Mexico is 51%, down only slightly from the 52% when NAFTA went into effect. There has been an increase in the availability of consumer goods, but environmental protections have had mixed results at best. Disposal of US waste in Mexico has increased, including, for example, a 500% increase in US exports of highly toxic, spent lead-acid car batteries, with minimal control to ensure environmentally safe handling of them. [9]

Under NAFTA, US corporations have attempted to weaken Canadian regulations on a range of issues, including offshore oil drilling, fracking, pesticides, and drug patents. [10] Mexico and Canada have paid $350 million to foreign corporations for claims that their laws, rules, regulations, or other actions reduce current and expected profits.

Since NAFTA, the US has entered into trade agreements with Korea, China, and others. While the promise has always been growth in US jobs, our economy, and our trade balance, the result has typically been the opposite. Since the 2012 agreement with Korea, the US trade deficit with Korea has increased by $8.5 billion and an estimated 40,000 jobs have been lost. Our trade deficit with China has soared to $294 billion in 2013 from $83 billion in 2001 when China was permitted to join the World Trade Organization. [11]

The trade agreements of the past 20 years have cost our economy more than $1 trillion through increased trade deficits and close to a million jobs. They are key reasons that unemployment is high and the economic recovery is so weak. Furthermore, the mitigation provisions for these past trade agreements, such as retraining for workers who lost their jobs, have been woefully inadequate and ineffective.

I urge you to contact your elected officials in Washington and tell them you have serious concerns about the “trade” agreements being negotiated. And that these “trade” agreements are too important and too far reaching to be approved quickly and quietly. Full disclosure and debate of their provisions is what democracy requires.


[1]       Queally, J., 1/15/14, “Leaked TPP ‘Environment Chapter’ shows ‘Corporate Agenda Wins,’” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2014/01/15)

[2]       Boston Globe Editorial, 1/19/14, “Pacific, EU trade deals need up-or-down votes,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Johnson, D., 1/10/14, “New Fast-Track bill means higher trade deficits and lost jobs,” Campaign for America’s Future

[4]       US Census Bureau, retrieved 1/7/14, “U.S. trade in goods by country,” http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/

[5]       Johnson, D., 12/18/13, “Will we fast-track past the lessons of the NAFTA trade debacle?” Campaign for America’s Future (http://ourfuture.org/20131218/obama-administration-to-push-fast-track)

[6]       Folbre, N., 8/5/13, “The free-trade blues,” The New York Times

[7]       Faux, J., 1/1/14, “NAFTA, twenty years after: A disaster,” Huffington Post

[8]       Wallach, L., 12/30/13, “NAFTA at 20: ‘Record of damage’ to widen with ‘NAFTA-on-steroids’ TPP,” Global Trade Watch, Public citizen

[9]       Stevenson, M., 1/3/14, “20 years after NAFTA, a changed Mexico,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[10]     Carter, Z., 12/8/13, , “Obama faces backlash over new corporate powers in secret trade deal,” The Huffington Post

[11]     Johnson, D., 12/18/13, see above

TRADE TREATIES NEED OPEN DEBATE, NOT FAST TRACK

ABSTRACT: Action in Congress on requiring Fast Track consideration of trade treaties is likely to happen soon. Two broad “trade” agreements are scheduled for Congressional action this year: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with a dozen Pacific Rim countries and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) with the European Union (EU). Fast Track authority requires that Congress consider and act on a treaty in a short timeframe with no amendments or changes allowed and with no filibustering.

I urge you to email, call, write, and, if you can, meet with your member of Congress and your Senators and tell them you do not want them to approve Fast Track authority. These “trade” agreements are too important and too far reaching to be approved quickly and quietly.

Business groups are pushing hard for Fast Track consideration in Congress. They are supporters of the treaties, which are widely viewed as very favorable to corporate interests. The growing resistance to Fast Track authority is fueled in large part by:

  • Secrecy on the negotiations and agreement provisions, which breeds suspicion;
  • Concern that they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of others; and
  • Growing data on the damaging impacts of 20 years with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on which these treaties are modeled.

The indirect effects of the past and these possible new “trade” agreements on the balance of power in employer-employee relations and in our political system, as well as on economic inequality, may be more significant than the direct effects, such as job losses. The TPP and the TAFTA, based on what is known about them, will likely benefit corporations and investors, while hurting US workers and citizens. Moreover, if approved, these treaties will be very difficult to change, as the consent of all the parties is required. At the least, a full discussion of their provisions, based on full disclosure, is warranted.

FULL POST: Action in Congress on requiring Fast Track consideration of trade treaties is likely to happen soon. President Obama would like to have Fast Track authority, formally known as Trade Promotion Authority, for two broad “trade” agreements that are scheduled for Congressional action this year: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with a dozen Pacific Rim countries and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) [1] with the European Union (EU). (I put trade in quotes because these “trade” agreements, like NAFTA, go well beyond trade issues and cover a broad range of legal and regulatory issues. The provisions for reducing trade barriers and increasing trade are only a small part of the agreements.)

