My last post “Raising America’s Pay” addresses a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge”. Its starting point is the now generally accepted view that wages for the typical American worker have been flat ever since the early 1970s even though labor productivity has continued to rise steadily.
The EPI authors recognize that globalization and the growth of technology have contributed to wage stagnation even though they blame malign policy decisions as well. I do agree with them that the resulting increase in economic inequality is detrimental to America. I also agree with them that the way to address inequality is for wages to go up. The best way to accomplish this is to lower unemployment by increasing economic growth. This will happen when large numbers of consumers start spending more money, thereby increasing demand. Does this sound like a vicious circle? It need not be! The above chart from the Wall Street Journal shows that the net worth of U.S. households has now more than recovered from the Great Recession. The problem is that most of this new wealth has gone to the people with the highest incomes who are more likely to save it. What we need to do is “redistribute” (gasp!) some of this vast sum of new wealth back to middle and lower income people who would be much more likely to spend it.
There is a straightforward way to do this. Broad based tax reform! Lower everyone’s tax rates paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. This will be a pure gain in income for the two thirds of Americans, about 80 million, who pay income taxes but do not itemize deductions, most of whom are in the lower and middle income brackets. These people are likely to spend most of their new income, thus giving the economy the big boost that it needs!
Our leaders in Washington should be able to figure this out!
The Economic Policy Institute has just issued a provocative new report, “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge”. It is based on the now widely accepted view, as summarized in the chart below, that wages for the typical (i.e. median, not average) American worker have been stagnant since the early 1970’s, even though productivity has continued to increase at its historical rate. First of all, the authors make reasonable arguments that:
The slumping of hourly wage growth for the vast majority explains the overall trends in income inequality.
Wage stagnation stalls progress in reducing poverty.
Wages are the root of economic security for the vast majority. This includes the fact that Social Security benefits depend upon wage earnings before retirement.
Then they ask: “Why has wage growth faltered for the vast majority, and what can be done?” Here is where the report becomes controversial!
The authors do agree that globalization of markets and technological change have contributed to the wage growth slowdown but argue that this overlooks the impact of labor market and tax policy and business practices as follows:
Falling top tax rates have increased the income share of the top 1 percent.
The Federal Reserve has prioritized low rates of inflation over low rates of unemployment in recent decades and high unemployment suppresses wage growth.
The erosion of the inflation adjusted minimum wage and the share of the workforce represented by a union explain much of the entire rise of wage inequality over this time period.
The authors are completely correct that stagnant wages for American workers is a critical, even “central,” problem facing the economy at the present time. The question, of course, is how to address this problem most effectively. In my opinion, the authors have completely neglected to take into account how a faster rate of economic growth would contribute to a solution of the problem and how this could be accomplished. I will address this question in my next post in a couple of days.
They conclude by saying that this report is only the first in a multiyear research and public education initiative of the EPI. We have a lot to look forward to!
The publication of two new books is causing a reevaluation of the financial rescue and its aftermath, e.g. “The Case Against the Bernanke-Obama Financial Rescue”. The two books are “Stress Test” by Timothy Geithner, former Treasury Secretary, and “House of Debt” by the economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi. Mr. Mian and Mr. Sufi maintain that the government’s response to the financial crisis should have focused less on saving the banking system and more on the problem of excessive household debt. They discovered in their research that, during the housing bubble, less affluent people were spending as much as 25 – 30 cents for every dollar of increase in housing equity. When the bubble burst, and housing prices started to fall, these borrowers cut way back on spending which caused many businesses to lay off employees. The authors propose setting up a government program to help borrowers decrease what they owe in underwater mortgages.
Five years after the end of the Great Recession it would still be very helpful to speed up our lagging economy. Here are three different possible ways to do this:
The Keynesians say the best way to stimulate the economy is with more government (deficit) spending. For example, spending several hundred billion dollars a year on infra-structure would create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new construction jobs. I think this is a good idea, but only if it’s paid for with a new tax (e.g. a carbon tax or a wealth tax).
The Mian/Sufi plan, as described above, would alleviate mortgage debt problems for millions of middle class homeowners who are still under water, encouraging them to spend more money which would in turn boost the economy. The problem is that the M/S plan creates a moral hazard for mortgage holders unless it’s paid for by mortgage insurance which would raise costs for borrowers.
Broad-based tax reform, with lower tax rates for everyone, paid for by closing loopholes and limiting tax deductions for the wealthy, would automatically put more income in the hands of the two-thirds of tax payers who do not itemize deductions. These middle class wage earners would tend to spend this extra money thereby boosting the economy.
The point is that there very definitely are ways to boost the economy, some better than others, and it should be a top priority of Congress and the President to get this done.
The Brookings Institution social economist, William Galston, has an interesting column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. Needs a New Social Contract”, deploring the fact that worker compensation (i.e. wages + benefits) has not kept up with gains in worker productivity since the 1970s. Here is a chart published by the Economic Policy Institute showing the divergence between productivity and compensation for a “typical” ( i.e. in the middle) worker beginning in the 1970s: The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk has addressed this same question in a recent report “Productivity and Compensation: Growing Together” and shows that the “average” compensation of an American worker does track productivity very closely as shown in the chart below: What is the explanation for this apparent discrepancy? In fact, it is the difference between the average earnings of U.S. workers and the earnings of the median or middle worker. The very high earnings of the top 10% and the even higher earnings of the top 1% raise average worker compensation way above the income level of the median worker. In other words it is the result of the skewed and unequal distribution of incomes which is heavily weighted toward those at the top of the scale. The typical or median worker is falling behind and is not benefitting from the steady rise in the overall productivity of the American economy. This is what income inequality is all about.
The question is what to do about it. Faster economic growth will create more opportunity by creating more jobs and better paying jobs. Raising high school graduation rates as well as creating high quality technical training programs will also help.
Mr. Galston insists that this is not enough. Too many workers will continue to lag farther and farther behind. We could raise the Earned Income Tax Credit for low income workers but this would be very expensive in our currently tight fiscal situation which is likely to continue indefinitely.
Do we need a new social contract? If so, what form will it take? How will we pay for it? These are indeed very difficult questions to answer!