POLICIES FOR UNITY, i.e., FOR LIBERTY, JUSTICE, AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL

What unites all truly patriotic Americans are the promises of our democracy: liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. These aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. (See my previous post for more detail.) To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

Unity requires economic security and equal opportunity for all, so one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are not constrained by economic deprivation or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education. Unity means equal opportunity for all, particularly for every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us.

We can’t have unity when a million people a week are requesting unemployment benefits and millions are struggling to put food on the table and avoid eviction, while 660 billionaires have added $1.1 trillion (an average of $1.7 billion each) to their wealth since March.

Unity requires adherence to facts and a commitment to seeking and promoting truth. Without this, there is no common ground on which to formulate policies and make decisions. Unity requires acknowledging the results of the 2020 election and stating that they were legitimate and fair. The media must stop promoting false equivalencies – of truth with untruth and alternative “facts” (which aren’t facts, of course) – and either ignore or prominently label false narratives and statements as such. A return to the Fairness Doctrine governing broadcast media (TV and radio), which was repealed in 1987, should be considered to require those using the public airwaves (which requires a public license) to present information on issues of public importance and to do so honestly, equitably, and in a balanced manner. Similar regulation of social and cable media should also be explored.

Unity requires a fair and unbiased application of the rule of law. Everyone must be held accountable to the same set of legal standards or a society cannot function; it would be riven with divisiveness and fighting among factions. Violent protesters of all stripes need to face equal justice and those who aided and abetted violent protests must be held accountable under the law as well. There needs to be acknowledgement of racial bias and harm. Then, there needs to be restorative justice if unity is to be achieved.

Unity requires our elected officials to work together in good faith to promote the general welfare. Certainly, there will be differences of opinion, but they must be resolved through good faith negotiations and compromise. Obstructionism is antithetical to unity.

Hypocrisy is also antithetical to unity. Different standards or principles cannot be applied in the same or similar situations. There are too many examples of this in our politics and society today to do justice to them all, but examples include:

  • Condemning violence against police that occurs in demonstrations for racial justice but not when it occurs in an insurrection targeted at stopping the democratic transition of power.
  • Blocking the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice nine months before the end of a Democratic president’s term but confirming a Republican President’s nominee on short notice just three months before the end of his term.
  • Opposing deficit spending when proposed by Democrats to help working Americans but not when proposed by Republicans to cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

Here are some specific, largely short-term, actions and policies our elected leaders must embrace if they truly wish to strive for unity:

  • President Biden’s appointees must be approved in a timely fashion, with appropriate oversight of course. This applies to Cabinet members, other executive branch positions, and to judges.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to working Americans. Over 1 million workers are still applying for unemployment each week. The economy has not rebounded to the point where emergency assistance is no longer needed; millions of families are facing hunger and homelessness. Additional direct financial assistance is needed, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, among many others, has stated. Furthermore, unemployment benefits need to be extended and enhanced and the minimum wage needs to be raised – for those who have jobs and those re-entering the workforce.
  • For workers doing face-to-face work, their safety must be assured. Strong, enforceable and enforced safety standards are a necessity.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to small businesses. Thousands of small businesses have gone out of business and thousands more are on the verge of doing so. Financial supports for large corporations through Federal Reserve and Treasury programs that operate largely out of the public eye have been very generous (trillions of dollars) and very successful. This is evidenced by the fact that the stock markets are at all-time highs, believe it or not, despite the struggles of small businesses and working Americans.
  • Funding is needed for COVID vaccinations. Money is needed for distribution of the vaccines and to help financially strapped states and communities implement vaccination programs. The quicker and more effective the rollout of vaccinations, the greater the number of lives that will be saved and of illnesses that will be prevented. The Federal Reserve and others have also noted the importance of vaccinations to the recovery of the economy.
  • Financial assistance is needed for state and local governments, as they have seen their revenue fall dramatically and their costs increase with the pandemic. Without this assistance, state and local governments have been laying off tens of thousands of workers which hurts the workers, the economy and its recovery, and the delivery of badly needed government services.
  • Criminal justice system reform must be undertaken aggressively. Racism needs to be eliminated from all components of the system. Police need strong national standards and oversight on the use of force and racism. The school (and even preschool) to prison pipeline needs to be ended and more appropriate interventions and discipline instituted. Mental health services need to be made available to children, youth, and adults instead of throwing these problems to the criminal justice system. Prosecution and sentencing need to fair and the use of restorative justice needs to be expanded. Rehabilitation and successful re-entry to society need to be the focus of imprisonment, probation, and parole.

President Biden’s Executive Orders are beginning to address many of these issues. They are promoting unity (despite claims otherwise by some Republicans) because they are implementing policies that most Americans support, but which haven’t made it through Congress due to partisanship. For example, 83% of Americans support a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual identification, 77% want the government to promote racial equity, 75% support the government requiring masks on federal property, and 68% support the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans support rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords. [1]

People calling for unity are hypocrites unless they are committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without such a commitment, there can be no unity.

My next post will highlight more specific and longer-term policies that will promote unity and our shared vision of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

[1]      Richardson, H.C., 1/29/21, Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-29-2021)

UNIFYING AMERICA

We do need to unify America, both among the public and our policy makers, particularly our partisan Members of Congress. However, there are some people whose minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set – often based on false information – who cannot be convinced to share in a unified vision of America. We will need to ignore them at times and at other times to counter their destructive messages and acts.

What we have that truly unites us all are the promises of our democracy: its principles and ideals of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. As the preamble to Constitution states, the United States of America was formed to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

These principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional – not what was actually established in 1789, not what it looks like today, and not what it has been at any time in between. The aspiration to achieve this vision is what is exceptional and we have struggled to live up to it to this day.

There is great diversity in America – which can and should be one of our strengths – and significant differences of opinion on how to achieve the promises of our democracy. We need to approach these differences rationally and collegially, with an eye on the overarching vision.

To unify America, we need a unity of purpose, driven by our vision for our democracy, and to be delivered by government of, by, and for all the people. Unifying America requires an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to “promote the general welfare”. Loyal opposition is fine but not destructive opposition, not obstructionism, nor radical revolutionaries trying to tear down our democratic institutions and processes.

In today’s economy and society, we need to reconceptualize the commitments to liberty, freedom, and the promotion of the general welfare. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in his State of the Union Address in 1944 argued that the “political rights” guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness”. FDR proposed an “economic bill of rights” to guarantee equal opportunity and freedom from want that included the:

  • Right to a job and a fair income that could support a family,
  • Right to a decent home,
  • Right to health care and health,
  • Right to social security in old age, sickness, unemployment, and injury,
  • Right to a good education, and
  • Freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies.

To unify America, we need to work toward liberty and freedom for all built on economic security and equal opportunity so one’s choices (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) in life are not constrained by poverty, economic deprivation, or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education.

To ensure liberty and freedom for all in our new democratic republic, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was adopted in 1791. These rights remain critically important. However, we need to review the implementation of some of them in light of current technology and current politics.

On freedom of speech, we need to figure out how to regulate free speech on social media; to figure out what is the social media equivalent of yelling “FIRE” in the middle of a crowded theater. Recent events have made it clear that unbridled free speech on social media has contributed to violence and terrorism (i.e., speech that puts people in fear or psychological distress). In addition, social media have contributed to the dissemination of harmful misinformation. How to appropriately control speech on social media – allowing robust speech and conversations while limiting harm – is something we need to figure out.

Freedom of speech in our democracy, where all people are promised equality, means giving equal volume to every voice in America. Giving a bullhorn to those with money and a muzzle to those without money is antithetical to our vision for American democracy. Current legal interpretations equate spending money with free speech, including spending by corporations (not just spending by human beings). This needs to be reconsidered if we want to unify America.

Freedom of religion was meant to allow each individual to practice his or her own religion without the government dictating what an individual could believe or practice. Today, legal interpretations have gone beyond this and, for example, given employers the right to deny contraceptives and other health care to women because of the employer’s religious beliefs. Legal interpretations have also given health care provider institutions and individuals, who are licensed by the government, the right to deny both services and information to patients based on the provider’s religious beliefs. If we want to unify America, freedom of religion should not impede an individual’s right to make decisions with full information and with all choices available to her or him. Individual’s choices should not be dictated or constrained by others’ religious beliefs.

Justice for all means that everyone’s treatment in our society and justice system should be equal and fair, and that the rule of law should be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Anyone and everyone who violates the law must be held accountable. If some people are allowed to violate the law with impunity and others are prosecuted and punished, there won’t be unity. A dramatic, historical example is that after the Civil War we failed to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable. We allowed them to return to power in state and local governments. The result was Jim Crow laws and the re-subjugation of African Americans. This underscores the importance of holding white supremacists and racists accountable for their domestic terrorism and other violations of the law today, 150 years later.

Justice for all also means that if some people have received unfairly harsh treatment from our laws and criminal justice system, there cannot by unity until those wrongs are acknowledged and corrected, including providing just compensation.

Unifying America means providing equal opportunity to everyone, particularly to every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us. One test for a just society is what ethicist John Rawls called the veil of ignorance. He defined a fair society as one where, if confronted with a veil of ignorance about our position and role in society, we would be willing to accept anyone’s position and role in the society. As an early childhood advocate, I’ve presented this as thinking that you are the baby that the stork is about to deliver and if you are comfortable being delivered to any parent in the society, then it’s a fair society. But if there are some parents (or for the previous description, some positions and roles in society) that you would not want to be delivered to or put in, then the society is unfair and unjust, as it does not provide equal opportunity for everyone.

If people truly want to unify America, they must be committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without this, there can be no unity.

In my next post, I will discuss these topics more specifically in terms of public policies and actions that are needed to unify America.

REPUBLICANS ARE ALREADY UNDERMINING BIDEN’S PRESIDENCY

Republicans, led by President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell (KY), are already  undermining Senator Biden’s presidency. This is all about politics. They want the Biden presidency and the Democrats to be unable to do much to help working people and the economy because that will make it easier for them to win seats in Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. This is the same reason that Sen. McConnell said at the beginning of each of Obama’s terms as president that his goal was to keep Obama from passing any legislation.

Trump and McConnell are working to ensure that Biden begins his presidency with crises to face: a high number of COVID cases; an economy in a shambles; a safety net with as many holes in it as possible; angry divisions in the country over election results, racism, and immigration; and international crises with Iran and China and in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Moreover, Trump and McConnell are trying to limit the resources and flexibility that President Biden has to tackle these crises. They are undermining efforts to control the pandemic and provide economic relief by:

  • Letting the coronavirus spread with no effort from the federal government to slow it,
  • Retracting funding Congress has appropriated for pandemic relief from the Federal Reserve and perhaps other agencies or programs, and
  • Refusing to pass any significant pandemic relief and predicating any relief on the elimination of employer and business liability for workers or customers who get COVID.

Normally, the outgoing president defers important decisions to the incoming president and refrains from making personnel changes in his lame duck period. George W. Bush did so after Obama was elected and Obama did so for Trump. However, Trump is doing just the opposite. He is aggressively replacing personnel at the Defense Department and elsewhere. He is issuing executive orders and making personnel policy changes that will make it hard for President Biden to undo his actions. He is appointing partisan loyalists to scientific and advisory panels, weakening environmental regulations, and repealing health care regulations. He is carrying out executions, giving out oil drilling leases on public lands, and withdrawing troops from Somalia and Afghanistan. He is inflaming tensions with Iran, which will make it harder for President Biden to re-engage Iran in a treaty to block its ability to build a nuclear bomb. (Iran now has twelve times as much enriched uranium as it would have had if Trump hadn’t abrogated the Iran nuclear accord.) Some of Trump’s advisors have been upfront in stating that their actions are meant to limit President Biden’s policy options. [1]

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is taking multiple actions that will prevent President Biden from having the flexibility to quickly use remaining resources from the March relief bill to respond to economic hardship. Mnuchin announced that on December 31 he will suspend the Treasury Department’s lending program that supports businesses and local governments. He is also requiring the Federal Reserve to return about $250 billion that was appropriated for pandemic relief and putting $455 billion into a fund that will require congressional authorization before Biden can spend it. [2] Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of big corporations, objected to Mnuchin’s actions and called for Congress to pass additional pandemic relief to support the economy. David Wilcox, a former chief economist for the Federal Reserve, said, “The most obvious interpretation is that the Trump administration is seeking to debilitate the economic recovery as much as possible on the way out of the door.” [3] [4]

Senator McConnell has refused to act on a $3 trillion pandemic relief bill the House passed in May, despite a call from 125 bipartisan economists for a relief package to address the economic crisis, which includes quickly escalating poverty as the benefits of the March relief bill expire. (Just about the only business McConnell has the Senate doing is approving right-wing federal judges.) As poverty and hunger are surging across the country, key components of a relief bill are enhanced unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and increased food assistance. Some sustained relief will be needed until the pandemic is under control and the economy has recovered. [5]

Aid to state and local governments is critical because, faced with plunging tax revenue, they have cut 1.3 million jobs since February. There is no more effective, tried and true way of reducing unemployment and supporting economic recovery than providing aid to state and local governments; we know this from the 2008 recession. If families don’t have jobs and income, if parents can’t work because schools and child care are closed, local economies suffer. Every dollar of assistance to state and local governments boosts local economies by $1.70 due to the spending and re-spending of that dollar as it cycles through local workers and businesses. [6]

Senator McConnell appears to be more focused on limiting the liability of corporations when workers or customers get COVID than providing relief to workers, such as unemployment benefits for the 12 million workers whose benefits will run out before the end of December. He is also talking about imposing austerity on the federal government by focusing on cutting the deficit during Biden’s presidency. He wasn’t concerned about the deficit when President Trump increased it to levels not seen since World War II or when he cut taxes in 2017 for wealthy individuals and corporations, which increased the deficit by over one hundred billion dollars a year. Furthermore, austerity, i.e., cutting federal spending, will weaken and slow the economic recovery, hurting all Americans other than the wealthy, as we know from the aftermath of the 2008 recession. [7]

Despite the good news that vaccines will be ready for distribution soon, Republicans in Congress and the White House are not even talking about providing the funding needed to distribute the vaccines, which is estimated to be $30 billion. It also appears that there’s no or little planning happening in the Trump administration for vaccine distribution. With over a thousand people dying daily of COVID, one would think this would be a bipartisan priority, but Republican politics appear to trump even this essential public health initiative. [8]

Trump, McConnell, and many other Republicans are putting politics ahead of the best interests of the country and its people. This is sabotage and treasonous. We must all speak up against this unprecedented, corrupt behavior. I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and ask them to take action to provide necessary relief in the face of this pandemic and to ensure a smooth and respectful transition to the Biden presidency.

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]      Shear, M. D., 11/22/20, “Trump using last days to lock in policies and make Biden’s task more difficult,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Mohsin, S., 11/25/20, “Mnuchin to put $455 billion in funds out of Yellen’s easy reach,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[3]      Richardson, H. C., 11/24/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/november-24-2020

[4]      Smialek, J., & Rappeport, A., 11/20/20, “Mnuchin to end some emergency Fed programs,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[5]      Johnson, J., 11/24/20, “ ‘Go big, and stay big’: Economists call for $3 trillion Covid relief package to stop nation’s descent into ruin,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/24/go-big-and-stay-big-economists-call-3-trillion-covid-relief-package-stop-nations)

[6]      Tahmincioglu, E., 8/25/20, “The way out through state and local aid,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/state-and-local-aid-bipartisan-economists-video/)

[7]      Johnson, J., 12/2/20, “Critics smell ‘economic sabotage’ as McConnell unveils Covid plan with $0 for unemployment boost, direct payments,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/12/02/critics-smell-economic-sabotage-mcconnell-unveils-covid-plan-0-unemployment-boost)

[8]      Dayen, D., 11/30/20, “Unsanitized: The COVID-19 Report for Nov. 30, 2020,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/unsanitized-vaccine-distribution-gaps-transparency-funding/)

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/)

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

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

LIES ABOUT THE 2017 TAX CUT ARE NOW CLEAR

The effects of the December 2017 tax cut bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), rammed through by Republicans in Congress and President Trump, are now quite clear. I’ll provide a summary of what it did, note the promises that were made about its effects, and then review its actual effects.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, among other things:

  • Permanently cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% (the lowest level since 1939)
  • Repealed the 20% corporate alternative minimum tax (which had required profitable corporations to pay at least some taxes on their profits)
  • Allowed up to $63,000 of pass-through business profits to go untaxed to help small businesses (supposedly). (These are profits from businesses that are not taxed because they are passed through to and taxed on an individual’s tax return.)
  • Provided significant tax benefits to corporations for investments in facilities and equipment, as well as for borrowing money
  • Adjusted the taxation of multinational corporations to more fairly tax their profits, for example, by increasing taxes on profits shifted to overseas entities and by incentivizing corporations to repatriate trillions of dollars of profits previously stashed overseas
  • Doubled the size of an estate that is exempt from taxation from $5 million to $10 million per person
  • Repealed the requirement of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) that individuals have health insurance or pay a tax to support the health care system
  • Made changes in the personal income tax system that are generally neutral for most taxpayers, although several of the tax reduction provisions are scheduled to expire in 2025

The supporters of the TCJA, including Members of Congress, the President, corporate executives, and wealthy shareholders all promised that it would:

  • Provide a sizable tax cut for workers and middle-income people, while increasing taxes on high-income people
  • Increase wages and workers’ incomes by $4,000 a year
  • Increase business investment, and hence worker productivity, the number of jobs, and economic growth in the U.S.
  • Limit the increase in the federal government’s deficit to $150 billion a year
  • Discourage the shifting of corporate profits and jobs overseas through new taxes, while also increasing tax revenue by giving corporations an incentive to bring up to $4 trillion of profits stashed overseas back to the U.S. by reducing the taxes they would have to pay on those profits. (More on this topic in my next post.)

The actual effects of the TCJA have been: [1]

  • No discernable wage increase due to the TCJA. In fact, wage growth appears to have slowed in 2019.
  • Clear failure to increase business investment; no increase in 2018 and a significant decline in the first 9 months of 2019. When the TCJA was enacted in 2017, year-over-year investment growth was at 5.4%. However, it has been dropping sharply and was only 1.3% in the third quarter of 2019 (the latest data available). [2]
  • Larger than projected decline in federal corporate tax revenue, which was expected to be $96 billion a year (roughly a 26% tax cut). As a result, the deficit is increasing by about $30 billion a year more than the $150 billion a year that was promised. The deficit is projected to increase to over $1 trillion a year in 2020.

    The latest information suggests that the decline in revenue and the increase in the deficit may be even larger. (More on this in my next post.) The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the deficit (including interest payments) will be an average of $230 billion a year higher over the next 10 years due to the TCJA and $310 billion a year higher in 2028.

    The federal government’s revenue from corporate taxes had already been declining as a portion of total federal tax revenue, largely due to corporate tax evasion and avoidance. The trend of declining tax revenue from corporations has been accelerated by the TCJA, which cut corporate taxes by about 26% or $96 billion a year. The corporate tax cut has primarily benefited corporate shareholders, at least in the short run; the 10% wealthiest households own roughly 80% of corporate shares and, therefore, these already wealthy households are the primary beneficiaries of the corporate tax cuts. [3]

  • Business profit pass-through tax exemption, supposedly targeted at small businesses, has largely benefited millionaires, which isn’t what most people think of when they think of a small businessperson. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, as 49% of pass-through income appears on the tax returns of the richest 1% of taxpayers.
  • Increase in income and wealth inequality along both class and racial lines. Rich corporate executives and wealthy shareholders have been enriched at the expense of workers. White households are 67% of taxpayers but are estimated to receive 80% of the TCJA’s benefits, and most of this will go to the 5% of households with the highest incomes, i.e., over $243,000 a year. The average tax cut for a Black household has been $840, but $2,020 for a White household. For families with incomes under $25,000, the average tax cut has been about $40.

    In 2018, the 5% of individuals with the highest incomes received nearly 50% of the TCJA’s benefits. After the individual tax cuts expire in 2025, the 1% of households with the highest incomes will receive 83% of the benefits of the TCJA.

  • A bigger tax cut for foreign investors than for low- and middle-income households in the U.S. Foreign investors, as a group, will receive an estimated $38 billion tax cut from the TCJA in 2020, while the 20% poorest households in the U.S., as a group, will receive an estimated $2 billion.

The bottom line is that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has delivered none of the promised benefits to workers and low- and middle-income households, but has delivered much greater benefits than were promised (or admitted to) to large, particularly multi-national, corporations and to wealthy individuals. Economic benefits for workers and low- and middle-income households have not materialized and there is no reason to expect them to. Business investment and economic growth have not increased as promised. The promise of more fairly taxing multi-national corporations’ profits to increase tax revenue and discourage the shifting of profits and jobs overseas have not lived up to the promises made, and the most recent findings indicate that this failure has been more dramatic than was initially realized. (More on this topic in my next post.)

The loss of revenue for the federal government is significantly larger than was projected and, therefore, the increase in the federal budget deficit is much greater than what was promised.

[1]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, “Still terrible at two: The Trump tax act delivered big benefits to the rich and corporations but nearly none to working families,” The Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/files/uploads/20191211_Trump-Tax-Bill-R6.pdf)

[2]      Blair, H., 12/17/19, “On its second anniversary, the TCJA has cut taxes for corporations, but nothing has trickled down,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/on-its-second-anniversary-the-tcja-has-cut-taxes-for-corporations-but-nothing-has-trickled-down/)

[3]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, see above

HOW TO REIN IN MONOPOLISTIC BUSINESSES

The failure to enforce antitrust laws during forty years of plutocratic economics has produced dominant businesses in numerous sectors. The resultant concentration of economic power, and, along with it, political power, has undermined our democracy both economically and politically. It has also led to rapidly growing income and wealth inequality. (See my previous post for details.)

The monopolistic, unregulated markets created by plutocratic economics since the late 1970s have made it clear that well-managed markets, where real competition thrives, are more efficient and equitable. There is a stark contrast between the economy of well-managed competition from the 1950s through mid-1970s and today’s plutocratic economy. In the post-World War II period, income and wealth were much more evenly distributed and workers’ compensation rose with their increases in productivity. In the latter period, economic inequality has grown tremendously and workers’ compensation has been stagnant, despite increasing productivity.

The economic security of the middle class has disappeared, in part because of increased economic and financial instability. After a period of over 30 years without an economic crash or major economic scandal, from 1980 on there have been three major economic crashes or scandals: the Savings and Loan crisis, the bursting of the dot com bubble, and the 2008 financial collapse and Great Recession.

There are a variety of solutions that would reverse the trend toward greater industry concentration, [1] [2] [3] as well as steps that can be taken to reduce the power of monopolistic firms. [4] There is much the U.S. can learn from Europe where more vigorous antitrust enforcement has produced more competitive markets, lower economic inequality, and more equitable sharing of corporate earnings. [5]

  • Reviving vigorous use of antitrust laws to block mergers and acquisitions, including:
    • Declaring a moratorium on approvals of large mergers and acquisitions (e.g., those above $6 billion in value or ones creating firms with over 10% of local market share)
    • Banning mergers or acquisitions that would reduce the number of major firms in a local market to less than four
    • Expanding the antitrust judgment criteria from the simplistic focus on lower prices for consumers and “productive efficiency” to include a broader interpretation of the public’s interests
    • Reinvigorating enforcement of laws limiting predatory pricing, and
    • Considering monopsony power (i.e., a dominant buyer) as well as monopoly power (i.e., a dominant seller)
  • Using antitrust laws to break up companies with monopolistic power
  • Imposing much bigger fines for violations of antitrust laws
  • Making the merger and acquisition review process more public and transparent
  • Banning “exclusive dealing” where dominant firms require customers, wholesalers, and suppliers to sign contracts banning them from doing business with rivals or rewarding them for not doing so
  • Banning pharmaceutical companies from paying potential competitors not to introduce generic versions of drugs
  • Stopping pharmaceutical companies from extending their patents on drugs through trivial changes in a drug, erroneous patent filings, and outright patent fraud
  • Restoring consumers’ ability to repair durable products (e.g., smartphones, computers, cars, and tractors and other farm machinery) themselves or at independent repair servicers by banning product designs intended to prevent servicing and prohibiting restrictions on the availability of spare parts, repair tools, and detailed owners’ manuals

There are also a variety of solutions that would ameliorate some of the negative effects of industry concentration:

  • Making the formation of a union easier and less susceptible to employers’ efforts to block and delay unionization
  • Allowing workers of franchisees or ones in the gig economy to unionize
  • Banning non-compete agreements for low-paid, low-skill workers and ban non-poaching agreements for franchisees
  • Increasing the minimum wage

Recognition of the importance of antitrust enforcement is growing. It is being discussed in the presidential campaign for the first time in many years. Congress is holding hearings on monopolistic practices by businesses for the first time in decades. This included a hearing in May where a military spare parts supplier was called to task for charging over 40 times its costs for some parts and where a bipartisan group of legislators called for the company to return over $16 million in excess profits. [6]

Democratic society is threatened by dominant, market-controlling businesses. Huge monopolistic corporations can transcend the power of elected government to effectively control them. Every entrepreneur and businessperson should have the opportunity to compete without unfair competition and domination by monopolistic firms. Regional-level businesses should be able to thrive without being throttled by giant, national, monopolistic companies.

A functioning democracy relies on citizens who are free from domination by employers and sellers of goods and services. I encourage you to listen to what candidates for public office have to say about reducing the presence and power of monopolistic businesses and to ask them questions about what they would do to restore a vibrant, competitive economy in the U.S. – an economy that is fair for consumers, workers, small businesses, and entrepreneurs.

