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“Falling Further Into A Hole”: Wage Stagnation Puts The Squeeze On Ordinary Workers

Laurie Chisum works as a manager for a small office-equipment company in Orange County. She puts in about 30 hours a week on the job and spends much of her time at home caring for her mother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

She’s not complaining — she’s thankful to have a steady paycheck. But no matter how hard she works, it feels as if she just can’t get ahead.

“It’s been six years since anyone at our company has had a raise,” said Chisum, 52. “It seems like I just keep falling further into a hole. The price of gas has gone down, but nothing else has.”

It’s a refrain we’ve heard throughout the year: wealth gap, income inequality, wage stagnation.

No matter how you say it, the upshot is the same. The rich are getting richer and everyone else is feeling squeezed.

The wealth gap in this country is now the widest it’s been in decades, according to a report this month from the Pew Research Center.

The median net worth of upper-income families reached $639,400 last year. That’s nearly seven times as much as for those in the middle and almost 70 times what people at the lower end of the economic spectrum are making.

That’s not just a data point. It’s sad proof of a system that grossly favors the rich over ordinary working families — even when the economy is improving.

“Far too many people simply aren’t feeling the benefits of this economic growth,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. “People are working harder and smarter, but their sweat equity hasn’t translated into financial equity.”

David Neumark, director of the Center for Economics and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine, said that “people at the top have had phenomenal wage growth,” whereas “people at the lower end of the spectrum have seen their real purchasing power decline.”

Corporate profits are at or near record levels. So’s the stock market. Chief executives are doing just fine, thank you very much. A recent report found that some of the biggest U.S. companies pay their CEOs more than they pay in federal income taxes.

For ordinary working stiffs, the numbers are more sobering. Average hourly wages rose an itsy-bitsy 0.4 percent in November, according to the Labor Department. And this was seen as good news because average wages increased a pitiful 0.1 percent in October and didn’t budge in September.

For the year, average hourly earnings through November rose 1.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the end of the recession in 2009, they’ve gained about 11 percent.

At the same time, though, the consumer price index — the cost of living — has increased 1.3 percent since the beginning of the year and about 11 percent since the end of the recession.

Wages, in other words, are barely keeping pace with overall inflation. That’s why many people feel as if they’re stuck in a financial rut.

“You wonder from month to month what else you’re going to have to cut back on,” said Chisum, a single mom who also is caring for a grown son with Down syndrome.

Things look even tougher when you tighten the focus on specific expenditures, such as food and rent.

Average food costs have climbed 12.5 percent since the end of the recession, according to the bureau. Average residential rents have risen 12 percent. The average cost of healthcare has jumped nearly 17 percent.

In that context, the 11 percent gain in wages since 2009 means that each of these necessities has taken a bigger bite out of family budgets and has left fewer dollars for other expenditures, such as the occasional restaurant meal or movie.

“There’s no evidence I can see that this is going to change in the near future,” said Edward Lawler, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “These are tough times for workers.”

One key issue, he said, is that labor unions have less clout than they once enjoyed. This denies workers a unified voice at the bargaining table.

Improvements in technology have boosted productivity and allowed employers to limit hiring. And it’s become easy to ship jobs abroad, where people are willing to work for a fraction of the cost of American workers.

All these factors conspire to keep wages down while profits and the compensation of senior managers skyrocket.

Earlier this month, Microsoft shareholders approved an $84-million pay package for the company’s new chief executive, Satya Nadella, making him one of the country’s highest-paid corporate leaders. He’s run the company for less than a year.

Boeing, Ford, Chevron, Citigroup, Verizon Communications, JPMorgan Chase and General Motors each paid their CEOs more last year than they paid in income taxes to Uncle Sam, according to a report from the Center for Effective Government and the Institute for Policy Studies.

A recent study by Harvard Business School found that most Americans believe chief executives make roughly 30 times what the average U.S. worker makes. That was indeed the case in the 1960s. Nowadays, CEOs pull down more than 350 times the average worker.

Chief executives are important people, to be sure. But is their importance to a company 350 times that of their employees? I doubt most people — other than CEOs — would think so.

