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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.