by Robert Reich
The old Democratic Party has become a giant fundraising machine, too often reflecting the goals and values of the moneyed interests.
It has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts, and pollsters who have focused on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper middle-class households in “swing” suburbs.
The election of 2016 has repudiated the old Democratic Party.
We need a New Democratic Party capable of organizing and mobilizing Americans in opposition to Donald Trump’s Republican party, which is about to take over all three branches of the U.S. government.
A New Democratic Party that will turn millions of people into an activist army to peacefully resist what is about to happen – providing them with daily explanations of what is occurring in Trump’s administration, along with tasks that individuals and groups can do to stop or mitigate their harmful effects.
A party that will protect vulnerable populations from harassment and exclusion – including undocumented young people, recent immigrants, people of color, and women.
A party that will recruit a new generation of progressive candidates to run at the local, state, and national levels in 2018 and beyond, including a leader to take on Trump in 2020.
A party that will do everything possible to advance the progressive agenda at state and local levels – getting big money out of politics, reversing widening inequality, expanding health care, reversing climate change, ending the militarization of our police and the mass incarceration of our people, and stopping interminable and open-ended warfare.
What happened in America on Election Day should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure, including the old Democratic Party.
That power structure wrote off Bernie Sanders as an aberration, and, until recently, didn’t take Trump seriously.
And it doesn’t have a clue about what was happening to most Americans. A respected Democratic political insider recently told me most people were largely content with the status quo. “The economy is in good shape,” he said. “Most Americans are better off than they’ve been in years.”
Wrong. Recent economic indicators may be up, but those indicators don’t reflect the insecurity most Americans continue to feel, nor the seeming arbitrariness and unfairness they experience.
Nor do the major indicators show the linkages many Americans see between wealth and power, stagnant or declining real wages, soaring CEO pay, and the undermining of democracy by big money.
Median family income is lower now than it was 16 years ago, adjusted for inflation. Workers without college degrees – the old working class – have fallen furthest.
Most economic gains, meanwhile, have gone to top. These gains have translated into political power to elicit bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, special tax loopholes, favorable trade deals and increasing market power without interference by anti-monopoly enforcement – all of which have further reduced wages and pulled up profits.
Wealth, power and crony capitalism fit together. Americans know a takeover has occurred, and they blame the establishment for it.
The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes.
Partly as a result, union membership sank from 22% of all workers when Bill Clinton was elected president to less than 12% today, and the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains.
Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ardently pushed for free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who thereby lost their jobs means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.
Democrats also allowed antitrust enforcement to ossify – with the result that large corporations have grown far larger, and major industries more concentrated.
The power structure understandably fears that Trump’s isolationism will stymie economic growth. But most Americans couldn’t care less about growth because for years they have received few of its benefits, while suffering most of its burdens in the forms of lost jobs and lower wages.
The power structure is shocked by the outcome of the 2016 election because it has cut itself off from the lives of most Americans. Perhaps it also doesn’t wish to understand, because that would mean acknowledging its role in enabling the presidency of Donald Trump.
We need a New Democratic Party that will help Americans resist what is about to occur, and rebuild our future.
by Robert Reich
On Friday, President Obama chose Nike headquarters in Oregon to deliver a defense of his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It was an odd choice of venue.
Nike isn’t the solution to the problem of stagnant wages in America. Nike is the problem.
It’s true that over the past two years Nike has added 2,000 good-paying professional jobs at its Oregon headquarters, fulfilling the requirements of a controversial tax break it wrangled from the state legislature. That’s good for Nike’s new design, research and marketing employees.
Just before the President spoke, Nike announced that if the Trans Pacific Partnership is enacted, Nike would “accelerate development of new advanced manufacturing methods and a domestic supply chain to support U.S. based manufacturing,” thereby creating as many as 10,000 more American jobs.
But that would still be only a tiny fraction of Nike’s global workforce. While Nike makes some shoe components in the United States, it hasn’t assembled shoes here since 1984.
Americans made only 1 percent of the value of Nike products that generated Nike’s $27.8 billion revenue last year. And Nike is moving ever more of its production abroad. Last year, a third of Nike’s remaining 13,922 American production workers were laid off.
Most of Nike’s products are made by 990,000 workers in low-wage countries whose abysmal working conditions have made Nike a symbol of global sweatshop labor.
In other words, Nike is a global corporation with no particular loyalty or connection to the United States. Its loyalty is to its global shareholders.
I’m not faulting Nike. Nike is only playing by the rules.
I’m faulting the rules.
In case you hadn’t noticed, America has a huge and growing problem of inequality. Most Americans are earning no more than the typical American earned thirty years ago, adjusted for inflation – even though the U.S. economy is almost twice as large as it was then.
Since then, almost all the economic gains have gone to the top.
The President is angry at Democrats who won’t support this trade deal.
He should be angry at Republicans who haven’t supported American workers. Their obduracy has worsened the potential impact of the deal.
Congressional Republicans have refused to raise the minimum wage (whose inflation-adjusted value is now almost 25 percent lower than it was in 1968), expand unemployment benefits, invest in job training, enlarge the Earned Income Tax Credit, improve the nation’s infrastructure, or expand access to public higher education.
They’ve embraced budget austerity that has slowed job and wage growth. And they’ve continued to push “trickle-down” economics – keeping tax rates low for America’s richest, protecting their tax loopholes, and fighting off any attempt to raise taxes on wealthy inheritances to their level before 2000.
Now they – and the President – want a huge trade agreement that protects corporate investors but will lead to even more off-shoring of low-skilled American jobs.
The Trans Pacific Trade Partnership’s investor protections will make it safer for firms to relocate abroad – the Cato Institute describes such protections as “lowering the risk premium” on offshoring – thereby reducing corporate incentives to keep jobs in America and upgrade the skills of Americans.
Those same investor protections will allow global corporations to sue the United States or any other country that raises its health, safety, environmental, or labor standards, for any lost profits due to those standards.
But there’s nothing in the deal to protect the incomes of Americans.
We know that when Americans displaced from manufacturing jobs join the glut of Americans competing for jobs that can’t be replaced by lower-wage workers abroad – personal service jobs in retail, restaurant, hotel, hospital, child care, and elder care – all lower-skilled workers face downward pressure on wages.
Jobs being lost to imports pay Americans higher wages than the jobs left behind. Government data show wages in import-competing industries (e.g. manufacturing jobs) beat those in exporting industries overall.
Without a higher minimum wage, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, affordable higher education, and a world-class system of job retraining – financed by higher taxes on the wealthy winners in the American economy – most Americans will continue to experience stagnant or declining wages.
Instead, the Trans Pacific Partnership – which includes twelve nations, including Vietnam, but would be open for every nation to join – would lock us into an expanded version of the very policies that have failed most American for the past twenty years.
No doubt Nike is supporting the TPP. It would allow Nike to import its Vietnamese and Malaysian-made goods more cheaply. But don’t expect those savings to translate into lower prices for American consumers. As it is, Nike spends less than $10 for every pair of $100-plus shoes it sells in the U.S.
Needless to say, the TPP wouldn’t require Nike to pay its Vietnamese workers more. Nikes’ workers are not paid enough to buy the shoes they make much less buy U.S. exported goods.
Nike may be the perfect example of life under TPP, but that is not a future many Americans would choose.
STEP #2: MAKE WORK FAMILY FRIENDLY
No one should have to choose between providing for your family and being a good parent. Yet “family-friendly” work is still a pipedream.
Today most parents are also wage earners, whether in a two-parent or single-parent household. Politicians talk a lot about the importance of family, but must do a better job delivering.
– Require that women receive equal pay for equal work.
– Require employers provide predictable hours so workers can plan to be home when their family needs them.
– Provide universal childcare – pre-school and after-school – financed by employers and taxpayers.
– Require that employers offer paid family and medical leave.
The richest nation in the world should enable its workers to be good parents. Family-friendly work isn’t a luxury. People who work hard deserve to make more than a decent living. They and their families deserve a decent life.
MAKING THE ECONONY WORK FOR THE MANY, NOT THE FEW. STEP #1: RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE
A basic moral principle that most Americans agree on is no one who works full time should be in poverty, nor should their family.
Yet over time we’ve seen significant growth in the “working poor” – people working full time, sometimes even 60 or more hours each week, but at such low wages that they remain impoverished.
What to do?
One step is to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This is winnable. A powerful movement is fighting for $15 an hour and they’re winning new laws in cities and states, and forcing companies to raise wages.
If the minimum wage in 1968 had simply kept up with inflation it would be more than $10 today. If it also kept up with the added productivity of American workers since then, it would be more than $21 an hour.
Some opponents say minimum wage workers are teenagers seeking some extra pocket money.
Wrong. Half are 35 or older, and many are key breadwinners for their families.
And don’t believe scaremongers who say a $15 minimum will cause employers to cut employment.
More money in people’s pockets means more demand for goods and services, which means more jobs not fewer jobs.
Studies also show that when the minimum is raised more people are brought into the pool of potential employees, giving employers more choice of whom to hire. This reduces turnover and helps employers save money.
Finally, employers who don’t pay enough to lift their employees out of poverty are indirectly subsidized by the rest of us – who are paying billions each year in food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and welfare, to make up the difference.
The minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour. It’s the least that a decent society should require.
by Robert Reich
The Street’s excesses pose a continuing danger to average Americans. And its ongoing use of confidential corporate information is defrauding millions of middle-class investors.
Yet most presidential aspirants don’t want to talk about taming the Street because Wall Street is one of their largest sources of campaign money.
Do we really need reminding about what happened six years ago? The financial collapse crippled the middle class and poor — consuming the savings of millions of average Americans, and causing 23 million to lose their jobs, 9.3 million to lose their health insurance, and some 1 million to lose their homes.
A repeat performance is not unlikely. Wall Street’s biggest banks are much larger now than they were then. Five of them hold about 45 percent of America’s banking assets. In 2000, they held 25 percent.
And money is cheaper than ever. The Fed continues to hold the prime interest rate near zero.
This has fueled the Street’s eagerness to borrow money at rock-bottom rates and use it to make risky bets that will pay off big if they succeed, but will cause big problems if they go bad.
We learned last week that Goldman Sachs has been on a shopping binge, buying cheap real estate stretching from Utah to Spain, and a variety of companies.
If not technically a violation of the new Dodd-Frank banking law, Goldman’s binge surely violates its spirit.
Meanwhile, the Street’s lobbyists have gotten Congress to repeal a provision of Dodd-Frank curbing excessive speculation by the big banks.
The language was drafted by Citigroup and personally pushed by Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase.
Not incidentally, Dimon recently complained of being “under assault” by bank regulators.
The American middle class needs stronger bank regulations, not weaker ones.
Last summer, bank regulators told the big banks their plans for orderly bankruptcies were “unrealistic.” In other words, if the banks collapsed, they’d bring the economy down with them.
Dodd-Frank doesn’t even cover bank bets on foreign exchanges. Yet recent turbulence in the foreign exchange market has caused huge losses at hedge funds and brokerages.
This comes on top of revelations of widespread manipulation by the big banks of the foreign-exchange market.
Wall Street is also awash in inside information unavailable to average investors.
Just weeks ago a three- judge panel of the U.S. court of appeals that oversees Wall Street reversed an insider-trading conviction, saying guilt requires proof a trader knows the tip was leaked in exchange for some “personal benefit” that’s “of some consequence.”
Meaning that if a CEO tells his Wall Street golfing buddy about a pending merger, the buddy and his friends can make a bundle — to the detriment of small, typically middle-class, investors.
That three-judge panel was composed entirely of appointees of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
But both parties have been drinking at the Wall Street trough.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, the financial sector ranked fourth among all industry groups giving to then candidate Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. In fact, Obama reaped far more in contributions from the Street than did his Republican opponent.
Wall Street also supplies both administrations with key economic officials. The treasury secretaries under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, respectfully, had both chaired Goldman Sachs before coming to Washington.
And before becoming Obama’s treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner had been handpicked by Rubin to become president of Federal Reserve Bank of New York. (Geithner is now back on the Street as president of the private-equity firm Warburg Pincus.)
It’s nice that presidential aspirants are talking about rebuilding America’s middle class.
But to be credible, he (or she) has to take clear aim at the Street.
That means proposing to limit the size of the biggest Wall Street banks; resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act (which used to separate investment from commercial banking); define insider trading the way most other countries do – using information any reasonable person would know is unavailable to most investors; and close the revolving door between the Street and the U.S. Treasury.
It also means not depending on the Street to finance their campaigns.
by Robert Reich
According to reports, one of the first acts of the Republican congress will be to fire Doug Elmendorf, current director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, because he won’t use “dynamic scoring” for his economic projections.
Dynamic scoring is the magical-mystery math Republicans have been pushing since they came up with supply-side “trickle-down” economics.
It’s based on the belief that cutting taxes unleashes economic growth and thereby produces additional government revenue. Supposedly the added revenue more than makes up for what’s lost when Congress hands out the tax cuts.
Dynamic scoring would make it easier to enact tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, because the tax cuts wouldn’t look as if they increased the budget deficit.
Incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calls it “reality-based scoring,” but it’s actually magical scoring – which is why Elmendorf, as well as all previous CBO directors have rejected it.
Few economic theories have been as thoroughly tested in the real world as supply-side economics, and so notoriously failed.
Ronald Reagan cut the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent and ended up nearly doubling the national debt. His first budget director, David Stockman, later confessed he dealt with embarrassing questions about future deficits with “magic asterisks” in the budgets submitted to Congress. The Congressional Budget Office didn’t buy them.
George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from Bill Clinton but then slashed taxes, mostly on the rich. The CBO found that the Bush tax cuts reduced revenues by $3 trillion.
Yet Republicans don’t want to admit supply-side economics is hokum. As a result, they’ve never had much love for the truth-tellers at the Congressional Budget Office.
In 2011, when briefly leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich called the CBO “a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that has not been internally generated.”
The CBO has continued to be a truth-telling thorn in the Republican’s side.
The budget plan Paul Ryan came up with in 2012 – likely to be a harbinger of what’s to come from the Republican congress – slashed Medicaid, cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, and replaced Medicare with a less well-funded voucher plan.
Ryan claimed these measures would reduce the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office disagreed.
Ryan persevered. His 2013 and 2014 budget proposals were similarly filled with magic asterisks. The CBO still wasn’t impressed.
Yet it’s one thing to cling to magical-mystery thinking when you have only one house of Congress. It’s another when you’re running the whole shebang.
Now that Elmendorf is on the way out, presumably to be replaced by someone willing to tell Ryan and other Republicans what they’d like to hear, the way has been cleared for all the magic they can muster.
In this as in other domains of public policy, Republicans have not shown a particular affinity for facts.
Climate change? It’s not happening, they say. And even if it is happening, humans aren’t responsible. (Almost all scientists studying the issue find it’s occurring and humans are the major cause.)
Widening inequality? Not occurring, they say. Even though the data show otherwise, they claim the measurements are wrong.
Voting fraud? Happening all over the country, they say, which is why voter IDs and other limits on voting are necessary. Even though there’s no evidence to back up their claim (the best evidence shows no more than 31 credible incidents of fraud out of a billion ballots cast), they continue to assert it.
Evolution? Just a theory, they say. Even though all reputable scientists support it, many Republicans at the state level say it shouldn’t be taught without also presenting the view found in the Bible.
Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? America’s use of torture? The George W. Bush administration and its allies in Congress weren’t overly interested in the facts.