Fast Track authority requires that Congress consider and act on a treaty in a short timeframe with no amendments or changes allowed and with no filibustering. Fast Track authority was first used in 1974 and has been used on a number of occasions since then.

I urge you to email, call, write, and, if you can, meet with your member of Congress and your Senators and tell them you do not want them to approve Fast Track authority. [2] These “trade” agreements are too important and too far reaching to be approved quickly and quietly. Full disclosure and debate of the provisions of “trade” agreements is what democracy requires.

The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, along with the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, have reportedly reached an agreement on a Fast Track authority bill, although they have not yet released its details. The argument for Fast Track consideration of trade treaties is that it means other countries will be more likely to make concessions and reach agreement on the treaty if they are confident that the US Congress can’t change it.

Business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, are pushing hard for Fast Track consideration in Congress. They are supporters of the treaties, which are widely viewed as very favorable to corporate interests, [3] and are presumably worried that debate in Congress and the public on the treaties would reduce their chances for approval.

There is significant opposition to granting Fast Track authority in Congress and outside of it. Nearly 200 members of the US House, mostly Democrats but some Republicans, have signed letters strongly questioning the granting of Fast Track authority for these treaties. [4]

The growing resistance to Fast Track authority for these new “trade” agreements in Congress and the public is fueled in large part by:

  • Secrecy on the negotiations and agreement provisions, which breeds suspicion;
  • Concern that they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of local businesses, workers and citizens, and national sovereignty; and
  • Growing data on the damaging impacts of 20 years with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on which these treaties are modeled.

Both treaties are being negotiated in great secrecy. For the TPP, the Obama administration has deemed the negotiations classified information, restricting Congressional access to documents and banning discussion of the negotiations and treaty provisions with the press or the public. [5] In 2013, Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the confirmation of the US Trade Representative because he refused to share any of TPP’s provisions. She noted the important need for transparency and public debate on the treaty. [6]

These treaties are seen by many advocates for health, labor, safety, environmental, and financial industry standards and regulations as a masquerade for a corporate power grab, designed to weaken regulation and run roughshod over workers’ and citizens’ interests. [7] These “trade” agreements would enable multi-national corporations to operate with weakened oversight by national governments, free of nations’ court systems, and with reduced consumer and citizen protections. Corporations would become supra-national entities and would answer only to a separate system of rules and courts, administered by new international tribunals. In essence, an international system, parallel to the United Nations system of international governance for nations, would be created for international governance of corporations – a United Multi-national Corporations system, if you will. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

The same claims are being made for these two trade treaties that were made for NAFTA: they will promote economic growth, reduce trade deficits or increase trade surpluses, and increase jobs. The actual experience with NAFTA is that it has done none of these things, which is probably the best indicator of the likely effects of these new trade treaties. And the TPP has specifically been described as NAFTA on steroids. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

The indirect effects of the past and these possible new “trade” agreements on the balance of power in employer-employee relations and in our political system, as well as on economic inequality, may be more significant than the direct effects, such as job losses. The corporations and investors who have been the winners in this globalization of trade and commerce can invest their winnings (i.e., profits) in campaign contributions, lobbying, and political strategies that ensure they are the victors in next round of “trade” agreements. [8]

Although President Obama recently described growing economic inequality in the US as a major issue, NAFTA has increased inequality and the new trade treaties are likely to as well. NAFTA and other recent “trade” agreements have provided benefits to corporations and investors globally, while hurting workers and the middle class in the US, and sometimes hurting workers in other countries. The TPP and the TAFTA, based on what is known about them, will similarly benefit corporations and investors, while hurting US workers and citizens. Moreover, if approved, these treaties will be very difficult to change, as the consent of all the parties is required. At the least, a full discussion of their provisions, based on full disclosure, is warranted.


 

[1]       Also known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

[2]       You can find contact information for your US Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[3]       For more information see my previous posts, “Trade” Agreement Supersizes Corporate Power, 9/10/13, (https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/09/10/trade-agreement-supersizes-corporate-power/) and “Trade” Agreements & Corporate Power, 9/13/13 (https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/09/13/trade-agreements-corporate-power/).

[4]       Politi, J., 12/13/13, “US Senate deal sets up fierce trade battle,” Financial Times

[5]       Carter, Z., 12/8/13, , “Obama faces backlash over new corporate powers in secret trade deal,” The Huffington Post

[6]       Loth, R., 12/21/13, “Take trade agreement off fast track,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Todhunter, C., 10/4/13, “The US-EU Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA): Big business corporate power grab,” Global Research (http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-us-eu-transatlantic-free-trade-agreement-tafta-big-business-corporate-power-grab/5352885)

[8]       Folbre, N., 8/5/13, “The free-trade blues,” The New York Times

GOOD NEWS FROM THE GRASSROOTS

ABSTRACT: The dysfunction in Washington is discouraging. However, there is good news from the grassroots. Every day people are standing up and taking action when government policies and corporate practices are favoring special interests over the interests of the average citizen and worker.