[1]      MacGillis, A., Jan./Feb./March 2019, “Taking the monopoly threat seriously,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2019/taking-the-monopoly-threat-seriously/)

[2]      Cortellessa, E., April/May/June 2019, “Meet the new trustbusters,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/april-may-june-2019/meet-the-new-trustbusters/)

[3]      Sussman, S., July/Aug. 2019, “Superpredators: How Amazon and other cash-burning giants may be illegally cornering the market,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2019/superpredators/)

[4]      Vaheesan, S., 9/24/19, “Unleash the existing anti-monopoly arsenal,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/unleash-anti-monopoly-arsenal/)

[5]      Horowitz, E., 7/30/16, “Europe may do capitalism better than US,” The Boston Globe

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

MONOPOLISTIC COMPANIES HARM THE ECONOMY AND DEMOCRACY

Forty years of plutocratic economics has resulted in monopolies and near monopolies in many business sectors due to the failure to enforce antitrust laws. This concentration of economic power, and, along with it, political power, has undermined our democracy both economically and politically. It has also contributed to rapidly growing income and wealth inequality. (For information on plutocratic economics in general, see this previous post. For more on the effects of its deregulation of business, see this post.)

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 laid the groundwork for antitrust regulation. Its purpose was to reduce the size and economic power of large, monopolistic companies. It was based on the federal government’s responsibility to regulate interstate commerce. At the time, the conglomeration of companies under trusts had come to dominate several major business sectors, such as the oil industry under the Standard Oil Trust. These trusts were monopolistic and destroyed competition.

The Sherman Act banned business activity that was “in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations”. The Sherman Act sought to balance the power of commercial, for-profit enterprises and the public interest. [1] The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 built on the Sherman Act and states that any merger is illegal if “in any section of the country, the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly”. The reference to “any section of the country” is significant because when a few companies dominate an industry, they often have effectively divided the country up geographically so each one has a monopolistic position in some areas. Therefore, to effectively enforce antitrust laws, industry concentration should be analyzed in markets properly defined by product or service AND geography. Such an analysis often finds that market concentration is much higher than a nationwide analysis would suggest. [2]

In the 1960s, a concerted effort to undermine the historically broad economic and public interest goals of antitrust enforcement began. It was spearheaded by a group from the Chicago Law School with Robert Bork playing a leading role. (He was nominated for the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1987 but was rejected by the Senate.) Bork and others argued that the only legitimate use of antitrust laws was to maximize consumer welfare, narrowly defined as low prices (often presumed to be the inevitable result of the economies of scale possible for large companies). This theory was adopted by pro-business economists, judges, and policy makers, including President Reagan.

Under President Reagan, antitrust enforcement was significantly scaled back and the Federal Trade Commission actually stopped collecting data on industry concentration. In eight years, President George W. Bush’s administration did not initiate a single antitrust case. [3] [4] The number of mergers grew from 2,308 in 1985 to 15,361 in 2017. [5]

Since 2000, three-quarters of U.S. industries have become more concentrated, including the technology, health care, communications, defense, and agriculture industries. This is perhaps most noticeable in the high-tech industry where Google and Facebook now control over 60% of all digital advertising and Amazon controls over half of all e-commerce. [6] From 1997 to 2012, the top four firms in any given industry saw their share of industry-wide revenue grow from 24% to 33%. [7]

There’s clear evidence that entrepreneurship and the number of start-up companies is down in the U.S. This is mostly due to dominant companies suppressing competition in multiple ways. They can block the entry of new firms simply by dominating the consumer and supplier markets. They can simply acquire competitors, especially given the lack of antitrust enforcement. Or these large companies can overwhelm start-ups in the market through fair and unfair competition using their vast resources. Among the evidence of reduced entrepreneurship and start-ups is that from 1987 to 2015 employment by companies under 10 years old has declined from 33% of the workforce to just 19%. [8]

Fewer, bigger employers have negative effects on workers and their compensation. Industry concentration means employees have fewer options, reducing their bargaining power. One reflection of this is the reduction in employment by newer companies. Furthermore, increasing numbers of companies, including low-wage, franchise businesses like McDonald’s, are forcing workers to sign non-compete agreements and franchisees to sign non-poaching agreements (banning solicitation or hiring of employees from other franchisees), further limiting workers’ options for employment, advancement, and wage growth. [9]

The growing size and reduced number of companies have exacerbated the economic divide between urban and rural areas. The large, highly profitable companies tend to be in urban areas, and people and economic vitality are drained from rural areas. Furthermore, the relatively small number of highly profitable, very large companies has made a handful of big cities the big economic winners, leaving many other cities behind.

The growing number of large, dominant companies also gives them power over suppliers. The condition of having a dominant buyer in a marketplace is called monopsony. It allows buyers like Wal Mart or Amazon to drive down suppliers’ prices, often forcing them to reduce the compensation of their workers, or in some cases, to drive the supplier out of business and take over the business for themselves. [10]

The result of industry concentration in the U.S. economy has been soaring profits, stagnant wages, and falling investment in companies’ equipment, research, and product development. In addition, service quality has fallen, along with entrepreneurship and innovation. This combination of rising profits with falling investment and stagnant worker pay violates the basic economic theory of competitive markets.

There is only one explanation: monopoly or near-monopoly conditions that allow companies to give their increased profits to owners while under-investing in human and physical capital, as well as service quality and innovation, because they can squelch competition, for example by buying up or crushing competitors and innovators. [11]

My next post will present solutions to the problem of large, monopolistic companies dominating our economy and democracy.

[1]      Paul, S., 6/24/19, “The double standard of antitrust law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/double-standard-antitrust-law)

[2]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, “The United States has a market concentration problem,” The Roosevelt Institute (https://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/The-United-States-has-a-market-concentration-problem-brief-final.pdf)

[3]      MacGillis, A., Jan./Feb./March 2019, “Taking the monopoly threat seriously,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2019/taking-the-monopoly-threat-seriously/)

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

[5]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, see above

[6]      MacGillis, A., Jan./Feb./March 2019, see above

[7]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/16/18, “The state of competition and dynamism: Facts about concentration , start-ups, and related policies,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-state-of-competition-and-dynamism-facts-about-concentration-start-ups-and-related-policies/)

[8]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/16/18, see above

[9]      Covert, B., 2/15/18, “Does monopoly power explain workers’ stagnant wages?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/does-monopoly-power-explain-workers-stagnant-wages/)

[10]     Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, see above

[11]     Covert, B., 2/15/18, see above

PROGRESSIVE POLICIES TO REVERSE PLUTOCRATIC ECONOMICS AND ITS FAILURES

Forty years of plutocratic economics has produced a high level of economic inequality and numerous business sectors dominated by a monopoly or near monopolies. This has undermined democracy in our economy and in our political institutions.

A high level of economic inequality is bad for the economy. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organization of 36 economically developed countries, estimates the U.S. lost almost 5% in economic growth over the period from 2000 to 2015 ($1 trillion a year in a $20 trillion economy) due to its high level of inequality. Part of this loss is due to limited access to education for people with lower incomes, which wastes human capital and reduces the productivity of the workforce. [1] In addition, our high level of inequality has undermined the consumer spending that is close to 70% of our economy because workers and the middle class simply have less money to spend.

There are multiple policy changes that are needed to reverse the failed plutocratic economic policies (see more information in previous posts here and here) that have been put in place over the last four decades and their effects. Some of them directly address the high levels of economic inequality in incomes and wealth that have been created. Others address the underlying issues that have allowed the plutocrats to amass wealth and power. Both are needed to reinvigorate our democracy and its commitment to equal opportunity, fairness, and the ability of all to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Policy changes that would directly address the dramatically increased and increasing economic inequality include: [2]

  • Increasing incomes of workers and the middle class by raising the minimum wage and strengthening unionization
  • Increasing spending on public education and making it equitable so all students are prepared to be productive members of society and the workforce
  • Raising taxes, partly by eliminating loopholes, on wealthy individuals and businesses
  • Raising the estate tax (which was meant to prevent wealth from accumulating and being passed down from generation to generation thereby creating a plutocracy [3])
  • Requiring the payment of a tax on the gain in value of appreciated property when it is passed on to heirs
  • Implementing a wealth tax

Policy changes that would address underlying issues that have enriched and empowered plutocrats include: [4] [5] [6]

  • Building progressive, grassroots, inclusive, and broad-based participation in our democratic policy making and elections, including through reforming campaign financing
  • Strengthening business and financial industry regulation, including strong anti-trust enforcement that limits the size and power, both economically and politically, of businesses (my next post will provide more detail on this important policy)
  • Reforming trade policies to protect workers and the environment and reduce the power of multi-national corporations over nations’ sovereignty
  • Updating labor laws for the gig economy, including clarifying standards for who is deemed an employee vs. an individual contractor
  • Strengthening regulation of public utilities from electric power to phones to airlines and of services that are essential to everyday life such as the Internet and financial services (which is what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created to do but has been undermined in carrying out)
  • Stopping privatization of assets and functions best managed by democratic public entities, such as roads, bridges, basic education, prisons, health insurance, and public assistance programs
  • Building a robust system of public banking and mortgage finance perhaps through the U.S. Postal Service (which used to provide basic banking services)
  • Creating publicly owned, mixed-income, highly desirable social housing (as is widely done in Europe especially Austria) as opposed to the poorly performing privatized or public-private partnership subsidized housing we now have
  • Regulating the flow of capital and valuation of currency to reduce financial manipulation, speculation, and tax avoidance
  • Adding employees to corporate boards of directors

These are some of the key policy changes needed to reverse plutocratic economics and support workers and the middle class. I urge you to listen to and ask candidates running for public office which of these policies they support.

[1]      Ingraham, C., 7/25/19, “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years,” The Washington Post

[2]      Reich, R., 7/9/19, “The four biggest conservative lies about inequality,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/four-biggest-conservative-lies-about-inequality)

[3]      Collins, C., & Hoxie, J., October 2018, “Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties of the United States,” Institute for Policy Studies (https://inequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Billionaire-Bonanza-2018-Report-October-2018.pdf)

[4]      Sabeel Rahman, K., Summer 2019, “The moral vision after neoliberalism,” Democracy Journal (https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/53/the-moral-vision-after-neoliberalism/)

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

[6]      Warren, E., 6/4/19, “A plan for economic patriotism,” Office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (https://medium.com/@teamwarren/a-plan-for-economic-patriotism-13b879f4cfc7)

SUPPLY-SIDE, TRICKLE-DOWN TAX CUT THEORY HAS FAILED

Plutocratic economics (see this previous post for background), and specifically so-called supply-side or trickle-down economics, claims that cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy and businesses, will stimulate economic growth so much that 1) government tax revenue will actually increase, 2) the number of jobs will grow, and 3) workers’ pay will increase.

There have been at least six significant federal tax cuts between 1978 to 2019 and, in every case, federal government revenue did NOT increase as promised. These tax cuts, under Presidents Carter, Reagan, G. W. Bush, and Trump, each produced some short-term economic stimulus, but federal revenue declined and the budget deficit increased. Furthermore, these tax cuts have been neither fair (economic inequality has increased) nor efficient (some of the country’s most profitable corporations and wealthiest individuals pay little or no taxes). [1]

Some states have also cut taxes based on supply-side economic theory, most notably Kansas in 2012. Like the federal cases, the results have not been what was promised. Kansas’s Republican Governor Brownback and the state’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature eliminated state income taxes for more than 100,000 businesses and greatly reduced taxes on wealthy individuals. Invoking supply-side, trickle-down economic theory, Brownback predicted the tax cuts would more than pay for themselves, i.e., that state tax revenue would grow. Instead, revenues fell so precipitously that shortages in funding for schools required that the school year had to be considerably shortened to save money, public construction projects ground to a halt, and the health coverage of the state’s Medicaid program had to be greatly reduced. The state’s economy ceased producing jobs and Kansas’s economy performed more poorly than its neighboring states on virtually every economic indicator. (See this previous post for more details.)

In 2016, Kansas voters – including Republicans who objected to seeing their children’s educations shortchanged – revolted. Republican primary voters, joined by Democrats, ousted legislators who had refused to repeal the tax cuts, and in 2017, the new legislature overrode Brownback’s veto of a bill repealing the cuts. In 2018, voters elected Democrat Laura Kelly as their new governor, and today, with adequate funding restored, Kansas has resumed its support for education, infrastructure spending, and the other basic governmental functions. As a result, in 2019, Kansas leapt from 35th (in 2018) to 19th on CNBC’s list of the top states for business. [2]

Nonetheless, in 2017, supply-side, trickle-down economic theory was invoked by President Trump and the Republicans in Congress in justifying their $150 billion a year tax cut primarily for corporations and wealthy individuals. The results of these tax cuts have been, predictably, NOT what was promised. Rather than stimulating higher economic growth, growth and job creation have been slow.

The federal budget deficit has grown substantially and workers’ compensation remains stagnant. Huge rewards have gone to large corporations and their executives, so economic inequality has grown sharply. The corporations are using the windfall to buy back their own stock at record rates. This enriches executives and other large stockholders. Corporations have not been increasing workers’ compensation, nor hiring additional workers, nor investing in innovation. (For more detail see this previous post.)

Furthermore, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, citing the growing budget deficit, argue that cuts need to be made in economic safety net programs including food assistance for the poor, health care for the poor and seniors (i.e., Medicaid and Medicare), and Social Security.

Future posts will summarize the harm plutocratic economics has done to workers and our democracy. They will also discuss the politics of neoliberalism and identify progressive policies that can reverse the harmful effects of plutocratic economics.

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

[2]      Meyerson, H., 7/23/19, “Going up in economic ratings? Then lose trickle-down,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap/going-economic-ratings-then-lose-trickle-down)

DEREGULATION HAS FAILED

The failure of 40 years of right-wing, wealthy elites’ plutocratic economics (see my previous post for background) is evident from multiple perspectives. The outcomes for workers and the middle class, along with those for the economy as a whole, have been resoundingly negative.

Proponents of plutocratic economics’ “free” markets and deregulation promised that:

  • Markets would be more efficient without government regulation,
  • Businesses would regulate themselves for the good of all, and
  • Social goals could be more effectively achieved by using market forces. [1]

In concert with their economic and political theories, plutocratic economics’ proponents (aka neoliberals) pushed to eliminate government regulation, stop anti-trust enforcement (which had limited the size and marketplace power of companies), reduce progressive taxation, and dramatically weaken support for workers and the economic safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, unions, and public assistance for the poor).

Deregulation of businesses has failed more often than not, perhaps most notably in the financial industry. There, deregulation led to a series of financial scandals and collapses since the 1970s including the Savings and Loan crisis, the Enron scandal and collapse, the bursting of the Dot-com bubble, and, of course, the 2008 financial industry collapse and Great Recession. Today, we are left with a handful of bigger than ever, too big to fail, financial corporations that still have taxpayer insurance and present a significant risk to our economy.

Electricity deregulation has, contrary to the promises, raised costs for consumers, failed to stimulate green power generation, failed to modernize and strengthen the power transmission grid, and failed to provide meaningful choice to consumers.

Airline deregulation has produced bankruptcies at every major U.S. airline, resulting in cuts in workers’ compensation and in many cases costing workers their pensions. In the airline industry and elsewhere, the federal government and taxpayers, through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, have frequently had to step in to pay pension benefits to workers of corporations that declared bankruptcy. Although airline ticket prices declined somewhat after deregulation, customers face a bewildering fare system, shrinking seats and legroom, declining food service and other benefits, increasing add-on costs for luggage and even seats, fewer non-stop flights, and exorbitant penalties when plans and tickets must be changed. Studies have found that fares declined more in the 20 years before deregulation than in the 20 years afterwards, in part because more fuel-efficient planes have been the primary source of cost-savings for the airlines. [2]

Deregulation of the fossil fuel industry has led to huge oil spills into our water and onto our land, as well as accidents that have caused huge fires with the loss of lives and toxic smoke at refineries and oil platforms at sea.

Rather than the increased competition and better deals for consumers that the neoliberals promised, anti-competitive market concentration has grown – and continues to do so – with consumers and workers ending up worse off. The number of mergers has increased from 2,308 in 1985 to 15,361 in 2017. [3] In industry after industry, without anti-trust enforcement to prevent it, monopolies or near monopolies have emerged. Large companies frequently buy up innovative competitors or crush them in the marketplace. In some cases, rather than using their innovations, competitors are simply eliminated after being bought.

For example, in the technology sector, the giants, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, use their market power, control of Internet platforms, and superior access to consumer data and other resources to out-compete or steal the markets of potential rivals. [4] They use theoretically illegal predatory pricing – the selling of goods and services at below cost – and their ability to sustain financial losses in the short-term to drive competitors out of business. [5] The financial services and airline industries are also highly concentrated, along with the beer, health insurance, and medical devices industries, to highlight a few. The telecommunications, telephone / smart phone, and entertainment industries have all experienced substantial concentration with little consumer-benefiting competition.

Market concentration makes it hard for new businesses to enter the market and for small businesses to compete because suppliers and customers are tied to the dominant firms in the market. Dominant firms increase profits not by increasing efficiency, but by minimizing employees’ compensation; reducing investment in research, development, and productivity improvement; and driving down costs by using their marketplace power to squeeze suppliers. [6]

Plutocratic economics has resulted in anti-competitive consolidation, resulting in many industries with a few large, dominant companies. This does not stimulate economic growth as without competition, companies control prices, hire fewer workers, produce less, and pocket more in profits for executives and owners. [7] Huge rewards have gone to large companies, their executives, and big shareholders. As a result, economic inequality has grown sharply, workers’ wages have stagnated, the middle class has been decimated, and the number of low wage workers struggling to survive has grown substantially.

Market concentration is not good for the economy, for workers, nor for consumers. It reduces healthy competition, decreasing the incentives for innovation and investment to keep up with competitors. It depresses wages and worker mobility because there are fewer employers to choose from. As a result, economic security has disappeared for many workers and much of the middle class. Furthermore, market concentration and marketplace power have reduced entrepreneurship and the number of start-ups. [8]

Concentrated economic power in the marketplace also leads to concentrated political power for large companies and their wealthy executives and shareholders. The result is a self-reinforcing feedback loop where political power produces policies that further expand and entrench marketplace power and economic inequality.

Subsequent posts will summarize other failures of neoliberalism and plutocratic economics.

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

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

[3]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, “The United States has a market concentration problem,” The Roosevelt Institute (https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_comments/2018/09/ftc-2018-0074-d-0042-155544.pdf)

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

[5]      Sussman, S., July/August 2019, “Superpredators,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2019/superpredators/)

[6]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, see above

[7]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/13/18, “The state of competition and dynamism: Facts about concentration, start-ups, and related policies,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-state-of-competition-and-dynamism-facts-about-concentration-start-ups-and-related-policies/)

[8]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/13/18, see above

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.

EFFECTS OF THE 2017 CORPORATE TAX CUTS

There are new data on the effects of the federal tax cuts enacted in December 2017 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). They are not what their Republican proponents promised. They promised that corporations would use their big tax cuts to create new jobs, hire new workers, and improve workers’ pay and benefits. And they promised the tax cuts would pay for themselves and not increase the federal debt. (See this previous post for some background information.)

The tax cuts did dramatically increase profits for corporations. Corporate profits for the biggest 500 corporations (the S&P 500) grew by almost 21% in 2018. At the six biggest U.S. banks, profits grew almost 30% to a record $120 billion. [1] AT&T projects profits will be up $3 billion in 2018 and Amazon doubled its profits to $11.2 billion.

So, what did corporations do with their record profits?

Corporations have rewarded shareholders, first and foremost. In 2018, they spent $1 trillion buying up their own shares of stock and paid out $500 billion in dividends to shareholders. Both figures are records. Because of foreign ownership of stock in US corporations and of corporations or subsidiaries in the US, a third of the money spent on stock buybacks and dividends goes to foreign nationals. Because this money doesn’t get spent in the US economy, the tax cuts probably made America poorer, not richer. [2] US corporations also spent a record $400 billion on cash acquisitions of other companies, which doesn’t add to the economy or benefit workers.  [3]

Stock buybacks boost a stock’s prices, rewarding shareholders (not workers) and corporate executives, whose pay is almost always tied to the price of the stock. Senators Sanders and Schumer have proposed a law that would ban stock buybacks for any corporation that pays workers less than $15 per hour. [4]

Stock buybacks were illegal until 1982, which is roughly (and probably not wholly coincidentally) the same time wages stopped rising for most Americans. Before then, a bigger share of corporate profits was used to increase workers’ wages, rewarding them for their increased productivity. [5]

Given that the great bulk of the corporate tax cuts have been passed through to stockholders via dividends and stock buybacks, and given that 84% of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10% of the population, the other 90% of residents will see little if any benefit from the corporate tax cuts. Therefore, these corporate tax cuts contribute to growing income and wealth inequality.

The creation of new jobs and the growth in wages have been modest. There certainly hasn’t been the boom in the economy or wages that Trump and the Republicans claimed would happen. Moreover, the largest corporations, which benefited the most from the tax cuts, have NOT been creating jobs or boosting workers’ wages.

The 1,000 largest public corporations in the U.S. have CUT nearly 140,000 jobs since the passage of the tax cut law. For example, General Motors recently announced plans to close several plants and cut 15,000 jobs, despite receiving a roughly $500 million benefit from the tax cuts.

AT&T cut over 10,000 jobs in 2018 and is closing three U.S. call centers, despite an estimated $3 billion annual increase in profits due to the tax cut. Although AT&T’s CEO had promised to create jobs and bolster its workforce with the benefits of the tax cuts, AT&T has only paid a one-time, $1,000 bonus to its employees at a cost of $200 million, which is only 7% of one year’s increase in profits. Meanwhile, three-quarters of its overall 2018 profits were spent on dividends and stock buybacks that benefit shareholders, including executives, and not its workforce. [6]

For the Wall Street financial corporations, profits for the first half of 2018 were up 11% at $13.7 billion, after rising 42% in 2017. The average salary in these firms jumped 13% to $422,500. Jobs in the financial industry account for less then 5% of private sector jobs in New York City, but 21% of private sector wages. [7] Wages for these highly-paid workers are rising, but not for most workers.

Due to the tax cut, federal tax revenue on corporate income plunged $130 billion (45%) from 2017 to 2018, from $290 billion to $160 billion. [8] Furthermore, Amazon, for example, paid no federal income taxes for the second year in a row despite having profits of $17 billion over those two years. [9]

The federal deficit is increasing and is estimated to be $830 billion for 2018 and to climb to $1,000 billion next year (i.e., $1 trillion) and remain at that level for subsequent years. The annual deficit had been declining under President Obama both in terms of dollars ($585 billion in 2016) and as a portion of the overall economy (i.e., 3.1% percent of Gross Domestic Product [GDP]). Under President Trump, it has jumped in dollars ($830 billion) and to 4.0% percent of GDP. [10] So, clearly the tax cuts are not paying for themselves.

Moreover, the increase in the federal deficit and the cost of interest on the growing federal debt will result in future cuts to government programs or increases in other taxes. These cuts or increases are much more likely to fall on the less wealthy 90% of the population.

Therefore, it’s a near certainty that the great majority of Americans will be worse off due to the Trump and Republican corporate tax cuts of 2017.

[1]      Levitt, H., & Abelson, M., 1/16/19, “It’s official: Wall Street topped $100 billion in profit,” The Wall Street Journal

[2]      Krugman, P., 1/1/19, “The Trump tax cut: Even worse than you’ve heard,” The New York Times

[3]      Wursthorn, M., 12/16/18, “The rocky stock market stills pays dividends to investors,” The Wall Street Journal

[4]      Inequality Weekly newsletter, 2/18/19, Inequality.org (https://inequality.org/resources/inequality-weekly/)

[5]      Reich, R., 3/21/18, “The buyback boondoggle is beggaring America,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/buyback-boondoggle-beggaring-america)

[6]      Johnson, J., 1/7/19, “After promising more jobs from Trump tax cut, report shows AT&T has ‘done just the opposite’ by slashing over 10,000 jobs in 2018,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/01/07/after-promising-more-jobs-trump-tax-cuts-report-shows-att-has-done-just-opposite)

[7]      Talking Points, 9/18/18, “Wall Street salaries at highest level since 2008,” The Boston Globe

[8]      Krugman, P., 1/1/19, see above

[9]      Inequality Weekly newsletter, 2/18/19, see above

[10]     Amadeo, K., 2/12/19, “US budget deficit by year, compared to GDP, debt increase, and events,” The Balance (https://www.thebalance.com/us-deficit-by-year-3306306)

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)

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)

THE EFFECTS OF THE FEDERAL TAX CUT

The initial effects of the federal tax cuts enacted in December 2017 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) are now visible; they are not what their Republican architects promised.

Although it’s too early to know definitively if the tax cuts will have an effect on the overall economy, growth in the first quarter of 2018 was steady but not noteworthy. There is no evidence of the tax-cut-fueled acceleration of economic growth the Republicans promised. [1] The latest projections, as well as experiences elsewhere, strongly suggest that the effects on economic growth will be small at best.

The effects of the tax cut on the deficit are becoming clearer. The latest projections from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are that the federal government’s revenue will be reduced by $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. When the costs of paying interest on the growing debt are included, the CBO projects that the cumulative deficit will increase by $1.9 trillion over the period from 2018 to 2028 due to the tax cuts, despite the Republicans’ promise of no increase in the deficit. [2] Furthermore, the growth in the deficit will be exacerbated by the spending bill that was enacted in early 2018, which increases spending by $300 million over the next two years.

The CBO projects the federal government’s deficit will be $804 billion for fiscal year 2018, up 21% from 2017. Furthermore, it projects the deficit will be over $1 trillion a year by 2020, despite President Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate the deficit. From 2021 to 2028, the CBO estimates the deficits will average 4.9% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total of all economic activity in the U.S. This is higher than at any time since World War II, except during the Great Recession of 2008 – 2009 when tax revenue slumped with the collapsing economy and spending was high to bail out Wall St. and to stimulate the economy.

The growing deficit reflects the gap between what the Republicans who control the federal government want to spend and their unwillingness to enact the taxes necessary to pay for it. This is blatant fiscal irresponsibility. Moreover, growing deficits are of serious concern when the economy is doing well and unemployment is low. In this situation, many economists and responsible officials recommend reducing the deficit and even generating a surplus, as President Clinton did, so that the country has the capacity to weather the next economic downturn.