The pattern seems to be: if you don’t like the facts, make them up.
Or have your benefactors finance “think tanks” filled with hired guns who will tell the public what you and your patrons want them to say.
If all else fails, fire your own experts who tell the truth, and replace them with people who will pronounce falsehoods.
There’s one big problem with this strategy, though. Legislation based on lies often causes the public to be harmed.
Not even “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert once called it, is an adequate substitute for the whole truth.
by Robert Reich
A few years ago, hedge fund Level Global Investors made $54 million selling Dell Computer stock based on insider information from a Dell employee. When charged with illegal insider trading, Global Investors’ co-founder Anthony Chiasson claimed he didn’t know where the tip came from.
Chiasson argued that few traders on Wall Street ever know where the inside tips they use come from because confidential information is, in his words, the “coin of the realm in securities markets.”
Last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which oversees federal prosecutions of Wall Street, agreed. It overturned Chiasson’s conviction, citing lack of evidence Chaisson received the tip directly, or knew insiders were leaking confidential information in exchange for some personal benefit.
The Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 banned insider trading but left it up to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the courts to define it. Which they have – in recent decades so narrowly that confidential information is indeed the coin of the realm.
If a CEO tells his golf buddy that his company is being taken over, and his buddy makes a killing on that information, no problem. If his buddy leaks the information to a hedge-fund manager like Chiasson, and doesn’t tell Chiasson where it comes from, Chiasson can also use the information to make a bundle.
Major players on Wall Street have been making tons of money not because they’re particularly clever but because they happen to be in the realm where a lot of coins come their way.
Last year, the top twenty-five hedge fund managers took home, on average, almost one billion dollars each. Even run-of-the-mill portfolio managers at large hedge funds averaged $2.2 million each.
Another person likely to be exonerated by the court’s ruling is Michael Steinberg, of the hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors, headed by Stephen A. Cohen.
In recent years several of Cohen’s lieutenants have been convicted of illegal insider trading. Last year Cohen himself had to pay a stiff penalty and close down SAC because of the charges, after making many billions.
SAC managed so much money that it handed over large commissions to bankers on Wall Street. Those banks possessed lots of inside information of potential value to SAC Capital. This generated possibilities for lucrative deals.
According to a Bloomberg Businessweek story from 2003, SAC’s commissions “grease the super-powerful information machine that Cohen has built up” and “wins Cohen the clout that often makes him privy to trading and analyst information ahead of rivals.”
One analyst was quoted as saying “I call Stevie personally when I have any insight or news tidbit on a company. I know he’ll put the info to use and actually trade off it.” SAC’s credo, according to one of its former traders, was always to “get the information before anyone else.”
Insider trading has also become commonplace in corporate suites, which is one reason CEO pay has skyrocketed.
CEOs and other top executives, whose compensation includes piles of company stock, routinely use their own inside knowledge of when their companies will buy back large numbers of shares of stock from the public – thereby pumping up share prices — in order to time their own personal stock transactions.
That didn’t used to be legal. Until 1981, the Securities and Exchange Commission required companies to publicly disclose the amount and timing of their buybacks. But Ronald Reagan’s SEC removed these restrictions.
Then George W. Bush’s SEC allowed top executives, even though technically company “insiders” with knowledge of the timing of their company’s stock buybacks, to quietly cash in their stock options without public disclosure.
But now it’s normal practice. According to research by Professor William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts, between 2003 and 2012 the chief executives of the ten companies that repurchased the most stock (totaling $859 billion) received 58 percent of their total pay in stock options or stock awards.
In other words, many CEOs are making vast fortunes not because they’re good at managing their corporations but because they’re good at using insider information. It’s the coin of their realm, too.
None of this would be a problem if the only goal were economic efficiency. The faster financial markets adjust to all available information, confidential or not, the more efficient they become.
But profiting off inside information that’s not available to average investors strikes many as unfair. The “coin of the realm” on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms is contributing to the savage inequalities of American life.
If Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission wanted to reverse this and remove one of the largest privileges of the realm, they could. But they won’t, because those who utilize those coins also have a great deal of political power.
by Robert Reich
In Washington’s coming budget battles, sacred cows like the tax deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable donations are likely to be on the table along with potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
But no one on Capitol Hill believes Wall Street’s beloved carried-interest tax loophole will be touched.
Don’t blame the newly elected Republican Congress.
Democrats didn’t repeal the loophole when they ran both houses of Congress from January 2009 to January 2011. And the reason they didn’t has a direct bearing on the future of the party.
First, let me explain why this loophole is the most flagrant of all giveaways to the super-rich.
Carried interest allows hedge-fund and private-equity managers, as well as many venture capitalists and partners in real estate investment trusts, to treat their take of the profits as capital gains — taxed at maximum rate of 23.8 percent instead of the 39.6 percent maximum applied to ordinary income.
It’s a pure scam. They get the tax break even though they invest other peoples’ money rather than risk their own.
The loophole has no economic justification. As one private-equity manager told me recently, “I can’t defend it. No one can.”
It’s worth about $11 billion a year — more than enough to extend unemployment benefits to every one of America’s nearly 3 million long-term unemployed.
The hedge-fund, private-equity, and other fund managers who receive this $11 billion are some of the richest people in America. Forbes lists 46 billionaires who have derived most of their wealth from managing hedge funds. Mitt Romney used the carried-interest loophole to help limit his effective tax rate in 2011 to 13.9 percent.
So why didn’t Democrats close it when they ran Congress?
Actually, in 2010 House Democrats finally squeaked through a tax plan that did close the carried-interest loophole, but the Democratically-controlled Senate wouldn’t go along.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of those who argued against closing it, said the U.S. “shouldn’t do anything” to “make it easier for capital and ideas to flow to London or anywhere else.” As if Wall Street needed an $11 billion annual bribe to stay put.
To find the real reason Democrats didn’t close the loophole, follow the money. Wall Street is one of the Democratic party’s biggest contributors.
The Street donated $49.1 million to Democrats in 2010, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Hedge-fund managers alone accounted for $5.88 million of the total. Schumer and a few other influential Democrats were among the industry’s major beneficiaries.
Wall Street has continued to be generous to Democrats (as well as to Republicans).
The Democrats’ unwillingness to close the carried-interest loophole when they could also goes some way to explaining why, almost six years after Wall Street’s near meltdown, the Obama administration has done so little to rein in the Street.
Wall Street’s biggest banks are far bigger now than they were then, yet they still have no a credible plan for winding down their operations if they get into trouble.
The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to prevent another Wall Street failure, has been watered down so much it’s slush. There’s been no move to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment banking from commercial banking.
Not a not a single Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for his involvement in the frauds that caused the mess.
Wall Street was the fourth-largest contributor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, and is already gearing up for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run.
Hedge-fund and private-equity managers are donating generously to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC dedicated to getting her elected.
The hedge fund Renaissance Technologies has contributed $4 million to date. D.E. Shaw, another fund, has donated over $1 million. Khosla Ventures and Soros Fund Management have donated $1 million each.
Many Wall Street financiers have donated $25,000 (intended to be the maximum contribution) to the Ready for Hillary superPAC.
Robert Wolf, the former president of UBS’ investment bank who now has his own advisory boutique, told “Politico” that six in ten Wall Street types are Democrats, and that “when and if she decides to run, [Hillary Clinton is] going to have an incredible support foundation from Wall Street.”
Just because a candidate takes Wall Street money doesn’t mean he or she is beholden to the Street.
But the reason Democrats have pulled their punches with the financial sector for years is because it’s hard to punch the hand that feeds you.
This must stop. America can’t tackle widening inequality without confronting the power and privilege lying behind it.
If the Democratic party doesn’t lead the charge, who will?
[Clarification December 13: Senator Schumer says he opposed repeal of the carried-interest loophole because the bill in question singled out hedge-fund and private-equity managers and did not include venture capitalists and partners in real estate investment trusts who also benefit from the loophole while risking none of their own capital.]
by Robert Reich
Monday, November 10, 2014
The President blames himself for the Democrat’s big losses Election Day. “We have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction,” he said Sunday.
In other words, he didn’t sufficiently tout the Administration’s accomplishments.
I respectfully disagree.
If you want a single reason for why Democrats lost big on Election Day 2014 it’s this: Median household income continues to drop. This is the first “recovery” in memory when this has happened.
Jobs are coming back but wages aren’t. Every month the job numbers grow but the wage numbers go nowhere.
Most new jobs are in part-time or low-paying positions. They pay less than the jobs lost in the Great Recession.
This wageless recovery has been made all the worse because pay is less predictable than ever. Most Americans don’t know what they’ll be earning next year or even next month. Two-thirds are now living paycheck to paycheck.
So why is this called a “recovery” at all? Because, technically, the economy is growing. But almost all the gains from that growth are going to a small minority at the top.
In fact, 100 percent of the gains have gone to the best-off 10 percent. Ninety-five percent have gone to the top 1 percent.
The stock market has boomed. Corporate profits are through the roof. CEO pay, in the stratosphere. Yet most Americans feel like they’re still in a recession.
And they’re convinced the game is rigged against them.
According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who believe most people who want to get ahead can do so through hard work has plummeted 14 points since 2000.
What the President and other Democrats failed to communicate wasn’t their accomplishments. It was their understanding that the economy is failing most Americans and big money is overrunning our democracy.
And they failed to convey their commitment to an economy and a democracy that serve the vast majority rather than a minority at the top.
Some Democrats even ran on not being Barack Obama. That’s no way to win. Americans want someone fighting for them, not running away from the President.
The midterm elections should have been about jobs and wages, and how to reform a system where nearly all the gains go to the top. It was an opportunity for Democrats to shine. Instead, they hid.
Consider that in four “red” states — South Dakota, Arkansas, Alaska, and Nebraska — the same voters who sent Republicans to the Senate voted by wide margins to raise their state’s minimum wage. Democratic candidates in these states barely mentioned the minimum wage.
So what now?
Republicans, soon to be in charge of Congress, will push their same old supply-side, trickle-down, austerity economics.
They’ll want policies that further enrich those who are already rich. That lower taxes on big corporations and deliver trade agreements written in secret by big corporations. That further water down Wall Street regulations so the big banks can become even bigger – too big to fail, or jail, or curtail.
They’ll exploit the public’s prevailing cynicism by delivering just what the cynics expect.
And the Democrats? They have a choice.
They can refill their campaign coffers for 2016 by trying to raise even more money from big corporations, Wall Street, and wealthy individuals. And hold their tongues about the economic slide of the majority, and the drowning of our democracy.
Or they can come out swinging. Not just for a higher minimum wage but also for better schools, paid family and medical leave, and child care for working families.
For resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act and limiting the size of Wall Street banks.
For saving Social Security by lifting the cap on income subject to payroll taxes.
For rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges, and ports.
For increasing taxes on corporations with high ratios of CEO pay to the pay of average workers.
And for getting big money out of politics, and thereby saving our democracy.
It’s the choice of the century.
Democrats have less than two years to make it.
by Robert Reich
Other cities and states should follow Seattle’s example.
Contrary to the dire predictions of opponents, the hike won’t cost Seattle jobs. In fact, it will put more money into the hands of low-wage workers who are likely to spend almost all of it in the vicinity. That will create jobs.
Conservatives believe the economy functions better if the rich have more money and everyone else has less. But they’re wrong. It’s just the opposite.
The real job creators are not CEOs or corporations or wealthy investors. The job creators are members of America’s vast middle class and the poor, whose purchases cause businesses to expand and invest.
America’s wealthy are richer than they’ve ever been. Big corporations are sitting on more cash they know what to do with. Corporate profits are at record levels. CEO pay continues to soar.
But the wealthy aren’t investing in new companies. Between 1980 and 2014, the rate of new business formation in the United States dropped by half, according to a Brookings study released in May.
Corporations aren’t expanding production or investing in research and development. Instead, they’re using their money to buy back their shares of stock.
There’s no reason for them to expand or invest if customers aren’t buying.
Consumer spending has grown more slowly in this recovery than in any previous one because consumers don’t have enough money to buy.
All the economic gains have been going to the top.
The Commerce Department reported last Friday that the economy grew at a 4.6 percent annual rate in the second quarter of the year.
So what? The median household’s income continues to drop.
Median household income is now 8 percent below what it was in 2007, adjusted for inflation. It’s 11 percent below its level in 2000.
It used to be that economic expansions improved the incomes of the bottom 90 percent more than the top 10 percent.
But starting with the “Reagan” recovery of 1982 to 1990, the benefits of economic growth during expansions have gone mostly to the top 10 percent.
Since the current recovery began in 2009, all economic gains have gone to the top 10 percent. The bottom 90 percent has lost ground.
We’re in the first economic upturn on record in which 90 percent of Americans have become worse off.
Why did the playing field start to tilt against the middle class in the Reagan recovery, and why has it tilted further ever since?
Don’t blame globalization. Other advanced nations facing the same global competition have managed to preserve middle class wages. Germany’s median wage is now higher than America’s.
One factor here has been a sharp decline in union membership. In the mid 1970s, 25 percent of the private-sector workforce was unionized.
Then came the Reagan revolution. By the end of the 1980s, only 17 percent of the private workforce was unionized. Today, fewer than 7 percent of the nation’s private-sector workers belong to a union.
This means most workers no longer have the bargaining power to get a share of the gains from growth.
Another structural change is the drop in the minimum wage. In 1979, it was $9.67 an hour (in 2013 dollars). By 1990, it had declined to $6.84. Today it’s $7.25, well below where it was in 1979.
Given that workers are far more productive now – computers have even increased the output of retail and fast food workers — the minimum wage should be even higher.
By setting a floor on wages, a higher minimum helps push up other wages. It undergirds higher median household incomes.
The only way to grow the economy in a way that benefits the bottom 90 percent is to change the structure of the economy. At the least, this requires stronger unions and a higher minimum wage.
It also requires better schools for the children of the bottom 90 percent, better access to higher education, and a more progressive tax system.
GDP growth is less and less relevant to the wellbeing of most Americans. We should be paying less attention to growth and more to median household income.
If the median household’s income is is heading upward, the economy is in good shape. If it’s heading downward, as it’s been for this entire recovery, we’re all in deep trouble.
by Robert Reich
It shouldn’t be.
For one thing, a four-year liberal arts degree is hugely expensive. Too many young people graduate laden with debts that take years if not decades to pay off.
And too many of them can’t find good jobs when they graduate, in any event. So they have to settle for jobs that don’t require four years of college. They end up overqualified for the work they do, and underwhelmed by it.
Others drop out of college because they’re either unprepared or unsuited for a four-year liberal arts curriculum. When they leave, they feel like failures.
We need to open other gateways to the middle class.
Consider, for example, technician jobs. They don’t require a four-year degree. But they do require mastery over a domain of technical knowledge, which can usually be obtained in two years.
Technician jobs are growing in importance. As digital equipment replaces the jobs of routine workers and lower-level professionals, technicians are needed to install, monitor, repair, test, and upgrade all the equipment.
Hospital technicians are needed to monitor ever more complex equipment that now fills medical centers; office technicians, to fix the hardware and software responsible for much of the work that used to be done by secretaries and clerks.
Automobile technicians are in demand to repair the software that now powers our cars; manufacturing technicians, to upgrade the numerically controlled machines and 3-D printers that have replaced assembly lines; laboratory technicians, to install and test complex equipment for measuring results; telecommunications technicians, to install, upgrade, and repair the digital systems linking us to one another.