Workers at Wal-Mart and in the fast food industry are taking action to improve their wages and working conditions. On the day after Thanksgiving, protest rallies were held at roughly 1,500 Wal-Mart stores around the country, about a third of their stores. On December 5th, fast food workers went on strike for a day and were joined by supporters at rallies in roughly 200 cities across the country. They are asking for more full-time jobs, more regular schedules, better pay and benefits, and to stop retaliating against workers who speak out or participate in strikes. They want to ensure they do not have to rely on government assistance to make ends meet.

Efforts to increase the minimum wage are occurring at the federal, state, and local levels, driven by strong grassroots support and activity. In 13 states, the minimum wage increased on January 1, 2014. A number of jurisdictions passed laws in 2013 mandating current or future increases. A push is underway to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to perhaps $10.10, as President Obama has proposed. Analyses indicate that this could lift about 5 million people out of poverty. It would grow the economy by $22 billion and 85,000 jobs because the increased income would be spent in the local economy. Polls show that over 70% of the public, including a strong majority of Republicans, support increasing the minimum wage.

FULL POST: As we enter the New Year, the dysfunction in Washington is discouraging. However, there is good news from the grassroots. Every day people are standing up and taking action when government policies and corporate practices are favoring special interests over the interests of the average citizen and worker. Examples include the following:

  • Workers at Wal-Mart and in the fast food industry are taking action to improve their wages and working conditions. (See below for more information.)
  • Efforts to increase the minimum wage are occurring at the federal, state, and local levels, driven by strong grassroots support and activity. (See below for more information.)
  • State efforts to require the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are gaining traction.
  • State and local efforts in opposition to fracking are gaining momentum.
  • In North Carolina, grassroots protests are occurring every week at the capitol, known as Moral Mondays protests, to oppose policies that hurt the middle and working class.
  • Teachers, parents, and other supporters of public education are protesting the top-down, corporate-style “reform” and privatization of our schools.
  • Communities are supporting home owners and fighting back against foreclosures with eminent domain takings of homes that financial corporations are trying to foreclose on.

Wal-Mart workers: On the day after Thanksgiving, so-called “Black Friday,” protest rallies were held at roughly 1,500 Wal-Mart stores around the country, about a third of their stores. The protesters were striking Wal-Mart employees and their supporters, who have been organizing under the banner of OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart). The first strike occurred in Los Angeles in October 2012 and the movement has been growing ever since. OUR Walmart is asking the corporation for more full-time jobs, more regular schedules, better pay and benefits, and to stop retaliating against workers who speak out or participate in strikes. [1] Ultimately, their goal is to ensure that Walmart associates do not have to rely on government assistance, such as food stamps and subsidized health insurance, to support their families. Multiple studies have found that the average Wal-Mart employee receives $2,000 – $3,000 per year in government assistance. Nationwide, that means taxpayers are supporting Wal-Mart employees to the tune of $3 – $4 billion annually. [2] (In 2012, Wal-Mart had $444 billion in revenue and profits of $26.6 billion.)

Fast food workers: On December 5th, fast food workers went on strike for a day and were joined by supporters at rallies in roughly 200 cities across the country. These protests for better wages, targeting $15 per hour, began about a year ago and have been gaining momentum. They target McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Yum Brands (which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken [KFC], Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut), and others. [3] (See my previous post, Pay for Workers in the Fast-Food Industry, 9/8/13, https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/09/08/updates-on-posts-on-low-pay-for-fast-food-workers-pesticides-and-bees-detroit/ for more information on the affordability of worker pay raises.) Low wage fast food workers are estimated to receive $7 billion a year in government assistance to help them make ends meet.

The minimum wage: These efforts to improve wages and working conditions for low wage workers are also reflected in efforts to increase the minimum wage. In 13 states, the minimum wage increased on January 1, 2014. A number of jurisdictions passed laws in 2013 mandating current or future increases, including California ($9/hour), Connecticut ($8.70), New Jersey ($8.25/hour), New York ($8/hour), Rhode Island ($8/hour), two counties in Maryland ($11.50/hour), the city of Seatac in Washington state ($15/hour), and the District of Columbia ($11.50/hour). [4] A push is underway to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to perhaps $10.10, as President Obama has proposed. Analyses indicate that this could lift about 5 million people out of poverty. It would grow the economy by $22 billion and 85,000 jobs because the increased income would be spent in the local economy. [5] Numerous other efforts to raise the minimum wage are underway in states and communities across the country. Polls show that over 70% of the public, including a strong majority of Republicans, support increasing the minimum wage. (If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be $10.50 not $7.25. If it had kept up with productivity gains, it would be over $15 and perhaps close to $22.) (See my previous posts, Lack of Good Jobs is Our Most Urgent Problem, 10/30/13, https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/10/29/lack-of-good-jobs-is-our-most-urgent-problem/, and Labor Day and the Middle Class, 9/2/13, https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/09/02/labor-day-and-the-middle-class/, for more information.)

There is also a growing effort to institute a “living wage” of $15 per hour. The fast food workers and low wage retail workers, and the unions supporting them, are the core of this effort, along with Kshama Sawant, a Seattle City Council member. The 15Now Campaign (http://15now.org) is also supported by newly elected Seattle mayor, Ed Murray. [6]

I’ll provide more information on these and other promising grassroots activity in future posts.