Analysis of the individual tax cuts finds that the wealthiest households will receive the biggest tax cuts, both in terms of dollars and percentage increase in after-tax income. Households with incomes under $25,000 will receive an average tax cut of $40. Meanwhile, those with incomes from $49,000 to $86,000 will receive an average tax cut of about $800, those with incomes of $308,000 to $733,000 will get about $11,200, and those with incomes over $733,000 will get a tax cut of about $33,000. [3]

As an example of the benefits of the corporate tax cuts, the six biggest, multi-national banking corporations (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America) together paid at least $3.6 billion less in taxes for the first quarter of 2018 than they would have without the 2017 tax cut law. Before the tax cut, these corporations had paid 28% to 31% of their income in taxes; for the first quarter of 2018 they paid between 17.2% and 23.7%. Their tax rate is estimated to be 20% – 22% for the full year, meaning they will receive a tax cut of $19 billion for this year. [4] By the way, the tax cut law also provides benefits, and therefore incentives, to corporations to move jobs and profits overseas to dodge U.S. income taxes. [5]

The Economic Policy Institute projects that roughly 80% of the benefits of the corporate tax cuts will be passed on to shareholders and executives, and not used to pay employees or re-invest in the business. Although some corporations gave small raises or bonuses to their workers – thanks to intense public visibility and pressure – a huge chunk of the tax cut has been used to buy back company stock.

In just the four months since the tax cuts were enacted in December, corporations have announced more than $250 billion in stock buybacks. This rewards stockholders and executives as it pushes up the price of the corporation’s stock. These buyback announcements are an acceleration from an already record-high, $5.1 trillion of buybacks over the previous decade. Virtually all the profits of the country’s 500 largest corporations from 2005 to 2015 went to share buybacks and dividends, and not to workers’ wages or investments that would increase productivity, both of which have stagnated. [6]

Stock buybacks give huge rewards to corporate executives because much of their compensation is paid in shares of stock. For example, the CEO of Wells Fargo bank got a $4.6 million raise for the year due to the increase in the corporation’s stock price from stock buybacks.

Stock buybacks were illegal until 1982, which is roughly (and probably not wholly coincidentally) the same time wages stopped rising for most Americans. Before then, a bigger share of corporate profits was used to increase workers’ wages and re-invest in the business, rather than for less economically productive stock buybacks. [7]

Some corporations have announced bonuses or pay increases for workers. However, so far these announcements have applied to only 4.1% of workers and roughly 80% of them are one-time bonuses not on-going pay increases, even though the corporations’ tax cuts are permanent and on-going. [8] In some cases, the workers have not received (and may never receive) actual increases in pay. For example, some corporations have made the pay increases the subject of negotiations with unions. Corporations have announced spending 42 times as much on stock buybacks as on increases in employees’ pay. [9]

To put all this in some perspective, it is estimated that the Koch brothers, extremely wealthy corporate executives, will see their incomes increase by about $27 million per week or $1.4 billion per year. Not coincidentally, they have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican election campaigns over the last four years. Meanwhile, the few workers lucky enough to get a pay increase are typically getting, at most, a one-time bonus of a few hundred or maybe a thousand dollars for the year. [10]

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support the Reward Work Act. This bill would significantly limit stock buybacks, give employees of publicly traded corporations the power to elect one-third of the corporation’s Board of Directors, and force corporations to use their tax cuts to reward their workers, instead of executives and stockholders.

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

[1]      Horowitz, E., 4/28/18, “So far, tax cuts aren’t noticeably driving growth,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Stein, J., 4/9/18, “Deficit to top $1 trillion per year by 2020, CBO says,” The Washington Post

[3]      Sammartino, F., Stallworth, P., & Weiner, D., 3/28/18, “The effect of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act individual income tax provisions across income groups and across the states,” Tax Policy Center (http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/publications/effect-tcja-individual-income-tax-provisions-across-income-groups-and-across-states/full)

[4]      Sweet, K., 4/20/18, “Big banks saved $3.6 billion in taxes last quarter under new law,” Associated Press

[5]      Thomhave, K., “Even the CBO says the GOP tax reform will incentivize corporate offshoring,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/even-cbo-says-gop-tax-reform-will-incentivize-corporate-offshoring)

[6]      Heath, T., 4/13/18, “America’s biggest companies are announcing buybacks. But whose cash is it, anyway?” The Washington Post

[7]      Reich, R., 3/21/18, “The buyback boondoggle is beggaring America,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/buyback-boondoggle-beggaring-america)

[8]      Madrid, M., 4/13/18, “Waiting — and waiting– for corporate tax cuts to deliver those wage hikes,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/waiting-and-waiting-corporate-tax-cuts-deliver-those-wage-hikes)

[9]      Americans for Tax Fairness, retrieved 4/28/18, “Trump tax cut truths,” (https://americansfortaxfairness.org/trumptaxcuttruths/)

[10]     Hoxie, J., 4/18/18, “Five tax myths debunked,” Institute for Policy Studies (http://otherwords.org/five-tax-myths-debunked/)

TAX CUTS FOR THE WEALTHY DON’T STIMULATE THE ECONOMY

Tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations don’t stimulate the economy, grow jobs and wages, or increase government revenue. The evidence for this comes not only from national experience under Presidents Reagan and G. W. Bush, but also from the recent, dramatic events in Kansas.

In 2012, in an effort led by newly elected Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas passed a tax bill like the one recently enacted by President Trump and the Republicans in Congress. The Kansas law slashed income tax rates (especially for the wealthy) and for privately-held companies, just like the recently enacted federal tax law. It also cut tax credits that helped low and moderate-income families, just like the recent federal tax law.

Governor Brownback and his supporters in the Kansas legislature promised that Kansas’s economy would boom and state tax revenue would grow as a result, just like the promises President Trump and the Republicans in Congress are making. [1]

In the almost six years since Kansas’s tax cuts, it has had one of the worst performing state economies in the country, the state’s tax revenues have been falling by hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and Kansas ranks among the top ten states for the percentage of people moving out-of-state. The big tax cut for privately-held companies appears to have fueled more tax evasion than job creation.

To deal with the dramatic decline in revenue for the state’s $6 billion budget, Governor Brownback and Republican Legislature have:

  • Cut hundreds of millions of dollars from spending, putting public schools (see more below) and other service providers into crisis
  • Cut payment rates for health care services, putting many of the state’s hospitals into crisis
  • Cut state administrative capacity, resulting in residents experience lengthy delays and waitlists when accessing state services (e.g., the delays in approving seniors’ eligibility for Medicaid so they could go into nursing homes became so bad that the federal government charged Kansas with violating federal law)
  • Increased regressive taxes, such as the sales tax and alcohol and tobacco taxes
  • Diverted over $100 million from the state’s highway fund and $40 million from the required contribution to the state employees’ retirement fund in 2015 alone
  • Increased state debt by over $1 billion, which, along with other fiscal issues, led to the downgrading of Kansas’s bond rating

The cuts in public school funding led to a lawsuit where the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the state had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on K-12 public education. A previous, decades-long dispute between local school districts and the state over the levels and allocation of state funding for public education had been settled in 2006. That settlement required the state to increase funding for public education. However, the Great Recession of 2008 and then Governor Brownback’s tax cutting in 2012 had reduced state revenue so dramatically that, despite the settlement, the state cut funding for public schools by 16.5% (one-sixth) between 2008 and 2013.

In 2015, as state revenue continued its dramatic decline due to the tax cuts, Brownback cut another $28 million from K-12 public education funding. Two school districts were forced to end their school years early because they ran out of money. The cuts in state school funding disproportionately hurt low-income and urban school districts that couldn’t make up for lost state funding with increased local funding.

Some of the school districts sued and in 2015 the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide $40 million immediately as a first step in correcting the under-funding of public education. In a further ruling in 2017, the courts required the state to come up with over $700 million for public education over the next several years.

In the 2016 elections, while Trump was winning 57% of the presidential vote in Kansas, Democrats and moderate Republicans were winning state legislative races due to concerns about the public schools and other issues. Facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall in the state’s two-year budget and a court requirement to significantly increase funding for K-12 education, the legislature voted in February 2017 to repeal most of the 2012 income tax cuts for individuals and privately held companies. Governor Brownback vetoed the bill and the legislature came up just short of overriding the veto.

In June 2017, the legislature again passed a repeal of most of the 2012 income tax cuts. Governor Brownback again vetoed the bill. This time the legislature overrode the veto by one vote in the Senate and four votes in the House. Although it will take Kansas many years to recover from the damage that has been done to the state’s schools, health care system, and economy, the state’s bond rating was lifted a step just two days later.

There are striking similarities between Governor Brownback’s tax cuts and those of President Trump and the congressional Republicans. There are also striking similarities in their promises of economic growth and increased government revenue. However, the great majority of economists and other knowledgeable observers believe the results of the federal tax cuts are very likely to be similar to Kansas’s experiences.

The major difference is that the federal government does not have to have a balanced budget. So, along with the recently passed budget bill, the result in the short-term will be federal budget deficits of roughly $1 trillion per year. This is not sustainable, financially or politically. Sooner or later, significant federal spending cuts and/or tax increases are highly likely to be necessary.

The only questions, in both Kansas and nationally, are how much damage will be done by the tax cuts and how long will it take to recover from them. Note that some individuals in Kansas, such as children whose schooling was compromised or people whose health was compromised by lack of access to health care or other services, will never recover all that they have lost. The harm on a national level will certainly be greater in scale – more people will be harmed. Only time will tell how great and long lasting the harm will be for individuals and for our society.

[1]      Miller, J., 6/28/17, “Kansas, Sam Brownback, and the trickle-down implosion,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/kansas-sam-brownback-and-trickle-down-implosion-0)

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)

THE RIGHT WAY TO STOP THE OFFSHORING OF US JOBS

The US needs to stop hemorrhaging jobs to other countries. For starters, we need to do three things:

  • Impose financial disincentives for offshoring jobs,
  • Change the mindset among corporate executives that offshoring jobs is the right and acceptable thing to do, and
  • Reverse the resignation among workers and the public who believe that the offshoring of jobs is inevitable.

To create financial disincentives, we should pass laws that place special taxes or restrictions on corporations that have offshored say 100 or more jobs in the last five years. Possible examples include:

  • Bar such corporations from receiving federal contracts. Or there could be demerits subtracted from the scores of proposals from such corporations in competitive bidding situations. Or there could be financial penalties on existing federal contracts such as the deduction of $10,000 per offshored job or of 1% of a contract’s annual payment per 1,000 offshored jobs, whichever is greater.
  • A corporation’s taxes could be increased by $10,000 per offshored job or its tax rate could be increased by 1% per 1,000 offshored jobs, whichever is greater – with no offsets to allow a corporation to avoid this tax.
  • Bar such corporations from receiving government tax breaks, loans, or grants.
  • Require such corporations to pay a special, unavoidable, and substantial tax on aggregate executive compensation that is over $1 million. [1]

Senator Bernie Sanders has announced that he will introduce a bill in Congress that will include provisions similar to these to discourage the offshoring of jobs. He is calling it the Outsourcing Prevention Act. [2]

To counter the mindset that favors offshoring jobs, we should pass laws or establish executive branch procedures that publicize a corporation’s offshoring of jobs. Possible examples include:

  • Require such a corporation to hold a public hearing in the community losing the jobs 90 days before the termination of the jobs. If the number of jobs is 500 or more, a hearing in Washington before a congressional committee should be required.
  • Establish a new anti-offshoring czar in the Office of the President who would visit any such corporation’s CEO to make it clear that offshoring jobs is viewed negatively.

Providing financial rewards to corporations to keep jobs in the US is not an efficient way to stop offshoring. Typically, state or local governments provide tax abatements or other tax benefits to corporations to keep jobs. However, state and local taxes are generally only 2% or so of a corporations’ costs. Labor costs are a far greater portion of operating costs. Therefore, tax abatements are not likely to offset the savings in labor costs provided by offshoring. For example, in the recent United Technologies / Carrier (UT/C) case in Indiana, the state will provide $7 million in tax benefits over 10 years. However, UT/C estimated was that it would save $65 million per year ($650 million over 10 years) for offshoring 2,100 jobs. [3]

Corporations’ demands for financial benefits from state and local governments to keep or create jobs are really just blackmail. To stop this job-based blackmail, which robs states or municipalities of needed tax revenue, the federal government should put a 100% tax on these financial benefits, so there is no overall financial incentive for the corporation. The federal government should also reduce grants to state and local governments that give financial incentives to corporations to keep jobs. For example, awards under the Community Development Block Grant or other economic development programs could be cut for states or municipalities that agree to pay job blackmail to corporations. The federal government has used a similar strategy in other instances to get states to change policies. For example, the federal Transportation Department used cuts in federal transportation grants to get states to raise their alcohol drinking ages to 21. This reduced car accidents and saved thousands of lives. [4]

I encourage you to contact your US Representative and Senators and ask them what they plan to do to reduce the offshoring of US jobs. Request that they support a systematic approach to discouraging offshoring such as that offered by Senator Sanders’ Outsourcing Prevention Act.

[1]       Greenhouse, S., 12/8/16, “Beyond Carrier: Can Congress end the green light for outsourcing?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/beyond-carrier-can-congress-end-green-light-outsourcing)

[2]       Sanders, B., 11/26/16, “Sanders statement on Carrier and outsourcing,” Press release from Senator Bernie Sanders (http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/-sanders-statement-on-carrier-and-outsourcing)

[3]       Leroy, G., 12/7/16, “Can Trump’s wild one-off at Carrier combat corporate welfare?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/can-trumps-wild-one-carrier-combat-corporate-welfare)

[4]       Leroy, G., 12/7/16, see above

THE WRONG WAY TO STOP THE OFFSHORING OF US JOBS

President-elect Trump received a lot of good publicity for his claim that he saved 1,100 jobs at a United Technologies / Carrier (UT/C) plant in Indiana. Although the focus of his claim and effort – to keep good, middle income jobs in the US – is laudable, the facts of this case and the implications for the larger, systemic policy issue are not very favorable.

In fact, only about 730 jobs that were slated to move to Mexico were kept in the US. The other 350 research and development jobs at the facility were never slated to move to Mexico. Meanwhile, another UT/C plant in Indiana will close and roughly 700 jobs will be lost. [1]

UT/C responded to the President-elects’ strong-arming because it has $56 billion in federal contracts it didn’t want to jeopardize and it received $7 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies from the state of Indiana, where Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is Governor. [2]

We do need to change the mindset and incentives that make it not only acceptable but a preferred and successful business strategy to ship American jobs overseas. We need to do this through systemic changes in policies. However, what Trump is doing isn’t policy-making and it doesn’t change the underlying market incentives. Furthermore, it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of jobs. [3]

Many economists have been very critical of Trump’s actions because they undermine the rules, predictability, and consistency on which companies and our economy rely. These economists, including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, argue that the resultant uncertainty could lead to reduced investment, fewer jobs, and slower economic growth. [4]

Trump’s ad hoc, company-by-company approach reflects the arbitrary and capricious use of the personal power of the President’s bully pulpit. While it can affect individual company’s actions – through effects on stock prices, public opinion, federal government contracts, etc. – it is driven by random, autocratic whims. The result is a bullying style of ad hoc capitalism that reflects a personal agenda and a person who wants corporate America to be beholden and deferential to him. [5]

The likely result is that corporations and their senior executives will work to curry favor with Trump by contributing to his re-election campaign and taking other actions that will please him. This is pay-to-play crony capitalism and plutocracy; it is not how a democracy is supposed to work.

My next post will present some systemic, policy-based approaches that we should be taking to counter incentives for offshoring American jobs.

[1]       Nichols, J., 12/8/16, “Chuck Jones is a better president than Donald Trump will ever be,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/12/08/chuck-jones-better-president-donald-trump-will-ever-be)

[2]       Greenhouse, S., 12/8/16, “Beyond Carrier: Can Congress end the green light for outsourcing?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/beyond-carrier-can-congress-end-green-light-outsourcing)

[3]       Reich, R., 12/7/16, “The Art of the Autocrat,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/12/07/art-autocrat)

[4]       Greenhouse, S., 12/8/16, see above

[5]       Reich, R., 12/7/16, see above

COUNTERACTING THE LOW-WAGE BUSINESS MODEL OF PARASITIC CORPORATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2]       Rosenfeld, J., Denice, P., & Laird, J., 8/30/16, “Union decline lowers wages for nonunion workers,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/union-decline-lowers-wages-of-nonunion-workers-the-overlooked-reason-why-wages-are-stuck-and-inequality-is-growing/)

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 BENEFITS OF RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE

Our mainstream media rarely present the numerous benefits of increasing the minimum wage. The benefits more than offset any negative effects and include:

  • Increased incomes for workers at and just above the minimum wage,
  • Benefits for children in families where income increases,
  • Health benefits for workers whose income increases,
  • Reduced need for publicly-funded safety net programs,
  • Stimulation of the local economy,
  • Reduced income inequality,
  • Increased incentive to work for low-wage workers, and
  • Reduced turnover, less absenteeism, and improved worker productivity in businesses where workers’ pay increases.

First and foremost, increasing the minimum wage would increase the incomes of many workers, both those earning the minimum wage and those earning just above the current and new minimum wage levels. And these aren’t teenagers working part-time: 91% are over 20 and 57% work full-time. More than half of minimum wage workers are the primary sources of income for their families and over 20% have a college degree. [1]

Nationally, 42% of all workers earn less than $15 per hour. The commitments in New York and California to increase their minimum wages to $15 are estimated to increase the incomes of over a third of workers in those states. [2] Even at $15 per hour (i.e., $30,000 per year based on 50 weeks at 40 hours per week), in many areas of our country a single person would have a barely adequate income to live on after taxes. A family with one or more children and one parent working full-time at $15 would be struggling to get by, let alone to provide the kind of experiences that support good child outcomes. At the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, a parent working full-time is in poverty.

The evidence is very strong that children’s outcomes improve when their family’s income increases. Children, and especially young children, are disproportionately in low income families. In Massachusetts, 22% of working parents would benefit from a $15 minimum wage, while 31% of children would. Parents experiencing less economic stress are more likely to have the time and energy to be nurturing parents. And they have more money to purchase all the things that support strong child development, from good food to books.

Raising the minimum wage improves workers’ health according to studies in the U.S. and in Great Britain. Workers who benefited from an increase in the minimum wage have been found to have reduced anxiety and depression. Increased income has been found to reduce the number of low birthweight babies and neonatal deaths. Low income has been linked to higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, smoking, diabetes, and arthritis. [3]

Health may be affected by low income a) due to the increased stress of trying to make ends meet, b) because health care and medicine are not affordable, and c) because healthy food is less available and affordable. Therefore, an increase in the minimum wage and in workers’ incomes is likely to have health benefits and contribute to restraining increases in health care costs.

When a person’s or family’s income increases, they are less likely to need publicly-funded safety net programs. Therefore, taxpayers and government save money due to a reduced need for subsidies for food, housing, child care, and health insurance.

Increasing the minimum wage stimulates the economy. The increased spending and consumer demand from workers whose incomes increase has positive effects on other local workers and businesses. Because of the multiplier effect, [4] the stimulus effect on local economies is substantial. A fundamental reality of economics – not just a theory or “law” – is that when workers have more money, they consume more and, therefore, businesses have more customers and sales, so they hire more workers, reducing unemployment.

Every dollar an hour increase means $2,000 per full-time worker per year in additional income to spend. When you multiply that by millions of workers, there are billions of additional dollars that would be spent in our economy. That would contribute to strengthening our economic recovery in a significant way.

Furthermore, this increase in economic activity will increase governments’ tax revenues. Some of these revenues should be used to ameliorate any negative effects of a minimum wage increase. Unemployment benefits, job training and placement programs, and other social supports should be provided to help anyone who lost a job. Small businesses that experienced significant negative effects should receive assistance, such as low cost loans to help bridge the transition.

Because an increase in the minimum wage would raise the incomes of those at the bottom of our income distribution, it would reduce income inequality. Other policy changes are needed to address this issue, but increasing the minimum wage is one important step.

Employers will benefit, as well as workers. Workers whose wages increase because of an increase in the minimum wage (both those at and just above the new minimum wage level) will have an increased incentive to work because their time is more highly rewarded. They will work more hours and be more motivated. As a result, absenteeism will decline and productivity will be enhanced. Furthermore, increases in pay have been found to reduce turnover. This is a major benefit to employers, as recruiting and training new workers is a major expense.

The evidence is clear that an increase in the minimum wage will have significant benefits for many workers and their families, for businesses and employers, and for our economy and society as a whole. A national, $15 minimum wage, phased in over a few years and then indexed to increase with inflation, is both economically sound policy and the right thing to do.

[1]       Chaddha, A., Sept. 2016, “A $15 minimum wage in New England: Who would be affected?” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (https://www.bostonfed.org/publications/community-development-issue-briefs/2016/a-$15-minimum-wage-in-new-england-who-would-be-affected.aspx)

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

[3]       Leigh, J.P., 7/28/16, “Raising the minimum wage could improve public health,” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog (http://www.epi.org/blog/raising-the-minimum-wage-could-improve-public-health/)

[4]       The multiplier effect refers to the fact that each dollar spent in the local economy supports additional spending by the individual or business that received it. This cycle of re-spending of every dollar spent is repeated endlessly. Therefore, the impact of each additional dollar spent in the local economy is multiplied.

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/)

LACK OF GOVERNMENT SPENDING LEADS TO WEAK RECOVERY

The current economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 has been the weakest recovery since World War II. The average annual growth of our economy since the recession officially ended in June 2009 has been only 2.1%. [1] The other ten recoveries since 1949 have had annual growth rates of 2.8% to 7.6%, with an average of 4.65%. [2]

It’s not a coincidence that every other economic recovery since WWII was supported by increased government spending (federal, state, and local combined), except the one in 1970 – 1973. The current recovery (2009 – 2016) has seen government spending actually decline by 6.1%. It and the one in the 1970s both experienced declines in government spending of about 1% annually. The 1949 – 1953 recovery saw government spending increase at an annual rate of 17.9%, while the other eight recoveries averaged a little over 2%.

In contrast to the 6.1% decline (-0.9% annually) in government spending during the current recovery, government spending during the 2001 – 2007 recovery under President George W. Bush grew by 11.7% (1.9% annually) and during the 1982 – 1990 recovery under President Reagan it grew by 33.5% (3.8% annually).

A recession is defined as a period of time when economic output (i.e., Gross Domestic Product [GDP]), incomes, employment, industrial production, and sales decline. This occurs when the demand for goods and services in our markets – the spending of households, businesses, and governments – is not sufficient to purchase everything the economy is capable of producing.

The remedy for a recession is to boost marketplace demand. There are three ways to do this:

  • Reduce interest rates to spur borrowing and resultant spending,
  • Increase government spending, and
  • Cut taxes to spur spending by consumers, which increases demand for goods and services. (Consumer spending represents two-thirds of our economy.)

At the start of the Great Recession, interest rates were already very low so there was not much interest rate reduction that could be done. Currently, the basic interest rates of the Federal Reserve, the key ones to cut to stimulate the economy, are virtually zero.

Some cutting of taxes was done, but it was small scale because of concerns about increasing the federal deficit or creating unmanageable losses of revenue at the state level. Tax cuts for middle and low income Americans are the most effective stimulus for the economy because this group will quickly spend the increased money that’s in their pockets in the local economy. Tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, which were favored by some politicians, are less effective because larger portions of this money will be saved or spent outside the local economy (e.g., overseas), so they are not as effective in stimulating the local economy.

As noted above, government spending decreased during the current recovery and therefore reduced economic growth. Spending in the economy, including government spending, has what’s referred to as a “multiplier effect” on growth. That’s because each dollar spent supports additional spending by the individual or business that received it (a cycle that is repeated endlessly), meaning that its impact is multiplied. Similarly, cuts in spending have a multiplier effect in reducing growth, reducing economic activity by more than a dollar for each dollar of reduced spending.

One reflection of reduced government spending is that the number of government employees today is roughly 400,000 fewer than it was at the beginning of the recovery in June 2009, after bottoming out in late 2013 at 800,000 less than in 2009. Each person without a job adds to unemployment and reduces consumer demand for goods and services. Prior to President Obama’s term, the total number of government employees had grown under every president since Eisenhower. [3] This loss of jobs has been primarily at the state and local levels, where government revenue was hard hit by the recession, has been slow to recover, and has not been augmented by increased funding from the federal government. Government spending per resident in the U.S. is 3.5% lower today than it was in 2009. [4]

This austerity (i.e., reductions in government spending) are widely viewed as the primary reason the current economic recovery has been so weak and so slow. Government spending cuts have occurred largely because Republican lawmakers at the federal and state levels have insisted on them. [5] If it weren’t for these cuts, economic growth would be stronger and our economy would have lower unemployment and under-employment. [6] To confirm the harm that austerity policies cause, one can look to Europe and especially Greece, where austerity policies even more extreme than the ones in the U.S. have resulted in continuing high unemployment and fiscal crises.

Government spending, even if it increases the federal government’s budget deficit in the short-term, will stimulate economic growth. This growth will lead to increased government revenue that will reduce the deficit.

In particular, spending that represents investments in our physical and human capital has a high rate of return and pays for itself over the long-term. [7] Investments in infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, trains, public transportation systems, and school buildings) and education (from birth through higher education) create jobs, support our current and future economies, and address real needs while also stimulating the economy. Especially with the extremely low interest rates at which the federal government can currently borrow money, it is a lost opportunity to fail to make important and needed investments in our future.

[1]       Morath, E., & Sparshott, J., 7/29/16, “U.S. GDP grew at a disappointing 1.2% in second quarter,” The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-economy-grew-at-a-disappointing-1-2-in-2nd-quarter-1469795649)

[2]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, “Worst recovery in postwar era largely explained by cuts in government spending,” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog (http://www.epi.org/blog/worst-recovery-in-post-war-era-largely-explained-by-cuts-in-government-spending/)

[3]       Walsh, B., 8/5/16, “Here’s an Obama-era legacy no one wants to talk about,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obama-austerity-legacy-jobs_us_57a499ece4b03ba68012032b?)