Technology is changing so fast that knowledge about specifics can quickly become obsolete. That’s why so much of what technicians learn is on the job.
But to be an effective on-the-job learner, technicians need basic knowledge of software and engineering, along the domain where the technology is applied – hospitals, offices, automobiles, manufacturing, laboratories, telecommunications, and so forth.
Yet America isn’t educating the technicians we need. As our aspirations increasingly focus on four-year college degrees, we’ve allowed vocational and technical education to be downgraded and denigrated.
Still, we have a foundation to build on. Community colleges offering two-year degree programs today enroll more than half of all college and university undergraduates. Many students are in full-time jobs, taking courses at night and on weekends. Many are adults.
Community colleges are great bargains. They avoid the fancy amenities four-year liberal arts colleges need in order to lure the children of the middle class.
Even so, community colleges are being systematically starved of funds. On a per-student basis, state legislatures direct most higher-education funding to four-year colleges and universities because that’s what their middle-class constituents want for their kids.
American businesses, for their part, aren’t sufficiently involved in designing community college curricula and hiring their graduates, because their executives are usually the products of four-year liberal arts institutions and don’t know the value of community colleges.
By contrast, Germany provides its students the alternative of a world-class technical education that’s kept the German economy at the forefront of precision manufacturing and applied technology.
The skills taught are based on industry standards, and courses are designed by businesses that need the graduates. So when young Germans get their degrees, jobs are waiting for them.
We shouldn’t replicate the German system in full. It usually requires students and their families to choose a technical track by age 14. “Late bloomers” can’t get back on an academic track.
But we can do far better than we’re doing now. One option: Combine the last year of high school with the first year of community college into a curriculum to train technicians for the new economy.
Affected industries would help design the courses and promise jobs to students who finish successfully. Late bloomers can go on to get their associate degrees and even transfer to four-year liberal arts universities.
This way we’d provide many young people who cannot or don’t want to pursue a four-year degree with the fundamentals they need to succeed, creating another gateway to the middle class.
Too often in modern America, we equate “equal opportunity” with an opportunity to get a four-year liberal arts degree. It should mean an opportunity to learn what’s necessary to get a good job.
by Robert Reich
Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?
On the other hand, what’s the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.
How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.
What’s the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their ben pans? Surely higher than their median wage of $11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.
Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?
Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.
Before you conclude that’s generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.
One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.
And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.
At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.
They’re getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.
I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose jobs entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).
They don’t even build the economy.
Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.
They’re paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.
It’s said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.
In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.
They demand ever more cunning innovations but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.
Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society — if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.
Graduates of Ivy League universities are more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.
For example, in 2010 (the most recent date for which we have data) close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance (down from the pre-financial crisis high of 46 percent in 2006). Add in management consulting, and it was close to 60 percent.
The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids’ admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.
But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching.
by Robert Reich
In recent weeks, the managers, employees, and customers of a New England chain of supermarkets called “Market Basket” have joined together to oppose the board of director’s decision earlier in the year to oust the chain’s popular chief executive, Arthur T. Demoulas.
Their demonstrations and boycotts have emptied most of the chain’s seventy stores.
What was so special about Arthur T., as he’s known? Mainly, his business model. He kept prices lower than his competitors, paid his employees more, and gave them and his managers more authority.
Late last year he offered customers an additional 4 percent discount, arguing they could use the money more than the shareholders.
In other words, Arthur T. viewed the company as a joint enterprise from which everyone should benefit, not just shareholders. Which is why the board fired him.
It’s far from clear who will win this battle. But, interestingly, we’re beginning to see the Arthur T. business model pop up all over the place.
Pantagonia, a large apparel manufacturer based in Ventura, California, has organized itself as a “B-corporation.” That’s a for-profit company whose articles of incorporation require it to take into account the interests of workers, the community, and the environment, as well as shareholders.
The performance of B-corporations according to this measure is regularly reviewed and certified by a nonprofit entity called B Lab.
To date, over 500 companies in sixty industries have been certified as B-corporations, including the household products firm “Seventh Generation.”
In addition, 27 states have passed laws allowing companies to incorporate as “benefit corporations.” This gives directors legal protection to consider the interests of all stakeholders rather than just the shareholders who elected them.
We may be witnessing the beginning of a return to a form of capitalism that was taken for granted in America sixty years ago.
Then, most CEOs assumed they were responsible for all their stakeholders.
“The job of management,” proclaimed Frank Abrams, chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey, in 1951, “is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly interested groups … stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.”
Johnson & Johnson publicly stated that its “first responsibility” was to patients, doctors, and nurses, and not to investors.
What changed? In the 1980s, corporate raiders began mounting unfriendly takeovers of companies that could deliver higher returns to their shareholders – if they abandoned their other stakeholders.
The raiders figured profits would be higher if the companies fought unions, cut workers’ pay or fired them, automated as many jobs as possible or moved jobs abroad, shuttered factories, abandoned their communities, and squeezed their customers.
Although the law didn’t require companies to maximize shareholder value, shareholders had the legal right to replace directors. The raiders pushed them to vote out directors who wouldn’t make these changes and vote in directors who would (or else sell their shares to the raiders, who’d do the dirty work).
Since then, shareholder capitalism has replaced stakeholder capitalism. Corporate raiders have morphed into private equity managers, and unfriendly takeovers are rare. But it’s now assumed corporations exist only to maximize shareholder returns.
Are we better off? Some argue shareholder capitalism has proven more efficient. It has moved economic resources to where they’re most productive, and thereby enabled the economy to grow faster.
By this view, stakeholder capitalism locked up resources in unproductive ways. CEOs were too complacent. Companies were too fat. They employed workers they didn’t need, and paid them too much. They were too tied to their communities.
But maybe, in retrospect, shareholder capitalism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Look at the flat or declining wages of most Americans, their growing economic insecurity, and the abandoned communities that litter the nation.
Then look at the record corporate profits, CEO pay that’s soared into the stratosphere, and Wall Street’s financial casino (along with its near meltdown in 2008 that imposed collateral damage on most Americans).
You might conclude we went a bit overboard with shareholder capitalism.
The directors of “Market Basket” are now considering selling the company. Arthur T. has made a bid, but other bidders have offered more.
Reportedly, some prospective bidders think they can squeeze more profits out of the company than Arthur T. did.
But Arthur T. knew may have known something about how to run a business that made it successful in a larger sense.
Only some of us are corporate shareholders, and shareholders have won big in America over the last three decades.
But we’re all stakeholders in the American economy, and many stakeholders have done miserably.
Maybe a bit more stakeholder capitalism is in order.
by Robert Reich
“You shouldn’t get to call yourself an American company only when you want a handout from the American taxpayers,” President Obama said Thursday.
He was referring to American corporations now busily acquiring foreign companies in order to become non-American, thereby reducing their U.S. tax bill.
But the President might as well have been talking about all large American multinationals.
In fact, since 2000, almost every big American multinational corporation has created more jobs outside the United States than inside. If you add in their foreign sub-contractors, the foreign total is even higher.
At the same time, though, many foreign-based companies have been creating jobs in the United States. They now employ around 6 million Americans, and account for almost 20 percent of U.S. exports. Even a household brand like Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s best-selling beer maker, employing thousands of Americans, is foreign (part of Belgian-based beer giant InBev).
Meanwhile, foreign investors are buying an increasing number of shares in American corporations, and American investors are buying up foreign stocks.
Who’s us? Who’s them?
Increasingly, corporate nationality is whatever a corporation decides it is.
So instead of worrying about who’s American and who’s not, here’s a better idea: Create incentives for any global company to do what we’d like it to do in the United States.
For example, “American” corporations get generous tax credits and subsidies for research and development, courtesy of American taxpayers.
But in reducing these corporations’ costs of R&D in the United States, those tax credits and subsidies can end up providing extra money for them to do more R&D abroad.
3M is building research centers overseas at a faster clip than it’s expanding them in America. Its CEO explained this was “in preparation for a world where the West is no longer the dominant manufacturing power.”
3M is hardly alone. Since the early 2000s, most of the growth in the number of R&D workers employed by U.S.-based multinational companies have been in their foreign operations, according to the National Science Board, the policy-making arm of the National Science Foundation.
It would make more sense to limit R&D tax credits and subsidies to additional R&D done in the U.S. over and above current levels – and give them to any global corporation increasing its R&D in America, regardless of the company’s nationality.
Or consider Ex-Im Bank subsidies – a topic of hot debate in Washington these days. These subsidies are intended to boost exports of American corporations from the United States.
Tea Party Republicans call them “corporate welfare,” and Chamber-of-Commerce Republicans call them sensible investments. But regardless, they’re going to “American” multinationals that are making things all over the world.
That means any subsidy that boosts their export earnings in the United States indirectly subsidizes their investments abroad – including, very possibly, their exports from foreign nations.
GE, a major Ex-Im Bank beneficiary, has been teaming up with China to produce a new jetliner there that will compete with Boeing for global business. (Boeing, not incidentally, is another Ex-Im beneficiary). In fact, GE is giving its Chinese partner the same leading-edge avionics technologies operating Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
Caterpillar, another Ex-Im Bank beneficiary, is providing engine funnels and hydraulics to Chinese firms that eventually will be exporting large moving equipment from China. Presumably they’ll be competing in global markets with Caterpillar itself.
Rather than subsidize “American” exporters, it makes more sense to subsidize any global company – to the extent it’s adding to its exports from the United States.
Which brings us back to American companies that are morphing into foreign companies in order to lower their U.S. tax bill.
“I don’t care if it’s legal,” said the President. “It’s wrong.”
It’s just as wrong for American corporations to hide their profits abroad – which many are doing simply by setting up foreign subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions, and then making it seem as if the foreign subsidiary is earning the money.
Caterpillar, for example, saved $2.4 billion between 2000 and 2012 by funneling its global parts business through a Swiss subsidiary (a ruse so audacious that one of its tax consultants warned Caterpillar executives to “get ready to do some dancing” when called before Congress to justify it).
And what about American corporations that avoid U.S. taxes by never bringing home what they legitimately earn abroad – a sum now estimated to be in the order of $1.6 trillion?
Rather than focus on the newly-fashionable tax-avoidance strategy of changing corporate nationality, it makes more sense to tax any global corporation on all income earned in the United States (with high penalties for shifting that income abroad), and no longer tax “American” corporations on revenues earned outside America. Most other nations already follow this principle.
In other words, let’s stop worrying about whether big global corporations are “American.” We can’t win that game. Focus instead on what we want global corporations of whatever nationality to do in America, and on how we can get them to do it.
by Robert Reich
In a new Pew poll, more than three quarters of self-described conservatives believe “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything.”
In reality, most of America’s poor work hard, often in two or more jobs.
The real non-workers are the wealthy who inherit their fortunes. And their ranks are growing.
In fact, we’re on the cusp of the largest inter-generational wealth transfer in history.
The wealth is coming from those who over the last three decades earned huge amounts on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms, or as high-tech entrepreneurs.
It’s going to their children, who did nothing except be born into the right family.
The “self-made” man or woman, the symbol of American meritocracy, is disappearing. Six of today’s ten wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. Just six Walmart heirs have more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined (up from 30 percent in 2007).
The U.S. Trust bank just released a poll of Americans with more than $3 million of investable assets.
Nearly three-quarters of those over age 69, and 61 per cent of boomers (between the ages of 50 and 68), were the first in their generation to accumulate significant wealth.
But the bank found inherited wealth far more common among rich millennials under age 35.
This is the dynastic form of wealth French economist Thomas Piketty warns about. It’s been the major source of wealth in Europe for centuries. It’s about to become the major source in America – unless, that is, we do something about it.
As income from work has become more concentrated in America, the super rich have invested in businesses, real estate, art, and other assets. The income from these assets is now concentrating even faster than income from work.
In 1979, the richest 1 percent of households accounted for 17 percent of business income. By 2007 they were getting 43 percent. They were also taking in 75 percent of capital gains. Today, with the stock market significantly higher than where it was before the crash, the top is raking even more from their investments.
Both political parties have encouraged this great wealth transfer, as beneficiaries provide a growing share of campaign contributions.
But Republicans have been even more ardent than Democrats.
For example, family trusts used to be limited to about 90 years. Legal changes implemented under Ronald Reagan extended them in perpetuity. So-called “dynasty trusts” now allow super-rich families to pass on to their heirs money and property largely free from taxes, and to do so for generations.
George W. Bush’s biggest tax breaks helped high earners but they provided even more help to people living off accumulated wealth. While the top tax rate on income from work dropped from 39.6% to 35 percent, the top rate on dividends went from 39.6% (taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent, and the estate tax was completely eliminated. (Conservatives called it the “death tax” even though it only applied to the richest two-tenths of one percent.)
Barack Obama rolled back some of these cuts, but many remain.
Before George W. Bush, the estate tax kicked in at $2 million of assets per couple, and then applied a 55 percent rate. Now it kicks in at $10 million per couple, with a 40 percent rate.
House Republicans want to go even further than Bush did.
Rep. Paul Ryan’s “road map,” which continues to be the bible of Republican economic policy, eliminates all taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains, and estates.
Yet the specter of an entire generation who do nothing for their money other than speed-dial their wealth management advisors isn’t particularly attractive.
It’s also dangerous to our democracy, as dynastic wealth inevitably accumulates political influence.
What to do? First, restore the estate tax in full.
Second, eliminate the “stepped-up-basis on death” rule. This obscure tax provision allows heirs to avoid paying capital gains taxes on the increased value of assets accumulated during the life of the deceased. Such untaxed gains account for more than half of the value of estates worth more than $100 million, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Third, institute a wealth tax. We already have an annual wealth tax on homes, the major asset of the middle class. It’s called the property tax. Why not a small annual tax on the value of stocks and bonds, the major assets of the wealthy?
We don’t have to sit by and watch our meritocracy be replaced by a permanent aristocracy, and our democracy be undermined by dynastic wealth. We can and must take action — before it’s too late.
by Robert Reich
A few weeks ago I was visited in my office by the chairman of one of the country’s biggest high-tech firms who wanted to talk about the causes and consequences of widening inequality and the shrinking middle class, and what to do about it.
I asked him why he was concerned. “Because the American middle class is the core of our customer base,” he said. “If they can’t afford our products in the years ahead, we’re in deep trouble.”
I’m hearing the same refrain from a growing number of business leaders.
They see an economic recovery that’s bypassing most Americans. Median hourly and weekly pay dropped over the past year, adjusted for inflation.
Since the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, median real household income has fallen 4.4 percent, according to an analysis by Sentier Research.
These business leaders know the U.S. economy can’t get out of first gear as long as wages are declining. And their own businesses can’t succeed over the long term without a buoyant and growing middle class.
They also recognize a second danger.
Job frustrations are fueling a backlash against trade and immigration. Any hope for immigration reform is now dead in Congress, and further trade-opening agreements are similarly moribund. Yet the economy would be even worse if America secedes into isolationism.
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, warned recently on “CBS This Morning” that income inequality is “destablilizing” the nation and is “responsible for the divisions in the country.” He went on to say that “too much of the GDP over the last generation has gone to too few of the people.”
Blankfein should know. He pulled in $23 million last year in salary and bonus, a 9.5 percent raise over the year before and his best payday since the Wall Street meltdown. This doesn’t make his point any less valid.
Several of business leaders are suggesting raising the minimum wage and increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Bill Gross, Chairman of Pimco, the largest bond-trading firm in the world, said this week that America needs policies that bring labor and capital back into balance, including a higher minimum wage and higher taxes on the rich.
