The US needs a debate on wages, not tax cuts

Wages have stagnated for 30 years - people just don't have enough money.

President Barack Obama is gleefully awaiting another showdown with Congressional Republicans over the question of whether to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the richest one per cent of Americans. 

I say "gleefully" for two reasons. One, Obama lost this fight last fall when Republicans forced him to trade extending tax cuts for extending jobless insurance. Yes, the GOP actually said it wouldn't give relief to the unemployed unless Obama agreed to give the rich more money, and Republicans didn't pay a political price for that. The other reason Obama is "gleefully" awaiting another showdown is that Republicans will finally pay that price in the form of their candidate, Mitt Romney.

Obama wants to extend the cuts on incomes under $250,000 a year but let them expire, as they are set to do at year's end, for people like himself who make more than $250,000. The Republicans are saying such a tax hike is going to hurt small business owners, which is what they usually say when they no plausible pretext for protecting the super-rich.

It's going to be fun to watch but we need more than fun in our political discourse. Far more than a debate on tax cuts, we need a debate on wages. We have paid the lowest tax rate in 30 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While that has surely mitigated the effects of the recession, it hasn't gotten us out of it, because the fundamental problem with the economy is that people don't have enough money. I'm not being cheeky. Wages have stagnated for 30 years.

More importantly, our conception of the recession is backwards. Lack of demand is what's keeping the economy from thriving, not supply. But we drank the Kool-Aid of supply-side economics back when Reagan was president, so it's no longer possible to see the importance of raising aggregate demand. The debate is so upside down now that a Republican Congressman from Florida, when asked recently if he'd support a bill to raise the minimum wage, actually said: "Get a job." US Rep. Bill Young didn't seem to understand that minimum wage-earners have jobs. They just want a living wage.

Fortunately, another Congressman, Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago, has introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour (some states add to the federal rate for their own minimum wage). It's unlikely Congress will take up debate, not with an election looming, but even if it were to pass the bill by some miracle, it wouldn't be enough for a family of four to live above the poverty line.

It would come close but it could be much better.

In March, the lefty Center for Economic and Policy Research released a report using the three most commonly used benchmarks: inflation, average wages and productivity. If minimum wage kept up with inflation since 1968 (when minimum wage was at its peak value), it would be $10.52 an hour. If it kept up with the average production worker's earnings, it would be at $10.01. Both of these benchmarks have been stable over the years, but productivity has soared.

This means workers are working harder per hour but not being paid more for all that extra productivity. Workers give, bosses take. So if the minimum wage had kept up with labor productivity since 1968, then it would be a staggering $21.72 a hour. The CEPR report notes that if workers received only half the productivity gains, the wage would be $15.34. A quarter would be $12.25, all of which is far higher than today's paltry $7.25.

It's going to be a long time before we shift from a debate on tax cuts to a debate on wages, but it will happen. It's not a question of if. There are too many Americans struggling too hard to get by. And if the minimum wage rose to only $12.25 an hour, the president wouldn't be the only who's gleeful.


Workers are working harder per hour but not being paid for their extra productivity. Photograph: Getty Images

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.