[4]       Bivens, J., 8/11/16, “Why is recovery taking so long – and who’s to blame?” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/files/pdf/110211.pdf)

[5]       Bivens, J., 8/11/16, see above

[6]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, see above

[7]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, see above

FIXING ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL INEQUALITY

Since President Teddy Roosevelt took on the mantle of trust buster at the turn of the 20th century, government regulation through anti-trust laws and other regulatory mechanisms has been recognized as the only way to counterbalance corporate power and individual wealth.

However, since the 1980s, the corporate and financial elite of the country has increasingly exercised influence and control over our federal and state governments and their policy making and regulatory functions. This has undermined government as the counterbalance to the power of the elite. The tools they use to gain influence and control are campaign contributions and spending, lobbying, and the revolving door.

As a result of their economic and political power, the rules of our economy have been shifted to favor wealthy corporations and individuals. This has undermined the middle class and led to growing inequality in incomes, wealth, and opportunity. [1] (See my post Economic Inequality is Due to Shifts in Political and Marketplace Power for more detail.)

A return to the policies of the 1950s and 1960s would go a long way toward stopping runaway inequality and beginning to rebuild the middle class. A return to these policies is clearly not radical, although some may argue that it would be based on the current landscape of politics and power. Key elements of the post-World War II policies that led to broadly beneficial economic growth and decreasing inequality were:

  • A truly progressive tax system;
  • Workers with bargaining power, primarily through unions, who were better able to balance the power and interests of employers;
  • Financial regulation that prevented speculation, manipulation, and international or offshore transactions that hurt or destabilized our economy; and
  • Fair corporate and estate taxes that required payment of a reasonable share of taxes by these entities.

In addition, we need to create new policies to address newly emergent factors that have shifted power in our economy and politics:

  • Full disclosure and stricter regulation of campaign contributions and spending;
  • Trade agreements that actually benefit US workers and our economy; and
  • Strict regulation and disclosure of lobbying and the movement of personnel through the revolving door between private sector jobs and government positions.

Institution of these seven policies would enhance economic equality and bolster the middle class. They would also reverse growing political inequality that is undermining our democracy. This would shift power away from wealthy individuals and corporations and back to average Americans.

I encourage you to contact your representatives in Congress and/or in your state government to let them know what you think needs to be done to address the economic and political inequality in the U.S. today.

[1]       Kuttner, R., 1/14/16, “The new inequality debate,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/new-inequality-debate-0)

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY IS DUE TO SHIFTS IN POLITICAL AND MARKETPLACE POWER

The debate over the causes of and remedies for growing economic inequality in the US has been in the forefront of the presidential campaign. Economists and most politicians have traditionally argued that economic inequality was the inevitable result of technological change, workers’ education and skill levels, and globalization. However, a stronger and stronger sentiment – maybe even a consensus – is growing that income and wealth inequality is driven by inequalities in political and marketplace power. Even many economists are now acknowledging the important effects of shifts in political and marketplace power. [1]

It is becoming increasingly clear that market outcomes and the rules of the marketplace reflect political and marketplace power, not economic efficiency or inevitability. Marketplace rules are set by government policies. Since 1980, government policies have shifted power from workers to employers through weakened labor laws and lax enforcement of them. Free trade policies have allowed jobs to move overseas, meaning that US workers must compete with low-paid foreign workers. Policies have also shifted power from consumers to corporations through weakened regulations and lax enforcement of consumer protection laws, including of anti-trust laws.

Simultaneously, political power has shifted from average citizens and voters to wealthy elites and their corporations. Spending on election campaigns has grown dramatically. Campaign finance laws now allow wealthy individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns for public offices. As a result, elected officials are more beholden to wealthy individuals and corporations than ever before.

Political power has also been shifted through lobbying, the revolving door, and legal strategies. Corporate lobbying of public officials has grown substantially. This means the voices of the big corporations are much louder and more frequently heard in policy making arenas than before. Their voices are much louder than the voices of average citizens. The revolving doors between regulated industries and government regulators or policy makers has ever greater numbers of people passing through them. Corporations have pursued legal strategies in the courts that have given them increased power, including a right to freedom of speech that was previously reserved for individuals. Their court strategies have also blocked and greatly delayed regulation, including on issues of public health and safety.

Business and environmental regulations have been weakened. Anti-trust laws have effectively ceased to limit market size and concentration. Simultaneously, corporations have developed new ways to exploit market power. Consolidations of pharmaceutical corporations have resulted in unjustifiable skyrocketing drug prices for existing drugs, while changes in patent laws and market manipulations delay the arrival of generic drugs in the marketplace.

These shifts in marketplace and political power are mutually reinforcing. As a result, our markets unjustifiably reward the rich and powerful. For example, Wall Street traders are making millions and sometimes billions of dollars in incomes but are not adding much – if anything – of value to the overall economy. Similarly, the very high pay for corporate CEOs is well above the value they add to the economy.

Taxes have been reduced for wealthy individuals and corporations. The well-off have seen dramatic tax cuts on their high incomes, on unearned income (i.e., gains, dividends, and interest on investments), and on their wealth (primarily through cuts in the estate tax). Many large, profitable corporations, particularly large, multi-national corporations, avoid paying any taxes at all. Meanwhile, the relative tax burden on work and workers has grown.

Leveraged buyouts result in financial manipulators making millions while workers lose jobs or take pay and benefit cuts. Retirees also lose benefits or taxpayers have pay them through the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Globalization benefits multi-national corporations and the financial industry while hurting workers and national sovereignty.

Economists are now acknowledging that in many cases economic size and power are undermining market efficiency rather than enhancing it as the economies of scale argument traditionally promised. Furthermore, marketplace power starkly contradicts the core assumption of economics, namely that markets are perfectly competitive.

The corporate and financial elite’s agenda of deregulation, tax cuts, and free trade has been promoted as creating jobs and strengthening our economy. The data clearly show that this has not been the case. Economic growth is certainly no greater now than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, economic volatility, insecurity, and inequality are clearly greater.

My next post will describe what we can and should do to stop runaway economic inequality, which will also contribute to rebuilding the middle class.

[1]       Kuttner, R., 1/14/16, “The new inequality debate,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/new-inequality-debate-0)

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

THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP SHOULD BE REJECTED

In addition to the concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty raised in my two previous posts (see list below), it lacks provisions for addressing currency manipulation. This has brought criticism from many parties, including some in the corporate world. Although China (which is not a participant in the TPP) is the most notorious manipulator of its currency’s exchange rate, Japan and a number of other countries in the TPP have also manipulated their exchange rates. These countries manipulate the exchange rate between their currency and others to make imports more expensive and their exports cheaper. This has been a significant contributor to the positive balance of trade these countries have with the US and to our trade deficit.

Given the weakness of other arguments for the TPP, the Obama administration is promoting the TPP as a geopolitical response to the growing power of China. The administration says that the TPP will allow the US and the other TPP participants to balance China’s economic and hegemonic power in the region. However, China is already part of the World Trade Organization, has free trade agreements with half of the TPP participants, is the main trading partner of a number of them, and is currently negotiating separate economic partnerships with the others. So the TPP will have little impact on China’s growing influence.

Furthermore, China’s growing economic power is already clearly present even here in the US. It has negotiated the transfer to its shores of manufacturing and technology from the US in a number of areas, including wind and solar energy, high technology batteries, and the building of aircraft (from none other than General Electric).

China manipulates its currency to maintain a very favorable balance of trade with the US and it uses its holdings of $3.5 trillion of US dollar investments (primarily US Treasury bonds) as a strategic global investment fund. In short, China has a comprehensive, global trade and investment strategy that will move forward regardless of the TPP. [1]

Given the problems with the TPP:

  • Enshrining corporate power, particularly through the Investor-State Dispute Resolution tribunals,
  • Lack of effective and enforceable protections for workers and the environment,
  • Excessive patent and copyright protections, for example for prescription drugs,
  • Failure to prevent currency manipulation, and
  • Ineffectiveness as a counterbalance to China’s growing regional and global power,

and that it will have a miniscule impact on actual trade, it should be rejected. I urge you to contact your US Senators and Representative to encourage them to oppose the TPP.

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]       Prestowitz, C., Fall 2015, “Our incoherent China policy: The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad economics – and even worse geopolitics as containment of China,” The American Prospect

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

PROTECTING OUR ECONOMY AND DEMOCRACY FROM WALL STREET

We need to protect our economy from the risky behavior of the big Wall Street banks and financial corporations. This is the fourth of the Ten Big Ideas to Save the Economy, presented by Robert Reich and MoveOn.org. [1] We need to prevent these Wall St. giants from crashing the financial system and sending our economy into a severe recession again – as they did in 2008. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings in the Great Recession of 2008. The Wall Street corporations and their senior managers got bailed out, but the rest of us got sold out.

The giant Wall St. banking corporations are bigger than ever and are up to their old tricks. Given their increased size, they are even more potent economically and politically than before the 2008 crash. They continue to engage in speculative trading and other risky financial activities that could bring them and our economy crashing down again. They are pushing to repeal even the very modest financial regulations that were put in place to better protect us after the 2008 crash (by the Dodd-Frank law). They have friends in Congress (from both parties), as well as in the administration, who are supporting their efforts. They press their case by spending tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying.

Three actions need to be taken:

  • Reinstate the requirement that banking activities involving government-insured deposits be kept separate from risky financial activities. The Glass-Steagall Act that used to do this – and kept our banking system safe for 70 years – was repealed in the late 1990s. This led to the 2008 collapse and bailout.
  • Re-institute a small transaction tax, a sales tax, on the purchase of financial assets. This would discourage speculative activity that has no value beyond self-enrichment (especially high-volume, computer-driven trading) and would produce significant revenue that could be put to good use. A 0.5% sales tax on the purchase of financial assets ($5 on every $1,000) would generate roughly $500 billion per year. (See my posts of 10/8/12 and 9/29/12 for more details.)
  • Split the big banks into multiple, smaller entities. Currently, they are too big to fail, which should mean that they are too big to exist. Their size gives them too much clout, both economically and politically. This makes them dangerous to our economy and our democracy. In the past, the country used its anti-trust laws to break up the big oil companies and the telephone monopoly ATT. Similarly, we should break up the giant Wall St. financial corporations of today. They are so big that a speculative trade that goes sour and puts them into bankruptcy threatens our whole financial system and economy, and, therefore, requires a public bailout. And they are so big that through spending on campaigns and lobbying, coupled with the revolving door that puts former employees in key government positions, they are able to bend the rules of our financial system and economy to their benefit.

[1]       You can watch the 3 minute video at: http://civic.moveon.org/tamewallstreet/share.html?id=116548-5637721-c7x9Tcx.

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)

RECLAIMING AN ECONOMY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE, NOT JUST THE WEALTHY

ABSTRACT: We need to reclaim our economy so it works for everyone, not just the wealthy. With different choices and policies that reflect a different set of values, our economy can once again be one where a rising tide lifts all boats, not just the yachts of the wealthiest.

The policy changes that are needed to support the middle and working class include:

  • Raise the minimum wage
  • Strengthen laws on equal pay for equal work
  • Strengthen labor laws and enforcement, including workers’ right to bargain collectively
  • Strengthen Social Security while protecting and encouraging pensions
  • Close corporate and individual income tax loopholes, and raise tax rates on unearned income
  • Ensure that trade treaties are fair to workers and citizens
  • Strengthen the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and reinstitute a small financial transaction tax
  • Create jobs and make needed investments in our infrastructure

We need new policies and programs that reflect values and choices that put the average citizen and worker first, rather than wealthy individuals and corporations. If some of these proposals resonate with you, contact your elected officials and tell them. A grassroots movement is needed to shift our economy from the current one that is working only for the wealthiest 10% to the one we used to have where everyone benefited from economic growth.

FULL POST: In my last post, I summarized policy choices that have undermined the middle and working class, largely based on a great speech Senator Elizabeth Warren gave recently. She states that it doesn’t have to be this way and spells out what we need to do to reclaim our economy so it works for everyone, not just the wealthy. [1] With different choices and policies that reflect a different set of values, our economy can once again be one where a rising tide lifts all boats, not just the yachts of the wealthiest.

The policies that undermined the middle and working class were justified by the theory of “trickle-down” or “supply-side” economics. It was used to justify large tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations because the theory said that the country could count on the biggest and richest corporations and the wealthiest individuals to share their growing wealth and create an economy that worked for everyone. The experience of the last 30 years has shown that President George H.W. Bush was right when he called this “voodoo economics.” Nonetheless, there are politicians today who still pledge allegiance to “trickle-down” economics, despite the fact, as Senator Warren states, that it has been shown to be the politics of helping the rich and powerful get more, while cutting off the legs of the middle class.

The set of values that should drive our policies include the following:

  • A person shouldn’t work full-time and be in poverty.
  • Women should receive equal pay for equal work.
  • Labor laws should be strengthened and enforced so that workers are
    • paid what they are due,
    • able to retire with dignity, and
    • able to bargain together as a group with employers for fair pay, benefits, and working conditions.
  • Our tax system should be fair and require wealthy individuals and corporation to pay their fair share. Workers shouldn’t pay higher income tax rates on their hard-earned income than the wealthy pay on their unearned income from investment gains and dividends.
  • The burden of student debt should be reduced.
  • Our trade policies should be fair for workers, creating jobs and raising wages in the U.S.
  • Big banks and financial corporations should not be too-big-to-fail, allowed to make risky investments with government insured deposits, or bailed out by taxpayers if they get into trouble.
  • Regulation and oversight should be enhanced, particularly of the big financial corporations, so consumers and our economy are protected from speculation and fraud.

The policy changes that are needed to support the middle and working class based on these values include:

  • Raise the minimum wage nationally. (Many states and cities are already doing this.)
  • Strengthen laws requiring and enforcing equal pay for equal work.
  • Strengthen labor laws and their enforcement, including workers’ right to form unions and bargain collectively so there is a balance of power between the workers and the employer during negotiations.
  • Strengthen Social Security while protecting and encouraging pensions, as well as personal and employer supported savings, such as 401(k)s.
  • Close corporate and individual income tax loopholes. For example, stop corporations and individuals from hiding income overseas to avoid paying taxes.
  • Raise tax rates on unearned income, including capital gains, dividends, and hedge fund mangers’ investment gains.
  • Allow students to refinance college loans at reduced interest rates and allow relief from student debt in bankruptcy.
  • Ensure that trade treaties are thoroughly debated in public and are fair to workers and citizens, balancing their interests with those of multi-national corporations.
  • Strengthen the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, as well as oversight and enforcement. Prevent financial corporations from gambling on risky investments with taxpayer insured deposits. Require too-big-to-fail corporations to split up into smaller entities.
  • Reinstitute a small financial transaction tax (for example, 0.5%) to discourage speculative trading and generate needed revenue.
  • Create jobs and make needed investments in our infrastructure by building roads, bridges, and schools; and investing in education and research.

While workers suffered after the 2008 economic collapse caused by out-of-control financial corporations, our politicians bailed out the corporations, often with no or few strings attached. Our politicians have also signed trade treaties and currently are negotiating new ones that are highly beneficial to multi-national corporations. Yet workers harmed by past policy changes and trade treaties, as well as homeowners who lost their homes and workers who lost their jobs in the 2008 collapse, have received little help and certainly have not been bailed out the way Wall Street was.

We need new policies and programs that reflect values and choices that put the average citizen and worker first, rather than wealthy individuals and corporations. I encourage you to listen to Warren’s speech if you haven’t already (just 23 minutes) or to read the press release. If some of these concerns or proposals resonate with you, contact your elected officials and tell them. A grassroots movement is needed to shift our economy from the current one that is working only for the wealthiest 10% to the one we used to have where everyone benefited from economic growth.

[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.

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/)

AN ALTERNATIVE ECONOMIC MODEL

ABSTRACT: Worker cooperatives, where a business is owned and run by its workers, are gaining attention as a way to provide jobs and better pay for low wage workers. New York City recently established a Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative and provided $1.2 million in funding for it.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (http://www.usworker.coop/), there are more than 300 co-ops in the US today. One of the largest is the 2,300 member Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx. Internationally, perhaps the best known worker co-op is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain, which employs over 80,000 people in 289 companies, 110 of which are co-ops.

In New York City, in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), a 90-year old anti-poverty association of 200 religious groups and community organizations, sought new ways to address high unemployment and poverty. FPWA studied co-ops around the world and concluded that to get a strong co-op economy going a public investment was needed. It used its contacts, clout, and political savvy to lobby city government to provide seed money. When Bill de Blasio became Mayor in 2014, he proclaimed June 21 “New York Worker Cooperative Day.” On June 26, the City Council voted $1.2 million for the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative.

This seed funding is needed because worker co-ops are more difficult to start than regular businesses. However, once established, they tend to be very sustainable. New York City hopes worker co-ops will reduce unemployment, poverty, and inequality while promoting democracy in the workplace.

FULL POST: You don’t hear much about worker cooperatives as an alternative economic model in the US. However, these co-ops, where a business is owned and run by its workers, are gaining attention as a way for social service agencies and city governments to provide jobs and better pay for low wage workers.

New York City recently established a Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative and provided $1.2 million in funding for it. It will establish 28 new worker cooperatives, create 234 jobs, and provide education, training, and support to 20 existing co-ops. [1] (See more information on this initiative below.)

The history of worker cooperatives in the US goes back to the Knights of Labor in the late 1800s. At that time, roughly 200 co-ops existed in industries from clothing mills to mines, and from foundries to manufacturing. By the turn of the century, they were crushed by big business’s drive to eliminate competition. The for-profit businesses accomplished this by refusing to ship the co-ops’ goods, sell them materials or machinery, or give them loans.

African Americans, particularly farmers, needing an alternative to the corporate economy that largely excluded them, had established well over 100 co-ops by early in the 20th century. These co-ops faced numerous obstacles and opponents, however efforts in the Black community to support an alternative economy persisted throughout much of the 20th century.

The federal government fostered co-ops as part of the New Deal after the Great Depression, but these faded away after World War II. Worker cooperatives enjoyed a resurgence in the rebellion against the establishment of the 1960s and 70s. Some of the co-ops founded then survive today.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (http://www.usworker.coop/), there are more than 300 co-ops in the US today, ranging from taxi, engineering, architecture, and computer businesses to ones in cleaning and construction. They are spread across the country, with 56 in California, 40 in New York, and 35 in Massachusetts.

One of the largest worker co-ops is the 2,300 member Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx. One of that received quite a bit of attention not too long ago is the Chicago-based New Era Windows Cooperative. It was formed after laid off workers occupied the factory that Republic Windows and Doors announced it was closing in 2008 when the company tried to move the factory’s work to a different company with a non-unionized workforce.

Internationally, perhaps the best known worker co-op is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain. Started in 1956, today it employs over 80,000 people in 289 companies, 110 of which are co-ops. During the Great Recession of 2008, it fared better than most companies and instead of laying off workers, it engaged in creative solutions and re-training to keep all its workers employed.

In New York City, in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), a 90-year old anti-poverty association of 200 religious groups and community organizations, sought new ways to address high unemployment and poverty. It contacted the Center for Family Life, which had incubated 4 successful worker cooperatives since 2006. One of those co-ops, Si Se Puede (Yes, we can), a home and office cleaning company with 64 member-owners, has tripled wages for its mostly female, minority members while growing to a $1 million a year business in 8 years.

FPWA studied co-ops around the world and concluded that to get a strong co-op economy going a public investment was needed. It used its contacts, clout, and political savvy to lobby city government to provide seed money. It formed the Coalition for Worker Cooperatives for New York City, produced a policy report “Worker Cooperatives for New York City: A Vision for Addressing Income Inequality,” and organized a conference targeting city officials. The Coalition worked to gain the support of city councilors and organized a Co-op Advocacy Day held on the steps of City Hall.

When Bill de Blasio became Mayor in 2014, he proclaimed June 21 “New York Worker Cooperative Day.” On that day, the first annual NYC worker co-op conference was held, titled “Economic democracy and economic justice: A tale of a new city.” On June 26, the City Council voted $1.2 million for the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative.

This seed funding is needed because worker co-ops are more difficult to start than regular businesses. Typically, their members have little business experience or training and tend to be low-income, immigrants and minorities, and often women. However, once established, they tend to be very sustainable. The workers tend to have lower turnover, be more productive, and report greater satisfaction with their jobs. In Canada, where there is a sizable cooperative business sector, worker co-ops have lifespans four times longer than conventional businesses.

New York City’s government has taken an innovative step to promote economic development targeting the people who need it the most. It hopes worker co-ops will reduce unemployment, poverty, and inequality while promoting democracy in the workplace. Hopefully, they’ll be successful and other cities and states in the US will follow suit in building worker cooperatives as an alternative economic model to corporate capitalism.

[1]       Ifateyo, A.N., Sept. 2014, “A co-op state of mind,” In These Times (This post is largely a summary of this article.)

INEQUALITY IS NOT INEVITABLE

ABSTRACT: “Inequality is not inevitable” is the title of a recent piece in the New York Times by Joseph Stiglitz. Our current levels of inequality – and the undermining of the middle class – are the result of policies and politics, not a fundamental feature of capitalism. One example is the recent bailout of the large bank and financial corporations with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars while only a pittance went to homeowners and other victims of these corporations’ predatory lending.

Our campaign finance laws allow economic inequality to lead to political inequality by letting the wealthy buy political influence. And political inequality increases economic inequality in a vicious cycle: politicians increase corporate welfare and give the rich tax cuts while cutting support for middle class workers and the poor.

True economic success is measured by how well the typical citizen is doing, especially in America, which claims to be the bastion of equal opportunity. But here in the US, the typical worker’s income is lower today than it was 25 years ago.

There are policy solutions that will simultaneously strengthen our economy, address the federal government’s budget deficit and debt issues, tackle our infrastructure needs, and reduce inequality. Tax reform is a core ingredient of these policy changes. (See details below.) It and other policies that can and should be changed will reduce inequality, improve our economy, and address other important issues.

FULL POST: “Inequality is not inevitable” is the title of a recent piece in the New York Times by Joseph Stiglitz, [1] a Nobel prize-winning economist. It is the final piece of a New York Times series on inequality entitled “The Great Divide.” [2] The series presents a wide range of examples that demonstrate that our current levels of inequality – and the undermining of the middle class – are the result of policies and politics, not a fundamental feature of capitalism. Other countries’ economies are performing as well or better than ours with far greater equality.

Policies that have increased inequality and weakened the middle class include the recent bailout of the large bank and financial corporations with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars while only a pittance went to homeowners and other victims of these corporations’ predatory lending. More help for homeowners and the unemployed would have helped the economy recover more quickly and vigorously. We also allow corporate monopolies and near monopolies to exist and make huge profits while they ship jobs and profits overseas, avoiding paying US taxes.

Our campaign finance laws allow economic inequality to lead to political inequality by letting the wealthy buy political influence. And political inequality increases economic inequality in a vicious cycle: politicians increase corporate welfare and give the rich tax cuts while cutting support for middle class workers and the poor. The wealthy corporations and individuals increase their wealth, not by working harder or being smarter, but by manipulating the rules of our economic and political systems. As a result, for example, corporate income taxes have declined as a portion of the federal government’s revenue from 39.8% in 1943 to 9.9% in 2012. Furthermore, Wall St. corporations and executives were not brought to justice for their criminal behavior that led to the economic collapse, or even for their abuse of our legal system in foreclosing on and evicting homeowners, inappropriately, fraudulently, and sometimes in total error.

True economic success is measured by how well the typical citizen is doing, especially in America, which claims to be the bastion of equal opportunity. But here in the US, the typical worker’s income is lower today than it was 25 years ago. And the life prospects of our children are determined more by the income and education of their parents than they used to be, and more than they are in other advanced countries. The tremendous growth in income and wealth of the top 1% in the US has not trickled down, it has evaporated, often in Caribbean and other tax havens. [3] There is compelling evidence that the current level of inequality in the US is weakening our economy and our social cohesion.

There are policy solutions that will simultaneously strengthen our economy, address the federal government’s budget deficit and debt issues, tackle our infrastructure needs, and reduce inequality. We can improve economic growth, promote economic efficiency, and reduce unemployment through changes in our tax system. Tax reform is a core ingredient of the policy changes needed to reduce inequality. Such tax reform includes: [4]

  • Reducing incentives and opportunities for corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying taxes
  • Increasing the top marginal income tax rates and reducing preferential treatment of unearned income, such as capital gains and dividends
  • Reforming corporate taxation to incentivize investing in the US (rather than overseas) and to close loopholes that are essentially corporate welfare
  • Taxing too-big-too-fail financial institutions to create a rescue fund (for future, probably inevitable bailouts) and to provide a disincentive for unlimited corporate growth and for speculative, highly leveraged financial activities that increase the likelihood of a bailout
  • Implementing a financial transaction tax to provide a disincentive for unproductive and sometimes harmful financial speculation and activity, such as high volume, high speed, computer-driven trading
  • Reforming the estate and inheritance tax to improve economic efficiency and fairness
  • Taxing pollution and other negative environmental effects
  • Ensuring the government gets full value when it sells public assets, such as natural resources like oil and gas

Tax reform is not an end in itself. The objective is to create a more efficient tax system, while simultaneously producing higher employment and economic growth, reducing inequality and environmental harm, and enhancing the efficiency of our economy.

Inequality is the result of tax and other policies that can and should be changed. Moreover, well-designed changes that address inequality will simultaneously improve our economy and address other important issues.

[1]       Stiglitz, J., 6/29/14, “Inequality is not inevitable,” The New York Times

[2]       See a listing and abstracts of The Great Divide series at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-great-divide/?module=BlogCategory&version=Blog Post&action=Click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=Blogs&region=Header

[3]       Stiglitz, J. 6/29/14, see above

[4]       Stiglitz, J., 5/28/14, “Reforming taxation to promote growth and equity,” The Roosevelt Institute, http://rooseveltinstitute.org/sites/all/files/Stiglitz_Reforming_Taxation_White_Paper_Roosevelt_Institute.pdf

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

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

US CAPITALISM IS OUT OF CONTROL

ABSTRACT: Of all the developed countries, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth. 1928 and 2007 were the peak years for income and wealth inequality in the US. In the periods leading up to these two peaks, the wealthy invested and speculated in financial markets. Speculative bubbles were created. The middle class saw their incomes stagnate. This led to economic instability, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Great Recession of 2008.