Gross has noted that developed economies function best when income inequality is minimal.
Several months ago Gross urged his wealthy investors, who benefit the most from a capital-gains tax rate substantially lower than the tax on ordinary income, to support higher taxes on capital gains. “The era of taxing ‘capital’ at lower rates than ‘labor’ should now end,” he stated.
Similar proposals have come from billionaires Warren Buffett and Stanley Druckenmiller, founder of Duquesne Capital Management and one of the top performing hedge fund managers of the past three decades. Buffett has suggested the wealthy pay a minimum tax of 30 percent of their incomes.
The response from the denizens of the right has been predictable: If these gentlemen want to pay more taxes, there’s nothing stopping them.
Which misses the point. These business leaders are arguing for changes in the rules of the game that would make the game fairer for everyone. They acknowledge it’s now dangerously rigged in the favor of people like them.
They know the only way to save capitalism is to make it work for the majority rather than a smaller and smaller minority at the top.
In this respect they resemble the handful of business leaders in the Gilded Age who spearheaded the progressive reforms enacted in the first decade of the twentieth century, or those who joined with Franklin D. Roosevelt to create Social Security, a minimum wage, and the forty-hour workweek during the Depression.
Unfortunately, the voices of these forward-thinking business leaders are being drowned out by backward-lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that are organized to reflect the views of their lowest common denominator.
And by billionaires like Charles and David Koch, who harbor such deep-seated hatred for government they’re blind to the real dangers capitalism now faces.
Those dangers are a sinking middle class lacking the purchasing power to keep the economy going, and an American public losing faith that the current system will deliver for them and their kids.
America’s real business leaders understand unless or until the middle class regains its footing and its faith, capitalism remains vulnerable.
by Robert Reich
For years Americans have assumed that our hard-charging capitalism is better than the soft-hearted version found in Canada and Europe. American capitalism might be a bit crueler but it generates faster growth and higher living standards overall. Canada’s and Europe’s “welfare-state socialism” is doomed.
It was a questionable assumption to begin with, relying to some extent on our collective amnesia about the first three decades after World War II, when tax rates on top incomes in the U.S. never fell below 70 percent, a larger portion of our economy was invested in education than before or since, over a third of our private-sector workers were unionized, we came up with Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, and built the biggest infrastructure project in history, known as the interstate highway system.
But then came America’s big U-turn, when we deregulated, de-unionized, lowered taxes on the top, ended welfare, and stopped investing as much of the economy in education and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Canada and Europe continued on as before. Soviet communism went bust, and many of us assumed European and Canadian “socialism” would as well.
That’s why recent data from the Luxembourg Income Study Database is so shocking.
The fact is, we’re falling behind. While median per capita income in the United States has stagnated since 2000, it’s up significantly in Canada and Northern Europe. Their typical worker’s income is now higher than ours, and their disposable income – after taxes – higher still.
It’s difficult to make exact comparisons of income across national borders because real purchasing power is hard to measure. But even if we assume Canadians and the citizens of several European nations have simply drawn even with the American middle class, they’re doing better in many other ways.
Most of them get free health care and subsidized child care. And if they lose their jobs, they get far more generous unemployment benefits than we do. (In fact, right now 75 percent of jobless Americans lack any unemployment benefits.)
If you think we make up for it by working less and getting paid more on an hourly basis, think again. There, at least three weeks paid vacation as the norm, along with paid sick leave, and paid parental leave.
We’re working an average of 4.6 percent more hours more than the typical Canadian worker, 21 percent more than the typical French worker, and a whopping 28 percent more than your typical German worker, according to data compiled by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
But at least Americans are more satisfied, aren’t we? Not really. According to opinion surveys and interviews, Canadians and Northern Europeans are.
But at least we’re the land of more equal opportunity, right? Wrong. Their poor kids have a better chance of getting ahead. While 42 percent of American kids born into poor families remain poor through their adult lives, only 30 percent of Britain’s poor kids remain impoverished – and even smaller percentages in other rich countries.
Yes, the American economy continues to grow faster than the economies of Canada and Europe. But faster growth hasn’t translated into higher living standards for most Americans.
Almost all our economic gains have been going to the top – into corporate profits and the stock market (more than a third of whose value is owned by the richest 1 percent). And into executive pay (European CEOs take home far less than their American counterparts).
America’s rich also pay much lower taxes than do the rich in Canada and Europe.
But surely Europe can’t go on like this. You hear it all the time: They can no longer afford their welfare state.
That depends on what’s meant by “welfare state.” If high-quality education is included, we’d do well to emulate them. Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 rank near the bottom among rich countries in literacy and numeracy. That spells trouble for the U.S. economy in the future.
They’re also doing more workforce training, and doing it better, than we are. The result is more skilled workers.
Universal health care is another part of their “welfare state” that saves them money because healthier workers are more productive.
So let’s put ideology aside. The practical choice isn’t between capitalism and “welfare-state socialism.” It’s between a system that’s working for a few at the top, or one that’s working for just about everyone. Which would you prefer?
by Robert Reich
The pertinent question is not whether income and wealth inequality is good or bad. It is at what point do these inequalities become so great as to pose a serious threat to our economy, our ideal of equal opportunity and our democracy.
We are near or have already reached that tipping point. As French economist Thomas Piketty shows beyond doubt in his “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” we are heading back to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. The dysfunctions of our economy and politics are not self-correcting when it comes to inequality.
But a return to the Gilded Age is not inevitable. It is incumbent on us to dedicate ourselves to reversing this diabolical trend. But in order to reform the system, we need a political movement for shared prosperity.
Herewith a short summary of what has happened, how it threatens the foundations of our society, why it has happened, and what we must do to reverse it.
What has Happened
The data on widening inequality are remarkably and disturbingly clear. The Congressional Budget Office has found that between 1979 and 2007, the onset of the Great Recession, the gap in income—after federal taxes and transfer payments—more than tripled between the top 1 percent of the population and everyone else. The after-tax, after-transfer income of the top 1 percent increased by 275 percent, while it increased less than 40 percent for the middle three quintiles of the population and only 18 percent for the bottom quintile.
The gap has continued to widen in the recovery. According to the Census Bureau, median family and median household incomes have been falling, adjusted for inflation; while according to the data gathered by my colleague Emmanuel Saez, the income of the wealthiest 1 percent has soared by 31 percent. In fact, Saez has calculated that 95 percent of all economic gains since the recovery began have gone to the top 1 percent.
Wealth has become even more concentrated than income. An April 2013 Pew Research Center report found that from 2009 to 2011, “the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.”
Why It Threatens Our Society
This trend is now threatening the three foundation stones of our society: our economy, our ideal of equal opportunity and our democracy.
The economy. In the United States, consumer spending accounts for approximately 70 percent of economic activity. If consumers don’t have adequate purchasing power, businesses have no incentive to expand or hire additional workers. Because the rich spend a smaller proportion of their incomes than the middle class and the poor, it stands to reason that as a larger and larger share of the nation’s total income goes to the top, consumer demand is dampened. If the middle class is forced to borrow in order to maintain its standard of living, that dampening may come suddenly—when debt bubbles burst.
Consider that the two peak years of inequality over the past century—when the top 1 percent garnered more than 23 percent of total income—were 1928 and 2007. Each of these periods was preceded by substantial increases in borrowing, which ended notoriously in the Great Crash of 1929 and the near-meltdown of 2008.
The anemic recovery we are now experiencing is directly related to the decline in median household incomes after 2009, coupled with the inability or unwillingness of consumers to take on additional debt and of banks to finance that debt—wisely, given the damage wrought by the bursting debt bubble. We cannot have a growing economy without a growing and buoyant middle class. We cannot have a growing middle class if almost all of the economic gains go to the top 1 percent.
Equal opportunity. Widening inequality also challenges the nation’s core ideal of equal opportunity, because it hampers upward mobility. High inequality correlates with low upward mobility. Studies are not conclusive because the speed of upward mobility is difficult to measure.
But even under the unrealistic assumption that its velocity is no different today than it was thirty years ago—that someone born into a poor or lower-middle-class family today can move upward at the same rate as three decades ago—widening inequality still hampers upward mobility. That’s simply because the ladder is far longer now. The distance between its bottom and top rungs, and between every rung along the way, is far greater. Anyone ascending it at the same speed as before will necessarily make less progress upward.
In addition, when the middle class is in decline and median household incomes are dropping, there are fewer possibilities for upward mobility. A stressed middle class is also less willing to share the ladder of opportunity with those below it. For this reason, the issue of widening inequality cannot be separated from the problems of poverty and diminishing opportunities for those near the bottom. They are one and the same.
Democracy. The connection between widening inequality and the undermining of democracy has long been understood. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is famously alleged to have said in the early years of the last century, an era when robber barons dumped sacks of money on legislators’ desks, “We may have a democracy, or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
As income and wealth flow upward, political power follows. Money flowing to political campaigns, lobbyists, think tanks, “expert” witnesses and media campaigns buys disproportionate influence. With all that money, no legislative bulwark can be high enough or strong enough to protect the democratic process.
The threat to our democracy also comes from the polarization that accompanies high levels of inequality. Partisanship—measured by some political scientists as the distance between median Republican and Democratic roll-call votes on key economic issues—almost directly tracks with the level of inequality. It reached high levels in the first decades of the twentieth century when inequality soared, and has reached similar levels in recent years.
When large numbers of Americans are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and see most of the economic gains going to a small group at the top, they suspect the game is rigged. Some of these people can be persuaded that the culprit is big government; others, that the blame falls on the wealthy and big corporations. The result is fierce partisanship, fueled by anti-establishment populism on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
Why It Has Happened
Between the end of World War II and the early 1970s, the median wage grew in tandem with productivity. Both roughly doubled in those years, adjusted for inflation. But after the 1970s, productivity continued to rise at roughly the same pace as before, while wages began to flatten. In part, this was due to the twin forces of globalization and labor-replacing technologies that began to hit the American workforce like strong winds—accelerating into massive storms in the 1980s and ’90s, and hurricanes since then.
Containers, satellite communication technologies, and cargo ships and planes radically reduced the cost of producing goods anywhere around the globe, thereby eliminating many manufacturing jobs or putting downward pressure on other wages. Automation, followed by computers, software, robotics, computer-controlled machine tools and widespread digitization, further eroded jobs and wages. These forces simultaneously undermined organized labor. Unionized companies faced increasing competitive pressures to outsource, automate or move to nonunion states.
These forces didn’t erode all incomes, however. In fact, they added to the value of complex work done by those who were well educated, well connected and fortunate enough to have chosen the right professions. Those lucky few who were perceived to be the most valuable saw their pay skyrocket.
But that’s only part of the story. Instead of responding to these gale-force winds with policies designed to upgrade the skills of Americans, modernize our infrastructure, strengthen our safety net and adapt the workforce—and pay for much of this with higher taxes on the wealthy—we did the reverse. We began disinvesting in education, job training and infrastructure. We began shredding our safety net. We made it harder for many Americans to join unions. (The decline in unionization directly correlates with the decline of the portion of income going to the middle class.) And we reduced taxes on the wealthy.
We also deregulated. Financial deregulation in particular made finance the most lucrative industry in America, as it had been in the 1920s. Here again, the parallels between the 1920s and recent years are striking, reflecting the same pattern of inequality.
Other advanced economies have faced the same gale-force winds but have not suffered the same inequalities as we have because they have helped their workforces adapt to the new economic realities—leaving the United States the most unequal of all advanced nations by far.
What We Must Do
There is no single solution for reversing widening inequality. Thomas Piketty’s monumental book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” paints a troubling picture of societies dominated by a comparative few, whose cumulative wealth and unearned income overshadow the majority who rely on jobs and earned income. But our future is not set in stone, and Piketty’s description of past and current trends need not determine our path in the future. Here are ten initiatives that could reverse the trends described above:
1) Make work pay. The fastest-growing categories of work are retail, restaurant (including fast food), hospital (especially orderlies and staff), hotel, childcare and eldercare. But these jobs tend to pay very little. A first step toward making work pay is to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, pegging it to inflation; abolish the tipped minimum wage; and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. No American who works full time should be in poverty.
2) Unionize low-wage workers. The rise and fall of the American middle class correlates almost exactly with the rise and fall of private-sector unions, because unions gave the middle class the bargaining power it needed to secure a fair share of the gains from economic growth. We need to reinvigorate unions, beginning with low-wage service occupations that are sheltered from global competition and from labor-replacing technologies. Lower-wage Americans deserve more bargaining power.
3) Invest in education. This investment should extend from early childhood through world-class primary and secondary schools, affordable public higher education, good technical education and lifelong learning. Education should not be thought of as a private investment; it is a public good that helps both individuals and the economy. Yet for too many Americans, high-quality education is unaffordable and unattainable. Every American should have an equal opportunity to make the most of herself or himself. High-quality education should be freely available to all, starting at the age of 3 and extending through four years of university or technical education.
4) Invest in infrastructure. Many working Americans—especially those on the lower rungs of the income ladder—are hobbled by an obsolete infrastructure that generates long commutes to work, excessively high home and rental prices, inadequate Internet access, insufficient power and water sources, and unnecessary environmental degradation. Every American should have access to an infrastructure suitable to the richest nation in the world.
5) Pay for these investments with higher taxes on the wealthy. Between the end of World War II and 1981 (when the wealthiest were getting paid a far lower share of total national income), the highest marginal federal income tax rate never fell below 70 percent, and the effective rate (including tax deductions and credits) hovered around 50 percent. But with Ronald Reagan’s tax cut of 1981, followed by George W. Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the taxes on top incomes were slashed, and tax loopholes favoring the wealthy were widened. The implicit promise—sometimes made explicit—was that the benefits from such cuts would trickle down to the broad middle class and even to the poor. As I’ve shown, however, nothing trickled down. At a time in American history when the after-tax incomes of the wealthy continue to soar, while median household incomes are falling, and when we must invest far more in education and infrastructure, it seems appropriate to raise the top marginal tax rate and close tax loopholes that disproportionately favor the wealthy.
6) Make the payroll tax progressive. Payroll taxes account for 40 percent of government revenues, yet they are not nearly as progressive as income taxes. One way to make the payroll tax more progressive would be to exempt the first $15,000 of wages and make up the difference by removing the cap on the portion of income subject to Social Security payroll taxes.
7) Raise the estate tax and eliminate the “stepped-up basis” for determining capital gains at death. As Piketty warns, the United States, like other rich nations, could be moving toward an oligarchy of inherited wealth and away from a meritocracy based on labor income. The most direct way to reduce the dominance of inherited wealth is to raise the estate tax by triggering it at $1 million of wealth per person rather than its current $5.34 million (and thereafter peg those levels to inflation). We should also eliminate the “stepped-up basis” rule that lets heirs avoid capital gains taxes on the appreciation of assets that occurred before the death of their benefactors.
8) Constrain Wall Street. The financial sector has added to the burdens of the middle class and the poor through excesses that were the proximate cause of an economic crisis in 2008, similar to the crisis of 1929. Even though capital requirements have been tightened and oversight strengthened, the biggest banks are still too big to fail, jail or curtail—and therefore capable of generating another crisis. The Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial- and investment-banking functions, should be resurrected in full, and the size of the nation’s biggest banks should be capped.