[1]       Berfield, S., 11/29/13, “On Black Friday, strikes and counter strikes at Wal-Mart’s stores,” Bloomberg Businessweek

[2]       Mitchell, S., 6/7/13, “New data show how big chains free ride on taxpayers at the expense of responsible small businesses,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance (http://www.ilsr.org/chains-walmart-foods-free-ride-taxpayers-expense-responsible-small-businesses/)

[3]       Choi, C., & Hananel, S., 12/6/13, “Fast-food workers, advocates rally in US cities for more pay,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[4]       Davidson, P., 12/30/13, “13 states raising pay for minimum-wage workers,” USA Today

[5]       Berman, J., 1/2/14, “A $10.10 minimum wage could lift 5 million out of poverty,” The Huffington Post

[6]       Queally, J., 1/3/14, “The fight for $15: Campaign for Living Wage readies national push,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2014/01/03)

THOUGHTS ON SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE

FULL POST: Social and economic justice have been in the news lately. Here are some quotes from Nelson Mandela, the Pope, and President Obama that appeared in the news over the last week.

Nelson Mandela [1]

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

Gandhi rejects the Adam Smith notion of human nature as motivated by self-interest and brute needs and returns us to our spiritual dimension with its impulses for nonviolence, justice and equality. He exposes the fallacy of the claim that everyone can be rich and successful provided they work hard. He points to the millions who work themselves to the bone and still remain hungry.”

Pope Francis [2]

“… some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. … Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor … as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. … In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

 How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. … To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market … Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.”

President Obama

President Obama spoke about the issue of growing income equality, saying “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility … has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time. … I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real. … The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. … The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this. … we can make a difference on this. In fact, that’s our generation’s task — to rebuild America’s economic and civic foundation to continue the expansion of opportunity for this generation and the next generation.” [3]

 

These thoughts have particular resonance for me during this holiday season. Perhaps they do for you as well.


[1]       Common Dreams, 12/7/13, “Mandela quotes that won’t be in the corporate media obituaries,” http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/12/06-0

[2]       Pope Francis, 11/24/13, “Evangelii Gaudium,” as published in The Washington Post

[3]       President Obama, 12/4/13, “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/04/remarks-president-economic-mobility

FUNDING SOCIAL SECURITY

ABSTRACT: Advocates for cutting Social Security benefits claim that cuts are needed because of a future funding shortfall. However, Social Security’s projected shortfall is small and 20 years in the future. Moreover, there are adjustments to the funding for Social Security that will easily eliminate the future funding shortfall.

The two most frequently mentioned ways of cutting Social Security’s costs are reducing future benefit payments and increasing the retirement age. The leading proposal would cut benefits by reducing the annual cost of living increases that seniors receive. However, to most accurately reflect the change in the cost of living that seniors actually experience, the annual increase in benefits should be greater than it is currently, not less. Cutting benefits will hurt retirees who rely on their modest Social Security benefits to make ends meet.

Another way to reduce Social Security’s cost is by increasing the age for receiving Social Security. The age for collecting full Social Security benefits is being increased from 65 to 67. People are living longer on average, but those with low incomes and less education have seen very little change in their life expectancy. Therefore, it hardly seems fair to increase the Social Security retirement age further.

The simplest and probably fairest way to address the Social Security shortfall would be to eliminate or increase the cap on the earnings that are subject to the Social Security tax. If the cap were eliminated, Social Security’s shortfall would be solved for at least 75 years.

FULL POST: Advocates for cutting Social Security benefits claim that cuts are needed because of a future funding shortfall. However, Social Security’s projected shortfall is small and 20 years in the future. It has no impact on the federal deficit because Social Security has its own, dedicated funding stream. So cutting benefits will do nothing to reduce the deficit but would hurt retirees who rely on their modest Social Security benefits to make ends meet. (See my post The Retirement Crisis and Social Security of 11/26/13 for more information. https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/11/26/the-retirement-crisis-and-social-security/) Moreover, there are adjustments to the funding for Social Security that will easily eliminate the future funding shortfall.

The two most frequently mentioned ways of cutting Social Security’s costs are reducing future benefit payments and increasing the retirement age. The Republican budget and President Obama and some Democrats have proposed that benefits be cut by reducing the annual cost of living increases that seniors receive. This would be accomplished by using a different and lower measure of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to calculate the annual adjustment in benefits – the “Chained CPI” instead of the regular CPI. (See my post Social Security and Chained CPI of 4/13/13 for more information. https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/04/13/social-security-and-chained-cpi/)

However, the most accurate measure of the change in the cost of living for seniors is the CPI-E (for Elderly), and it is typically higher than either of the regular CPI (which is currently used) or the proposed “Chained CPI”. This means that to most accurately reflect the change in the cost of living that seniors actually experience, the annual increase in benefits should be greater than it is currently, not less. The bills in Congress to strengthen Social Security generally include the use of CPI-E for the annual cost of living adjustment. [1]

Another way to reduce Social Security’s cost is by increasing the age for receiving Social Security. The age for collecting full Social Security benefits is being increased from 65 to 67. (One can get Social Security benefits at younger ages but the amount received is reduced.) The major argument for this is that people are living longer on average. They are, but it is the well educated and affluent who are living longer. Those with low incomes and less education have seen very little change in their life expectancy and those with the least education have seen their life expectancy decline. [2] Therefore, it hardly seems fair to increase the Social Security retirement age further.