More effective unions would help, as would programs to give workers the skills they need to compete better in the 21st century workplace.

Chris Tilly, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, said a key step would be establishing a national minimum wage of $10 to $12 an hour, and then indexing that wage to consumer prices so that paychecks automatically rise with inflation.

“That way you wouldn’t have to wait for Congress to act every year,” he said. “This would be a basic decision that wages would keep up with the cost of living.”

Perez, the labor secretary, also called for a higher minimum wage, plus “strengthening overtime protections” and “ensuring that workers have a strong voice in the workplace.”

A rising tide lifts all boats. At least that’s how we’re told things are supposed to work.

The reality is that the tide is rising in a big way for some, and they’re comfortably sunning themselves on the decks of their yachts.

For most others, that rising tide is more like a stormy sea threatening to swamp the family lifeboat.

We’ll likely hear a lot in the coming year about how the economy is improving and businesses are thriving. Chief executives will point toward fast-rising stock prices as proof that they’re worth every million they’re paid.

And everyone else will try to make their 0.4 percent hourly pay hike go as far as they can.

 

By: David Lazarus, Columnist, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, December 29, 2014

January 1, 2015 Posted by | Corporate Welfare, Minimum Wage, Workers | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Government Problem”: The Central Issue Is Whom The Government Is For

Some believe the central political issue of our era is the size of the government. They’re wrong. The central issue is whom the government is for.

Consider the new spending bill Congress and the President agreed to a few weeks ago.

It’s not especially large by historic standards. Under the $1.1 trillion measure, government spending doesn’t rise as a percent of the total economy. In fact, if the economy grows as expected, government spending will actually shrink over the next year.

The problem with the legislation is who gets the goodies and who’s stuck with the tab.

For example, it repeals part of the Dodd-Frank Act designed to stop Wall Street from using other peoples’ money to support its gambling addiction, as the Street did before the near-meltdown of 2008.

Dodd-Frank had barred banks from using commercial deposits that belong to you and me and other people, and which are insured by the government, to make the kind of risky bets that got the Street into trouble and forced taxpayers to bail it out.

But Dodd-Frank put a crimp on Wall Street’s profits. So the Street’s lobbyists have been pushing to roll it back.

The new legislation, incorporating language drafted by lobbyists for Wall Street’s biggest bank, Citigroup, does just this.

It reopens the casino. This increases the likelihood you and I and other taxpayers will once again be left holding the bag.

Wall Street isn’t the only big winner from the new legislation. Health insurance companies get to keep their special tax breaks. Tourist destinations like Las Vegas get their travel promotion subsidies.

In a victory for food companies, the legislation even makes federally subsidized school lunches less healthy by allowing companies that provide them to include fewer whole grains. This boosts their profits because junkier food is less expensive to make.

Major defense contractors also win big. They get tens of billions of dollars for the new warplanes, missiles, and submarines they’ve been lobbying for.

Conservatives like to portray government as a welfare machine doling out benefits to the poor, some of whom are too lazy to work.

In reality, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, only about 12 percent of federal spending goes to individuals and families, most of whom are in dire need.

An increasing portion goes to corporate welfare.

In addition to the provisions in the recent spending bill that reward Wall Street, health insurers, the travel industry, food companies, and defense contractors, other corporate goodies have been long baked into the federal budget.

Big agribusiness gets price supports. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers get their own special “carried-interest” tax loophole. The oil and gas industry gets its special tax subsidies.

Big Pharma gets a particularly big benefit: a prohibition on government using its vast bargaining power under Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate low drug prices.

Why are politicians doing so much for corporate executives and Wall Street insiders? Follow the money. It’s because they’re flooding Washington with money as never before, financing an increasing portion of politicians’ campaigns.

The Supreme Court’s decision this year in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, following in the wake of Citizen’s United, already eliminated the $123,200 cap on the amount an individual could contribute to federal candidates.

The new spending legislation, just enacted, makes it easier for wealthy individuals to write big checks to political parties. Before, individuals could donate up to $32,400 to the Democratic or Republican National Committees.