So where should we look for an example of greater economic stability and equality? The answer is the United States after World War II from 1946 to 1978. So what do we need to do to return to greater economic stability and equality? We need to keep and encourage the creation of jobs that pay middle class wages and have benefits.

We need to change the rules of our economy so the gains of economic growth are more widely shared. Capitalism needs rules, otherwise it runs out of control. A well-functioning democracy can create and enforce appropriate rules (laws and regulations). But if the democratic process of electing officials and making laws and regulations is corrupted by money and lobbying from wealthy capitalists and their corporations, the appropriate rules won’t be in place and capitalism can run out of control.

Currently, the huge amounts of money being spent by wealthy capitalists and their corporations on elections and lobbying are determining the rules of our economy. Americans are losing faith in our democracy, which is our most precious gift and our most important legacy for future generations. What the powerful moneyed interests would like, is for us all to get so cynical about politics and government that we basically give up. But if we’re mobilized, if we’re energized, if we take citizenship to mean not simply voting, paying taxes, and showing up for jury duty, but actually participating actively and knowledgeably, we can make our democracy – and capitalism – work.

FULL POST: Of all the developed countries, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth. 1928 and 2007 were the peak years for income and wealth inequality in the US. [1] What happened a year after 1928? The Great Crash. And what happened a year after 2007? Another financial system crash. The parallels are breathtaking if you look at them carefully. [2]

In the periods leading up to these two peaks, the wealthy invested and speculated in financial markets. Both times, speculative bubbles were created. In both periods, the middle class saw their incomes stagnate, so they went deeper and deeper into debt to maintain their living standard, creating a debt bubble. These bubbles and the undermining of the middle class led to economic instability, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Today, many in the middle class are one crisis away from being poor. If they lose a job, have a health crisis, or have a serious accident, they can find themselves suddenly in need of public assistance, which may be unemployment benefits, food stamps or food pantries, or subsidized health insurance from Medicaid. They may find themselves deep in debt and at risk of losing their home.

We seem to be close to the point where the middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going and where the majority of people feel like the economic and political systems are rigged against them. There may be a tipping point, where the degree of inequality and economic insecurity actually threaten our economy, our society, and our democracy.

So where should we look for an example of greater economic stability and equality? The answer is the United States in the decades after World War II. From 1946 to 1978, the economy doubled in size, everybody’s income doubled, and inequality was low. Although the top income tax rate was as high as 91% and was never below 70%, we had greater annual economic growth than we’ve had since. With today’s top tax rate under 40%, anybody who says that we have to reduce taxes to foster economic growth, simply doesn’t know our own history.

So what do we need to do to return to greater economic stability and equality? We need to keep and encourage the creation of jobs that pay middle class wages and have benefits. We need to increase the minimum wage and we need to include labor standards in our trade treaties. We need to give workers and the middle class the voice and power to stand up to the wealthy and ensure that our economy works for all people, not just for the 1% at the top. We need to change the rules of our economy so the gains of economic growth are more widely shared. (For more detail see my post of 10/29/13 at https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/10/29/lack-of-good-jobs-is-our-most-urgent-problem/. )

The rules of our economy are largely set by the federal government. Capitalism needs rules, otherwise it runs out of control, resulting in financial collapses; air and water that are harmful; cars that are unsafe; drugs and food are tainted; industrial accidents where oil wells blow out, chemical plants explode, and trains crash and burn; and so forth.

A well-functioning democracy can create and enforce appropriate rules (laws and regulations) that balance public safety (including environmental safety) and corporate profitability. But if the democratic process of electing officials and making laws and regulations is corrupted by money and lobbying from wealthy capitalists and their corporations, the appropriate rules won’t be in place and capitalism can run out of control.

Currently, the huge amounts of money being spent by wealthy capitalists and their corporations on elections and lobbying are determining the rules of our economy. They are using their economic power to gain political power. They are using this political power to entrench and enrich themselves economically and politically by obtaining laws and regulations that are tilted to benefit their self-interest. This is not a matter of partisan politics; both Democratic and Republican politicians and policy makers receive the money and do the bidding of these powerful economic elites.

Examples of laws and regulations that are tilted to favor capitalist interests include individual and corporate tax laws; bankruptcy laws; antitrust laws and enforcement; intellectual property laws on copyrights, patents, and trademarks; health and safety laws; campaign finance laws; laws and regulations for the financial industry; and priorities for government spending.

Americans are losing faith in our democracy, which is our most precious gift and our most important legacy for future generations. We are losing faith in equal opportunity and upward mobility as practical realities, and we’re feeling real anxiety over our lack of economic security.

Americans need to understand what’s at stake and push good people in government to do the right thing. If we don’t, eventually the moneyed interests will win because they are persistent and there won’t be anybody who can speak loudly enough to be heard over the bullhorn of their money.

What the powerful moneyed interests would like, is for us all to get so cynical about politics and government that we basically give up and say, “Okay, you want our democracy? Take it.” Then they win everything. But if we’re mobilized, if we’re energized, if we take citizenship to mean not simply voting, paying taxes, and showing up for jury duty, but actually participating actively and knowledgeably, we can make our democracy – and capitalism – work.

We can do it if we understand the nature of the problem. Time and again, in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s, for example, we have saved capitalism from its own excesses. We made sure that rules were in place to make capitalism work as it should: as an engine of prosperity for everyone and with a brake on the excesses of greed and power, as well as on the money that can otherwise corrupt our democratic process.

I encourage you to watch, listen to, or read the transcript of Bill Moyers’ show with Bob Reich (http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-inequality-for-all/). And I encourage you to go see Bob Reich’s movie, Inequality for All. It’s entertaining and informative. You can see the trailer for the movie, get lots more information, and find opportunities to take action at http://inequalityforall.com/.


[1]       The latest data appear to show that inequality was even greater in 2012 than 2007 as the great majority of the benefits of our weak economic recovery are going to the richest people. For more detail, see my post of 9/27/13 at https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/09/27/whats-up-with-the-economic-recovery/.

[2]       Moyers, B., with Reich, R., 9/20/13, “Inequality for all,” http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-inequality-for-all/ (This post is a summary of this Bill Moyers show. You can view, listen to, or read the transcript of it at the link provided.)

LACK OF GOOD JOBS IS OUR MOST URGENT PROBLEM

ABSTRACT: The most urgent problem facing the US right now is a lack of jobs, especially jobs that pay middle class wages and provide benefits. Unemployment is high and long-term. The jobs being created during our 4 year old economic recovery are disproportionately low-wage, low skill jobs.

Fast food workers are emblematic of the low wage, low skill jobs being created. The typical fast food worker makes $8.69 per hour. As a result, over half of fast food workers rely on public, taxpayer funded benefits to make ends meet. The cost to taxpayers is estimated to be $7 billion per year. Meanwhile, the fast food corporations make billions of dollars in profits and pay tens of millions of dollars to their senior executives. Workers at Walmart, the largest employer in the US, are in a similar situation. These very profitable corporations can afford to raise their workers’ wages to $15 an hour – a wage they could live on without public assistance. In the meantime, taxpayers are subsidizing these corporations.

It used to be that unions and government provided workers with a voice and the power to balance that of the large employers. Today, that voice and power are largely gone. Therefore, wages, benefits, and job security have been eroding. Starting in the late 1970s, the historic link between growth in the economy and productivity on the one hand, and growth in workers’ wages on the other hand, was severed. We undid or failed to adopt rules for our economy that ensure the gains of economic and productivity growth are widely and fairly distributed.

The failure of our policy makers in Washington to focus on creating jobs, let alone good jobs, and on spurring economic growth is the clear and tragic result of the ascendancy of politics over rational policy making.

FULL POST: The most urgent problem facing the US right now is a lack of jobs, especially jobs that pay middle class wages and provide benefits. Unemployment is high and long-term – since 2010 roughly 40% of those unemployed and actively looking for work have been unemployed for more than 6 months. This is triple the rate of long-term unemployment in the period from 2000 – 2007. [1]

The official unemployment rate is 7.2% based on those who are actively looking for a job. It would be significantly higher, well over 10%, if those who have given up looking were included. And higher still if the under-employed were included – those working part-time who would like to be working full-time and those who are working at jobs for which they are over-qualified.

The jobs being created during our 4 year old economic recovery are disproportionately low-wage, low skill jobs. (See post of 9/27/13 for more detail.) High unemployment and low wage jobs are key factors in our slow economic recovery (consumers’ lack purchasing power), in the government’s budget deficit (reduced tax revenues), and in growing inequality (95% of the economic gains during the recovery have gone to the richest 1%). As a result, income and wealth inequality have increased to levels not seen since the 1920s.

Fast food workers are emblematic of the low wage, low skill jobs being created. The typical fast food worker makes $8.69 per hour. Two-thirds of them are adults, most of them bring home at least half of the family’s income, and a quarter of them have children. Only 13% get health insurance through their employers.

As a result, over half of fast food workers rely on public, taxpayer funded benefits to make ends meet. The cost to taxpayers is estimated to be $7 billion per year; much of it is for health care, but also food assistance and other economic supports. [2] You can watch a 2 minute video about this, which includes a recording of the McDonald’s help line telling a 10-year employee with 2 children to access food stamps and Medicaid, at
http://lowpayisnotok.org/mcvideo/?utm_campaign=LowPay&utm_medium=email&utm_source=mcvideo-r.

Meanwhile, the fast food corporations make billions of dollars in profits and pay tens of millions of dollars to their senior executives. For example, McDonald’s has 700,000 employees. They are estimated to get $1.2 billion a year in taxpayer funded benefits. McDonald’s is very profitable, making $5.5 billion a year and paying its CEO $13.8 million. It has just purchased a $35 million luxury jet for its executives, which costs at least $2,400 an hour to operate.

Workers at Walmart, the largest employer in the US, are in a similar situation. They make an average of $8.80 an hour. When General Motors was the largest employer in the 1950s, it paid its workers about $50 to $60 an hour (adjusted for inflation). As with the fast food workers, we taxpayers are supporting Walmart workers with multiple types of public assistance. [3]

These big, profitable corporations operate with a business model that uses low paid and part-time workers, typically without benefits, who are, therefore, unable to afford the necessities of life. This leaves taxpayers to pick up the tab for the public benefits they need. These very profitable corporations can afford to raise their workers’ wages to $15 an hour (see post of 9/8/13 for more detail)  – a wage they could live on without public assistance. In the meantime, taxpayers are subsidizing these corporations.

Nationally, the typical workers’ wages, adjusted for inflation, have barely increased over the last 30 years. (See post of 9/2/13 for more detail.) The typical male worker in 1978 was making around $48,000 (adjusted for inflation), while the average person in the top 1% earned $390,000. By 2010, the typical male workers’ pay had gone down, while the person in the 1% had their pay more than double. Today, the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom half of the country, 150 million people, combined.

It used to be that unions and government provided workers with a voice and the power to balance that of the large employers. Today, that voice and power are largely gone. Therefore, wages, benefits, and job security have been eroding. Workers are not even receiving the benefits of their increased productivity. As a result, we are losing the middle class, equal opportunity, and upward mobility. This is undermining our economy and our democracy.

In the first 4 years of the current recovery, the richest 1% of Americans took home 95% of the income gains. In stark contrast, between 1946 and 1978, as the economy doubled in size, everyone’s income doubled as well.

Starting in the late 1970s, the historic link between growth in the economy and productivity on the one hand, and growth in workers’ wages on the other hand, was severed. Income gains started going to the richest Americans and people in the middle, the typical worker, saw their wages stagnate. Part of the problem is that we didn’t adapt to globalization and technological change. We didn’t change public policies. We didn’t change the rules of our economy to continue to provide opportunity, upward mobility, and ensure that economic and productivity growth were broadly shared. We could have done so, but we didn’t. [4]

Among other things, we let the minimum wage fall behind inflation. If it had kept up with inflation, the national minimum wage would be $10.40 today instead of $7.25. If productivity improvement was included, it would be at least $15 an hour. We deregulated the financial system, both domestically and internationally, favoring investors and corporations over workers. And we didn’t include labor standards in trade treaties. Meanwhile, we cut tax rates on high incomes and wealth substantially.

If we had a democracy that was working for the people, the average citizen and worker would have the voice and power to see that their interests and the greater good were served. Instead, we undid or failed to adopt rules for our economy that ensure the gains of economic and productivity growth are widely and fairly distributed – without sacrificing efficiency or innovation. The failure of our policy makers in Washington to focus on creating jobs, let alone good jobs, and on spurring economic growth is the clear and tragic result of the ascendancy of politics over rational policy making. This failure may put their political careers at risk because every poll shows that the public is much more concerned about jobs and the economy than any other issue, including the deficit.


[1]       Woolhouse, M., 10/22/13, “Long search finally ends,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Johnston, K., 10/16/13, “Public aid crucial to fastfood workers,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Moyers, B. with Reich, R., 9/20/13, “Inequality for all,” http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-inequality-for-all/

[4]       Moyers, B. with Reich, R., 9/20/13, see above

WHAT’S UP WITH THE ECONOMIC RECOVERY?

ABSTRACT: According to economists, our economy has been in a recovery for 4 years. However, most people’s income and wealth are down. Inequality of both income and wealth are up. The stock market and corporate profits are up, but unemployment and under-employment are high, and the poverty rate and economic insecurity are up.

Government policy does affect all of these. The policy changes that occurred after the Great Depression reduced income and wealth inequality until the 1970s and addressed many of these economic issues as well. However, the federal government’s actions since the collapse in 2008 have rescued the big financial corporations and the wealthy, but not the economy that all the rest of us live in.

Income insecurity and high levels of inequality are undermining the values of American democracy and belief in the American Dream, equal opportunity, and a merit based society. They are seen as unfair and as fostering a plutocracy instead of a democracy. It seems that the privileges of wealth (including for the children of the wealthy) are closing the door on opportunity in America for many.

FULL POST: According to economists, our economy has been in a recovery for 4 years; the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. However, most people’s income and wealth are down; they have not recovered to their pre-recession levels. Inequality of both income and wealth are up because the income and wealth of the rich have recovered much more quickly than those of middle and lower income households. The stock market and corporate profits are up – stocks have more than doubled in value and have reached new record highs.

Average household income (adjusted for inflation) is $3,400 below what it was in December 2007, before the Great Recession. It is currently at $52,100, up $1,400 from its low point in August 2011 but recovering very slowly. [1]

Income inequality is up dramatically. The income gap between the richest 1% (incomes above $394,000) and the other 99% is the widest it’s been since 1927. During the 4 years of the recovery, the top 1% have seen their incomes grow by 31% while the 99% have seen their incomes grow by only 0.4%. In other words, the richest 1% of Americans have recovered almost all their income losses from the Great Recession, while all the rest of us have barely started to recover. This is a continuation of the trend of the last 20 years, where the top 1% have gotten two-thirds of all the growth in incomes. [2] A similar picture is seen if one looks at the top 10%, who now have over half of all income, a higher level than at any time since 1917 when record keeping began. (See posts of 9/2/13 and 11/13/11 for more information.)

Government policy does affect income inequality. The policy changes that occurred “after the Great Depression during the New Deal … reduced income concentration until the 1970s [and addressed many other economic issues as well]. … The policy changes [after] the Great Recession … are not negligible but are modest … Therefore, it seems unlikely that US income concentration will fall much in the coming years.” [3] Government policy also affects the recovery more broadly. See posts of 9/13/12, 5/15/12, and 3/31/12 for more information.

The picture is similar when household wealth is studied. In the financial collapse, $16 trillion of household wealth was lost. While $14.7 trillion of that has now been regained – 91% of the loss – the wealthy have regained most if not all of their wealth while the average household has regained only 45% of its wealth. In the 4 years of the recovery, two-thirds of recovered wealth has been in the value of stocks, which are at record highs. However, 80% of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10% of households. Home values, which are the biggest component of middle and lower-income households’ wealth, are still 30% below their peak values. The average household wealth of $540,000 is roughly $100,000 below its peak. [4][5]

The poverty rate is up – to 15%, meaning 46.5 million people are living at or below the poverty line (yearly income of $23,492 for a family of four). This is 2.5 percentage points or 20% higher than in 2007, before the Great Recession, meaning that 7.8 million people have fallen into poverty in the last 5 years. [6]

Unemployment is high, although it has been declining. Furthermore, many of those who are working are under-employed – working part-time when they would like to be full-time or working at jobs that don’t require the training and experience they have. Many workers who lost a job but have a new one, are earning much less than they were. So far in 2013, 61% of new jobs have been in low-wage industries and 77% have been part-time. [7] (See post of 9/2/13 for more information.)

Many people – over a third of the working age population – have simply dropped out of the job market because jobs, especially good jobs with good wages are hard to find. Only 59% of the working age population is employed. [8] Despite workers’ significant increases in productivity (75% over the last 30 years), workers’ wages have only increased by 5% over those 30 years. The rewards of their increased productivity have instead gone to corporate profits and executives’ pay.

Economic insecurity is up. Four out of five adults in the US will experience economic insecurity in their lifetimes, Economic insecurity is defined as experiencing unemployment, relying on government assistance for at least a year, or having income below one and a half times the poverty line. [9]

The federal government’s actions since the collapse in 2008, which was due to reckless behavior by the big financial corporations, have rescued the big financial corporations and the wealthy, but not the economy that all the rest of us live in. The policies that have contributed to this included bailouts and low interest loans for the financial corporations and tax policies that over 30 years have dramatically reduced the taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy. Meanwhile, the value of the minimum wage has been significantly reduced by inflation. Cuts in government spending have resulted in lost jobs in both the public and private sectors. [10]

Studies have shown that the top personal income tax rate could return to the level it was in 1980 (70% instead of today’s 39.6%) without any negative effects on the overall economy. (See post of 12/29/12 for more information.) History also shows that corporate tax rates, which are at a 60 year low, can also be increased significantly without harmful effects. [11]

In summary, stock prices, corporate profits, poverty, and inequality of income and wealth are up. Income and wealth for the typical American household are still down from what they were before the Great Recession, despite 4 years of “recovery”. Economic insecurity is up, social mobility is down, and unemployment and under-employment are both high.

Income insecurity and high levels of inequality are undermining the values of American democracy and belief in the American Dream, equal opportunity, and a merit based society. [12] This is having a demoralizing effect on Americans and building resentment of what is increasingly seen as unfair domination of economic and political life by the wealthy, in other words as fostering a plutocracy [13] instead of a democracy. It seems that the privileges of wealth (including for the children of the wealthy) are closing the door on opportunity in America for many.


[1]       Pear, R., 8/22/13, “Median income up, but below 2009 levels,” The Boston Globe (from The New York Times)

[2]       Saez, E., 9/3/13, “Striking it richer: The evolution of top incomes in the United States,” University of California, Berkeley, Department of Economics (http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf)

[3]       Saez, E., 9/3/13, see above, p. 1

[4]       Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, May 2013, “How Much Household Wealth Has Been Recovered?” Section of 2012 Annual Report, pages 14-15 (http://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/ar/2012/pdfs/ar12_complete.pdf)

[5]       Associated Press, 5/31/13, “Report paints darker picture of US wealth,” The Boston Globe

[6]       US Census Bureau, 9/17/13, “Income, poverty and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2012”

[7]       Wiseman, P., 8/5/13, “Most new jobs in July were low paying, part time,” The Boston Globe (from the Associated Press)

[8]       Hightower, J., June 2013, “How bad is the jobs crisis?” The Hightower Lowdown

[9]       Yen, H., 7/29/13, “Data show widening future struggle for Americans,” The Boston Globe (from the Associated Press)

[10]     Eskow, R., 9/11/13, “Recovery for the Rich, Recession for the Rest,” Campaign for America’s Future, http://ourfuture.org/20130911/recovery-for-the-rich-recession-for-the-rest

[11]     Eskow, R., 9/11/13, see above

[12]     Krugman, P., 9/12/13, “Rich man’s recovery,” The New York Times

[13]     A plutocracy is a society ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutocracy)

EFFECTS OF THE FEDERAL BUDGET CUTS, AKA THE SEQUESTER

ABSTRACT: The $85 billion in federal budget cuts that went into effect on March 1 have now had time to have measurable effects. Most economists agree that the cuts, known as “the sequester,” have slowed economic growth by at least 1.5 percentage points. Joseph J. Minarik, an economist, cannot remember “when fiscal [i.e., federal budget] policy was so at odds with the needs of the economy.”

Effects of the sequester are having significant impacts on people’s lives, but continue to be ignored by Congress. The budget cuts are having the following effects (among others): In July, 199,000 federal workers had work hours reduced and contractors lost work; Federal court proceedings have been dramatically slowed and the number of federal law enforcement and probation officers has been reduced; The FBI will shut its headquarters and offices on 10 weekdays over the next year; The National Institutes of Health is cutting $4 million from the $9 million core contract for the Framingham Heart Study, one of the most important and unique research projects in medical history; The decline in federal money for scientific research has been exacerbated, leading 18% of scientists to consider taking their research to another country; The Coast Guard has cut patrols, training, and purchases of new equipment; and Efforts to remove unexploded land mines have been canceled or curtailed.

FULL POST: The $85 billion in federal budget cuts that went into effect on March 1 (which were part of the so-called “fiscal cliff”) have now had time to have measurable effects. Most economists agree that the cuts, known as “the sequester,” have hurt economic growth and the creation of jobs. They estimate that the reduced federal expenditures have slowed economic growth by at least 1.5 percentage points, with more harm to the economy and jobs expected if Congress and the President allow the cuts to continue.[1]

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 22% of Americans say they have been “significantly affected” by sequestration cuts. Among people earning below $30,000, 31% say they have been affected by the sequester. [2]

Joseph J. Minarik, economist and director of research at the corporate-supported Committee for Economic Development, says he cannot remember “when fiscal policy was so at odds with the needs of the economy.” Similarly, University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers says, “The disjunction between textbook economics and the choices being made in Washington is larger than any I’ve seen in my lifetime. … At a time of mass unemployment, it’s clear, the economics textbooks tell us, that this is not the right time for fiscal retrenchment.” Given the consensus on this in the often fragmented economics profession, he adds, “To watch it be ignored like this is exasperating, horrifying, disheartening.” Warren Buffett, billionaire investment guru, stated that the sequester “is a stupid way to enact a cut in the budget.” [3]

The economic and jobs situations would be even worse if the Federal Reserve (the Fed) wasn’t taking aggressive actions to stimulate the economy (including holding interest rates extremely low) that offset some of the drag on the economy from federal budget cuts. However, it is likely the Fed will begin reducing one of its stimulus measures soon (the one known as quantitative easing).

As you may remember, the sequester’s cuts to air traffic controllers caused flight delays (that affected members of Congress as well as all the rest of us), so Congress acted with rarely seen speed to provide funding for them (see post of 4/30/13). However, other effects of the sequester, which are having far more significant impacts on people’s lives than having a flight delayed, continue to be ignored by Congress even as the real, measureable impacts are being felt. Given that the cuts were applied across the board, the range of effects have been broad. Here are some examples:

  • In July, 199,000 federal workers had work hours reduced and contractors lost work due to the sequester, thereby curtailing a wide range of services. [4] As workers’ incomes are reduced, some by as much as 30%, the impact ripples through the economy, stifling economic growth and job creation. These workers run the gamut from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees to public defenders in the federal court system to civilian employees of the military, many of them scientists, engineers, and medical staff. In Massachusetts alone, these cuts are expected to take $45 million out of the local economy. (Woolhouse, M., 7/22/13, “State feels pinch on federal workers,” The Boston Globe)
  • Federal court proceedings have been dramatically slowed and the number of federal law enforcement and probation officers has been reduced, jeopardizing public safety, according to an unusual letter to Congress signed by the chief judges of the trial courts in 49 states (every state except Nevada). (Sherman, M., 8/15/12, “Judges urge Congress to avoid more sequestration cuts,” The Washington Post)
  • The FBI will shut its headquarters and offices on 10 weekdays over the next year, leaving only a skeleton staff on duty. Off-duty employees will not be paid for these days. Given that personnel costs are roughly 60% of the agency’s budget, this was deemed the most effective way to cope with the sequester’s budget cuts. The FBI also has implemented a hiring freeze that means it has 2,200 vacant positions. Training has been substantially cut and no new vehicles are being purchased. There are concerns that employees will leave for better pay in the private sector, that investigations will be slowed, that domestic intelligence gathering will be harmed, and that the FBI’s capabilities will be degraded over the long-term. (Schmidt, M.S., 9/12/13, “F.B.I. plans to close offices for 10 days to cut costs,” The New York Times)
  • The National Institutes of Health is cutting $4 million from the $9 million core contract for the Framingham Heart Study, one of the most important and unique research projects in medical history. Over the past 65 years, data from the study has been used to develop and test technologies and treatments that have saved millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs. The study has monitored the health, lifestyles, and medical treatments of 15,000 people and 100 of the original participants are still alive and being followed, as are multiple generations in some families. Thanks in part to the Framingham study, deaths from heart disease have been cut by more than 70 percent over the past four decades. The study was the first to link smoking and stress to heart disease and identify cholesterol and obesity as risk factors for heart problems. In fact, the very term “risk factor” or “factors of risk” was coined by Framingham researchers. The study will continue, but researchers will be laid off and participants will answer health questions by phone instead of having an in-person medical examination by a doctor. The ultimate effect on the study and the costs to our health and health care system in terms of discoveries delayed or never made is unknown. (Gellerman, B., 9/11/13, “Sequester Puts 65-Year-Old Framingham Heart Study In Jeopardy,” WBUR)
  • The decline in federal money for scientific research has been exacerbated and 67% of 3,700 scientists surveyed reported receiving less federal grant funding for their research than 3 years ago. 55% reported they have a colleague who has lost or is about to lose his or her job, and 18% reported they are considering taking their research to another country. (Steinstein, S., 8/30/13, “Nearly 20 percent of scientists contemplate moving overseas due in part to sequestration,” The Huffington Post)
  • The Coast Guard has cut patrols, training, and purchases of new equipment. (Gellerman, B., 8/6/13, “Coast Guard Pilots In Mass. Feel Sequester Pinch,” WBUR)
  • Efforts to remove unexploded land mines left behind in former warzones have been canceled or curtailed. (Bender, B., 8/3/13, “Home front impasse has distant victims,” The Boston Globe)

 My next post will list additional effects of the sequester’s budget cuts.