9) Give all Americans a share in future economic gains. The richest 10 percent of Americans own roughly 80 percent of the value of the nation’s capital stock; the richest 1 percent own about 35 percent. As the returns to capital continue to outpace the returns to labor, this allocation of ownership further aggravates inequality. Ownership should be broadened through a plan that would give every newborn American an “opportunity share” worth, say, $5,000 in a diversified index of stocks and bonds—which, compounded over time, would be worth considerably more. The share could be cashed in gradually starting at the age of 18.
10) Get big money out of politics. Last, but certainly not least, we must limit the political influence of the great accumulations of wealth that are threatening our democracy and drowning out the voices of average Americans. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision must be reversed—either by the Court itself, or by constitutional amendment. In the meantime, we must move toward the public financing of elections—for example, with the federal government giving presidential candidates, as well as House and Senate candidates in general elections, $2 for every $1 raised from small donors.
Building a Movement
It’s doubtful that these and other measures designed to reverse widening inequality will be enacted anytime soon. Having served in Washington, I know how difficult it is to get anything done unless the broad public understands what’s at stake and actively pushes for reform.
That’s why we need a movement for shared prosperity—a movement on a scale similar to the Progressive movement at the turn of the last century, which fueled the first progressive income tax and antitrust laws; the suffrage movement, which won women the vote; the labor movement, which helped animate the New Deal and fueled the great prosperity of the first three decades after World War II; the civil rights movement, which achieved the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts; and the environmental movement, which spawned the National Environmental Policy Act and other critical legislation.
Time and again, when the situation demands it, America has saved capitalism from its own excesses. We put ideology aside and do what’s necessary. No other nation is as fundamentally pragmatic. We will reverse the trend toward widening inequality eventually. We have no choice. But we must organize and mobilize in order that it be done.
by Robert Reich
More Americans than ever believe the economy is rigged in favor of Wall Street and big business and their enablers in Washington. We’re five years into a so-called recovery that’s been a bonanza for the rich but a bust for the middle class. “The game is rigged and the American people know that. They get it right down to their toes,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Which is fueling a new populism on both the left and the right. While still far apart, neo-populists on both sides are bending toward one another and against the establishment.
Who made the following comments? (Hint: Not Warren, and not Bernie Sanders.)
A. We “cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street.”
B. “The rich and powerful, those who walk the corridors of power, are getting fat and happy…”
C. “If you come to Washington and serve in Congress, there should be a lifetime ban on lobbying.”
D. “Washington promoted moral hazard by protecting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which privatized profits and socialized losses.”
E. “When you had the chance to stand up for Americans’ privacy, did you?”
F. “The people who wake up at night thinking of which new country they want to bomb, which new country they want to be involved in, they don’t like restraint. They don’t like reluctance to go to war.”
You might doubt the sincerity behind some of these statements, but they wouldn’t have been uttered if the crowds didn’t respond enthusiastically – and that’s the point. Republican populism is growing, as is the Democratic version, because the public wants it.
And it’s not only the rhetoric that’s converging. Populists on the right and left are also coming together around six principles:
1. Cut the biggest Wall Street banks down to a size where they’re no longer too big to fail. Left populists have been advocating this since the Street’s bailout now they’re being joined by populists on the right. David Camp, House Ways and Means Committee chair, recently proposed an extra 3.5 percent quarterly tax on the assets of the biggest Wall Street banks (giving them an incentive to trim down). Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter wants to break up the big banks, as does conservative pundit George Will. “There is nothing conservative about bailing out Wall Street,” says Rand Paul.
2. Resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act, separating investment from commercial banking and thereby preventing companies from gambling with their depositors’ money. Elizabeth Warren has introduced such legislation, and John McCain co-sponsored it. Tea Partiers are strongly supportive, and critical of establishment Republicans for not getting behind it. “It is disappointing that progressive collectivists are leading the effort for a return to a law that served well for decades,” writes the Tea Party Tribune. “Of course, the establishment political class would never admit that their financial donors and patrons must hinder their unbridled trading strategies.”
3. End corporate welfare – including subsidies to big oil, big agribusiness, big pharma, Wall Street, and the Ex-Im Bank. Populists on the left have long been urging this; right-wing populists are joining in. Republican David Camp’s proposed tax reforms would kill dozens of targeted tax breaks. Says Ted Cruz: “We need to eliminate corporate welfare and crony capitalism.”
4. Stop the National Security Agency from spying on Americans. Bernie Sanders and other populists on the left have led this charge but right-wing populists are close behind. House Republican Justin Amash’s amendment, that would have defunded NSA programs engaging in bulk-data collection, garnered 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans last year, highlighting the new populist divide in both parties. Rand Paul could be channeling Sanders when he warns: “Your rights, especially your right to privacy, is under assault… if you own a cellphone, you’re under surveillance.”
5. Scale back American interventions overseas. Populists on the left have long been uncomfortable with American forays overseas. Rand Paul is leaning in the same direction. Paul also tends toward conspiratorial views about American interventionism. Shortly before he took office he was caught on video claiming that former vice president Dick Cheney pushed the Iraq War because of his ties to Halliburton.
6. Oppose trade agreements crafted by big corporations. Two decades ago Democrats and Republicans enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since then populists in both parties have mounted increasing opposition to such agreements. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, drafted in secret by a handful of major corporations, is facing so strong a backlash from both Democrats and tea party Republicans that it’s nearly dead. “The Tea Party movement does not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” says Judson Philips, president of Tea Party Nation. “Special interest and big corporations are being given a seat at the table” while average Americans are excluded.
Left and right-wing populists remain deeply divided over the role of government. Even so, the major fault line in American politics seems to be shifting, from Democrat versus Republican, to populist versus establishment — those who think the game is rigged versus those who do the rigging.
In this month’s Republican primaries, tea partiers continue their battle against establishment Republicans. But the major test will be 2016 when both parties pick their presidential candidates.
Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are already vying to take on Republican establishment favorites Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. Elizabeth Warren says she won’t run in the Democratic primaries, presumably against Hillary Clinton, but rumors abound. Bernie Sanders hints he might.
Wall Street and big business Republicans are already signaling they’d prefer a Democratic establishment candidate over a Republican populist.
Dozens of major GOP donors, Wall Street Republicans, and corporate lobbyists have told Politico that if Jeb Bush decides against running and Chris Christie doesn’t recover politically, they’ll support Hillary Clinton. “The darkest secret in the big money world of the Republican coastal elite is that the most palatable alternative to a nominee such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas or Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky would be Clinton,” concludes Politico.
Says a top Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer, “it’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.”
Everybody on Wall Street and in corporate suites, that is. And the “nightmare” may not occur in 2016. But if current trends continue, some similar “nightmare” is likely within the decade. If the American establishment wants to remain the establishment it will need to respond to the anxiety that’s fueling the new populism rather than fight it.
by Robert Reich
Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.
Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation.
This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing — contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.
Anyone who believes CEOs deserve this astronomical pay hasn’t been paying attention. The entire stock market has risen to record highs. Most CEOs have done little more than ride the wave.
There’s no easy answer for reversing this trend, but this week I’ll be testifying in favor of a bill introduced in the California legislature that at least creates the right incentives. Other states would do well to take a close look.
The proposed legislation, SB 1372, sets corporate taxes according to the ratio of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s typical worker. Corporations with low pay ratios get a tax break.Those with high ratios get a tax increase.
For example, if the CEO makes 100 times the median worker in the company, the company’s tax rate drops from the current 8.8 percent down to 8 percent. If the CEO makes 25 times the pay of the typical worker, the tax rate goes down to 7 percent.
On the other hand, corporations with big disparities face higher taxes. If the CEO makes 200 times the typical employee, the tax rate goes to 9.5 percent; 400 times, to 13 percent.
The California Chamber of Commerce has dubbed this bill a “job killer,” but the reality is the opposite. CEOs don’t create jobs.Their customers create jobs by buying more of what their companies have to sell — giving the companies cause to expand and hire.
So pushing companies to put less money into the hands of their CEOs and more into the hands of average employees creates more buying power among people who will buy, and therefore more jobs.
The other argument against the bill is it’s too complicated. Wrong again. The Dodd-Frank Act already requires companies to publish the ratios of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s median worker (the Securities and Exchange Commission is now weighing a proposal to implement this). So the California bill doesn’t require companies to do anything more than they’ll have to do under federal law. And the tax brackets in the bill are wide enough to make the computation easy.
What about CEO’s gaming the system? Can’t they simply eliminate low-paying jobs by subcontracting them to another company – thereby avoiding large pay disparities while keeping their own compensation in the stratosphere?
No. The proposed law controls for that. Corporations that begin subcontracting more of their low-paying jobs will have to pay a higher tax.
For the last thirty years, almost all the incentives operating on companies have been to lower the pay of their workers while increasing the pay of their CEOs and other top executives. It’s about time some incentives were applied in the other direction.
The law isn’t perfect, but it’s a start. That the largest state in America is seriously considering it tells you something about how top heavy American business has become, and why it’s time to do something serious about it.
by Robert Reich
Connect the dots. More than five years after Wall Street’s near meltdown the number of full-time workers is still less than it was in December 2007, yet the working-age population of the U.S. has increased by 13 million since then.
This explains why so many people are still getting nowhere. Unemployment among those 18 to 29 is 11.4 percent, nearly double the national rate.
Most companies continue to shed workers, cut wages, and horde their cash because they don’t have enough customers to warrant expansion. Why? The vast middle class and poor don’t have enough purchasing power, as 95 percent of the economy’s gains go to the top 1 percent.
That’s why we need to (1) cut taxes on average people (say, exempting the first $15,000 of income from Social Security taxes and making up the shortfall by taking the cap off income subject to it), (2) raise the minimum wage, (3) create jobs by repairing roads, bridges, ports, and much of the rest of our crumbling infrastructure, (4) add teachers and teacher’s aides to now over-crowded classrooms, and (5) create “green” jobs and a new WPA for the long-term unemployed.
And pay for much of this by raising taxes on the top, closing tax loopholes for the rich, and ending corporate welfare.
But none of this can be done because some wealthy people and big corporations have a strangle-hold on our politics. “McCutcheon” makes that strangle-hold even tighter.
Connect the dots and you see how the big-money takeover of our democracy has lead to an economy that’s barely functioning for most Americans.
by Robert Reich
by Robert Reich
Every year I ask my class on “Wealth and Poverty” to play a simple game. I have them split up into pairs, and imagine I’m giving one of them $1,000. They can keep some of the money only on condition they reach a deal with their partner on how it’s to be divided up between them. I explain they’re strangers who will never see one other again, can only make one offer and respond with one acceptance (or decline), and can only communicate by the initial recipient writing on a piece of paper how much he’ll share with the other, who must then either accept (writing “deal” on the paper) or decline (“no deal”).
You might think many initial recipients of the imaginary $1,000 would offer $1 or even less, which their partner would gladly accept. After all, even one dollar is better than ending up with nothing at all.
But that’s not what happens. Most of the $1,000 recipients are far more generous, offering their partners at least $250. And most of partners decline any offer under $250, even though “no deal” means neither of them will get to keep anything.
This game, or variations of it, have been played by social scientists thousands of times with different groups and pairings, with surprisingly similar results.
A far bigger version of the game is now being played on the national stage. But it’s for real — as a relative handful of Americans receive ever bigger slices of the total national income while most average Americans, working harder than ever, receive smaller ones. And just as in the simulations, the losers are starting to say “no deal.”
According to polls, they’ve said no deal to the pending Trans Pacific Trade Agreement, for example, and Congress is on the way to killing it.
It’s true that history and policy point to overall benefits from expanded trade because all of us gain access to cheaper goods and services. But in recent years the biggest gains from trade have gone to investors and executives while the burdens have fallen disproportionately on those in the middle and below who have lost good-paying jobs.
By the same token, most Americans are saying “no deal” to further tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. In fact, some are now voting to raise taxes on the rich in order to pay for such things as better schools, as evidenced by the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York.
Conservatives say higher taxes on the rich will slow economic growth. But even if this argument contains a grain of truth, it’s a non-starter as long as 95 percent of the gains from growth continue to go to the top 1 percent – as they have since the start of the recovery in 2009.
Why would people turn down a deal that made them better off simply because it made someone else far, far better off?
Some might call this attitude envy or spite. That’s the conclusion of Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent oped column for the New York Times. But he’s dead wrong.
It’s true that people sometimes feel worse off when others do better. There’s an old Russian story about a suffering peasant whose neighbor is rich and well-connected. In time, the rich neighbor obtains a cow, something the peasant could never afford. The peasant prays to God for help. When God asks the peasant what he wants God to do, the peasant replies, “Kill the cow.”
But Americans have never been prone to “kill the cow” type envy. When our neighbor gets the equivalent of new cow (or new car), we want one, too.
Yet we are sensitive to perceived unfairness. When I ask those of my students who refuse to accept even $200 in the distribution game why they did so, they rarely mention feelings of envy or spite. They talk instead about unfairness. “Why should she get so much?” they ask. “It’s unfair.”
Remember, I gave out the $1,000 arbitrarily. The initial recipients didn’t have to work for it or be outstanding in any way.
When a game seems rigged, losers may be willing to sacrifice some gains in order to prevent winners from walking away with far more — a result that might feel fundamentally unfair.
To many Americans, the U.S. economy of recent years has become a vast casino in which too many decks are stacked and too many dice are loaded. I hear it all the time: The titans of Wall Street made unfathomable amounts gambling with our money, and when their bets went bad in 2008 we had to bail them out. Yet although millions of Americans are still underwater and many remain unemployed, not a single top Wall Street banker has been indicted. In fact, they’re making more money now than ever before.
Top hedge-fund managers pocketed more than a billion dollars each last year, and the stock market is higher than it was before the crash. But the typical American home is worth less than before, and most Americans can’t save a thing. CEOs are now earning more than 300 times the pay of the typical worker yet the most workers are earning less, and many are barely holding on.
In 2001, a Gallup poll found 76 percent of Americans satisfied with opportunities to get ahead by working hard, and only 22 percent were dissatisfied. But since then, the apparent arbitrariness and unfairness of the economy have taken a toll. Satisfaction has steadily declined and dissatisfaction increased. Only 54 percent are now satisfied, 45 percent dissatisfied.
According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who feel most people who want to get ahead can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000.
Another related explanation I get from students who refuse $200 or more in the distribution game: They worry that if the other guy ends up with most of the money, he’ll also end up with most of the power. That will rig the game even more. So they’re willing to sacrifice some gain in order to avoid a steadily more lopsided and ever more corrupt politics.
Here again, the evidence is all around us. Big money had already started inundating our democracy before “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission” opened the sluice gates, but now our democracy is drowning. Only the terminally naive would believe this money is intended to foster the public interest.
What to do? Improving our schools is critically important. Making work pay by raising the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit would also be helpful.
But these are only a start. In order to ensure that future productivity gains don’t go overwhelmingly to a small sliver at the top, we’ll need a mechanism to give the middle class and the poor a share in future growth.
One possibility: A trust fund for every child at birth, composed of an index of stocks and bonds whose value is inversely related to family income, which becomes available to them when they turn eighteen. Through the magic of compounded interest, this could be a considerable sum. The funds would be financed by a small surtax on capital gains and a tax on all financial transactions.
We must also get big money out of politics — reversing “Citizens United” by constitutional amendment if necessary, financing campaigns by matching the contributions of small donors with public dollars, and requiring full disclosure of everyone and every corporation contributing to (or against) a candidate.