Starting in 2015, they can donate ten times as much. In a two-year election cycle, a couple will be able to give $1,296,000 to a party’s various accounts.

But the only couples capable of giving that much are those that include corporate executives, Wall Street moguls, and other big-moneyed interests.

Which means Washington will be even more attentive to their needs in the next round of legislation.

That’s been the pattern. As wealth continues to concentrate at the top, individuals and entities with lots of money have greater political power to get favors from government – like the rollback of the Dodd-Frank law and the accumulation of additional corporate welfare. These favors, in turn, further entrench and expand the wealth at the top.

The size of government isn’t the problem. That’s a canard used to hide the far larger problem.

The larger problem is that much of government is no longer working for the vast majority it’s intended to serve. It’s working instead for a small minority at the top.

If government were responding to the public’s interest instead of the moneyed interests, it would be smaller and more efficient.

But unless or until we can reverse the vicious cycle of big money getting political favors that makes big money even bigger, we can’t get the government we want and deserve.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, December 23, 2014

December 28, 2014 Posted by | Dodd-Frank, Federal Government, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Citigroup Becomes Its Own Self-Serving Lawmaker”: 21st Century Civics Lesson; How A Corporate Bill Becomes A Law

Congress, which has long been so tied up in a partisan knot by right-wing extremists that it has been unable to move, suddenly sprang loose at the end of the year and put on a phenomenal show of acrobatic lawmaking.

In one big, bipartisan spending bill, our legislative gymnasts pulled off a breathtaking, flat-footed backflip for Wall Street, and then set a dizzying new height record for the amount of money deep-pocketed donors can give to the two major political parties. It was the best scratch-my-back performance you never saw. You and I didn’t see it — because it happened in secret.

The favor was huge — allowing Wall Street’s most reckless speculators to have their losses on risky derivative deals insured by us taxpayers. Yes, such losses were a central cause of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent unholy bank bailout, which led to passage of the Dodd-Frank reform law, including a provision sparing taxpayers from covering future losses. But with one, compact, 85-line provision inserted deep inside the 1,600-page, trillion-dollar spending bill, Congress did a dazzling flip-flop on that regulation, putting us taxpayers back on the hook for the banksters’ high-risk speculation.

In this same spending bill, Congress also used its legislative athleticism to free rich donors (such as Wall Street bankers) from a limit of under $100,000 on the donation that any one of them can give to political parties. In a spectacular gravity-defying stunt, lawmakers flung the limit on these donations to a record-setting 15 times higher than before. So now bankers who are grateful to either party for being able to make a killing on taxpayer-backed deals can give $1.5 million each to the parties.

Perhaps you recall from your high school civics class that neat, one-page flow chart showing the perfectly logical, beautifully democratic process that Congress must go through to pass our laws.

What a bunch of kidders those chart makers were! To see how the sausage is really made, let’s take a look at that trillion-dollar budget bill that Congress squeezed out just before Christmas. It was crammed with special corporate favors, such as: reinstating a Bush rule allowing mining giants to explode the tops off ancient Appalachian mountains and then bulldoze the rubble down into the valley below, destroying pristine mountain streams; another letting long-haul trucking outfits require their drivers to be on the road more than 11 hours a day and up to 82 hours per week, filling our highways with highballing, sleep-deprived truckers; and cutting $60 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency, freeing up polluters to go unpunished for polluting.

None of these favors had anything to do with that “how a bill becomes law” flow chart in our civics textbook. No bill was filed, no public hearings, no debate, no vote. Just — BAM! — there they were, a thicket of benefits secretly slipped into the 1,600-page budget bill by … well, by whom? Largely by corporate lobbyists, though they get one of their for-hire congresscritters to do the actual dirty deed.

The taxpayer subsidy for Wall Street, for example, was written by Citigroup. The bank’s lobbyists then handed the provision to Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder, who slipped it into the bill. Thus, the Wall Street conglomerate that took a $50 billion bailout from us taxpayers just seven years ago to save itself from its own bad deals essentially was allowed to become an unelected, self-serving, do-it-yourself, backroom “lawmaker” to make sure that your and my tax dollars will be there to cover its next mess-up.