The simplest and probably fairest way to address the Social Security shortfall that’s 20 years in the future would be to eliminate or increase the cap on the earnings that are subject to the Social Security tax. (This Social Security tax is the dedicated and sole funding source for Social Security.)

Currently, Social Security tax is only paid on the first $113,700 of earnings. Amounts above that are untaxed. For workers earning up to that amount, they pay a 6.2% tax that is deducted from their paychecks and their employers match that amount. But because of the cap, someone making $1 million only pays tax on $113,700 of earnings, meaning that overall they pay less than 1% (instead of 6.2%) of their earnings into Social Security. If the cap were eliminated, Social Security’s shortfall would be solved for at least 75 years.

The bills in Congress to strengthen Social Security generally solve the funding shortfall by increasing the funding from the Social Security tax. Some raise or eliminate the cap on earnings subject to the tax. Others apply the tax to earnings over $250,000 but not to earnings between the current cap and $250,000 to avoid increasing taxes on people in that upper middle class earning range. It seems fairer and simpler to me to eliminate the cap and cut the tax rate slightly. This would give a small tax cut to everyone earning less than the $113,700 cap.

There are other ways to increase Social Security funding. One that has been suggested is to increase income taxes on high income individuals getting Social Security benefits and putting this revenue back into Social Security. Another is to use some of the revenue from the estate tax to fund Social Security. There are other options, but raising or eliminating the cap on earnings subject to the Social Security tax is the simplest and most straight forward solution to Social Security’s long-term funding shortfall. (See my post Social Security: Facts and Fixes of 12/4/11 for more information. https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2011/12/04/social-security-facts-and-fixes/)


[1]       McAuliff, M., 11/18/13, “Elizabeth Warren: Expand Social Security,” The Huffington Post

[2]       Krugman, P., 11/21/13, “Expanding Social Security,” The New York Times

THE RETIREMENT CRISIS AND SOCIAL SECURITY

ABSTRACT: There is a retirement crisis in America. Both current and soon-to-be retirees are more dependent on Social Security than ever, yet some politicians and corporate executives are arguing that Social Security should be cut. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts recently gave a speech in the Senate where (in only five and a half minutes) she did an excellent job of summarizing the retirement crisis and making the case for strengthening Social Security (http://ourfuture.org/20131118/elizabeth-warren-on-social-security-its-values-not-math).

Retirees’ reliance on Social Security is only going to increase because the other two legs of the three-legged retirement security stool, pension plans and personal savings, have been weakened. With Social Security as the only strong leg of retirement security, this is not the time to be reducing its benefits.

Given that 70% of Americans indicate in polls that they oppose Social Security cuts and 65% support increasing benefits, who is pushing for these cuts? Many Republicans are ideologically opposed to social welfare programs and cuts to Social Security are in the Republican budget. President Obama and some Democrats have signed on to the idea of the cuts as a compromise in pursuit of a “Grand Bargain” to resolve the federal budget’s deficit.

Prominently promoting the cuts in Social Security benefits have been two groups of corporate executives: the Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt. There’s great irony here from two perspectives. First, the corporate executives on the Business Roundtable have retirement accounts worth $14.5 million on average. Second, if the current Social Security tax cap were eliminated, corporate executives with $10 million in income, for example, would pay $1.24 million into Social Security instead of $14,000 and Social Security’s future funding problem would disappear.

Bills have been introduced in Congress to strengthen Social Security and its benefits. I encourage you to contact your Senators and Representative to ask them where they stand on Social Security cuts and these bills.

FULL POST: There is a retirement crisis in America. Both current and soon-to-be retirees are more dependent on Social Security than ever, yet some politicians and corporate executives are arguing that Social Security should be cut. This makes no sense from a budget perspective or a retirement policy perspective. There are bills currently in Congress to strengthen Social Security, by improving both its finances and its benefits, without any impact on the federal budget or the deficit. [1]

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts recently gave a speech in the Senate where (in only five and a half minutes) she did an excellent job of summarizing the retirement crisis and making the case for strengthening Social Security. I encourage you to listen to her speech at http://ourfuture.org/20131118/elizabeth-warren-on-social-security-its-values-not-math.

Although the average recipient gets less than $15,000 a year from Social Security, many seniors are highly dependent on it. For 36% of seniors, Social Security is 90% of their income and for two-thirds of seniors, Social Security is more than half of their income. The current poverty measure indicates that 9% of seniors live in poverty, but an updated measure that most experts consider more accurate puts that figure at almost 15%. [2] Cutting Social Security benefits would clearly increase poverty among seniors.