 

[1]       Calmes, J., & Rampell, C., 8/2/13, “U.S. Cuts Take Increasing Toll on Job Growth,” The New York Times

[2]       O’Brien, M., Chuck, E., & Lamb-Atkinson, G., 7/29/13, “Ahead of budget battle, more Americans say sequester has hurt,” NBC News

[3]       Calmes, J., & Rampell, C., 8/2/13, see above

[4]       Calmes, J., & Rampell, C., 8/2/13, see above

LABOR DAY AND THE MIDDLE CLASS

ABSTRACT: Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions working people make to our country. But with unemployment still high, inequality on the uptick, and the middle class shrinking and under serious financial strain, many working families just don’t have much to celebrate. For 30 years, wages for the middle and lower income workers have barely kept up with inflation and have not kept up with their significant productivity increases. This means that they aren’t being paid fairly for what they produce. From 1979 to 2012, a typical worker’s wages grew only 5.0% despite a 74.5% increase in productivity.

Efforts are building at the federal level and in a number of states to raise the minimum wage, which has not kept pace with inflation or productivity growth. Low wage workers at fast food chains, big box retailers, and elsewhere have been organizing rallies and strikes to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

President Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, has put together a short video (under 3 minutes) that explains how we can turn things around. (http://front.moveon.org/how-workers-can-get-a-fair-shake-a-labor-day-message-from-robert-reich/#.UiSXAknD_IU)

Jobs with wages that support a middle class life are essential to the well-being of individuals, families, our economy, and our country. Such jobs have been disappearing for 30 years. We need to reverse this trend. And we can, through our actions as citizens and through the policies of our government.

FULL POST: Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions working people make to our country. They power our economy both through what they produce and what they consume. (Consumer spending is about two-thirds of economic activity.)

But with unemployment still high, inequality on the uptick, and the middle class shrinking and under serious financial strain, many working families just don’t have much to celebrate. The recovery is weak and the jobs that are being created are largely low wage jobs. So far in 2013, 61% of new jobs have been in low-wage industries and 77% have been part-time. [1] Many of the laid off workers who are getting jobs are earning much less than they used to and many are only working part-time; many of them, especially older workers, are experiencing long-term unemployment with unemployment benefits running out and the loss of health insurance. [2]

For 30 years, wages for the middle and lower income workers have barely kept up with inflation and have not kept up with their significant productivity increases. This means that they aren’t being paid fairly for what they produce. Their increases in productivity are not rewarding them, but instead are going to corporate profits, executive pay, and shareholders. Between 2007 and 2012, wages fell for the 70% of workers at the bottom of the income distribution, despite productivity growth of 7.7%. From 1979 to 2012, a typical worker’s wages grew only 5.0% despite a 74.5% increase in productivity. [3] If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth since the 1960s, it would be $16.54 instead of $7.25. [4]

Since 2008, corporate profits are up 25% – 30% while wages have fallen to their lowest portion of corporate revenue since the 1940s. Part of this is due to the continuing trend of employers changing full-time jobs with benefits into part-time or contracted jobs, typically without benefits. [5]

Efforts are building at the federal level and in a number of states to raise the minimum wage, which has not kept pace with inflation or productivity growth. More than 7 million children live in homes whose income would increase if we raised the minimum wage and more than 10 million Americans, including 4% of full-time workers, qualify as the “working poor.” That means they spent at least half the year working yet still live below the poverty line ($19,530 for a family of three, which might be a single parent and two children). [6]

Low wage workers at fast food chains, big box retailers, and elsewhere have been organizing rallies and strikes to protest low wages and poor working conditions.[7] If you didn’t see The Daily Show’s piece on fast food workers and the minimum wage (with John Oliver subbing for Jon Stewart) it’s, as usual, both informative and entertaining. It’s at: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-august-1-2013/can-t-you-at-least-wait-until-jon-stewart-gets-back. (It’s 10 minutes long with short ads at the beginning and in two breaks.)

President Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, has put together a short video (under 3 minutes) that explains how we can turn things around. It lists 6 policies that are needed to make sure workers’ get a fair return for their labor and that would support the middle class. It’s at: http://front.moveon.org/how-workers-can-get-a-fair-shake-a-labor-day-message-from-robert-reich/#.UiSXAknD_IU.

As an initial step, the site includes a petition you can sign that calls on two very profitable companies – McDonald’s and Walmart – to pay their workers fair wages. Walmart, for example, pays its typical employee less than $9 an hour and many of its jobs are part-time, while its profits in 2013 were $28 billion. Most people who work for big-box retailers like Walmart, as well as those who work in the fast-food industry, are adults, not teenagers. They are responsible for bringing home a significant share of their family’s income and they should be paid enough to lift them and their families out of poverty.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March to Washington for Jobs and Justice fifty years ago, one of the objectives was to raise the minimum wage to $2 an hour. $2 an hour in 1963, adjusted for inflation, comes to over $15 an hour today. (You can read more on this and many other topics at Bob Reich’s excellent blog at: http://robertreich.org.)

Jobs with wages that support a middle class life are essential to the well-being of individuals, families, our economy, and our country. Such jobs have been disappearing for 30 years. We need to reverse this trend. Increasing the minimum wage is one step. Increasing investments in human capital are another, including high quality, affordable early care and education, good schools, and affordable, quality post-secondary education. Universal access to good health care and steps to increase compensation and conditions for workers here in the U.S., as well as around the globalized world (for example, through trade treaties), are essential. We can affect these matters through our actions as citizens and through the policies of our government.


[1]       Wiseman, P., 8/5/13, “Most new jobs in July were low paying, part time,” The Boston Globe (from the Associated Press)

[2]       Winerip, M., 8/26/13, “Set back by recession, shut out of rebound,” The New York Times

[3]       Mishel, L., & Shierholz, H., 8/21/13, “A decade of flat wages: The key barrier to shared prosperity and a rising middle class,” Economic Policy Institute

[5]       Garson, B., 8/20/13, “How corporate America used the Great Recession to turn good jobs into bad ones,” TomDispatch

[6]       Eskow, R.J., 8/26/13, see above

[7]       Johnston, K., 8/27/13, “Local rally part of nationwide call,” The Boston Globe

GOVERNMENT AUSTERITY DEBUNKED

ABSTRACT: The argument for government austerity was largely built on two economic theories, both of which have been debunked recently by academia and reality. First was the theory that if government debt exceeded 90% of economic activity, then economic growth would be sharply lower. The second was that cutting spending in a depressed economy would create jobs.

 

The study the first was based on was dramatically discredited when an error was discovered in the Excel spreadsheet used to calculate its findings. Furthermore, the link highlighted between government debt and slow economic growth does not indicate that government debt causes slow growth; it could just as likely be the reverse.

The second theory was based on another academic study that was refuted by a 2010 study by the International Monetary Fund, which used better data. And finally, real life experiences in the US and Europe have not borne out what the austerity advocates predicted or promised.

Despite this debunking of the rationales for austerity, there hasn’t been any change in policies or political rhetoric in the US. The US austerity movement appears to be driven by small government ideologues who are using the economic crisis as an opportunity to push for cuts in social programs they’ve always opposed. There also appears to be an issue of class hiding behind austerity advocacy. While the years since the Great Depression and of austerity policies in Washington have been hard on the middle and lower classes, for the well off they’ve been pretty good. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the wealthy and political elites keep pushing austerity policies despite the lack of support from theory or reality.

FULL POST: The argument for government austerity – reducing the deficit by cutting spending and perhaps raising taxes – was largely built on two economic theories, both of which have been debunked recently by academia and reality. First was the theory that if government debt exceeded 90% of economic activity (measured by gross domestic product [GDP]), then economic growth would be sharply lower. The second was that cutting spending in a depressed economy would create jobs.

The first, on the danger of government debt, was based on a 2010 study by two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” Despite significant controversy about it, its finding of a tipping point for reduced economic growth when government debt hit 90% of GDP was presented as fact by politicians and media arguing for the need for austerity. [1]

This study was dramatically discredited when an error was discovered by Thomas Herndon, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the Excel spreadsheet Reinhart and Rogoff used to calculate their findings. An error in one of their formulas had excluded data from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, all of which had experienced strong economic growth in periods of high government debt. [2] (Reinhart and Rogoff have acknowledged the error.) This explained why other researchers, using similar data, hadn’t been able to replicate their findings. As Reinhart and Rogoff’s work was scrutinized, it was also criticized for omitting data and using questionable statistical procedures.

Furthermore, the link they highlighted between government debt and slow economic growth does not indicate that government debt causes slow growth; it could just as likely be the reverse, that slow growth leads to higher government debt. Indeed, the latter is clearly what happened in Japan in the early 1990s when government debt grew after the economy collapsed. [3]

The second theory, that cutting spending in a depressed economy would create jobs, was based on another academic study. It was refuted by a 2010 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which used better data. The IMF study found that austerity reduced job growth instead of accelerating it as the original study and austerity promoters claimed. [4]

Finally, real life experiences in the US and Europe have not borne out what the austerity advocates predicted or promised. In the US, government debt and a bit of stimulus did not produce high interest rates and a shrinking economy. Most recently, the austerity measures adopted in March – namely the sequester’s budget cuts – are clearly causing jobs to be cut, with no signs of resultant job creation. Meanwhile, most of Europe is in recession despite consistent application of the austerity medicine for the last four years.

Despite this debunking of the rationales for austerity, there hasn’t been any change in policies or political rhetoric in the US, and little in Europe. This suggests that the austerity movement is not based on research and reality, but on ideology.

The US austerity movement appears to be driven by small government ideologues, given that the push for budget cuts continues unabated. These ideologues are using the economic crisis as an opportunity to push for cuts in social programs they’ve always opposed. They’ve seized on the austerity theories from academia as justification for their actions, and aren’t letting go of them even when they have been soundly discredited. [5]

There also appears to be an issue of class hiding behind austerity advocacy. The wealthy in the US regard the deficit as the most important problem we face and favor solving it by cutting spending on health care and Social Security. The middle and lower classes, although they see the deficit as a problem, view unemployment as a more important problem and want to see spending on health care and Social Security increase. [6] Given the political power of the wealthy elites, it’s not surprising to see policy bending to their preferences. While the years since the Great Depression and of austerity policies in Washington have been hard on the middle and lower classes (high unemployment, incomes that aren’t keeping up with inflation, home values that haven’t recovered to 2008 levels), for the well off they’ve been pretty good (incomes growing faster than inflation, corporate profits and stock prices surging). So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the wealthy and political elites keep pushing austerity policies despite the lack of support from theory or reality.


 

[1]       Krugman, P., 4/18/13, “The Excel depression,” The New York Times

[2]       Roose, K., 4/18/13, “Meet the 28-year-old grad student who just shook the global austerity movement,” Daily Intelligencer

[3]       Krugman, P., 4/18/12, see above

[4]       Krugman, P., 5/3/13, “Playing whack-a-mole with expansionary austerity,” The New York Times

[5]       Editorial, 5/5/13, “Blame ideologues, not economists for failed ‘austerity’ policies,” The Boston Globe

[6]       Krugman, P., 4/15/13, “The 1 percent’s solution,” The New York Times

THE SHRINKING DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: The federal government’s annual budget deficit is falling, and falling faster than at any time since WWII. Overall government spending has been falling since 2007. Roughly 750,000 government jobs have been cut since the recovery began in 2009, cancelling out much of the benefit of increased private sector employment, and leaving unemployment higher than it would be otherwise.

Many economists believe that an austerity strategy of a rapidly declining deficit and spending cuts such as the “sequester” could hurt the economy and its recovery. Europe is experiencing a second recession and very high unemployment (12%) due to its austerity strategy. The current, irrational obsession with the deficit is precluding investments that have a high return and would improve the fiscal picture over the long-term.

Ultimately, jobs and a strong economy are the answer to taming the deficit, which is already shrinking rapidly.

FULL POST: The federal government’s annual budget deficit is falling. And it’s falling faster than at any time since the end of World War II. And that’s even before the March 1 spending cuts (the “sequester”) are factored in. [1] The deficit for this year is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to be $845 billion, down from $1,100 billion last year and $1,413 billion in 2009. It grew in 2008 and 2009 because the Great Recession led to 1) a dramatic loss of tax revenue due to decreased economic activity and jobs; [2] 2) increased expenditures for unemployment, food assistance, and other government benefits that softened the impact of the recession on families; and 3) tax cuts that were used to stimulate the economy, reducing the depth of the recession. [3]

Overall government spending, including the federal, state, and local levels, has been falling since 2007. Although the decline in federal spending in the fourth quarter of 2012 is seen as the culprit in causing the economy to shrink (i.e., negative growth) in that quarter, spending reductions and job losses have been most pronounced at the state and local levels. Federal spending has declined from 25.2% of our total economy or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009 to 22.8% in 2012, and is projected to fall to 21.5% by 2017 without any dramatic changes in budget policy. (The 40 year average has been 21.0%.)

Roughly 750,000 government jobs have been cut since the recovery began in 2009. This has been a “massive drag on the economy,” cancelling out much of the benefit of increased private sector employment. [4] Although the US unemployment rate has fallen to 7.7%, it would have fallen significantly further if these government jobs, including those of many teachers, had not been lost.

Many economists believe that an austerity strategy of a rapidly declining deficit and spending cuts such as the “sequester” could hurt the economy and its recovery. Historically, rapidly falling government deficits and spending have tended to lead to recessions. [5] If you want evidence of this, you need look no further than Europe at this moment. Europe is experiencing a second recession and very high unemployment (12%) due to its austerity strategy. Mark Cliffe, chief economist at IMG, describes its austerity strategy as “a bit of a vicious circle. Europe is pursuing a policy that is self-evidently failing.” [6]

The current, irrational obsession with the deficit (rather than a focus on creating jobs and strengthening the economy), is precluding investments in infrastructure and other activities that have a high return on investment and would improve the fiscal picture over the long-term. Especially given the federal government’s ability to borrow money at near zero interest rates, now is an ideal time to make investments in the future strength and growth of our economy, which is the best long-term strategy for reducing the deficit. [7]

There isn’t a good answer to the question of why the deficit – which is already rapidly falling – is more important now than creating jobs and strengthening the economy. [8] And if we look at Europe, we can see clear evidence that an austerity strategy does not lead to a falling deficit or a stronger economy with more jobs. The only answer is ideology – a belief that a smaller public sector is more important than putting struggling Americans back to work and back on their feet.

Ultimately, jobs and a strong economy are the answer to taming the deficit and the overall accumulated debt. Furthermore, a focus on creating jobs would resonate with the American public, many of whom are still struggling with the impacts of the Great Recession. It’s a matter of delivering a clear message about the need to create jobs and stimulate the economy, and that this will solve the issue of the deficit, which is already shrinking rapidly.


 

[1]       Klein, E., 2/12/13, “The deficit chart that should embarrass deficit hawks,” The Washington Post

[2]       Raum, T., 2/22/13, see above

[3]       Konczal, M., 1/22/13, “The most important graph on the deficit, “ The Roosevelt Institute

[4]       Raum, T., 2/22/13, “Government downsizes amid GOP demands for more cuts,” Associated Press (in the Reading Daily Times Chronicle)

[5]       Klein, E., 2/12/13, see above

[6]       The Balance Sheet, 4/3/13, “Europe’s austerity addiction,” The American Prospect

[7]       Summers, L., 1/21/13, “America’s deficits: The problem is more than fiscal,” The Washington Post

[8]       Wolf, M., 1/22/13, “America’s fiscal policy is not in crisis,” Financial Times

CUTTING SPENDING TO REDUCE THE DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: A deal was reached to address the year-end “fiscal cliff” or austerity crisis. Spending cuts were postponed for two months and most of the tax increases were eliminated, while some tax and revenue increases were enacted. The deficit reduction focus will now largely shift to spending cuts. We should be focusing on job creation and strengthening the economy, but somehow the deficit is the hot topic.

 The discussion of spending cuts will probably focus on the military and on entitlement programs, specifically Social Security and the health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid. Much of the discussion of cutting military spending will be on avoiding cuts. However, military spending can be reduced up to $200 billion per year – without jeopardizing national security.

 Turning to calls for cuts in Social Security and our public sector health programs, keep in mind that every other advanced economy has health care for all and a retirement support system. Social Security has its own funding stream and does not contribute to the deficit, so rationally it shouldn’t be part of this discussion. Ideologues are using the deficit issue to target Social Security because of their doctrinaire opposition to it. Minor changes to its funding would cover benefits for the next 75 years.

 My next post will review proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

 FULL POST: As you probably know, a deal was reached to address the year-end “fiscal cliff” or austerity crisis. Spending cuts were postponed for two months and most of the tax increases were eliminated, while some tax and revenue increases were enacted. The cap on the US government’s debt was not addressed and will be hit in about two months. Here’s a quick summary of what was enacted: [1]

  • Income tax rates on incomes over $400,000 will increase from 35% to 39.6% and some reductions in deductions will start at $250,000 in income, but there is no “Buffett Rule” requiring 30% be paid on incomes over $1 million. The net result is that new revenue from income taxes will be only about $60 billion per year as opposed to up to $450 billion with the rates increased on incomes over $250,000 and the “Buffet Rule”.
  • The Social Security payroll tax reduction was NOT extended, so all workers will have an additional 2% taken out of their paychecks on earnings up to $110,000.
  • Tax benefits for low income households were extended: a child credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements income from low paying jobs. The tuition credit was extended as was the corporate research and development credit. The Alternative Minimum Tax, which originally was to function like the “Buffett Rule”, was adjusted so it won’t affect middle income taxpayers.
  • Unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed were extended for a year.
  • The estate tax was increased slightly but not nearly as much as some had proposed and only on individual estates of over $5 million or joint estates of over $10 million.

The deficit reduction focus will now largely shift to spending cuts. We should be focusing on job creation and strengthening the economy, given high unemployment and slow economic growth, but somehow the deficit is the hot topic. As the current experience in Europe is clearly showing, cutting government spending weakens the economy and job growth and can put countries back into a recession.

Having said that, the discussion of spending cuts will probably focus on the military and on entitlement programs, specifically Social Security and the health care programs, Medicare (for seniors) and Medicaid (for low income people including low income seniors).

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of cutting military spending will be on avoiding cuts, including the $50 billion per year cut that is now scheduled for March 1. Military spending can be reduced this much and more – up to $200 billion per year – without jeopardizing national security. (See blog posts of 9/29/12 and 11/17/11 for more information.) For example, Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Reagan, has itemized $150 billion in annual cuts to the military budget. [2]

In the recently enacted $633 billion Defense Department spending bill, there was widespread criticism of inclusion of unnecessary spending. The dollar amount was more than the Department or President requested.  The Pentagon complained that it is required to keep weapons, as well as bases and units, that are not needed or efficient. Defense Secretary Panetta decried meddling by Congress that required “excess force structure and infrastructure.” [3][4]

Turning to calls for cuts in Social Security and our public sector health programs, keep in mind that every other advanced economy has health care for all and a retirement support system. So the issue is not whether it is possible to have these programs, it is are we willing to pay for them and are we willing to control health care costs.

Social Security has its own funding stream and does not contribute to the deficit, so rationally it shouldn’t be part of this discussion. Ideologues are using the deficit issue to target Social Security because of their doctrinaire opposition to it. Furthermore, its current funding will cover its benefits for roughly the next 20 years and after that minor changes to its funding would cover benefits for the next 75 years without any cuts in benefits. (See post of 12/4/11 for more details.)

The most prominent proposal for cutting Social Security spending is to reduce the annual increase in benefits that adjusts for inflation. This would save less than $20 billion per year over 10 years. [5] Ask any senior you know if the inflation adjustment is sufficient to keep up with their cost of living and I bet they’ll say, “No.” So cutting this will only hurt our seniors and reduce Social Security’s ability to keep seniors out of poverty. Furthermore, Social Security has become an increasingly important part of retirement income as private sector pensions have largely disappeared; cutting its rather modest benefits seems inappropriate in this environment.

My next post will review proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.


[1]       New York Times, 1/1/13, “Highlights of the agreement,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Dubose, L., 11/15/12, Book review of Ralph Nader’s “The seventeen solutions: Bold ideas for our American future,” The Washington Spectator

[3]       Bender, B., 1/5/13, “A reprieve for local military bases: New Congressional funding flouts Pentagon’s plan for cutbacks,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Boston Globe Political Notebook, 12/21/12, “House approves defense bill despite Pentagon objections,” The Boston Globe

[5]       Krugman, P., 12/3/12, “The GOP’s big budget mumble,” The New York Times

INCREASING REVENUE TO CUT THE DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: Increased revenue needs to be part of the effort to reduce the federal government’s budget deficit. Two revenue sources that are not included in the austerity package are closing corporate tax loopholes and enacting a financial transactions tax. They could eliminate over half the deficit with little negative impact on the economy.

 The highest profile revenue issue in the austerity package is the personal income tax. Given that the 2001 – 2003 tax cuts on earned and unearned income were significant contributors to creating the deficit, reversing them for high income individuals would seem appropriate. Maintaining the Bush tax cuts on high incomes would cost up to $160 billion per year in lost revenue. Alternatively, using these funds on high impact spending will reduce the deficit over the long-term while strengthening the economy and creating jobs in the short-term.

FULL POST: Increased revenue needs to be part of the effort to reduce the federal government’s budget deficit. However, the increased or new taxes that produce the revenue should not be so large or so quickly implemented that they put the economy back into recession. Here’s a look at the revenue increases that are part of the current austerity package (aka the “fiscal cliff”), some of the negotiations that have occurred on them, and some alternatives that are not included in the package.

First, two revenue sources that are not included in the austerity package are closing corporate tax loopholes and enacting a financial transactions tax (as 10 European countries are doing). These could provide $250 billion and $350 – $500 billion annually, respectively, in new revenue, and eliminate over half the deficit with little negative impact on the economy. (See my post of 9/29/12 for more detail.) An alternative minimum tax for highly profitable corporations that would ensure that they pay a minimum tax rate – similar to the Buffet Tax proposal for high income individuals – would seem quite reasonable. Roughly a quarter of our large and profitable corporations pay NO federal income tax despite multi-billion dollar annual profits. (See my post of 11/5/11 for more detail.) Google, for example, avoided paying $2 billion in taxes in 2011 by funneling profits to overseas shell companies. [1]

The highest profile revenue issue in the austerity package is the personal income tax. The tax cuts enacted by President Bush in 2001 and 2003 are scheduled to expire. President Obama originally proposed letting the cuts expire on income over $250,000 per year, but keeping the cuts on income under that amount. The Republicans proposed a $1 million cut off and Obama has countered with a $400,000 cut off. As the cut off gets higher, the amount of revenue (and deficit reduction) is reduced. The difference between a $250,000 and a $400,000 cut off is estimated to be $40 billion per year in revenue (i.e., $160 billion versus $120 billion in increased revenue).

Expiration means the tax rate on upper incomes would increase from the current 35% to 39.6%, the rate that was in place in the late 1990s. (Note that for an individual with $20 million in taxable income, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 – 2003 have put roughly $1 million in their pockets each year for the last 10 years.) In addition, increasing the tax rate on unearned income – capital gains, dividends, and interest – back to 1990s rates is another hot topic. Given that the 2001 – 2003 tax cuts on earned and unearned income were significant contributors to creating the deficit, reversing them for high income individuals would seem appropriate.

The bottom line is that maintaining the Bush tax cuts on high incomes would cost up to $160 billion per year in lost revenue. Alternatively, using these funds on high impact spending, such as infrastructure investments or unemployment benefits, would generate an estimated net gain of 1.2 million to 1.5 million jobs and add 1.0% to 1.5% to economic growth. The growth in jobs and the economy will, in and of itself, reduce the deficit because taxes and revenue grow when the economy grows. Therefore, this approach will reduce the deficit over the long-term while strengthening the economy and creating jobs in the short-term. The only revenue increase in the austerity package that has a greater positive effect on jobs and the economy than letting the tax cuts on high incomes expire is terminating the cuts in the estate and gift taxes. [2]

In my next post, I’ll review the arguments against raising tax rates on high income individuals. In subsequent posts, I’ll take a look at cutting the deficit through spending cuts, the spending cuts in the austerity package, and alternatives to them.


[1]       Brown, C., 12/13/12, “Google on ‘immoral’ tax evasion: ‘It’s capitalism’,” Common Dreams

[2]       Bivens, J., & Fieldhouse, A., 9/18/12, “A fiscal obstacle course, not a cliff,” Economic Policy Institute

A MANUFACTURED AUSTERITY CRISIS, NOT A FISCAL CLIFF

ABSTRACT: The so-called fiscal cliff you’ve been hearing so much about is actually a manufactured austerity crisis. There is widespread agreement that if nothing is changed by or relatively soon after December 31 that our economy is extremely likely to fall into a recession and unemployment is likely to increase to over 9%, an increase of between 1% and 1.5%.

 

The federal government’s deficit does need to be addressed, but doing so precipitously and in the wrong ways will hurt the economic recovery. The immediate problems are not the government deficit, but the lack of jobs, particularly middle class jobs, and the lack of consumer spending, which represents two-thirds of our economic activity. We should use strategies for addressing the deficit that minimize negative effects on jobs and the economy, and phase them in over time to reduce their impact on our weak economy.