And that, boys and girls, is the real flow chart for making our laws. It’s always an amazing sight when Wall Street and Congress get together — especially when they get together out of sight.

 

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, December 24, 2014

December 27, 2014 Posted by | Citigroup, Congress, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pain For The Afflicted, Benefits For The Rich”: The Republican Party’s Top Priority Is To Raise Taxes On The Poor. Literally.

Following their convincing victory in the 2014 elections, everyone is wondering what Republicans will do with their new majority in the Senate and House. Well, their policy agenda is becoming clear. It will be unrestrained class warfare against the poor.

This priority was made apparent over the last week during the negotiation of a colossal tax cut package. Senate Democrats and Republicans had been doing some low-key negotiations to renew a slew of tax cuts for corporations and lower- and middle-income Americans, according to reporting from Brian Faler and Rachel Bade at Politico.

Then President Obama announced his executive action on immigration. Enraged Republicans promptly took vengeance on all the goodies for the working poor (as well as for clean energy), cutting them out of the deal and proposing a raft of permanent tax cuts for corporations alone worth $440 billion over 10 years. Cowed Democrats, led by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), were about ready to go along, prompting a decidedly justified outcry from liberals. Obama then threatened a veto, and the negotiations broke down entirely.

A few takeaways from this. First, it’s yet another reminder that Republicans don’t care about the national debt. Conservative carping about the debt is 100 percent of the time a rhetorical cudgel deployed with utter cynicism against programs they dislike for other reasons. When the topic is food stamps or unemployment insurance, they demand offsets to pay for them. (Because “we’re broke,” as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) put it in a similar context.) But when it comes to dropping planeloads of money on corporations and rich people, Republicans will casually blow a half-trillion hole in the 10-year budget without blinking.

We can safely assume that should Republicans win in 2016, they’ll take all the reduction in the budget deficit accomplished over the Obama years (at great cost and for no benefit, but that’s another story) and do the same thing that George W. Bush did: hand it immediately to the rich.

That’s not all, though. Unlike Bush, who gave his eye-wateringly regressive tax cuts a patina of democratic legitimacy by cutting the non-rich in on a small fraction of the spoils, Republicans are now firmly committed to the idea that poor people don’t pay enough in taxes. The Earned Income Tax Credit was originally a conservative alternative to the welfare state, but increasingly only Democrats support it. Republicans are convinced that the EITC is riddled with fraud, and that voting for it means giving welfare to unauthorized immigrants. (In reality, the EITC results in quite a lot of technically improper payments, but mostly as a result of unnecessary complexity.)

Massive transfers of money to the rich are one half of the Republican economic policy agenda; massive transfers of money away from poor are the other half. And the cuts would be cruel indeed:

For example, a single mother with two children working full time in a nursing home for the minimum wage and earning $14,500 would lose her entire [Child Tax Credit] of $1,725 if the CTC provision expires. [CBPP]

Apparently, cutting the income of a poor working single mother by 12 percent is good and proper conservative policymaking in 2014. Because immigration.

Finally, we see that Republicans are still incapable of the basics of political governance. They can’t maintain any sort of agenda outside of being against what Obama is for. Once the president drives them into a frenzy — which is to say, anytime he does anything at all — any negotiations on deck will be blown up as punishment. These days, divided government means constant high-stakes conflict, as everything, including tax credits for working moms, is weaponized in a naked struggle for power.

But should Republicans ever get the run of things, we now have a very good idea of what’s in store: pain for the afflicted, and benefits for the comfortable.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, December 3, 2014

December 4, 2014 Posted by | Poor and Low Income, Republicans, Tax Cuts | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Corporate Predator State”: This Isn’t The Free Market, It’s A Rigged Market

Bipartisan agreement in Washington usually means citizens should hold on to their wallets or get ready for another threat to peace. In today’s politics, the bipartisan center usually applauds when entrenched interests and big money speak. Beneath all the partisan bickering, bipartisan majorities are solid for a trade policy run by and for multinationals, a health-care system serving insurance and drug companies, an energy policy for Big Oil and King Coal, and finance favoring banks that are too big to fail.