Retirees’ reliance on Social Security is only going to increase because the other two legs of the three-legged retirement security stool, pension plans and personal savings, have been weakened. Only 18% of private sector workers have pensions (which pay a guaranteed monthly benefit for life as Social Security does). In 1975, 50% of workers had pensions. A combination of factors including expanded foreign trade and competition, along with weakened unions (which had made pensions a standard part of workers’ benefits) contributed to this dramatic decline in pensions.

Personal retirement savings are relatively small and have been hurt by the economic collapse, which cut the value of homes (where the middle class had most of its savings) and the value of investments. Some employers have replaced pension plans with personal savings accounts such as 401ks. However, only half of workers have such accounts and 80% of those accounts have less than $67,000 in them. [3]

With Social Security as the only strong leg of the three-legged stool of retirement security, this is not the time to be reducing its benefits. Given the current state of affairs, 53% of workers are at risk for having a lower standard of living in retirement than they had while working. And this percentage is up from 38% in 2001.

Given that 70% of Americans indicate in polls that they oppose Social Security cuts and 65% support increasing benefits, [4] why is there a push to cut Social Security benefits? The only reason that seems to make any sense is that those pushing a cut are ideologically opposed to Social Security – and often to social welfare programs in general.

So specifically who is pushing for these cuts? As mentioned above, it is in the Republican budget and reflects many Republicans’ ideological opposition to social welfare programs. President Obama and some Democrats have signed on to the idea of the cuts as a compromise in pursuit of a “Grand Bargain” to resolve the federal budget’s deficit.

Prominently promoting the cuts in Social Security benefits have been two groups of corporate executives: the Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt (a project of The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget). These groups have been spending tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to build support for cutting Social Security (and Medicare, our health insurance program for seniors). There’s great irony here from two perspectives. First, the corporate executives on the Business Roundtable have retirement accounts worth $14.5 million on average. That would generate a monthly retirement check of over $86,000 compared to the typically monthly Social Security check of $1,237. [5] Second, the current Social Security tax (Social Security’s dedicated and only funding source) is only paid on the first $113,700 of earnings. Amounts above that are untaxed. If this Social Security tax cap were eliminated, corporate executives with $10 million in income, for example, would pay $1.24 million into Social Security instead of $14,000 and Social Security’s future funding problem would disappear.

Bills have been introduced in Congress to strengthen Social Security and its benefits. The Keeping Our Social Security Promises Act has been introduced in the Senate by Senator Sanders (S.1558) and in the House by Representative DeFazio. The Strengthening Social Security Act has been introduced in the Senate by Senator Harkin (S.567) and in the House by Representative Sanchez (H.R.3118). I encourage you to contact your Senators and Representative to ask them where they stand on Social Security cuts and these bills. [6]


[1]       Sargent, G., 11/5/13, “Liberal push to expand Social Security gains steam,” The Washington Post

[2]       Krugman, P., 11/21/13, “Expanding Social Security,” The New York Times

[3]       Democracy for America, 11/24/13, “Expand Social Security,” http://act.democracyforamerica.com/sign/social_security_infographic/?source=ptnr.ssw_ssinfo.20131105 (You can get more information and sign their petition to support expanding Social Security here.)

[4]       Alman, A., 11/19/13, “Voters in key states really don’t want Social Security cut,” The Huffington Post

[5]       Anderson, S., 11/21/13, “CEOs against grandmas,” Daily Times Chronicle

[6]       You can find contact information for your US Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

CHARITY ISN’T THE ANSWER

ABSTRACT: Some people advocate for reducing government spending on social welfare programs by arguing that private charity should and could address social needs. However, when people’s needs are essential and time sensitive, charity is insufficient and undependable. For example, charities won’t be able to fill the $5 billion hole left by the recent cuts to the $78 billion federal Food Stamps program. This amount is equal to the total amount of annual contributions to all food banks in the country.

Charity or philanthropy can also serve as a smoke screen for activities that do far more harm than the benefits of the charitable giving. An example is the recent $20 million gift by the billionaire corporate executive, David Koch, to provide child care for 126 children at MIT. He spent easily ten times this amount on political activism in the last federal elections, supporting politicians who have been leaders in cutting the federal budget. Such cuts have meant that 57,000 poor children have been denied Head Start child care services, and, in addition, in Massachusetts alone, there are over 30,000 low income children on the waiting list for largely federally-funded child care subsidies. As Joan Vennochi wrote in her column in the Boston Globe about Koch’s gift, “The generosity of individuals is a blessing, but it’s no substitute for national policy.”

There are many examples of philanthropy, similar to this Koch case, where the givers, both individuals and corporations, have much greater negative impacts on society than the positive effects of their charity. In the case of McDonald’s, history indicates that from the start the goal of its philanthropy has been positive public relations for the corporation, not helping those in need. Its aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to children does far more harm than the good its very modest philanthropy does.

