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“Keeping Their Eyes On The Prize”: Democrats’ No. 1 Job; Remind Voters That American Wages Have Flatlined

For the moment, the Democrats have resumed their time-honored posture of arguing about trade policy. It’s an important issue, and one on which I’m not sure where I come down. But as they prepare to rip each other’s flesh, they might bear in mind it isn’t the issue. The issue, as I wrote two weeks ago in urging Hillary Clinton to go big, is wage stagnation. I offer this up as a timely public-service reminder: Remember, folks, what you agree on.

As I noted in the go big column, wages have been in essence flat for earners—up 6 percent (adjusted for inflation)—in the middle of the income scale since 1979. For the top 1 percent, compensation has risen about 140 percent since the fateful year. This needs to be the issue of this campaign. If American voters don’t know these 6 percent and 140 percent figures November 8 next year, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats will have done something very wrong.

Economists choose 1979 as the cutoff year because, looking back over the numbers, that’s when the flattening started. It’s also about when compensation at the top started soaring (a little later, actually). Until the early to mid-1980s, Wall Streeters and corporate lawyers and actors and university presidents and star athletes made more than the rest of us, but they didn’t make gobs more.

For example, the average baseball salary doubled, up to around $370,000, from 1981 to 1985. The average wage in that same time frame went from $13,773 in 1981 to $16,822 in 1985, an 18 percent increase. Not bad, better than average; but not double by a long shot. I’m not saying the juxtaposition of these numbers proves anything more than it proves. But it is certainly representative of what was happening to American wages then and has been happening since.

Another way of looking at it: The average ballplayer went from making about 12 times the average American to 22 times. Today, incidentally, it’s 108 times, $4.25 million to around $39,000.

So what we’re gonna do right here is go back, way back, as an old song had it, to the year of Apocalypse Now and Get the Knack and those hideous Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms  that so offended my aesthetic sensibilities that I had no choice but to cheer against the team I’d grown up worshipping. Let’s ask: What if the wage structure in the United States today were the same as it was in 1979?

Larry Summers asked the question in the Financial Times back in January. The bottom 80 percent of earners, he wrote, would have $11,000 more per family, and the top 1 percent would have $750,000 less. In the wake of Summers’s column, the folks at NPR’s Planet Money took it one step further and calculated the increased (or decreased) income for households at several points along the wage structure. It’ll pop your little eyes.

The poorest wage-earners, at $12,000, would be making $3,282 more. That’s a 27 percent increase. Those at $30,000 would be making $6,928 more (23 percent). Those at $52,000 would be getting $8,752 more (16.8 percent). For those at $84,000, the increase drops off, to $5,834 more (7 percent). But it kicks back up for those at $122,000, to $17,311 (14.2 percent). And finally, those in the top 1 percent, at $1.41 million, would see a decrease in earnings of $824,844, or a whopping 58 percent.

Now before we go any further—no, no one today is talking about anything as confiscatory as wiping out 58 percent of the top 1 percent’s earnings. That isn’t how it’s going to work anymore, with top marginal tax rates of 76 percent (which does not mean that the government took three-quarters of someone’s money; go look up the concept of “marginal” if you don’t get this).

But the wage structure is a function of a whole host of other policies and practices that have nothing to do with marginal tax rates. It has to do, yes, with the minimum wage. It was $2.90 in 1979. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $9.38 today instead of the actual $7.25, which is a 23 percent decline for those workers, and minimum wage is generally thought to have knock-on effects at least a third of the way up the wage chain. It has a lot to do with corporate culture: In 1979, CEOs at the top few hundred corporations made about 28 times the average worker’s salary; now they make more than 200 times. There were 15.1 million private-sector union workers  in the United States in 1979; last year, there were 7.35 million. And in 1979, Washington oversaw a lot more in public investment than it does today, and those dollars by and large went into real things, from bridges to scientific research, instead of swaps and derivatives.

Now, 1979 was a bad year in some important ways—inflation, hostage crisis—so I’m not saying I think it would be the world’s greatest idea for the Democrats to campaign on bringing back 1979. It’s not about the year per se. That just happens to be the year the thing started happening. And the thing is flat wages for most people who work for a living.