If America’s distributional game continues to create a few big winners and many who consider themselves losers by comparison, the losers will try to stop the game — not out of envy but out of a deep-seated sense of unfairness and a fear of unchecked power and privilege. Then we all lose.
by Robert Reich
Charles and David Koch should not be blamed for having more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans put together. Nor should they be condemned for their petrochemical empire. As far as I know, they’ve played by the rules and obeyed the laws.
They’re also entitled to their own right-wing political views. It’s a free country.
But in using their vast wealth to change those rules and laws in order to fit their political views, the Koch brothers are undermining our democracy. That’s a betrayal of the most precious thing Americans share.
The Kochs exemplify a new reality that strikes at the heart of America. The vast wealth that has accumulated at the top of the American economy is not itself the problem. The problem is that political power tends to rise to where the money is. And this combination of great wealth with political power leads to greater and greater accumulations and concentrations of both — tilting the playing field in favor of the Kochs and their ilk, and against the rest of us.
America is not yet an oligarchy, but that’s where the Koch’s and a few other billionaires are taking us.
American democracy used to depend on political parties that more or less represented most of us. Political scientists of the 1950s and 1960s marveled at American “pluralism,” by which they meant the capacities of parties and other membership groups to reflect the preferences of the vast majority of citizens.
Then around a quarter century ago, as income and wealth began concentrating at the top, the Republican and Democratic Parties started to morph into mechanisms for extracting money, mostly from wealthy people.
Finally, after the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision in 2010, billionaires began creating their own political mechanisms, separate from the political parties. They started providing big money directly to political candidates of their choice, and creating their own media campaigns to sway public opinion toward their own views.
So far in the 2014 election cycle, “Americans for Prosperity,” the Koch brother’s political front group, has aired more than 17,000 broadcast TV commercials, compared with only 2,100 aired by Republican Party groups.
"Americans for Prosperity" has also been outspending top Democratic super PACs in nearly all of the Senate races Republicans are targeting this year. In seven of the nine races the difference in total spending is at least two-to-one and Democratic super PACs have had virtually no air presence in five of the nine states.
The Kochs have spawned several imitators. Through the end of February, four of the top five contributors to 2014 super-PACs are now giving money to political operations they themselves created, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
For example, billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his son, Todd, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, have their own $25 million political operation called “Ending Spending.” The group is now investing heavily in TV ads against Republican Representative Walter Jones in a North Carolina primary (they blame Jones for too often voting with Obama).
Their ad attacking Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen for supporting Obama’s health-care law has become a template for similar ads funded by the Koch’s “Americans for Prosperity” in Senate races across the country.
When billionaires supplant political parties, candidates are beholden directly to the billionaires. And if and when those candidates win election, the billionaires will be completely in charge.
At this very moment, Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (worth an estimated $37.9 billion) is busy interviewing potential Republican candidates whom he might fund, in what’s being called the “Sheldon Primary.”
“Certainly the ‘Sheldon Primary’ is an important primary for any Republican running for president,” says Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “It goes without saying that anybody running for the Republican nomination would want to have Sheldon at his side.”
The new billionaire political bosses aren’t limited to Republicans. Democratic-leaning billionaires Tom Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have also created their own political groups. But even if the two sides were equal, billionaires squaring off against each other isn’t remotely a democracy.
In his much-talked-about new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” economist Thomas Piketty explains why the rich have become steadily richer while the share of national income going to wages continues to drop. He shows that when wealth is concentrated in relatively few hands, and the income generated by that wealth grows more rapidly than the overall economy – as has been the case in the United States and many other advanced economies for years – the richest receive almost all the income growth.
Logically, this leads to greater and greater concentrations of income and wealth in the future – dynastic fortunes that are handed down from generation to generation, as they were prior to the twentieth century in much of the world.
The trend was reversed temporarily in the twentieth century by the Great Depression, two terrible wars, the development of the modern welfare state, and strong labor unions. But Piketty is justifiably concerned about the future.
A new gilded age is starting to look a lot like the old one. The only way to stop this is through concerted political action. Yet the only large-scale political action we’re witnessing is that of Charles and David Koch, and their billionaire imitators.
by Robert Reich
Before the rise of the nation-state, between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the world was mostly tribal. Tribes were united by language, religion, blood, and belief. They feared other tribes and often warred against them. Kings and emperors imposed temporary truces, at most.
But in the past three hundred years the idea of nationhood took root in most of the world. Members of tribes started to become citizens, viewing themselves as a single people with patriotic sentiments and duties toward their homeland. Although nationalism never fully supplanted tribalism in some former colonial territories, the transition from tribe to nation was mostly completed by the mid twentieth century.
Over the last several decades, though, technology has whittled away the underpinnings of the nation state. National economies have become so intertwined that economic security depends less on national armies than on financial transactions around the world. Global corporations play nations off against each other to get the best deals on taxes and regulations.
News and images move so easily across borders that attitudes and aspirations are no longer especially national. Cyber-weapons, no longer the exclusive province of national governments, can originate in a hacker’s garage.
Nations are becoming less relevant in a world where everyone and everything is interconnected. The connections that matter most are again becoming more personal. Religious beliefs and affiliations, the nuances of one’s own language and culture, the daily realities of class, and the extensions of one’s family and its values – all are providing people with ever greater senses of identity.
The nation state, meanwhile, is coming apart. A single Europe – which seemed within reach a few years ago – is now succumbing to the centrifugal forces of its different languages and cultures. The Soviet Union is gone, replaced by nations split along tribal lines. Vladimir Putin can’t easily annex the whole of Ukraine, only the Russian-speaking part. The Balkans have been Balkanized.
Separatist movements have broken out all over — Czechs separating from Slovaks; Kurds wanting to separate from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; even the Scots seeking separation from England.
The turmoil now consuming much of the Middle East stems less from democratic movements trying to topple dictatorships than from ancient tribal conflicts between the two major denominations of Isam – Sunni and Shia.
And what about America? The world’s “melting pot” is changing color. Between the 2000 and 2010 census the share of the U.S. population calling itself white dropped from 69 to 64 percent, and more than half of the nation’s population growth came from Hispanics.
It’s also becoming more divided by economic class. Increasingly, the rich seem to inhabit a different country than the rest.
But America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe (calling themselves liberals, progressives, and Democrats) hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other (conservatives, Tea Partiers, and Republicans).
Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms (for liberals, reproductive rights and equal marriage rights; for conservatives, the right to own a gun and do what you want with your property).
Each has its own totems (social insurance versus smaller government) and taboos (cutting entitlements or raising taxes). Each, its own demons (the Tea Party and Ted Cruz; the Affordable Care Act and Barack Obama); its own version of truth (one believes in climate change and evolution; the other doesn’t); and its own media that confirm its beliefs.
The tribes even look different. One is becoming blacker, browner, and more feminine. The other, whiter and more male. (Only 2 percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were African-American, for example.)
Each tribe is headed by rival warlords whose fighting has almost brought the national government in Washington to a halt. Increasingly, the two tribes live separately in their own regions – blue or red state, coastal or mid-section, urban or rural – with state or local governments reflecting their contrasting values.
I’m not making a claim of moral equivalence. Personally, I think the Republican right has gone off the deep end, and if polls are to be believed a majority of Americans agree with me.
But the fact is, the two tribes are pulling America apart, often putting tribal goals over the national interest – which is not that different from what’s happening in the rest of the world.
by Robert Reich
It’s often assumed that people are paid what they’re worth. According to this logic, minimum wage workers aren’t worth more than the $7.25 an hour they now receive. If they were worth more, they’d earn more. Any attempt to force employers to pay them more will only kill jobs.
According to this same logic, CEOs of big companies are worth their giant compensation packages, now averaging 300 times pay of the typical American worker. They must be worth it or they wouldn’t be paid this much. Any attempt to limit their pay is fruitless because their pay will only take some other form.
"Paid-what-you’re-worth" is a dangerous myth.
Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour.
Does this mean the typical GM employee a half-century ago was worth four times what today’s typical Walmart employee is worth? Not at all. Yes, that GM worker helped produce cars rather than retail sales. But he wasn’t much better educated or even that much more productive. He often hadn’t graduated from high school. And he worked on a slow-moving assembly line. Today’s Walmart worker is surrounded by digital gadgets — mobile inventory controls, instant checkout devices, retail search engines — making him or her quite productive.
The real difference is the GM worker a half-century ago had a strong union behind him that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members. And because more than a third of workers across America belonged to a labor union, the bargains those unions struck with employers raised the wages and benefits of non-unionized workers as well. Non-union firms knew they’d be unionized if they didn’t come close to matching the union contracts.
Today’s Walmart workers don’t have a union to negotiate a better deal. They’re on their own. And because fewer than 7 percent of today’s private-sector workers are unionized, non-union employers across America don’t have to match union contracts. This puts unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage. The result has been a race to the bottom.
By the same token, today’s CEOs don’t rake in 300 times the pay of average workers because they’re “worth” it. They get these humongous pay packages because they appoint the compensation committees on their boards that decide executive pay. Or their boards don’t want to be seen by investors as having hired a “second-string” CEO who’s paid less than the CEOs of their major competitors. Either way, the result has been a race to the top.
If you still believe people are paid what they’re worth, take a look at Wall Street bonuses. Last year’s average bonus was up 15 percent over the year before, to more than $164,000. It was the largest average Wall Street bonus since the 2008 financial crisis and the third highest on record, according to New York’s state comptroller. Remember, we’re talking bonuses, above and beyond salaries.
All told, the Street paid out a whopping $26.7 billion in bonuses last year.
Are Wall Street bankers really worth it? Not if you figure in the hidden subsidy flowing to the big Wall Street banks that ever since the bailout of 2008 have been considered too big to fail.
People who park their savings in these banks accept a lower interest rate on deposits or loans than they require from America’s smaller banks. That’s because smaller banks are riskier places to park money. Unlike the big banks, the smaller ones won’t be bailed out if they get into trouble.
This hidden subsidy gives Wall Street banks a competitive advantage over the smaller banks, which means Wall Street makes more money. And as their profits grow, the big banks keep getting bigger.
How large is this hidden subsidy? Two researchers, Kenichi Ueda of the International Monetary Fund and Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the University of Mainz, have calculated it’s about eight tenths of a percentage point.
This may not sound like much but multiply it by the total amount of money parked in the ten biggest Wall Street banks and you get a huge amount — roughly $83 billion a year.
Recall that the Street paid out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even a Wall Street banker to see that the hidden subsidy the Wall Street banks enjoy because they’re too big to fail is about three times what Wall Street paid out in bonuses.
Without the subsidy, no bonus pool.
By the way, the lion’s share of that subsidy ($64 billion a year) goes to the top five banks — JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo. and Goldman Sachs. This amount just about equals these banks’ typical annual profits. In other words, take away the subsidy and not only does the bonus pool disappear, but so do all the profits.
The reason Wall Street bankers got fat paychecks plus a total of $26.7 billion in bonuses last year wasn’t because they worked so much harder or were so much more clever or insightful than most other Americans. They cleaned up because they happen to work in institutions — big Wall Street banks — that hold a privileged place in the American political economy.
And why, exactly, do these institutions continue to have such privileges? Why hasn’t Congress used the antitrust laws to cut them down to size so they’re not too big to fail, or at least taxed away their hidden subsidy (which, after all, results from their taxpayer-financed bailout)?
Perhaps it’s because Wall Street also accounts for a large proportion of campaign donations to major candidates for Congress and the presidency of both parties.
America’s low-wage workers don’t have privileged positions. They work very hard — many holding down two or more jobs. But they can’t afford to make major campaign contributions and they have no political clout.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the $26.7 billion of bonuses Wall Street banks paid out last year would be enough to more than double the pay of every one of America’s 1,085,000 full-time minimum wage workers.
The remainder of the $83 billion of hidden subsidy going to those same banks would almost be enough to double what the government now provides low-wage workers in the form of wage subsidies under the Earned Income Tax Credit.
But I don’t expect Congress to make these sorts of adjustments any time soon.
The “paid-what-your-worth” argument is fundamentally misleading because it ignores power, overlooks institutions, and disregards politics. As such, it lures the unsuspecting into thinking nothing whatever should be done to change what people are paid, because nothing can be done.
Don’t buy it.
by Robert Reich
I remember. My father (who just celebrated his 100th birthday) earned enough for the rest of us to live comfortably. We weren’t rich but never felt poor, and our standard of living rose steadily through the 1950s and 1960s.
That used to be the norm. For three decades after World War II, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. (Over the last thirty years, by contrast, the size of the economy doubled again but the earnings of the typical American went nowhere.)
In that earlier period, more than a third of all workers belonged to a trade union — giving average workers the bargaining power necessary to get a large and growing share of the large and growing economic pie. (Now, fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.)
Then, CEO pay then averaged about 20 times the pay of their typical worker (now it’s over 200 times).
In those years, the richest 1 percent took home 9 to 10 percent of total income (today the top 1 percent gets more than 20 percent).
Then, the tax rate on highest-income Americans never fell below 70 percent; under Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, it was 91 percent. (Today the top tax rate is 39.6 percent.)
In those decades, tax revenues from the wealthy and the growing middle class were used to build the largest infrastructure project in our history, the Interstate Highway system. And to build the world’s largest and best system of free public education, and dramatically expand public higher education. (Since then, our infrastructure has been collapsing from deferred maintenance, our public schools have deteriorated, and higher education has become unaffordable to many.)
We didn’t stop there. We enacted the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act to extend prosperity and participation to African-Americans; Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to the poor and reduce poverty among America’s seniors; and the Environmental Protection Act to help save our planet.
And we made sure banking was boring.
It was a virtuous cycle. As the economy grew, we prospered together. And that broad-based prosperity enabled us to invest in our future, creating more and better jobs and a higher standard of living.
Then came the great U-turn, and for the last thirty years we’ve been heading in the opposite direction.
Some blame globalization and the loss of America’s manufacturing core. Others point to new technologies that replaced routine jobs with automated machinery, software, and robotics.
But if these were the culprits, they only raise a deeper question: Why didn’t we share the gains from globalization and technological advances more broadly? Why didn’t we invest them in superb schools, higher skills, a world-class infrastructure?
Others blame Ronald Reagan’s worship of the so-called “free market,” supply-side economics, and deregulation. But if these were responsible, why did we cling to these ideas for so long? Why are so many people still clinging to them?
Some others believe Americans became greedier and more selfish. But if that’s the explanation, why did our national character change so dramatically?
Perhaps the real problem is we forgot what we once achieved together.
The collective erasure of the memory of that prior system of broad-based prosperity is due partly to the failure of my generation to retain and pass on the values on which that system was based. It can also be understood as the greatest propaganda victory radical conservatism ever won.
We must restore our recollection. In seeking to repair what is broken, we don’t have to emulate another nation. We have only to emulate what we once had.
That we once achieved broad-based prosperity means we can achieve it again — not exactly the same way, of course, but in a new way fit for the twenty-first century and for future generations of Americans.
America’s great U-turn can be reversed. It is worth the fight.
by Robert Reich
House Speaker John Boehner says raising the minimum wage is “bad policy” because it will cause job losses.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says a minimum wage increase would be a job killer. Republicans and the Chamber also say unions are job killers, workplace safety regulations are job killers, environmental regulations are job killers, and the Affordable Care Act is a job killer. The California Chamber of Commerce even publishes an annual list of “job killers,” including almost any measures that lift wages or protect workers and the environment.
Most of this is bunk.
When in 1996 I recommended the minimum wage be raised, Republicans and the Chamber screamed it would “kill jobs.” In fact, in the four years after it was raised, the U.S. economy created more jobs than were ever created in any four-year period.