FULL POST: Some people advocate for reducing government spending on social welfare programs by arguing that private charity should and could address social needs. While charity or philanthropy plays an important role in our communities and country, when people’s needs are essential and time sensitive, charity is not dependable enough to be relied on. Charity can meet some people’s needs some of the time but it doesn’t – and can’t – meet all people’s needs, even their critical needs, all the time. The public sector must serve as the resource of last resort and ensure that critical needs are met in a timely fashion.

Charity is insufficient and lacks the consistency necessary to meet critical needs on a regular and timely basis. For example, access to sufficient and nutritious food is essential to well-being for adults and especially for children. However, charities won’t be able to fill the $5 billion hole left by the November 1 cuts to the $78 billion federal Food Stamps program. This reduction in food assistance from the federal government is equal to the total amount of annual contributions to all food banks in the country, according to a study by the Washington-based anti-hunger advocate Bread for the World. [1] Therefore, charitable donations for food would need to double instantaneously to fill this gap. Furthermore, Congress is likely to cut federal funding for food assistance even further in the next budget. (See my post Starving America on 11/11/13 for more detail at https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/11/11/starving-america/.)

Clearly, there is no way that private charity can make up for the recent lost funding let alone for future cuts. Therefore, these cuts mean that nutrition will suffer and hunger will increase. For some young children, this may well have long lasting effects on their developing brains.

Charity or philanthropy can also serve as a smoke screen for activities that do far more harm than the benefits of the charitable giving. An example is the recent $20 million gift by the billionaire corporate executive, David Koch, to provide child care for 126 children at MIT. [2] Child care is essential for working parents and quality early education and care is critical for young children due to the foundational brain development that occurs in the first five years of life.

Koch is a generous philanthropist, but he is better known for his political activism. He spent easily ten times this $20 million on his political activism in the last federal elections. The politicians he supports have been leaders in cutting the federal budget. The cuts in March, 2013, known as the sequester, meant that 57,000 poor children nationwide have been denied Head Start child care services. In addition, in Massachusetts alone, there are over 30,000 low income children on the waiting list for child care subsidies, which are largely federally funded. This number has grown significantly due to cuts in federal funding. So, while Koch’s philanthropy got him a very positive story on the front page of the Boston Globe, its impact is far, far outweighed by the negative effects on national child care policies of his political activism.

There are two lessons to be learned from this example. First, charity is not and will not be sufficient to ensure affordable, quality early care and education for every child of working parents. Substantially increased spending by state and federal governments is needed to meet this critically important need. As Joan Vennochi wrote in her column in the Boston Globe about Koch’s gift, “The generosity of individuals is a blessing, but it’s no substitute for national policy.” [3]

The second lesson to be learned from this example is that it is often important to look at the context of charity and the overall impact of the giver. There are many examples of philanthropy, similar to this Koch case, where the givers, both individuals and corporations (or other organizations), have much greater negative impacts on society than the positive effects of their charity. Walmart and McDonald’s are two classic examples from the corporate world. In some cases, the charitable activities are a relatively blatant attempt at public relations; an effort to get favorable stories in the media and divert attention from the negative effects of other activities. (See my post Lack of Good Jobs is Our Most Urgent Problem on 10/29/13 for more information on how low pay and part-time jobs at Walmart, McDonald’s, and other large corporations are costing taxpayers billions of dollars in public assistance for their employees. https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/10/29/lack-of-good-jobs-is-our-most-urgent-problem/)

In the case of McDonald’s, history indicates that from the start the goal of its philanthropy has been positive public relations for the corporation, not helping those in need. Its philanthropy is less that 0.5% of its profits and it spends 25 times as much on advertising. Its aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to children does far more harm than the good its very modest philanthropy does. It also spends far more lobbying for favorable public policies than it spends on philanthropy. [4]

This is the first of a couple of posts on charity or philanthropy (terms I use interchangeably). There are a number of other issues about charity that I plan to discuss, including:

  • Decisions about charitable or philanthropic spending are made by private individuals or organizations. They may not reflect public priorities and often lack public input and accountability.
  • Charity can exacerbate inequality. Richer communities generally have greater capacity to raise money than poorer communities, so communities where the need is the greatest, both rural and urban, often have less capacity for charitable activity.
  • Philanthropic activity can affect public policies and programs. It may undermine the democratic decision-making process and community involvement.

[1]       Wallbank, D., & Bjerga, A., “Wal-Mart to widows will feel U.S. Food Stamp cuts,” Bloomberg

[2]       Johnson, C.Y., 10/4/13, “Scientists at MIT get prized gift of day care,” The Boston Globe, front page

[3]       Vennochi, J., 10/10/13, The two David Kochs,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Simon, M., 10/29/13, “Clowning around with charity,” Corporate Accountability International and Small Planet Fund (http://www.eatdrinkpolitics.com/2013/10/29/clowning-around-with-charity-how-mcdonalds-exploits-philanthropy-and-targets-children/)

STARVING AMERICA

ABSTRACT: On November 1, federal food assistance to poor Americans was cut by $5 billion. The $78 billion Food Stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), currently serves 48 million low income Americans, including 21 million children. This reduction in food assistance from the federal government is equal to the amount donated to churches, synagogues, and private food banks.