The trade fight has to be played out, and it seems that the unions and the Warren wing are probably going to lose, because the president will get enough votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. And of course it’ll be interesting to see how Clinton plays it. Whichever position she takes, we can be sure she’ll do it cautiously.

So dust will be kicked up over that. It has to be. The differences are real. But comparatively, the differences are small. Democrats must keep their eyes on the prize. “Who cares more about increasing the wages of working Americans?” is a debate question the Republicans can never win. The Democrats have to make sure the election is about that question.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 24, 2015

April 29, 2015 Posted by | Democrats, Minimum Wage, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Demand A Higher Wage, People!”: The Status Quo Of Wage Injustice And Greed-Driven Inequality Relies On Our Complicity

Chasten Florence was on his lunch break when he decided to join a protest outside a McDonald’s in New York City on Wednesday. To be honest, Florence wasn’t really sure what he was helping protest. But as he lay his body down on the sidewalk at a die-in of low-wage workers demanding a $15 wage and a union, Florence simply explained, “These are my people.”

Didn’t Florence need to eat lunch? Sure, but he could spare five minutes. Working concrete on construction jobs, Florence earns more than $15 an hour and thinks everyone else should, too. “I don’t know how you can raise a household on less,” said Florence. And he’s right. You can’t.

On April 15, workers from McDonald’s, Walmart and other low-wage employers were joined by college students and adjunct faculty, domestic workers and leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement. In all, tens of thousands participated in protests in 200 cities across the United States to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union. The #FightFor15 is unconventional in that, instead of focusing on Congress to raise wages, workers and advocates are pressuring employers and also the general public—trying to foster awareness about dismal wages and working conditions and create a groundswell of support for change.

The nationwide protests were organized on Tax Day, April 15, because 4/15 is a short-hand for the campaign’s wage demands. But it was also meant to highlight the fact that the poverty wages paid by fast food restaurants and employers are so low that many low-wage workers are forced to rely on public assistance benefits to get by. In fact, almost three-quarters of Americans who depend on public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid are members of a family headed by someone who has a job.

In other words, in America today, many people are poor not because they don’t have a job but because they have a job that pays poverty wages. If the minimum wage had grown at the same rate as overall productivity since 1968, then the minimum wage would now be $18.50 an hour—instead of $7.25, the current federal minimum wage. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage has actually dropped. In 2014 dollars, the 1968 minimum wage was equal to $9.54 an hour.

The stagnation of working class wages cannot be explained by a lack of hard work or skills. Low-wage workers have more education than their 1968 counterparts—and yet are still being paid less. And as this graph from Mother Jones shows, while worker productivity has steadily risen over the past several decades, overall wages have not grown at the same pace—even though the income of the top 1% has spiked dramatically.

As taxpayers, we foot the bill for greedy employers who pay poverty wages. For instance, because McDonald’s won’t pay its workers a living wage, taxpayers are paying $1.2 billion per year in food stamp costs and other public assistance just for McDonald’s workers alone. That’s like our tax dollars subsidizing McDonald’s profit—and greed.

Recently McDonald’s announced it would raise wages by $1.00 an hour for workers in its corporate-owned stores, which since most McDonald’s are franchise operations, means the raise will affect less than 10 percent of McDonald’s workers. Beth Schaffer, who works at a McDonald’s in Charleston, South Carolina, and came to New York for the protests, shrugged her shoulders about the raise. After all, every single McDonald’s in South Carolina is a franchise not covered by the $1.00-an-hour increase. “My customers show me more respect than my employer,” said Schaffer. As her tone made clear, that’s not saying much.

As I left the Fight for $15 protest, one of several staged throughout New York on Wednesday, Chasten Florence walked one way back to his construction site and I walked the other way. I passed the tony restaurants of New York’s Upper West Side, on what seemed like one of the first real days of spring, men and women in business suits sitting at tables on the sidewalk, taking in the sun. Most were probably spending more on lunch than the workers at the protest earn in a week. Myself included.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, with wealth and success and enjoying what comes with it. The question is, are we paying enough attention to the costs? I wondered whether the people eating their expensive lunches knew that the bussers taking their plates can barely afford to feed their own families, that the workers at their children’s daycares don’t have health insurance, that the cheap stuff they order conveniently on Amazon.com is definitely comes at a high cost to the workers who make and ship those goods.