For one thing, a higher minimum wage doesn’t necessarily increase business costs. It draws more job applicants into the labor market, giving employers more choice of whom to hire. As a result, employers often get more reliable workers who remain longer – thereby saving employers at least as much money as they spend on higher wages.
A higher wage can also help build employee morale, resulting in better performance. Gap, America’s largest clothing retailer, recently announced it would boost its hourly wage to $10. Wall Street approved. “You treat people well, they’ll treat your customers well,” said Dorothy Lakner, a Wall Street analyst. “Gap had a strong year last year compared to a lot of their peers. That sends a pretty strong message to employees that, ‘we had a good year, but you’re going to be rewarded too.’”
Even when raising the minimum wage — or bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions, or requiring businesses to provide safer workplaces or a cleaner environment — increases the cost of business, this doesn’t necessarily kill jobs.
Most companies today can easily absorb such costs without reducing payrolls. Corporate profits now account for the largest percentage of the economy on record. Large companies are sitting on more than $1.5 trillion in cash they don’t even know what to do with. Many are using their cash to buy back their own shares of stock – artificially increasing share value by reducing the number of shares traded on the market.
Walmart spent $7.6 billion last year buying back shares of its own stock — a move that papered over its falling profits. Had it used that money on wages instead, it could have given its workers a raise from around $9 an hour to almost $15. Arguably, that would have been a better use of the money over the long-term – not only improving worker loyalty and morale but also giving workers enough to buy more goods from Walmart (reminiscent of Henry Ford’s pay strategy a century ago).
There’s also a deeper issue here. Even assuming some of these measures might cause some job losses, does that mean we shouldn’t proceed with them?
Americans need jobs, but we also need minimally decent jobs. The nation could create millions of jobs tomorrow if we eliminated the minimum wage altogether and allowed employers to pay workers $1 an hour or less. But do we really want to do that?
Likewise, America could create lots of jobs if all health and safety regulations were repealed, but that would subject millions of workers to severe illness and injury.
Lots of jobs could be added if all environmental rules were eliminated, but that would result in the kind of air and water pollution that many people in poor nations have to contend with daily.
If the Affordable Care Act were repealed, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have to go back to working at jobs they don’t want but feel compelled to do in order to get health insurance.
We’d create jobs, but not progress. Progress requires creating more jobs that pay well, are safe, sustain the environment, and provide a modicum of security. If seeking to achieve a minimum level of decency ends up “killing” some jobs, then maybe those aren’t the kind of jobs we ought to try to preserve in the first place.
Finally, it’s important to remember the real source of job creation. Businesses hire more workers only when they have more customers. When they have fewer customers, they lay off workers. So the real job creators are consumers with enough money to buy.
Even Walmart may be starting to understand this. The company is “looking at” whether to support a minimum wage increase. David Tovar, a Walmart spokesman, noted that such a move would increase the company’s payroll costs but would also put more money in the pockets of some of Walmart’s customers.
In other words, forget what you’re hearing from the Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce. The real job killers in America are lousy jobs at lousy wages.
by Robert Reich
According to news reports today, Facebook has agreed to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion.
That’s the highest price paid for a startup in history. It’s $3 billion more than Facebook raised when it was first listed, and more than twice what Microsoft paid for Skype.
(To be precise, $12 billion of the $19 billion will be in the form of shares in Facebook, $4 billion will be in cash, and $3 billion in restricted stock to WhatsApp staff, which will vest in four years.)
Given that gargantuan amount, you might think Whatsapp is a big company. You’d be wrong. It has 55 employees, including its two young founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton.
Whatsapp’s value doesn’t come from making anything. It doesn’t need a large organization to distribute its services or implement its strategy.
It value comes instead from two other things that require only a handful of people. First is its technology — a simple but powerful app that allows users to send and receive text, image, audio and video messages through the Internet.
The second is its network effect: The more people use it, the more other people want and need to use it in order to be connected. To that extent, it’s like Facebook — driven by connectivity.
Whatsapp’s worldwide usage has more than doubled in the past nine months, to 450 million people — and it’s growing by around a million users every day. On December 31, 2013, it handled 54 billion messages (making its service more popular than Twitter, now valued at about $30 billion.)
How does it make money? The first year of usage is free. After that, customers pay a small fee. At the scale it’s already achieved, even a small fee generates big bucks. And if it gets into advertising it could reach more eyeballs than any other medium in history. It already has a database that could be mined in ways that reveal huge amounts of information about a significant percentage of the world’s population.
The winners here are truly big winners. WhatsApp’s fifty-five employees are now enormously rich. Its two founders are now billionaires. And the partners of the venture capital firm that financed it have also reaped a fortune.
And the rest of us? We’re winners in the sense that we have an even more efficient way to connect with each other.
But we’re not getting more jobs.
In the emerging economy, there’s no longer any correlation between the size of a customer base and the number of employees necessary to serve them. In fact, the combination of digital technologies with huge network effects is pushing the ratio of employees to customers to new lows (WhatsApp’s 55 employees are all its 450 million customers need).
Meanwhile, the ranks of postal workers, call-center operators, telephone installers, the people who lay and service miles of cable, and the millions of other communication workers, are dwindling — just as retail workers are succumbing to Amazon, office clerks and secretaries to Microsoft, and librarians and encyclopedia editors to Google.
Productivity keeps growing, as do corporate profits. But jobs and wages are not growing. Unless we figure out how to bring all of them back into line – or spread the gains more widely – our economy cannot generate enough demand to sustain itself, and our society cannot maintain enough cohesion to keep us together.
America has a serious “We” problem — as in “Why should we pay for them?”
It’s found in the resistance of some young and healthy people to being required to buy health insurance in order to help pay for people with preexisting health problems.
It can be heard among the residents of upscale neighborhoods who don’t want their tax dollars going to the inhabitants of poorer neighborhoods nearby.
The pronouns “we” and “they” are the most important of all political words. They demarcate who’s within the sphere of mutual responsibility, and who’s not. Someone within that sphere who’s needy is one of “us” — an extension of our family, friends, community, tribe – and deserving of help. But needy people outside that sphere are “them,” presumed undeserving unless proved otherwise.
The central political question faced by any nation or group is where the borders of this sphere of mutual responsibility are drawn.
Why in recent years have so many middle-class and wealthy Americans pulled the borders in closer?
The middle-class and wealthy citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, for example, are trying to secede from the school district they now share with poorer residents of town, and set up their own district funded by property taxes from their higher-valued homes.
Similar efforts are underway in Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas. Over the past two years, two wealthy suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, have left the countywide school system in order to set up their own.
Elsewhere, upscale school districts are voting down state plans to raise their taxes in order to provide more money to poor districts, as they did recently in Colorado.
"Why should we pay for them?" is also reverberating in wealthy places like Oakland County, Michigan, that border devastatingly poor places like Detroit.
"Now, all of a sudden, they’re having problems and they want to give part of the responsibility to the suburbs?" says L. Brooks Paterson, the Oakland County executive. “They’re not gonna talk me into being the good guy. ‘Pick up your share?’ Ha ha.”
But had the official boundary been drawn differently so that it encompassed both Oakland County and Detroit – say, to create a Greater Detroit region – the two places would form a “we” whose problems Oakland’s more affluent citizens would have some responsibility to address.
What’s going on?
One obvious explanation involves race. Detroit is mostly black; Oakland County, mostly white. The secessionist school districts in the South are almost entirely white; the neighborhoods they’re leaving behind, mostly black.
But racisim has been with us from the start. Although some southern school districts are seceding in the wake of the ending of court-ordered desegregation, race alone can’t explain the broader national pattern. According to Census Bureau numbers, two-thirds of Americans below the poverty line at any given point identify themselves as white.
Another culprit is the increasing economic stress felt by most middle-class Americans. Median household incomes are dropping and over three-quarters of Americans report they’re living paycheck to paycheck.
It’s easier to be generous and expansive about the sphere of ”we” when incomes are rising and future prospects seem even better, as during the first three decades after World War II when America declared war on poverty and expanded civil rights. But since the late 1970s, as most paychecks have flattened or declined, adjusted for inflation, many in the stressed middle no longer want to pay for “them.”
Yet this doesn’t explain why so many wealthy America’s are also exiting. They’ve never been richer. Surely they can afford a larger “we.” But most of today’s rich adamantly refuse to pay anything close to the tax rate America’s wealthy accepted forty years ago.
Perhaps it’s because, as inequality has widened and class divisions have hardened, America’s wealthy no longer have any idea how the other half lives.
Being rich in today’s America means not having to come across anyone who isn’t. Exclusive prep schools, elite colleges, private jets, gated communities, tony resorts, symphony halls and opera houses, and vacation homes in the Hamptons and other exclusive vacation sites all insulate them from the rabble.
America’s wealthy increasingly inhabit a different country from the one “they” inhabit, and America’s less fortunate seem as foreign as do the needy inhabitants of another country.
The first step in widening the sphere of “we” is to break down the barriers — not just of race, but also, increasingly, of class, and of geographical segregation by income — that are pushing “we Americans” further and further apart.
by Robert Reich
by Robert Reich
How can bad news on Main Street (only 113,000 jobs were created in January, on top of a meager 74,000 in December) cause good news on Wall Street?
Because investors assume:
(1) The Fed will now continue to keep interest rates low. Yes, it has announced its intention of tapering off its so-called “quantitative easing” by buying fewer long-term bonds in the months ahead. But it will likely slow down the tapering. Instead of going down to $55 billion a month of bond-buying by April, it will stay at around $60 billion to $70 billion.
(2) The slowdown in the Fed’s tapering will continue to make buying shares of stock a better deal than buying bonds – thereby pushing investors toward the stock market.
(3) Continued low interest rates will also continue to make it profitable for big investors (including corporations) to borrow money to buy back their own shares of stock, thereby pushing up their values. Apple and other companies that used to spend their spare cash and whatever they could borrow on new inventions are now focusing on short-term stock performance.
(4) With the job situation so poor, most workers will be so desperate to keep their jobs, or land one, that they will work for even less. This will keep profits high, make balance sheets look good, fuel higher stock prices.
But what’s bad for Main Street and good for Wall Street in the short term is bad for both in the long term. The American economy is at a crawl. Median household incomes are dropping. The American middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going. And as companies focus ever more on short-term share prices at the expense of long-term growth, we’re in for years of sluggish performance.
When, if ever, will Wall Street learn?
by Robert Reich
Middle incomes are sinking, the ranks of the poor are swelling, almost all the economic gains are going to the top, and big money is corrupting our democracy. So why isn’t there more of a ruckus?
The answer is complex, but three reasons stand out.
First, the working class is paralyzed with fear it will lose the jobs and wages it already has.
In earlier decades, the working class fomented reform. The labor movement led the charge for a minimum wage, 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, and Social Security.
No longer. Working people don’t dare. The share of working-age Americans holding jobs is now lower than at any time in the last three decades and 76 percent of them are living paycheck to paycheck.
No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have.
Besides, their major means of organizing themselves — labor unions — have been decimated. Four decades ago more than a third of private-sector workers were unionized. Now, fewer than 7 percent belong to a union.
Second, students don’t dare rock the boat.
In prior decades students were a major force for social change. They played an active role in the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech movement, and against the Vietnam War.
But today’s students don’t want to make a ruckus. They’re laden with debt. Since 1999, student debt has increased more than 500 percent, yet the average starting salary for graduates has dropped 10 percent, adjusted for inflation. Student debts can’t be cancelled in bankruptcy. A default brings penalties and ruins a credit rating.
To make matters worse, the job market for new graduates remains lousy. Which is why record numbers are still living at home.
Reformers and revolutionaries don’t look forward to living with mom and dad or worrying about credit ratings and job recommendations.
Third and finally, the American public has become so cynical about government that many no longer think reform is possible.
When asked if they believe government will do the right thing most of the time, fewer than 20 percent of Americans agree. Fifty years ago, when that question was first asked on standard surveys, more than 75 percent agreed.
It’s hard to get people worked up to change society or even to change a few laws when they don’t believe government can possibly work.
You’d have to believe in a giant conspiracy to think this was all the doing of the forces in America most resistant to positive social change.
It’s possible. of course, that they intentionally cut jobs and wages so much as to cow average workers, buried students under so much debt they’d never take to the streets, and made most Americans so cynical about government they wouldn’t even try to for change.
But it’s more likely they merely allowed all this to unfold, like a giant wet blanket over the outrage and indignation most Americans feel but don’t express.
Change is coming anyway. We cannot abide an ever-greater share of the nation’s income and wealth going to the top while median household incomes continue too drop, one out of five of our children living in dire poverty, and big money taking over our democracy.
At some point, working people, students, and the broad public will have had enough. They will reclaim our economy and our democracy. This has been the central lesson of American history.
Reform is less risky than revolution, but the longer we wait the more likely it will be the latter.
by Robert Reich
by Robert Reich
One of the worst epithets that can be leveled at a politician these days is to call him a “redistributionist.” Yet 2013 marked one of the biggest redistributions in recent American history. It was a redistribution upward, from average working people to the owners of America.
by Robert Reich
It’s the season to show concern for the less fortunate among us. We should also be concerned about the widening gap between the most fortunate and everyone else.
Although it’s still possible to win the lottery (your chance of winning $648 million in the recent Mega Millions sweepstakes was one in 259 million), the biggest lottery of all is what family we’re born into. Our life chances are now determined to an unprecedented degree by the wealth of our parents.
That’s not always been the case. The faith that anyone could move from rags to riches – with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone – was once at the core of the American Dream.
And equal opportunity was the heart of the American creed. Although imperfectly achieved, that ideal eventually propelled us to overcome legalized segregation by race, and to guarantee civil rights. It fueled efforts to improve all our schools and widen access to higher education. It pushed the nation to help the unemployed, raise the minimum wage, and provide pathways to good jobs. Much of this was financed by taxes on the most fortunate.
But for more than three decades we’ve been going backwards. It’s far more difficult today for a child from a poor family to become a middle-class or wealthy adult. Or even for a middle-class child to become wealthy.
The major reason is widening inequality. The longer the ladder, the harder the climb. America is now more unequal that it’s been for eighty or more years, with the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of all developed nations. Equal opportunity has become a pipe dream.
Rather than respond with policies to reverse the trend and get us back on the road to equal opportunity and widely-shared prosperity, we’ve spent much of the last three decades doing the opposite.
Taxes have been cut on the rich, public schools have deteriorated, higher education has become unaffordable for many, safety nets have been shredded, and the minimum wage has been allowed to drop 30 percent below where it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation.
Congress has just passed a tiny bipartisan budget agreement, and the Federal Reserve has decided to wean the economy off artificially low interest rates. Both decisions reflect Washington’s (and Wall Street’s) assumption that the economy is almost back on track.
But it’s not at all back on the track it was on more than three decades ago.
It’s certainly not on track for the record 4 million Americans now unemployed for more than six months, or for the unprecedented 20 million American children in poverty (we now have the highest rate of child poverty of all developed nations other than Romania), or for the third of all working Americans whose jobs are now part-time or temporary, or for the majority of Americans whose real wages continue to drop.
How can the economy be back on track when 95 percent of the economic gains since the recovery began in 2009 have gone to the richest 1 percent?
The underlying issue is a moral one: What do we owe one another as members of the same society?
Conservatives answer that question by saying it’s a matter of personal choice – of charitable works, philanthropy, and individual acts of kindness joined in “a thousand points of light.”