 The austerity package bundles together a variety of measures that are largely unrelated. Addressing these complex issues individually and with time for thoughtful consideration would make more sense than doing so in a bundle under severe time constraints. The austerity package’s cuts to social programs would be 8.4% across the board, with a few programs exempted. These cuts would have very significant negative effects on low income families and on education.

FULL POST: The so-called fiscal cliff you’ve been hearing so much about is actually a manufactured austerity crisis. [1] Congress and the President agreed on this package of spending cuts and tax increases (which take effect on December 31) because the Republicans demanded it in exchange for their votes to increase the federal government’s debt cap back in August 2011. As you may remember, they pushed the government to the brink of default – which hurt its credit rating and the economy – in order to extract these austerity measures. (By the way, I believe this brinksmanship and the harm it caused is incredibly UNpatriotic; but that’s a separate discussion.) A Congressional “Super-committee” was created to find alternative ways to reduce the deficit but was unable to come to a consensus recommendation, so we are left with this “fiscal cliff.” However, the effects of the austerity package would occur over time, so it is actually more of a “slope” than a “cliff.” [2]

There is widespread agreement that if nothing is changed by or relatively soon after December 31 that our economy is extremely likely to fall into a recession and unemployment is likely to increase to over 9%, an increase of between 1% and 1.5%. The roughly $100 billion per year in spending cuts and $350 billion in annual tax increases would reduce the deficit from about $1 trillion per year to about $600 billion. But taking this $400 billion out of the country’s economic activity would almost certainly turn slow economic growth into a recession. (See my post, The “Fiscal Cliff” and the Economy of 9/19/12 for more details.) As we’ve seen in Europe, austerity measures have pushed Greece, Spain, and Britain into a recession and the whole Eurozone is teetering on the edge of recession.

The federal government’s deficit does need to be addressed, but doing so precipitously and in the wrong ways will hurt the economic recovery. The immediate problems are not the government deficit, but the lack of jobs, particularly middle class jobs, and the lack of consumer spending, which represents two-thirds of our economic activity. [3] In addressing the deficit, we should use strategies that minimize negative effects on jobs and the economy. (See my post, Addressing the Deficit on 9/29/12 for four specific policy changes that would eliminate the roughly $1 trillion per year deficit with minimal impact on jobs and the economy.) Furthermore, spending cuts and increased tax revenue should be phased in over time to reduce their impact on our weak economy. [4]

The austerity package bundles together a variety of measures that are largely unrelated other than they have some impact on the federal government’s revenue or spending; although some actually have no impact on the deficit. Therefore, some view this “fiscal cliff’ as more of a “fiscal obstacle course.” [5] Major changes to both the personal and corporate tax codes are included, as well as significant changes to spending on a wide range of government programs from defense to social programs. Addressing these complex issues individually and with time for thoughtful consideration would make more sense than doing so in a bundle under severe time constraints.

In addition to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, which expire for all income levels in the austerity package, other benefits for middle and low income households are scheduled to expire as well. These include:

  • Unemployment benefit extensions beyond the traditional 26 weeks (2 million individuals would lose benefits in December and another 1 million in April)
  • The reduction in the Social Security and Medicare payroll tax (by 2% of pay, which puts about $1,000 a year in the average worker’s pocket)
  • An enhancement to the Child Care Tax Credit
  • The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which augments incomes of low income workers
  • An exemption from income tax on mortgage debt that is forgiven

The austerity package’s spending cuts come 50% from the military and 50% from social programs. Many members of Congress oppose the cuts to the military. However, there are strong arguments for cutting military spending: 1) it has more than doubled (to $733 billion per year) since 2001, 2) we are winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 3) we have far and away the largest military budget in the world, and 4) it’s widely acknowledged that there is significant waste in the military budget. Furthermore, military spending is not an efficient way to create jobs and at 58% of the federal government’s discretionary spending, it would be difficult and unfair to significantly reduce spending without cutting the military budget. (See posts of 9/29/12 and 11/17/11 for more details.)

The austerity package’s cuts to social programs would be 8.4% across the board, with a few programs exempted, such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. These cuts would have very significant negative effects on low income families and on education. It is estimated that: [6]

  • 75,000 3 and 4 year old, disadvantaged children would lose the enriched preschool services of Head Start;
  • 25,000 young children would lose subsidies for early care and education (aka child care);
  • 16,000 teachers and other school staff would lose their jobs;
  • 460,000 students would lose special education services and 12,500 special education staff would lose their jobs;
  • 20,000 youth would lose job training;
  • 734,000 households would lose heating (or cooling) assistance;
  • Community health centers would lose $55 million; and
  • 1.3 million college students would lose tuition support.

If cuts to military spending are reduced, but overall spending reductions are maintained, cuts to social programs would be even more severe.

In my next two posts, I’ll discuss reducing the deficit through alternatives to the current austerity package, including reviewing various alternative proposals that have been put forth. I’ll focus first on options for increasing revenue and second on options for cutting spending.


[1]       Klein, E., 11/28/12, “It’s not a fiscal cliff, it’s an austerity crisis,” Bloomberg

[2]       Stone, C., 9/24/12, “Misguided ‘fiscal cliff’ fears pose challenges to productive budget negotiations. Failure to extend tax cuts before January will not plunge economy into immediate recession,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

[3]       Krugman, P., 11/12/12, “On deficit hawks and hypocrites,” The New York Times

[4]       Woolhouse, M., 11/19/12, “Phase in deficit cuts, economists say,” The Boston Globe

[5]       Bivens, J., & Fieldhouse, A., 9/18/12, “A fiscal obstacle course, not a cliff,” Economic Policy Institute

[6]       Every Child Matters Education Fund, 11/16/12, “The pending threat of Congressional actions to children’s safety net programs,” Every Child Matters, http://everychildmatters.org

THE DEBT, THE ECONOMY, AND THE POLITICAL PARTIES

ABSTRACT: Since 1945, Democratic presidents have on average reduced the federal government’s debt as a percentage of GDP by about 3% while Republican presidents have on average increased it by about 3%. PresidentObama has increased the debt percentage more than any president in this period. However, this is largely due to his inheriting a large deficit and the worst recession since the Great Depression. Other than this, the six largest increases in the debt percentage have occurred in recent Republican presidents’ terms.

Multiple measures of economic performance are better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. Since 1949, overall economic growth measured by median annual increase in GDP has been 4.2% under Democratic presidents and 2.6% under Republican presidents. Stock market performance since 1913 as measured by the median increase in Standard and Poor’s index of 500 stocks has increased 12.1% under Democratic presidents and 5.1% under Republican presidents. The annual increase in corporate earnings since 1936 has been 10.5% under Democrats and 8.9% under Republicans.

This data certainly shows that Republicans aren’t more fiscally responsible than Democrats; if anything it strongly suggests the opposite. The data also show that Republicans aren’t the party of economic prosperity more so than Democrats.

FULL POST: The historical record of the federal debt and the performance of the economy under Republican and Democratic presidents is interesting to examine.

First, the federal government’s total debt (the total of all the previous annual deficits and surpluses) as a percentage of the overall economy (i.e., the Gross Domestic Product or GDP) is probably the most meaningful statistic about the debt. Since 1945, Democratic presidents have on average reduced the debt’s percentage of GDP by about 3% while Republican presidents have on average increased it by about 3%.

President Obama has increased the debt percentage more than any president in this period. However, this is largely, if not totally, due to his inheriting a large deficit and the worst recession since the Great Depression. Other than this, the six largest increases in the debt percentage have occurred in recent Republican presidents’ terms: George W. Bush’s two terms (with 2005 – 2009 being the worst other than Obama), George H.W. Bush’s term, Ronald Reagan’s two terms, and Gerald Ford’s partial term. The only two terms under Democratic presidents where the debt percentage increased were Harry Truman’s and Bill Clinton’s first terms. Both of them reduced the debt percentage in their second terms significantly more than the increase in their first terms, so overall they both reduced the debt percentage. [1]

Multiple measures of economic performance are better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. Since 1949, overall economic growth measured by median annual increase in GDP has been 4.2% under Democratic presidents and 2.6% under Republican presidents.

Stock market performance since 1913 as measured by the median increase in Standard and Poor’s index of 500 stocks has increased 12.1% under Democratic presidents and 5.1% under Republican presidents. The annual increase in corporate earnings since 1936 has been 10.5% under Democrats and 8.9% under Republicans. [2]

While a president’s actions have only indirect influences on these measures and a president inherits policies and the state of the economy from his predecessors, this data certainly shows that Republicans aren’t more fiscally responsible than Democrats; if anything it strongly suggests the opposite. The data also show that Republicans aren’t the party of economic prosperity more so than Democrats.


[1]       The Economist, 11/1/12, “The change in America’s debt by presidential term,” www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2012/11/daily-chart

[2]      Healy, B., 11/2/12, “Taking stock of past races,” The Boston Globe

CANDIDATES’ BUDGET PROPOSALS AND THE DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: Both Presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, have put forward tax and budget proposals that they say will reduce the deficit. Obama’s tax and spending proposals would reduce the deficit by about one quarter. Romney’s proposals cannot be reasonably expected to reduce the deficit. Furthermore, they are likely to increase the deficit and the already high levels of inequality in income and wealth.

FULL POST: Both Presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, have put forward tax and budget proposals that they say will reduce the deficit. Obama has specified tax increases and a cut to military spending that would begin to reduce the deficit. Romney says his tax proposals would be revenue neutral, although he fails to specify how he would offset his tax cuts, and he promises to increase military spending. He asserts that his proposals would produce economic growth that would increase tax revenue and reduce the deficit; however, there is no credible evidence for that assertion. (Note: President G. W. Bush’s tax cuts, increases in military spending, and promises of economic growth that would pay for them are what began the process of turning a federal government surplus into deficits.)

Obama would let the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 expire and would also restore or increase taxes on unearned income (i.e., capital gains, dividends, and interest). He has also proposed limiting deductions and exclusions from income, as well as implementing the “Buffett Rule,” so that households with incomes over $1 million would at least pay taxes at the rate that middle class families do. These measures would generate roughly $200 billion per year in additional revenue, reducing the deficit by one-fifth. [1]

Obama has also proposed reducing the $700 billion military budget by about $50 billion per year as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down. Together, these tax and spending proposals would reduce the deficit by about one quarter.

Romney proposes keeping the Bush tax cuts and further reducing tax rates on earned income by one-fifth. He would maintain even lower tax rates on unearned income than earned income. Overall, these proposals would reduce income tax revenue by about $400 billion per year. Romney says he will make up for the lost revenue by reducing tax deductions and credits, and that the well-off will continue to pay at least the same amount in taxes. He says would do this by limiting total deductions and credits on a tax return to a fixed dollar amount and has mentioned amounts ranging from $17,000 to $50,000. [2]

While it is theoretically possible to achieve the same amount of revenue (i.e., revenue neutrality) under Romney’s proposals, it would be challenging and would require significantly cutting very popular deductions. [3] Four deductions account for 80% of all deductions and credits; in order of size they are the deductions for 1) home mortgage interest, 2) state and local taxes paid, 3) real estate taxes paid, and 4) charitable contributions. If an across the board cut to deductions were used to offset the loss in revenue, Romney would have to cut all these deductions by about one-third. Clearly, this would be unpopular and would also hit the middle class as well as high income families.

Romney has also proposed eliminating the estate tax, while Obama proposes maintaining an estate tax on estates over $3.5 million. Romney has also stated that he will increase the military budget. Here again, Obama’s proposal clearly reduces the deficit and these Romney proposals would clearly increase the deficit. The benefits of eliminating the estate tax, of course, go to wealthy families.

With a backdrop of 30 years of decreasing income tax rates that have seen dramatic increases in income and wealth in our best-off households and middle class families struggling to keep their heads above water, further cuts in tax rates do not seem at all likely to reverse this trend or benefit the middle class. Further, to provide some perspective on Romney’s proposal, looking at the cuts in tax rates alone, a family with taxable income of $100,000 or less, whose tax rate is cut from 25% to 20%, would see a benefit of $5,000 or less. A family with taxable income of $1 million, whose rate is cut from 35% to 28%, would see a benefit of $70,000; and if income is $10 million, a benefit of $700,000. This just doesn’t seem fair, especially on top of the huge tax cuts these high income households have seen over the last 30 years.

In addition, Romney’s proposal maintains lower rates on all unearned income (i.e., capital gains, dividends, and interest), while Obama’s has lower rates only on long-term capital gains (i.e., investments held for over one year). Having lower rates on all unearned income also doesn’t seem fair, especially given that the great bulk of unearned income goes to high income, high wealth households. Moreover, one of Romney’s arguments for lower tax rates is that by letting taxpayers keep more of what they earn, they will be rewarded for working. If we want to reward work, then income tax rates on work, namely earned income, should be lower (not higher) than the rates on non-work (unearned) income.

Finally, Romney’s assertion that cuts in tax rates will spur economic growth does not have any credible evidence. [4] This rationale has been used for the tax rate cuts that have occurred over the last 30 years. The strongest economic growth of the past 30 years (and the only elimination of the federal government’s deficit) occurred under President Clinton when he increased tax rates on high incomes. Furthermore, the rationale for tax cuts spurring growth has been that they put more money in consumers’ pockets and, with consumer spending being two-thirds of our economy, their spending will grow the economy. However, Romney has said his tax cuts will be offset by reducing deductions so that there will be no loss in government revenue or increase in the deficit. Therefore, there is no increase in the money in consumers’ pockets and no increased spending to spur economic growth.

If Romney’s tax cuts are indeed offset by reducing deductions so the result is revenue neutral, and if he lives up to his commitment to cap federal government spending at 20% of the overall economy (i.e., of gross domestic product), which would require significant spending cuts, Romney’s plans are likely to lead to job losses and a recession, not economic growth. Overall, Obama’s budget and tax proposals are highly likely to do more to spur near-term growth in jobs and the economy than Romney’s. [5]

In conclusion, Obama’s tax and budget proposals do take steps that can be reasonably expected to reduce the deficit by about one-quarter. Romney’s proposals cannot be reasonably expected to reduce the deficit. Furthermore, they are likely to increase the deficit and the already high levels of inequality in income and wealth.


[1]       Tax Policy Center, Oct. 2012, “Major tax proposals by President Obama and Governor Romney”

[2]       Wirzbicki, A., & Borchers, C., 10/5/12, “Questions on challenger’s idea to cap tax deductions,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Kranish, M., 9/21/12, “Candidates leave much unsaid on tax plans,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Rowland, C., 10/15/12, “GOP faith unshaken in supply-side tax policies,” The Boston Globe

[5]      Bivens, J., & Fieldhouse, A., 9/26/12, “Who would promote job growth most in the near term?” The Century Foundation

ADDRESSING THE DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: The federal government’s deficit does need to be addressed, but doing so precipitously and in the wrong ways will hurt the economic recovery. Spending cuts and tax increases that have the least negative impact on jobs and the economy should be used. Given these criteria, four items come to the top of the list: 1) A financial transaction tax, 2) Cuts in military spending, 3) Reversing tax cuts and loopholes for high income individuals, and 4) Closing tax loopholes for profitable corporations. These four policy changes would eliminate the roughly $1 trillion per year deficit.

 I urge you to determine where candidates for election stand on these measures as alternatives to the “fiscal cliff”. After the election, I urge you to contact your elected representatives to let them know where you stand and to ask them their position on these issues.

FULL POST: The federal government’s deficit does need to be addressed, but doing so precipitously and in the wrong ways will hurt the economic recovery. Specifically, the austerity approach of across the board budget cuts and tax increases, as in the 12/31/12 US deficit reduction “fiscal cliff” (see 9/19/12 blog post) and as currently being implemented in Europe, would hurt job creation and likely push our economy back into a recession, as is happening in Europe.

Selected spending cuts and tax increases that have the least negative impact on jobs and the economy should be used, as opposed to the broad ones of the “fiscal cliff.” Spending cuts in areas that have seen significant recent increases and the reversing of recent tax cuts should be prioritized. Fairness should also be considered.

Given these criteria, four items come to the top of the list:

  • A financial transaction tax
  • Cuts in military spending
  • Reversing tax cuts and loopholes for high income individuals
  • Closing tax loopholes for profitable corporations

These four policy changes would eliminate the roughly $1 trillion per year deficit. Here’s some detail on each of them.

A financial transaction tax (FTT) could generate $500 billion of revenue per year with a very low tax rate of between 0.1% and 0.5% on financial transactions (i.e., between $1.00 and $5.00 on the purchase or sale of each $1,000 worth of stocks, bonds, currency, commodities, or other financial instruments, including “derivatives”). If such a tax were applied very broadly to all financial transactions (there are over $1 quadrillion of financial transactions each year in the US), a 0.1% tax would actually generate over $1 trillion and eliminate the full deficit by itself. [1] A bill to create a FTT tax has been introduced in Congress. It would generate an estimated $350 billion per year. Most of us pay a sales tax on many of our purchases, so why shouldn’t there be a sales tax on Wall St. transactions? (More on the FTT in my next post.)

Military spending could be reduced without jeopardizing national security because:

  • We are winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ($170 billion in 2011),
  • Military spending has more than doubled since 2001 (increasing almost $400 billion per year and more in percentage terms than any other component of the federal budget),
  • There is significant waste (easily tens of billions each year) in the military budget (some of it pork barrel spending to favor specific Congressional districts), and
  • The US alone spends over 40% of all global military expenditures and three times what our European allies spend relative to the size of their economies. (See blog post of 11/17/11.)

 Furthermore, military spending produces fewer jobs than just about any other kind of public spending. Overall, phasing in cuts to military spending of $100 – $200 billion per year would be quite reasonable.

Personal income tax rates have been reduced significantly over the last 30 years and most recently in 2001 and 2003. Since 1981, tax rates on high incomes (the cut off has varied between incomes over $200,000 and over $400,000) have been cut in half (from 70% to 35% on regular income). The lowest rate has been cut from 14% or 15% to 10%. Note that if you have taxable income of $1 million, the reduction from 70% to 35% puts $350,000 in your pocket every year. (See blog post of 11/27/11 for more detail.)

Reversing the tax cuts of 2001 – 2003 for those with incomes over $250,000 would generate $200 billion per year. If The Buffet Rule were implemented, eliminating loopholes and special tax benefits so that those with the top 10% of incomes actually paid at least 30% in income tax, revenue of $450 billion would be generated.

The corporate income tax rate today is 35%, down from 46% in the late 1980s. The effective tax rate (what is actually paid) was 18.5% in a recent study of 280 large, profitable corporations; down from 26.5% in the late 1980s. (See blog post of 11/5/11 for more detail.) If corporations actually paid the 35% rate an additional $500 billion in revenue would be generated. If they paid an effective rate of 22.5%, which was the average between 1987 and 2008, revenue would increase by $250 billion.

In summary, four manageable steps that would return us to the status quo of the 1990s and add a financial transactions tax from the 1960s, both periods when the economy was doing very well, would eliminate the $1 trillion deficit:

  • A financial transaction tax: $350 – $500 billion
  • Cuts in military spending: $100 – $200 billion
  • Reversing tax cuts and loopholes for high income individuals: $200 – $450 billion
  • Closing tax loopholes for profitable corporations: $250 billion
  • TOTAL: $900 billion – $1.4 trillion

These steps, some phased in over time, would result in federal budget surpluses (as occurred in the 1990s). They would strengthen our economy and reduce inequality. None of them are radical; they simply reinstitute previous policies.

I urge you to determine where candidates for election stand on these measures as alternatives to the “fiscal cliff” that is in place for December 31, 2012. (See 9/19/12 blog post.) And after the election, I urge you to contact your elected representatives to let them know where you stand and to ask them their position on these issues.


[1]       Buchheit, P., 8/27/12, “Add it up: Taxes avoided by the rich could pay off the deficit,” http://www.CommonDreams.org/view/2012/08/27

THE “FISCAL CLIFF” AND THE ECONOMY

ABSTRACT: The federal budget’s “fiscal cliff” is looming on December 31, 2012. If Congress and the President let us fall over its edge, it will significantly harm our fragile economy. It cuts annual spending by about $100 billion per year and increases taxes by about $350 billion per year. The result would be a significant reduction in the annual deficit, from about $1 trillion to about $600 billion. However it would also negatively affect the economy: a recession or projected growth of only 0.5% versus growth of between 1.7% and 4.4% if the fiscal cliff were completely eliminated. The negative impact on the economy would make it harder, over the longer-term, to reduce the deficit.

There are many ways to soften the cliff’s impact. One would be to eliminate the tax increase on income under $250,000. Another would be reducing the spending cuts. It’s clear that the US government’s stimulus package helped soften the US recession; it’s equally clear that austerity is not a route to economic recovery. Austerity in Europe has turned a slow recovery into a stalled economy with recession in some countries. We need to call on Congress and the President to soften the fiscal cliff. Right now, the primary focus needs to be on strengthening the economy and creating jobs, which, over the longer-term, will help reduce the deficit.

FULL POST: The federal budget’s “fiscal cliff” is looming on December 31, 2012. If Congress and the President let us fall over its edge, it will significantly harm our fragile economy. Under current law, annual spending cuts of about $100 billion per year would occur and the Bush tax cuts of 2001 through 2003 would expire, which would result in an annual tax increase of about $350 billion.

The result would be a significant reduction in the annual deficit, from about $1 trillion to about $600 billion. However, it would also negatively affect the economy; projections range from a recession (i.e., negative economic growth as economic output shrinks) to growth of only 0.5%. If the fiscal cliff is completely eliminated, in other words if all the tax cuts are extended and the spending cuts are eliminated, projected economic growth would be between 1.7% and 4.4%. [1][2] The negative impact on the economy would make it harder, over the longer-term, to reduce the deficit.

There are, of course, many ways to soften the impact on the economy and on specific groups or agencies. The fiscal cliff’s increased taxes would affect almost everyone and, therefore, hurt consumer spending. Some people are proposing eliminating the tax increase on income under $250,000. This would reduce the tax increase to about $200 billion per year (instead of $350 billion). In addition, it would significantly reduce the impact on our economy (which is 70% consumer spending) because those with incomes over $250,000, who would see their taxes increase, spend only a fraction of their income on goods and services in the local economy. The real job creators in our economy are the vast middle class; their consumer spending is businesses’ revenue and increased business revenue is what leads to job creation. [3]

Reducing the spending cuts would soften their impact. The fiscal cliff’s spending cuts would be split roughly evenly between the military and social programs. Some of the loudest voices arguing for reducing the spending cuts are opposing the $50 billion cut to military spending despite the facts that:

  • Military spending has more than doubled since 2001,
  • We’re winding down two wars, and
  • This represents less than 7% of the over $700 billion per year military budget, which is roughly half of discretionary spending.

One argument that is being put forth is that a cut to military spending would cost jobs. Ironically, this argument is being put forward by many of the same people who have said that government spending doesn’t create jobs and that the way to improve the economy and create jobs is to cut government spending. Yes, cutting military spending will cost jobs in the military-industrial complex. But because military spending creates fewer jobs per dollar than other types of spending, cutting it will cost fewer jobs than cuts in other areas, or, if these cuts will allow spending elsewhere, more jobs will be created than those lost, resulting in a net gain in jobs. [4] (See 11/17/11 post: Defense spending: Can we afford to cut it?)

It’s clear that the US government’s stimulus package helped soften the US recession; it’s equally clear that austerity – cutting government spending and benefits often while raising taxes in an effort to reduce government deficits – is not a route to economic recovery. [5] While deficits do need to be addressed over the longer term, doing so while our economy is weak will only exacerbate the problem. Austerity in Europe has turned the slow recovery of 2009 into, at best, a stalled economy and recession or even depression in some countries. Demands for austerity in exchange for financial aid have occurred five times in Europe, with Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy. Each time the austerity measures have deepened the economic crisis and weakened the country’s economy. Cutting public spending and benefits, while increasing taxes, decreases employment and incomes. This reduces consumer spending which hurts businesses and kills jobs. As a result, tax revenue falls, increasing (not reducing) government deficits. [6]

We need to call on Congress and the President to soften the fiscal cliff. Right now, the primary focus needs to be on strengthening the economy and creating jobs, which, over the longer-term, will help reduce the deficit. There is ample evidence that austerity will only make the economy and the deficit problem worse.

My next post will examine strategies for reducing the deficit in both the short and the long-term that would be less damaging to the economy than the fiscal cliff.


[1]       Businessweek, 8/2/12, “A decade of tax cuts and deficits,” Bloomberg Businessweek

[2]       Lipschutz, N., 8/22/12, “Even if ‘fiscal cliff’ gets resolved, outlook is anemic,” The Wall Street Journal

[3]       Reich, R., 8/30/12, “Labor Day 2012 and the election of 2012: It’s inequality, stupid,” http://www.RobertReich.org

[4]       Pemberton, M., 8/16/12, “Top 10 myths of the jobs argument against military cuts,” Institute for Policy Studies

[5]       Loth, R., 9/1/12, “The value of public-sector jobs,” The Boston Globe

[6]       Kuttner, R., 9/10/12, “Angela Merkel’s bad medicine,” The American Prospect

OUR SLOW ECONOMIC RECOVERY

ABSTRACT: Our economy is recovering slowly, as would be expected after such a deep recession and the near collapse of the financial system. Most economists agree that the federal government’s stimulus package aided the recovery by increasing employment by about 3 million jobs. Since the recovery began in 2009, the private sector has added 4.5 million jobs. The loss of public sector jobs, however, has been a drag on the recovery; over 600,000 jobs have been lost since 2009, including over 200,000 teachers. Without these job losses, the unemployment rate would be about 0.5% lower, or roughly 7.6%. Regardless of some people’s rhetoric, a public sector job puts money into a family and the economy the same way a private sector job does.

The current rate of economic growth is too slow to generate enough jobs to quickly and significantly reduce the unemployment rate. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently made a forceful argument that additional steps are needed to stimulate the economy and attack high unemployment. The implied message is that stimulus through spending by the federal government would make sense and that cuts in government spending would not help economic growth or unemployment reduction.