A family of four receiving the maximum amount will have their benefit fall from $668 to $632 per month. It is estimated that the typical SNAP beneficiary will receive $1.40 per meal. The Institute of Medicine found that the SNAP allotment, which is critically important for nutrition and health for both adults and children, was inadequate even before this cut.

The number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits has increased mainly due to the large number of people who lost jobs during the Great Recession. In addition, many Americans in low wage and / or part-time jobs qualify for Food Stamps.

Food, obviously, is a necessity and SNAP’s food stamps are a vital support for poor families with children, low income seniors, some people with disabilities, and some unemployed workers. Nonetheless, Congress actually wants to cut food assistance even more! This cut and the additional cuts being discussed will cause real harm to recipients by reducing a meager but essential support. There are many better and fairer ways to cut spending or increase revenue so these cuts to SNAP can be avoided.

FULL POST: On November 1, federal food assistance to poor Americans was cut by $5 billion. The $78 billion Food Stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), currently serves 48 million low income Americans, including 21 million children. The cut is caused by the expiration of supplemental funding from the 2009 stimulus package. Although many politicians had pledged to extend this funding if it was still needed, that has not happened. On top of the hardships of the Great Recession and a weak recovery, this is another blow to people who are already among the most vulnerable citizens in our nation. [1]

Despite its significant impact on households that struggle to put food on the table, this event received scant attention in the mainstream, corporate media. This reduction in food assistance from the federal government is equal to the amount donated to churches, synagogues, and private food banks, according to a study by the Washington-based anti-hunger advocate Bread for the World. [2]

SNAP benefits will be cut by about 5.5%. A family of four receiving the maximum amount will have their benefit fall from $668 to $632 per month. It is estimated that the typical SNAP beneficiary will receive $1.40 per meal. [3] The Institute of Medicine found that the SNAP allotment, which is critically important for nutrition and health for both adults and children, was inadequate even before this cut. The cut means that nutrition will suffer and more families will run out of food by the end of the month. And more families will be in poverty because in 2012 SNAP lifted 4 million people above the poverty line ($18,300 for a family of 3, which often is a single mother with 2 children), making it one of the most effective anti-poverty programs we have. [4]

The $5 billion SNAP cut will have an effect on the overall economy. It is projected to slightly reduce our slow economic growth (from 2.0% to 1.9%) and has retail food stores and other consumer outlets worried about reduced sales. It is estimated that every $1 of Food Stamp benefits generates $1.74 of economic activity. [5]

The number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits has increased to roughly 48 million from about 26 million in 2007. This growth is mainly due to the large number of people who lost jobs during Great Recession, and especially those who either didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits or whose benefits have run out due to long-term unemployment. (Fewer than half of unemployed workers are currently receiving unemployment benefits.) In addition, many Americans in low wage and / or part-time jobs qualify for Food Stamps, including many workers at our large fast food corporations and at Walmart. (See my post of 10/30/13, Lack of Good Jobs is our Most Urgent Problem, for more information: https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/10/29/lack-of-good-jobs-is-our-most-urgent-problem/.)

SNAP is a Department of Agriculture program and historically has been part of the Farm Bill. Renewal of the Farm Bill is currently stalled in Congress, in part over differences in how much more to cut SNAP. (That’s not a typo; Congress actually wants to cut food assistance even more!) House Republicans are proposing additional cuts of about $4 billion a year that would remove about 3 million people from the program, while Senate Democrats would cut one tenth of that, or $400 million a year. The Farm Bill also includes subsidies to multi-billion dollar agricultural corporations, billionaire investors in farms, and 14 members of Congress. However, these subsidies apparently won’t be cut; they will continue or increase. [6][7]

Food, obviously, is a necessity and SNAP’s food stamps are a vital support for poor families with children, low income seniors, some people with disabilities, and some unemployed workers. This cut that went into effect on November 1 and the additional cuts being discussed as part of the Farm Bill are tiny amounts in terms of the overall federal budget but will cause real harm to recipients by reducing a meager but essential support. There are many better and fairer ways to cut spending or increase revenue so these cuts to SNAP can be avoided. [8]

 

[1]       Kaufmann, G., 10/28/13, “This Week in Poverty: No Time to Wait on a Movement,” The Nation

[2]       Wallbank, D., & Bjerga, A., “Wal-Mart to widows will feel U.S. Food Stamp cuts,” Bloomberg

[3]       Dayen, D., 11/6/13, “The Democrats’ original Food-Stamp sin,” The American Prospect

[4]       Kaufmann, G., 10/28/13, see above

[5]       Rampell, C., 10/31/13, “As cuts to Food Stamps take effect, more trims to benefits are expected,” The New York Times

[6]       Alman, A., 7/23/13, “George Miller Criticizes House Republicans Over Farm Subsidies,” The Huffington Post

[7]       Nixon, R., 11/7/13, “Billionaires Received U.S. Farm Subsidies, Report Finds,” The New York Times

[8]       Weinstein, D., 11/6/13, “Time to tell the truth about Food Stamps,” The Huffington Post