But that leaves out what we could and should seek to accomplish together as a society. It neglects the organization of our economy, and its social consequences. It minimizes the potential role of democracy in determining the rules of the game, as well as the corruption of democracy by big money. It overlooks our strivings for social justice.
In short, it ducks the meaning of a decent society.
Last month Pope Francis wondered aloud whether “trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness…”. Rush Limbaugh accused the Pope of being a Marxist for merely raising the issue.
But the question of how to bring about greater justice and inclusiveness is as American as apple pie. It has animated our efforts for more than a century – during the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, and beyond — to make capitalism work for the betterment of all rather merely than the enrichment of a few.
The supply-side, trickle-down, market-fundamentalist views that took root in America in the early 1980s got us fundamentally off track.
To get back to the kind of shared prosperity and upward mobility we once considered normal will require another era of fundamental reform, of both our economy and our democracy.
by Robert Reich
America’s wealthy are its largest beneficiaries. According to the Congressional Budget Office, $33 billion of last year’s $39 billion in total charitable deductions went to the richest 20 percent of Americans, of whom the richest 1 percent reaped the lion’s share.
The generosity of the super-rich is sometimes proffered as evidence they’re contributing as much to the nation’s well-being as they did decades ago when they paid a much larger share of their earnings in taxes. Think again.
Undoubtedly, super-rich family foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are doing a lot of good. Wealthy philanthropic giving is on the rise, paralleling the rise in super-rich giving that characterized the late nineteenth century, when magnates (some called them “robber barons”) like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller established philanthropic institutions that survive today.
But a large portion of the charitable deductions now claimed by America’s wealthy are for donations to culture palaces – operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters – where they spend their leisure time hobnobbing with other wealthy benefactors.
Another portion is for contributions to the elite prep schools and universities they once attended or want their children to attend. (Such institutions typically give preference in admissions, a kind of affirmative action, to applicants and “legacies” whose parents have been notably generous.)
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest of the Ivy League are worthy institutions, to be sure, but they’re not known for educating large numbers of poor young people. (The University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, has more poor students eligible for Pell Grants than the entire Ivy League put together.) And they’re less likely to graduate aspiring social workers and legal defense attorneys than aspiring investment bankers and corporate lawyers.
I’m all in favor of supporting fancy museums and elite schools, but face it: These aren’t really charities as most people understand the term. They’re often investments in the life-styles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have as well. Increasingly, being rich in America means not having to come across anyone who’s not.
They’re also investments in prestige – especially if they result in the family name engraved on a new wing of an art museum, symphony hall, or ivied dorm.
It’s their business how they donate their money, of course. But not entirely. As with all tax deductions, the government has to match the charitable deduction with additional tax revenues or spending cuts; otherwise, the budget deficit widens.
In economic terms, a tax deduction is exactly the same as government spending. Which means the government will, in effect, hand out $40 billion this year for “charity” that’s going largely to wealthy people who use much of it to enhance their lifestyles.
To put this in perspective, $40 billion is more than the federal government will spend this year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (what’s left of welfare), school lunches for poor kids, and Head Start, put together.
Which raises the question of what the adjective “charitable” should mean. I can see why a taxpayer’s contribution to, say, the Salvation Army should be eligible for a charitable tax deduction. But why, exactly, should a contribution to the Guggenheim Museum or to Harvard Business School?
A while ago, New York’s Lincoln Center held a fund-raising gala supported by the charitable contributions of hedge fund industry leaders, some of whom take home $1 billion a year. I may be missing something but this doesn’t strike me as charity, either. Poor New Yorkers rarely attend concerts at Lincoln Center.
What portion of charitable giving actually goes to the poor? The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews looked into this, and the best he could come up with was a 2005 analysis by Google and Indiana University’s Center for Philanthropy showing that even under the most generous assumptions only about a third of “charitable” donations were targeted to helping the poor.
At a time in our nation’s history when the number of poor Americans continues to rise, when government doesn’t have the money to do what’s needed, and when America’s very rich are richer than ever, this doesn’t seem right.
If Congress ever gets around to revising the tax code, it might consider limiting the charitable deduction to real charities.
by Robert Reich
The President’s speech yesterday on inequality avoided the “R” word. No politician wants to mention “redistribution” because it conjures up images of worthy “makers” forced to hand over hard-earned income to undeserving “takers.”
But as low-wage work proliferates in America, so-called takers are working as hard if not harder than anyone else, and often at more than one job.
Yet they’re still not making it because the twin forces of globalization and technological change have reduced their bargaining power and undermined their economic standing — while bestowing ever greater benefits on a comparative few with the right education and connections (and whose parents are often best able to secure these advantages for them).
Better education and training for those on the losing end is critically important, as will several of the other proposals the President listed. But they will only go so far.
The number of losers is growing so quickly, and so much of the economies’ winnings are going to a small group at the top — since the recovery began, 95 percent of the gains have gone to the richest 1 percent — that some direct redistribution of the gains is necessary.
Without some redistribution, the losers are likely to react in ways that could hurt the economy. They’ll demand protection from global markets they believe are taking away good jobs, and even from certain technological advances that threaten to displace them (rather than smash the machines, as did England’s 19th-century Luddites, they’ll seek regulations that preserve the old jobs).
Without some redistribution, our ever-increasing number of low-wage workers won’t have enough money to keep the economy going. (This is one reason why the current recovery has been so anemic.)
And without some redistribution, America’s growing army of low-wage workers may fall prey to demagogues on the right or left who offer convenient scapegoats for their frustrations.
One way we already redistribute is through the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage subsidy for the working poor, which, at about $60 billion a year, is the nation’s largest anti-poverty program. It’s like a reverse income tax — larger at the bottom of the wage scale (now around $3,000 for incomes around $20,000) and gradually tapering off as incomes rise (vanishing at around $35,000).
The EITC subsidy should be enlarged and extended further up the wage scale before tapering off.
How to pay for this? By cutting subsidies and special tax breaks for the oil and gas industries, big agribusiness, military contractors, hedge-fund and private-equity partners, and Wall Street banks. And by capping individual tax deductions (deductions are the economic equivalent of government subsidies) for gold-plated health care plans, lavish business junkets and interest on giant mortgages.
In other words, we can finance much of this redistribution to the working poor by ending unnecessary redistributions to the wealthy.
by Robert Reich
Having failed to defeat the Affordable Care Act in Congress, to beat it back in the last election, to repeal it despite more than eighty votes in the House, to stop it in the federal courts, to get enough votes in the Supreme Court to overrule it, and to gut it with outright extortion (closing the government and threatening to default on the nation’s debts unless it was repealed), Republicans are now down to their last ploy.
They are hell-bent on destroying the Affordable Care Act in Americans’ minds.
A document circulating among House Republicans (reported by the New York Times) instructs them to repeat the following themes and stories continuously: “Because of Obamacare, I Lost My Insurance.” “Obamacare Increases Health Care Costs.” “The Exchanges May Not Be Secure, Putting Personal Information at Risk.”
Every Republican in Washington has been programmed to use the word “disaster” whenever mentioning the Act, always refer to it as Obamacare, and demand its repeal.
Republican wordsmiths know they can count on Fox News and right-wing yell radio to amplify and intensify all of this in continuous loops of elaboration and outrage, repeated so often as to infect peoples’ minds like purulent pustules.
The idea is to make the Act so detestable it becomes the fearsome centerpiece of the midterm elections of 2014 — putting enough Democrats on the defensive they join in seeking its repeal or at least in amending it in ways that gut it (such as allowing insurers to sell whatever policies they want as long as they want, or delaying it further).
Admittedly, the President provided Republicans ammunition by botching the Act’s roll-out. Why wasn’t HealthCare.gov up and running smoothly October 1? Partly because the Administration didn’t anticipate that almost every Republican governor would refuse to set up a state exchange, thereby loading even more responsibility on an already over-worked and underfunded Department of Health and Human Services.
Why didn’t Obama’s advisors anticipate that some policies would be cancelled (after all, the Act sets higher standards than many policies offered) and therefore his “you can keep their old insurance” promise would become a target? Likely because they knew all policies were “grandfathered” for a year, didn’t anticipate how many insurers would cancel right away, and understood that only 5 percent of policyholders received insurance independent of an employer anyway.
But there’s really no good excuse. The White House should have anticipated the Republican attack machine.
The real problem is now. The President and other Democrats aren’t meeting the Republican barrage with three larger truths that show the pettiness of the attack:
The wreck of private insurance. Ours has been the only healthcare system in the world designed to avoid sick people. For-profit insurers have spent billions finding and marketing their policies to healthy people – young adults, people at low risk of expensive diseases, groups of professionals – while rejecting people with preexisting conditions, otherwise debilitated, or at high risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And have routinely dropped coverage of policy holders who become seriously sick or disabled. What else would you expect from corporations seeking to maximize profits?
But the social consequences have been devastating. We have ended up with the most expensive healthcare system in the world (finding and marketing to healthy people is expensive, corporate executives are expensive, profits adequate to satisfy shareholders are expensive), combined with the worst health outcomes of all rich countries — highest rates of infant mortality, shortest life spans, largest portions of populations never seeing a doctor and receiving no preventive care, most expensive uses of emergency rooms.
We could not and cannot continue with this travesty of a healthcare system.
The Affordable Care Act is a modest solution. It still relies on private insurers — merely setting minimum standards and “exchanges” where customers can compare policies, requiring insurers to take people with preexisting conditions and not abandon those who get seriously sick, and helping low-income people afford coverage.
A single-payer system would have been preferable. Most other rich countries do it this way. It could have been grafted on to Social Security and Medicare, paid for through payroll taxes, expanded to lower-income families through Medicaid. It would have been simple and efficient. (It’s no coincidence that the Act’s Medicaid expansion has been easy and rapid in states that chose to accept it.)
But Republicans were dead set against this. They wouldn’t even abide a “public option” to buy into something resembling Medicare. In the end, they wouldn’t even go along with the Affordable Care Act, which was based on Republican ideas in the first place. (From Richard Nixon’s healthcare plan through the musings of the Heritage Foundation, Republicans for years urged that everything be kept in the hands of private insurers but the government set minimum standards, create state-based insurance exchanges, and require everyone to sign up).
The moral imperative. Even a clunky compromise like the ACA between a national system of health insurance and a for-profit insurance market depends, fundamentally, on a social compact in which those who are healthier and richer are willing to help those who are sicker and poorer. Such a social compact defines a society.
The other day I heard a young man say he’d rather pay a penalty than buy health insurance under the Act because, in his words, “why should I pay for the sick and the old?” The answer is he has a responsibility to do so, as a member the same society they inhabit.
The Act also depends on richer people paying higher taxes to finance health insurance for lower-income people. Starting this year, a healthcare surtax of 3.8 percent is applied to capital gains and dividend income of individuals earning more than $200,000 and a nine-tenths of 1 percent healthcare tax to wages over $200,000 or couples over $250,000. Together, the two taxes will raise an estimated $317.7 billion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Here again, the justification is plain: We are becoming a vastly unequal society in which most of the economic gains are going to the top. It’s only just that those with higher incomes bear some responsibility for maintaining the health of Americans who are less fortunate.
This is a profoundly moral argument about who we are and what we owe each other as Americans. But Democrats have failed to make it, perhaps because they’re reluctant to admit that the Act involves any redistribution at all.
Redistribution has become so unfashionable it’s easier to say everyone comes out ahead. And everyone does come out ahead in the long term: Even the best-off will gain from a healthier and more productive workforce, and will save money from preventive care that reduces the number of destitute people using emergency rooms when they become seriously ill.
But there would be no reason to reform and extend health insurance to begin with if we did not have moral obligations to one another as members of the same society.
The initial problems with the website and the President’s ill-advised remark about everyone being able to keep their old policies are real. But they’re trifling compared to the wreckage of the current system, the modest but important step toward reform embodied in the Act, and the moral imperative at the core of the Act and of our society.
The Republicans have created a tempest out of trivialities. It is incumbent on Democrats — from the President on down — to show Americans the larger picture, and do so again and again.
by Robert Reich
Walmart just reported shrinking sales for a third straight quarter. What’s going on? Explained William S. Simon, the CEO of Walmart, referring to the company’s customers, “their income is going down while food costs are not. Gas and energy prices, while they’re abating, I think they’re still eating up a big piece of the customer’s budget.”
Walmart’s CEO gets it. Most of Walmart’s customers are still in the Great Recession, grappling with stagnant or declining pay. So, naturally, Walmart’s sales are dropping.
But what Walmart’s CEO doesn’t get is that a large portion of Walmart’s customers are lower-wage workers who are working at places like … Walmart. And Walmart, not incidentally, refuses to raise its median wage (including its army of part-timers) of $8.80 an hour.
Walmart isn’t your average mom-and-pop operation. It’s the largest employer in America. As such, it’s the trendsetter for millions of other employers of low-wage workers. As long as Walmart keeps its wages at or near the bottom, other low-wage employers keep wages there, too. All they need do is offer $8.85 an hour to have their pick.
On the other hand, if Walmart were to boost its wages, other employers of low-wage workers would have to follow suit in order to attract the employees they need.
Get it? Walmart is so huge that a wage boost at Walmart would ripple through the entire economy, putting more money in the pockets of low-wage workers. This would help boost the entire economy — including Walmart’s own sales. (This is also an argument for a substantial hike in the minimum wage.)
Walmart could learn a thing or two from Henry Ford, who almost exactly a century ago decided to pay his workers three times the typical factory wage at the time. The Wall Street Journal called Ford a traitor to his class but he proved to be a cunning businessman.
Ford’s decision helped boost factory wages across the board — enabling so many working people to buy Model Ts that Ford’s revenues soared far ahead of his increased payrolls, and he made a fortune.
So why can’t Walmart learn from Ford? Because Walmart’s business model is static, depending on cheap labor rather than increased sales, and it doesn’t account for Walmart’s impact on the rest of the economy.
You can help teach Walmart how much power its consumers have: Stand with its workers who deserve a raise, and boycott Walmart on the most important sales day of the year, November 29.
John Coltrane: One Down, One Up
Monk and Coltrane: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
Best album of 2005 (*****)
Doug Ramsey: Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond
This is a great book! Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck formed the heart of one of the best all time jazz groups. Paul was the quintessential intellectual, white jazz musician. A talented writer, he never published anything. However author, Doug Ramsey has collected Paul's letters here. How ironic that now his writing in the form of letters to his father and ex-wife, among others, is finally published showing another window on the mind of this talented person. A sideman, for the most part, his entire life, the Dave Brubeck Quartet might never have happened at all due to the fact that Paul had managed to offend Dave to the point where he never wanted to see him again. It had to do with a gig that Paul actually was the leader of. Paul wanted to take the summer off to play another gig, and Dave wanted Paul to let him take over the gig at the Band Box in Palo Alto, CA. Paul wouldn't let him and Dave, married with two children, proceeded to starve. Due to an elaborate publicity campaign, when he realized the error of his ways, Paul managed to worm himself back into Dave's good graces. The rest is history. This book is remarkable for the insight it gives into a working jazz musician's mind, wonderful pictures and interviews with the significant figures in Paul's life. Author Ramsey, not a remarkable penman himself, has nevertheless done a magnificent job of assembling all these various materials. Unlike a lot of jazz authors, he doesn't overly idolize his subject with the result that you get the feeling that you have met a real person and not a idealized version. That's high praise indeed for any biographer. (*****)