Economist James Galbraith calls this the “predator state,” one in which large corporate interests rig the rules to protect their subsidies, tax dodges and monopolies. This isn’t the free market; it’s a rigged market.

Wall Street is a classic example. The attorney general announces that some banks are too big to prosecute. Despite what the FBI called an “epidemic of fraud,” not one head of a big bank has gone to jail or paid a major personal fine. Bloomberg News estimated that the subsidy they are provided by being too big to fail adds up to an estimated $83 billion a year.

Corporate welfare is, of course, offensive to progressives. The Nation and other media expose the endless outrages — drug companies getting Congress to ban Medicare negotiating bulk discounts on prices, Big Oil protecting billions in subsidies, multinationals hoarding a couple of trillion dollars abroad to avoid paying taxes, and much more.

But true conservatives are — or should be — offended by corporate welfare as well. Conservative economists Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales argue that it is time to “save capitalism from the capitalists,” urging conservatives to support strong measures to break up monopolies, cartels and the predatory use of political power to distort competition.

Here is where left and right meet, not in a bipartisan big-money fix, but in an odd bedfellows campaign to clean out Washington.

For that to happen, small businesses and community banks will have to develop an independent voice in our politics. Today, they are too often abused as cover for multinational corporations and banks. The Chamber of Commerce exemplifies the scam. It pretends to represent the interests of millions of small businesses, but its issue and electoral campaigns are defined and paid for by big-money interests working to keep the game rigged.

An authentic small-business lobby has finally started to emerge, as William Greider reports in the most recent issue of the Nation. The American Sustainable Business Council, along with the Main Street Alliance and the Small Business Majority, are enlisting small business owners to speak for themselves — and challenging the corporate financed propaganda groups such as the Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Business. Their positions often align with those of progressives. They loathe the big banks and multinationals that work to undermine competition.

Greider reports on the antipathy these small business owners have for the big guys. Camille Moran, president and chief executive of Caramor Industries and Four Seasons Christmas Tree Farm in Natchitoches, La., rails against the “Wall Street wheelers and dealers.” They knew, she argues, that they “ would get no sympathy saying that ending the high-income Bush tax cuts would hurt them, so instead they pretend it would hurt Main Street small business and employment. Don’t fall for it. . . . That’s a trillion dollars less we would have for education, roads, security, small business assistance and all of the other things that actually help our communities.”

ReShonda Young, operations manager of Alpha Express, a family-owned delivery service in Waterloo, Iowa: “We’re not afraid to compete with the biggest delivery companies out here, but it needs to be a fair fight, not one in which big corporations use loopholes to avoid their taxes, stick our business with the tab.”

Polls show these aren’t isolated views. The ASBC, the Main Street Alliance and the Small Business Majority sponsored a poll by Lake Research of small business owners. Ninety percent believe “big corporations use loopholes to avoid taxes that small businesses have to pay,” and three-fourths said their own businesses suffer because of it.

The ASBC and its allies have the potential to become what Jamie Raskin, a Maryland state senator, dubbed a “Chamber of Progress,” a small-business voice that is willing to take on the big guys that tilt the playing field.

The possibilities are endless. Wall Street argues for rolling back financial regulation on the grounds that it hurts community and small banks. What if community and small bankers joined the call of conservative Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher to break up the big banks?

Multinational executives have just launched the “LIFT America” Coalition to push for a territorial tax system that would exempt from U.S. taxes all profits reported abroad. ASBC and its allies could rally small businesses to demand closing down overseas tax havens and imposing a minimum tax on profits sitting abroad, so that they didn’t face a higher tax burden that their global competitors.

In today’s Washington, powerful corporate interests stymie progress on areas vital to our future. Can a right/left, small-business/worker odd bedfellows alliance emerge to counter the predatory interests? We can only hope so.

 

By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 26, 2013

March 27, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Wall Street | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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