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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.