FULL POST: Our economy was the subject of much rhetoric at the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. The reality is that the economy is recovering slowly, as would be expected after such a deep recession and the near collapse of the financial system. Most economists agree that the federal government’s stimulus package aided the recovery by increasing employment by about 3 million jobs and keeping the unemployment rate lower than it would have been (by about 2%).

The recovery began in mid-2009. The private sector has added 4.5 million jobs with net increases in each of the last 29 months. However, this is only half of the 9 million jobs lost in the recession and unemployment is still high at 8.1%. The worst month for job losses was January 2009 when over 800,000 jobs were lost just as President Obama was taking office.

The loss of public sector jobs has been a drag on the recovery; over 600,000 jobs have been lost since 2009, including over 200,000 teachers. The public sector continues to lose roughly 10,000 jobs per month, including teachers, firefighters, police, and other local, state, and federal government workers. Without these job losses, the unemployment rate would be about 0.5% lower, or roughly 7.6%. [1][2] Regardless of some people’s rhetoric, a public sector job is a job and puts money into a family and the economy the same way a private sector job does.

Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, who has studied recessions historically and globally, says the pace of the current recovery is consistent with what would be expected after this recession, which continues to reverberate around the globe. Economies damaged by financial crises recover more slowly and the brinkmanship in Congress over increasing the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 created an additional drag on the recovery. The recovery after the 2001 recession (one of four in the last 30 years) actually experienced even slower job growth than the current recession.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics and advisor to Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, notes that the economy’s problems were brought on by Wall Street’s recklessness and that “government saved our bacon. … the cost [to the economy] would have been measurably … greater had the government not interceded.” [3]

Nonetheless, the rate of economic growth has been too slow to generate enough jobs to quickly and significantly reduce the unemployment rate, let alone the numbers of underemployed workers and those who have given up looking for a job and therefore are not counted in the unemployment figures. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently made a forceful argument that additional steps are needed to stimulate the economy and attack high unemployment. He noted that the likely benefits outweigh the potential costs. However, monetary policy from the Federal Reserve has limited ability to stimulate the economy at this point because interest rates, the main tool at its disposal, are already extremely low. Therefore, the Federal Reserve may take other, nontraditional steps. [4] The implied message is that stimulus through spending by the federal government would also make sense and that cuts in government spending would not help economic growth or unemployment reduction.


[1]       Loth, R., 9/1/12, “The value of public-sector jobs,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Woolhouse, M., 9/9/12, “Recovery slow, fits post-crisis pattern,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Quoted in Woolhouse, 9/9/12, see above

[4]       Appelbaum, B., 9/1/12, “Fed chief makes a detailed case for a stimulus,” The New York Times

CORPORATE RIGHTS IN TRADE TREATIES

ABSTRACT: The “Investor State Dispute Settlement” provisions in the draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty (TPP) give an investor (generally a multi-national corporation) the right to sue a government directly for compensation for any negative effect on its profits of any law or regulation. These suits are decided by international tribunals and raise significant concern that they can undermine public health, environmental protection, human rights, and management of economic activity. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), these tribunals have required governments to pay more than $350 million to corporations and there are more than $12 billion in pending cases. Cases involve food and cigarette labeling; pesticides, drugs, and health care; and pollution and toxic waste. Australia has announced it will stop supporting the inclusion of investor state dispute settlement provisions in trade treaties.

We need openness and debate during the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty to ensure that protections for workers and the middle class are at least as strong as they are for corporations and the investor class. “At stake is nothing less than a democratic society’s ability to regulate a market economy in the broad public interest.” [1]

FULL POST: The “Investor State Dispute Settlement” provisions in the draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty (TPP), as well as in North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and numerous other treaties, give an investor (generally a multi-national corporation) the right to sue a government directly for compensation for any negative effect on its profits of any law or regulation. These suits are decided by international tribunals made up of three trade lawyers from the private sector who hear the cases and have the power to order trade sanctions or unlimited amounts in fines payable by governments to corporations. The lawyers rotate between serving as the tribunals’ judges and representing the corporations bringing the suits, thereby earning income from the corporations bringing the suits. The tribunals are conducted in secret with no accountability to the public and taking into account only the claim to profits, not health, environmental, or other concerns. [2][3]

Traditionally, international law has been used to settle disputes between countries, while a corporation was required to pursue a dispute in the courts of the country concerned. However, trade and investment treaties, of which there are now over 2,000 worldwide, typically give foreign investors (generally corporations) the right to bypass local court systems and directly sue governments. NAFTA expanded these rights and the TPP draft expands them further. (Note that these treaties allow companies to sue governments but not the reverse.) [4]

The investor state dispute settlement provisions in these treaties raise significant concern that they can undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to implement policies on public health, environmental protection, human rights, and management of economic activity. [5] Laws and regulations that could be attacked include Buy American provisions in government contracting, requirements that energy come from renewable sources, regulation of financial products and companies, and anti-sweat shops rules.

Based on suits under NAFTA, international tribunals have required governments to pay more than $350 million to corporations based on issues such as bans on toxic substances and land-use policies. There are more than $12 billion in pending cases under US trade treaties. [6] Through 2011, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development had identified 450 lawsuits brought by companies against governments under trade and investment treaties. These are the known cases (see some examples below); most are kept secret. Argentina had the most cases (51), many related to its financial crisis and the privatization of water. It has been required to pay over $1 billion to multi-national corporations. [7]

Based on its experiences, Australia announced in 2011 it would stop supporting the inclusion of investor state dispute settlement provisions in trade treaties. It stated that it supported equal treatment of domestic and foreign business, but felt that these provisions provided greater legal rights to foreign businesses. Furthermore, it stated that it would not support these provisions because they constrained its ability to make laws on social, environmental, and economic matters. Finally, it noted that these provisions had been included at the behest of Australian businesses seeking protections when they entered foreign markets. It stated that if Australian businesses had concerns about investing in foreign countries, they should make there own assessments and decisions and not look to trade treaties for protection. [8]

In the US, concerns about previous trade and investment treaties led to press coverage, debate, and stopping them: the 1998 Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the 2005 Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the original efforts at an Asian-Pacific free trade area. We need openness and debate during the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty. We need to ensure that protections for workers and the middle class are at least as strong as they are for corporations and the investor class. [9]At stake is nothing less than a democratic society’s ability to regulate a market economy in the broad public interest.” [10]

Examples of investor state dispute settlements include:

  •  The World Trade Organization (WTO) recently ruled that the US cannot require country of origin labeling on meat. Canada and Mexico brought suit against the policy and now will be able to impose trade sanctions on the US if it does not comply with the ruling. Not only will consumers not know where their meat is coming from but public health personnel will have a harder time tracking down the source if health problems occur. [11]
  • In 2012, the WTO ruled against US dolphin-safe tuna labeling and against a US ban on clove, candy, and cola flavored cigarettes.
  • Foreign manufacturers of generic drugs have sued the US government claiming US patent laws and court decisions have prevented them from marketing their generic versions of drugs.
  • A US health care provider has sued Canada, challenging its Canada Health Act, as interfering with its ability to provide services and make profits in Canada.
  • Two US manufacturers of pesticides have sued Canada based on its ban of certain pesticides.
  • Philip Morris, the multi-national tobacco company, has sued Australia and Uruguay over health warnings and advertizing on cigarette packages, even though their regulations are in compliance with and encouraged by the World Health Organization’s convention on tobacco control.
  • Ecuador was required to pay Chevron $78 million because its efforts to protect the Amazon from pollution were found to have negatively affected Chevron’s profits.
  • A Swedish energy company is threatening to sue Germany for its decision to phase out nuclear energy. It previously challenged a German standard on the increase in river water temperatures at its coal-fired power plant and got Germany to relax the standard.
  • Mexico was required to pay $17 million to US-based Metalclad because a local government refused to give it a permit to build a toxic waste dump.


[1]       Wallach, L., 3/13/12, “A stealth attack on democratic governance,” The American Prospect

[2]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/18/12, “Investor state dispute settlement,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investor_state_dispute_settlement

[3]       Wallach, L., 3/13/12, “A stealth attack on democratic governance,” The American Prospect

[4]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/18/12, see above

[5]       Wallach, L., 3/13/12, see above

[6]       Wallach, L., 3/13/12, see above

[7]       Agazzi, I., 5/7/12, “Global corporations undermining democracy worldwide,” Inter Press Service

[8]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/18/12, see above

[9]       Faux, J., 3/13/12, “The myth of the level playing field,” The American Prospect

[10]     Wallach, L., 3/13/12, see above

[11]     Public Citizen, 6/29/12, “WTO rules against yet another US consumer protection policy,” Public Citizen

TRADE AGREEMENTS PAST AND PRESENT

ABSTRACT: Past trade agreements have not lived up to their promises of new, good jobs for Americans and increased exports. While they have provided cheaper goods for us to buy, they have reduced jobs and put downward pressure on wages in the U.S., while increasing our trade deficit. [1] They have undermined U.S. laws protecting workers, the environment, and public health.

The currently under-negotiation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears to be taking all of this a step further. TPP negotiations are being kept secret, although corporate representatives are fully involved. The big winners under past trade agreements and the TPP (as drafted) are multi-national corporations. The TPP negotiations and draft documents must be open to the public and Congress. This will ensure that various interests are appropriately balanced and that corporate interests don’t dominate.

FULL POST: First, a little history. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed in 1993. The best estimates are that NAFTA has resulted in the loss of almost 700,000 jobs in the US. Our trade deficit with the other participants, Canada and Mexico, has increased from $9 billion to $101 billion. [2][3] In the 20 years since China joined the World Trade Organization, 2.9 million jobs have been offshored to China, many of them well-paying manufacturing jobs. “[S]tate-subsidized Chinese production [has] decimated American industry and reduced the incomes of American workers.” [4] Our trade deficit with China has grown from $13 billion in 1991 to $295 billion in 2011. [5] “[I]n the past, the U.S. trade imbalance has widened after each new agreement. … U.S. businesses … profit immensely from outsourcing and offshoring … Nor is there any apparent economic benefit to the United States.” [6] “Historically, trade deals like NAFTA … are associated with economic displacement and instability, the erosion of labor and human rights standards, and the subordination of national sovereignty to foreign investors.” [7]

The current Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations (13 negotiating meetings over two years) involve Australia, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and other countries. TPP is actually much more than a traditional trade agreement and the negotiations have been conducted in secret because US Trade Representative Ron Kirk has indicated that he believes the only way to complete the deal is to keep it secret. (Negotiators have agreed not to release negotiating documents until four years after the deal is completed or abandoned.) Although 600 corporate representatives serve as official US trade advisors and have full access to the negotiations, the US Senate committee with jurisdiction over TPP has been denied access to the negotiations. [8][9]

Recently, two of the 26 chapters of the draft agreement were leaked. The TPP draft text includes:

  • International rights for pharmaceutical corporations that would prohibit generic versions of drugs in developing countries, dramatically increasing drug prices and reducing access [10]
  • Further financial industry deregulation
  • Prohibition on controlling the flow of money among countries and other measures designed to limit negative effects of financial speculation
  • Increased protection for foreign investors
  • Incentives for US firms to offshore jobs and investment
  • Provisions that favor foreign corporations (including government subsidized ones) over domestic ones
  • Provisions allowing corporations, including foreign corporations, to assert control over natural resources
  • Expansion of NAFTA’s international tribunals where corporations can sue governments if laws or regulations that protect the public interest (e.g., health, safety, and the environment) might have a negative affect on profits (More on this in my next post.)

Wallach sums up TPP with these words: “Countries would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to TPP’s rules – in effect a corporate coup d’état.” [11]

We need to know more about the TPP draft. And we need to apply what we’ve learned from past experience with trade agreements so intended results are achieved and various interests are more appropriately balanced. The US is a democracy; therefore the TPP negotiations and draft documents must be open to the public and to Congress. Then, there can be open discussion and debate about its provisions and its balancing of various interests – those of the public, workers, corporations, investors, local communities, and countries. We need to ensure that corporate power doesn’t run roughshod over other interests.


[1]       Faux, J., 3/13/12, “The myth of the level playing field,” The American Prospect

[2]       Hindery, L., 5/1/12, “Free trade run amok: the TPP,” The Huffington Post

[3]       D’Amico, S.J., 7/10/11, “Trade deals are no deals for the US,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Lind, M., Dec. 2011, “The cost of free trade,” The American Prospect

[5]       U.S. Census Bureau, retrieved 7/16/12, “Trade in goods with China,” http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html

[6]       Prestowitz, C., 3/13/12, “The pacific pivot,” The American Prospect

[7]       Chen, M., 6/21/12, “Backdoor talks on trans-Pacific trade deal aim to globalize corporatocracy,” In These Times

[8]       Wallach, L., 7/3/12, “NAFTA on steroids: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a global coup d’état,” The Nation

[9]       Chen, M., 6/21/12, see above

[10]     Common Dreams, 7/10/12, “Obama’s trade policy ensures big pharma profit at expense of world’s poor,” http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/07/10-2

[11]     Wallach, L., 7/3/12, see above

THE ROLE OF LABOR UNIONS

Here’s issue #37 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 6/28/12. Labor unions have been in the news quite a bit lately. This issue focuses on the role of unions in our society and economy.

Labor unions allow workers to approach employers as a group to discuss working conditions, pay, benefits, and other workplace issues. This affects the balance of power between workers and employers.

If you as an individual employee approach your employer about any of these issues, for example, receiving paid sick days if you currently had none, where does the balance of power lie? With the employer, of course. But if workers as a group approach the employer about such issues the balance of power is quite different.

Pay is probably the first item that comes to mind when thinking about employer – employee issues. There is lots of evidence that when employees are members of unions and bargain collectively on pay, they average 10 – 30% higher pay after controlling for other important variables. [1]

Employee pay is ultimately about how the profits of a business are divvied up among front-line or on-the-floor workers, senior executives and managers, and owners (which may be senior executives or stockholders). The balance of power among these groups affects how the rewards of the business are split. If workers participate in the discussion as a group, i.e., as members of a union, the result will be different, as indicated by hard evidence, common sense, and economic theory. Highly visible examples of this have been the negotiations between professional athletes and team owners in basketball most recently, but also in football, baseball, and hockey.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that as union membership in the private sector has dropped dramatically (from 34%in 1954 to 7% today [2]), income inequality has widened. Senior executives and stockholders have gotten much richer, while the rest of us have barely maintained our standard of living. The share of profits going to workers’ pay is the smallest it’s been since tracking began in 1947. [3]

This has not just increased in income inequality, but has undermined the middle class broadly. Union members’ pay and benefits used to set a standard in many sectors of the economy and to some extent for the economy as a whole. Non-union workers would receive similar compensation because there was competition in the job market, so companies with non-union workforces had to pay competitively to attract good workers. As union membership has declined, this is less of a factor in the job market and therefore there is downward pressure on wages and benefits.

The erosion in benefits has been very visible. Fewer and fewer workers have company managed pension plans, which were standard for union workers. And workers are paying more and more for their health care. Reductions in job security and increasing use of part-time workers are also partially the result of decreased union membership. Other issues that unions over the years have had an impact on are the length of the work week, overtime rules, availability of paid vacation and sick time, safety in the workplace (there are an estimated 58,000 workplace related deaths each year [4]), the minimum wage, unemployment and workplace injury compensation, how layoffs are handled, unfair or arbitrary actions by supervisors, and discrimination in hiring, pay, and promotions in the workplace.

Without or with weakened unions, union and non-union employees have less power and employers have more power. As a result, workers are likely to receive less pay, fewer benefits, and experience less desirable working conditions.

The next issue of the newsletter will address the reasons for the decline in private sector union membership.


[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 4/23/12, “Labor unions in theUS,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_unions_in_the_Unitede_States

[2]       Bureau of LaborStatistics,US Dept. of Labor, 1/27/12, “Union members – 2011”

[3]       Reich, R., 3/2/12, “Bye bye American pie: The challenge of the productivity revolution,” retrieved on 3/3/12 from www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/02-6

[4]       Nader, R., 3/30/12, “If big labor would fight millions would join them on the ramparts,” retrieved at http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/30-5

STUDENT DEBT: THE NEXT MIDDLE CLASS CRISIS?

Here’s issue #34 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 6/6/12. It examines the rising levels of student debt.

Total student debt topped $1 trillion dollars recently (surpassing credit card debt) with borrowing exceeding $100 billion for the first time in 2010. The average 2010 graduating senior who had a student loan owed a little over $25,000 and 17% of graduating seniors’ parents had loans, and they averaged $34,000. Family incomes, grants, and public investments in higher education have not kept up with rising higher education costs, and therefore the use of loans has increased. Use by older students has grown as they pursue re-training and further education in an effort to increase their chances of landing a good job. Parents are taking on increasing debt to support their children’s education (roughly 10% of the total or $100 billion) and increasing numbers of seniors who are receiving Social Security owe money on student loans.

There is growing concern that student loan defaults could become a problem for lenders. Among members of the Class of 2005 who had begun repaying loans, an estimated 25% have missed at least one payment, making them delinquent, and 15-20% have defaulted, having been delinquent for nine months or more. Once default has occurred, the full amount of the loan is due immediately and interest, penalties, and fees can accumulate. Also, for federal government loans, the borrower loses eligibility for loan forgiveness and future aid, and can also have wages, tax refunds, and federal benefits (including Social Security) garnished. There is no statute of limitations (as there is for most crimes except murder and treason), so borrowers are responsible for the loan literally forever.

There is no relief from student loans under bankruptcy except under very rare and difficult to assert hardship situations. Prior to 1976, student loans were forgiven in bankruptcy, but since then bankruptcy laws have been tightened and in 2005, in a major rewriting of the bankruptcy laws (with a big push by financial institutions wanting to make it harder for consumers to escape credit card debt), student loans were made “non-dischargeable” except for “undue hardship.” This provision was slipped into the 2005 law by an unidentified lawmaker with no hearings or public discussion. After the law was passed but before it went into effect, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that this student loan provision be repealed because less than 1% of student loans were being discharged in bankruptcy. However, repeal never happened. [1]

The student loan debt burden is hampering the economic recovery; it dampens consumer spending, which is what drives our economy. The middle class is getting squeezed again. It is struggling to maintain its standard of living through higher education but can only afford it with increased debt. With high unemployment, jobs that reward education and allow students to pay off their debt are hard to get. The middle class has no economic margin. If they have jobs, wages and benefits are stagnant at best, and families have increased work hours as much as possible. Home prices are depressed with no equity to tap and credit card debt is high. Defaulting on student debt could be the next crisis for middle class families – and for lenders. Long-term delinquency rates on student loans (around 9%) are already higher than they are for mortgages, auto loans, and home equity lines of credit. [2]

In the midst of this, the interest rate on federal student loans will double, from 3.4% to 6.8%, on July 1 unless Congress acts. This will affect 7.4 million students. The cost for keeping the rate at 3.4% is about $6 billion in lost revenue. (This is less than 0.2% of the federal budget of $3.8 trillion including Social Security and Medicare.) Despite the fact that the federal government can currently borrow money at rates well below 3%, in the current political and fiscal environment every reduction in projected revenue must be offset. The fight in Congress is, ostensibly, over how to pay for the cost. The Republicans have proposed cutting preventive health care programs in the new health care law. This was defeated. The Democrats’ version had 51 votes but was filibustered by the Republicans. [3]

In addition, to keeping the interest rate low, advocates are calling for reinstating bankruptcy relief, a reasonable statute of limitations on loan collection, and controls on private interest rates and collection practices. [4] [5]


[1]       National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, 2/7/12, “The student loan ‘debt bomb’:America’s next mortgage-style economic crisis?”

[2]       Common Dreams, 5/31/12, “Student debt explodes, climbing 275% since 2003,” www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/05/31-8

[3]       Associated Press, 5/26/12, “Senate rejects two plans on student loan rates,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Brown, E., 5/11/12, “Indentured servitude for seniors: Social Security garnished for student debts,” Common Dreams, www.commondreams.org/view/2012/01/11-8

[5]       National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, 2/7/12, see above

SPURRING ECONOMIC RECOVERY

Here’s issue #30 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 5/15/12. The US government budget process and the elections in Europe have focused attention on how government can best spur economic recovery.

There are basically two schools of thought on how governments can spur economic recovery:

  • Austerity: cut spending, raise taxes, and have tight monetary policy (i.e., high interest rates)
  • Stimulate: increase or maintain spending, cut taxes, and have loose monetary policy (i.e., low interest rates)

The theory behind the austerity approach is that it will spur consumer and business confidence so they will increase spending and grow the economy. In addition, government spending and borrowing (i.e., deficits) take money out of the private economy. The theory behind the stimulate approach is that when consumers and the private sector are not spending enough to grow the economy, the government should step in and spend, even if it creates deficits in the short run.

In the short run, cuts in government spending eliminate jobs, either those of public sector workers or those of the workers who provide the goods or services purchased. Those goods and services may be purchased directly by governments (e.g., military equipment or construction of highways) or by the beneficiaries of government benefits (e.g., purchases by those receiving unemployment benefits or food stamps). In the US, the public sector, primarily state and local governments, are laying off about 10,000 workers a month because of reduced spending. This hurts efforts to reduce unemployment and the economic recovery.

On the other hand, government spending does create jobs; the best estimates are that the 2009 federal stimulus package created roughly 3 million jobs and kept the unemployment rate 2% lower than it would have been otherwise. (See newsletter #26, Economic Recovery: How and for Whom.)

In the US, the federal government initially took the stimulate approach, increasing spending and cutting taxes while moving interest rates to near zero to stimulate business and consumer borrowing. Now, the approach is shifting toward austerity with calls for reducing the federal deficit by cutting spending as evidenced by the budget deal last August and the budget recently passed by the House.

In the Eurozone and Great Britain, the austerity approach was adopted. The 17 Eurozone countries have slipped back into recession and Britain is tottering on the edge of recession, while the US has seen slow growth for eleven consecutive quarters. As Paul Krugman puts it, “the confidence fairy doesn’t exist – … claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the last two years.” [1]

Although everyone agrees that the US government must address its deficit, the question is when. Many economists and Federal Reserve officials believe that austerity now would hurt the US economy and that we should stimulate the economy first and tackle deficits after the economy strengthens. [2] Keep in mind that when the economy strengthens, more jobs, more production, and more sales will increase tax revenues and automatically begin to reduce the deficit.

The evidence seems pretty clear, both from current experience and the Great Depression, that in the short run austerity doesn’t work and that government spending spurs job creation and economic recovery. However, it appears that ideology is overwhelming the facts in both the US and Europe.


[1]       Krugman, P., 5/7/12, “Those revolting Europeans: How dare the French and Greeks reject a failed strategy!” The New York Times

[2]       Fitzgerald, J., 5/13/12, “Austerity vs. stimulus debate revived by elections inEurope,” The Boston Globe

ECONOMIC RECOVERY: HOW AND FOR WHOM

Here’s issue #26 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 3/31/12. The previous two issues examined the 2008 collapse of US financial firms that caused our current recession. This issue looks at the beginning of an economic recovery.

The US economy is beginning to recover from the Great Recession. It grew at an annual rate of 3% in the 4th quarter of 2011. That’s the good news. However, this growth is still too slow to generate the jobs needed to significantly reduce the high levels of unemployment any time soon.

The bad news is that the portion of household income growth going to workers is at a record low. Although the economy is producing more goods and services than before the recession began, it’s doing so with 6 million fewer workers. That reflects increased productivity, which could mean that everyone would be better off. However, due to public policies (including tax rates) and the weakening of unions, the bulk of the growth in incomes is going to managers and investors, and not to workers. [1]

In the current recovery (2009 – 2010), incomes have grown 2.3% (adjusted for inflation). However, the incomes of the top 1% have grown by 11.6% while the incomes of the bottom 99% have only grown 0.2%. In other words, 93% of the income growth of the current recovery has gone to the 1% with the highest incomes. [2]

The recovery has been slow because consumers don’t have the money to buy much. And consumer spending is 70% of our economy. [3] Our economy needs large numbers of middle and lower-income families with the purchasing power to buy more goods and services; the rich are too few in numbers and save more of their income than anyone else, so giving them more money and purchasing power is not nearly as effective a way to stimulate the economy.

Cuts in government spending are undermining the recovery. State and local governments are laying off about 10,000 workers a month because of reduced revenue and resultant deficits. Similarly, reducing the federal deficit at a time of high unemployment will not help the economy because budget cuts do not create jobs; rather they lead to public sector layoffs and reduced purchases of good and services by government. [4]

The federal government’s stimulus spending did create jobs and reduce the severity of the recession. 80% of economists believe the stimulus increased employment. [5] The best estimates are that it created roughly 3 million jobs and kept the unemployment rate 2% lower than it would have been otherwise. [6] [7] In particular, support for low income households appears to have been an extremely effective way to stimulate the economy and create jobs because these individuals are highly likely to spend their money in the short-term in the local economy. Infrastructure projects, such as highway construction projects, appear to have been nearly as effective. [8] The federal stimulus money that went to states helped them reduce their budget cutting and layoffs. However, the stimulus spending is over and additional government spending to stimulate the economy does not appear likely, to say the least, even though the lessons of the Great Depression would seem to strongly indicate that such spending would help the recovery.


[1]       Reich, R., 3/2/12, “Bye bye American pie: The challenge of the productivity revolution,” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/02-6

[2]       Saez, E., 3/2/12, “Striking it richer: The evolution of top incomes in theUS,”University ofCalifornia,Berkeley, Department of Economics, http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf

[3]       Reich, R., 9/30/11, “America faces a jobs depression,” The Guardian, http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/09/30-9

[4]       Krugman, P., 1/29/12, “The austerity debacle,” The New York Times

[5]       The American Prospect, 2/21/12, “The balance sheet”

[6]       Atcheson, J., 2/20/12, “US running on myths, lies, deceptions, and distractions,” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/02/20-0

[7]       Stiglitz, J., 9/8/11, “How to putAmerica back to work,” Politico.com

[8]       Feyrer, J., & Sacerdote, B., 1/25/10, “Did the stimulus stimulate? Real time estimates of the American Readjustment and Recovery Act,”DartmouthCollege and the National Bureau of Economic Research