The construction worker who joined the Fight for $15 protest didn’t know that much about the issues or the protest demands, either. But he was going out of his way to learn, and to be supportive. “These are my people,” he said. Yes, they’re all of our people. It’s time we all wake up, pay attention, be angry and stand with our fellow human beings to do something about it. The status quo of wage injustice and greed-driven inequality relies on our complicity, whether by silence or ignorance. But it cannot survive if we all stand up together and fight.

 

By: Sally Kohn,

April 19, 2015 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poverty, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Right’s Word-Deed Problem”: Republicans Rely On All Sorts Of Magic Tricks That Shove Choices And Problems Down The Road

Briefly, there seemed a chance we might have a cross-party discussion of the biggest economic problem the country faces: the vexing intersection of wage stagnation, declining social mobility and rising inequality.

Even the most conservative Republicans were starting to talk about this challenge in rather urgent terms. In a moment whose irony he noted, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told a bunch of rich Republicans gathered by the Brothers Koch earlier this year that those doing well in America were “the top 1 percent, the millionaires and billionaires the president loves to demagogue, one or two of whom are here with us tonight” while the “people who have been hammered for the last six years are working men and women.”

And on it went through the country’s top Republicans. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) stressed “opportunity inequality” and Mitt Romney, in another ironic turn, charged that “under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer.”

It would be wonderful if conservatives really wanted to deal constructively with the predicament they so passionately describe. But thanks to the House and Senate GOP budgets, we now know that conservatives and Republicans (1) aren’t serious about the plight of working class and lower-income Americans, and (2) would actually make their situations much worse.

Their spending plans fail even on conservative terms: They are not fiscally responsible. Instead, they rely on all sorts of magic tricks that shove choices and problems down the road.

One heartening sign is that at least some conservatives find these budgets ridiculous. For example, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute headlined his commentary for The Week: “The disappointing unseriousness of the House GOP’s budget.”

Pethokoukis wrote: “House Republicans say they want to balance the federal budget and eventually eliminate the federal debt. They do not have a plan to do so. Oh, to be sure, they have a plan! Just not a realistic one that will actually accomplish their goals.”

He noted that of the $5.5 trillion in cuts from planned spending, $2 trillion would come from “repealing the Obamacare insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion and replacing them with … well, nothing right now.”

The wholesale assault on efforts to provide lower-income Americans with health insurance is the clearest sign that Republicans don’t want to deal with inequality. The inability to get health insurance is one of the biggest burdens on low-income families, particularly those working for low wages and few or no benefits.

Obamacare has helped 16.4 million Americans get health insurance. Where would they turn? And Republicans would compound the damage: The Senate proposes cutting an additional $400 billion from Medicaid over a decade, the House more than double that. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that on other low-income programs, the Senate budget cuts even more than the House. The vagueness of these plans makes it hard to tally how much damage would be done to food stamps, Pell Grants for low-income college students and the like, but Greenstein estimates that about two-thirds of the cuts in both plans come “from programs for the less fortunate, thereby exacerbating poverty and inequality.”

Greenstein concludes that under such proposals — here’s hoping President Obama is relentless in blocking them — “ours would be a coarser and less humane nation with higher levels of poverty and inequality, less opportunity,” and an “inadequately prepared” workforce.

Another bit of hypocrisy: These budget writers care so much about national security that they’re not willing to raise a dime in taxes to cover their sharp increases in defense spending. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, called out his conservative colleagues for how differently they treat defense and social spending.

“You’re always telling us the deficit is so bad we’ve got to cut programs for the elderly, for the sick and for the poor,” Sanders said, “and suddenly, all of that rhetoric disappears.”

Budgets are, by their nature, boring. That’s why those who assemble these long columns of numbers figure they can assail the well-being of the least privileged people in our society even as they profess to care about them so much.

I’d respect these folks a lot more if they said what they clearly believe: They think more inequality would be good for us. It almost makes you nostalgic for the candor of the Romney who spoke about the “47 percent” and the Paul Ryan who once divided us between “makers” and “takers.” Honesty beats saccharine words about the struggles of working people any day.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; Featured Post, The National Memo, March 23, 2015

March 24, 2015 Posted by | Budget, Republicans, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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