Miliband, Obama & "middle-out economics"

The Labour leader follows the President in growing the economy from the middle classes.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband laid out his cards on his economic vision. He argued that to get to the kind of strong and steady economic growth that will lower unemployment and support deficit reduction: “the starting point is that the recovery will be made by the many not just by a few at the top,” he said.

One reading of this speech is that he is talking about economic growth only to cover for a concern over fairness. Thus, the mansion tax can be interpreted as a way to make sure that the rich pay their fair share, but this really may have nothing to do with growth. But, another reading of the speech is that he — like President Obama — is pushing for a debate about economics that is based on facts, not fiction. Middle out economics or an economics that begins with the many, not the few may sound like good old-fashioned political pandering, but, in fact, there is solid economic evidence for this perspective.

Both Miliband and Obama are pushing against a story of what makes the economy grow that goes like this: Cut taxes or reduce “red tape” or regulation on those who are the “job creators” and they will invest more and hire more employees and the economy will grow. For decades, this trickle-down logic has been an unvarying constant in the political discourse in both the US and the UK. Yet, this model has failed both nations repeatedly and most colossally over the past few years of deep recession and sputtering recovery.

It’s not just that the trickle-down model isn’t fair and that progressive leaders don’t like the idea of giving tax cuts to millionaires while too many struggle to make ends meet, although that may be true. The deeper problem is that this model isn’t consistent with the evidence on what makes an economy grow.

If you ask any group of economists - left, right, center - what drives economic growth, they will give you a list of ideas that will fall into a few categories: the level of demand for goods and services, the skills and educational level of the potential workforce, the quality of the infrastructure, the potential for innovators to bring ideas to market, the quality of governance in both public and private institutions, and access to financial capital, including access to debt and savings.

That’s a long and complex list. The trickle-down story certainly plays a role in how much individuals can save — higher taxes means less savings. But, that’s clearly only one small piece of the puzzle. And, it’s a piece that may stand in opposition to the others: cutting taxes for millionaires may give them each a little more money to invest, but that means less money for schools to educate the next generation of employees, less investments in updated infrastructure that will improve the productivity of private investment, or less funding to support innovation.

The fact is that it is the business owners job to always focus on the bottom line. It’s their job to boost their productivity or sales to add profits to their bottom line. A tax cut helps them do that in the short-run. But, even the best businesses cannot on their own address the gaps in educational attainment, make sure that high finance doesn’t become too big to fail, or address climate change.

Focusing on growing the economy from the middle out is a better reflection of what economists know about what makes an economy grow and thrive. Over the past couple of years, my colleagues and I have been sifting through economics papers and talking to leading economists around the world about this question. We have found that there is a growing body of research pointing to the conclusion that high inequality hinders economic growth and stability through a variety of mechanisms. While there isn’t one perfect, econometrically unimpeachable paper that proves that the economy grows from the middle out, there’s a lot out of research out there - from top tier institutions - pointing to the conclusion that the strength and size of the middle has a strong effect on the all the key factors that propel the economy forward.

For both Britain and the US, the best bet for the economy is on the middle. Both nations have won before on building an economy from the middle out and by developing and investing in the skills and infrastructure necessary to support broad-based growth. That's the winning hand.

Photograph: Getty Images

Heather Boushey is a Visiting Fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.