Former Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton, Prof. Robert Reich, has written a strong and direct post about America’s underlying, foundational problem: The growing disparity in incomes.
“We’re back to the same ominous trend as before the Great Recession: a larger and larger share of total income going to the very top while the vast middle class continues to lose ground.
And as long as this trend continues, we can’t get out of the shadow of the Great Recession. When most of the gains from economic growth go to a small sliver of Americans at the top, the rest don’t have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing.
America’s median wage, adjusted for inflation, has barely budged for decades. Between 2000 and 2007 it actually dropped. Under these circumstances the only way the middle class could boost its purchasing power was to borrow, as it did with gusto. As housing prices rose, Americans turned their homes into ATMs. But such borrowing has its limits. When the debt bubble finally burst, vast numbers of people couldn’t pay their bills, and banks couldn’t collect.
Each of America’s two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern. Consider: in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America’s total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928—with 23.5 percent of the total…..
“What we get from widening inequality is not only a more fragile economy but also an angrier politics. When virtually all the gains from growth go to a small minority at the top — and the broad middle class can no longer pretend it’s richer than it is by using homes as collateral for deepening indebtedness — the result is deep-seated anxiety and frustration. This is an open invitation to demagogues who misconnect the dots and direct the anger toward immigrants, the poor, foreign nations, big government, “socialists,” “intellectual elites,” or even big business and Wall Street. The major fault line in American politics is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, but between the “establishment” and an increasingly mad-as-hell populace determined to “take back America” from it.”
The structural problem began in the late 1970s when a wave of new technologies (air cargo, container ships and terminals, satellite communications and, later, the Internet) radically reduced the costs of outsourcing jobs abroad. Other new technologies (automated machinery, computers and ever more sophisticated software applications) took over many other jobs (remember bank tellers? telephone operators? service station attendants?). By the ’80s, any job requiring that the same steps be performed repeatedly was disappearing—going over there or into software. Meanwhile, as the pay of most workers flattened or dropped, the pay of well-connected graduates of prestigious colleges and MBA programs—the so-called “talent” who reached the pinnacles of power in executive suites and on Wall Street—soared.
The puzzle is why so little was done to counteract these forces. Government could have given employees more bargaining power to get higher wages, especially in industries sheltered from global competition and requiring personal service: big-box retail stores, restaurants and hotel chains, and child- and eldercare, for instance. Safety nets could have been enlarged to compensate for increasing anxieties about job loss: unemployment insurance covering part-time work, wage insurance if pay drops, transition assistance to move to new jobs in new locations, insurance for communities that lose a major employer so they can lure other employers. With the gains from economic growth the nation could have provided Medicare for all, better schools, early childhood education, more affordable public universities, more extensive public transportation. And if more money was needed, taxes could have been raised on the rich.
Big, profitable companies could have been barred from laying off a large number of workers all at once, and could have been required to pay severance—say, a year of wages—to anyone they let go. Corporations whose research was subsidized by taxpayers could have been required to create jobs in the United States. The minimum wage could have been linked to inflation. And America’s trading partners could have been pushed to establish minimum wages pegged to half their countries’ median wages—thereby ensuring that all citizens shared in gains from trade and creating a new global middle class that would buy more of our exports.
But starting in the late 1970s, and with increasing fervor over the next three decades, government did just the opposite. It deregulated and privatized. It increased the cost of public higher education and cut public transportation. It shredded safety nets. It halved the top income tax rate from the range of 70–90 percent that prevailed during the 1950s and ’60s to 28–40 percent; it allowed many of the nation’s rich to treat their income as capital gains subject to no more than 15 percent tax and escape inheritance taxes altogether. At the same time, America boosted sales and payroll taxes, both of which have taken a bigger chunk out of the pay of the middle class and the poor than of the well-off.
Companies were allowed to slash jobs and wages, cut benefits and shift risks to employees (from you-can-count-on-it pensions to do-it-yourself 401(k)s, from good health coverage to soaring premiums and deductibles). They busted unions and threatened employees who tried to organize. The biggest companies went global with no more loyalty or connection to the United States than a GPS device. Washington deregulated Wall Street while insuring it against major losses, turning finance—which until recently had been the servant of American industry—into its master, demanding short-term profits over long-term growth and raking in an ever larger portion of the nation’s profits. And nothing was done to impede CEO salaries from skyrocketing to more than 300 times that of the typical worker (from thirty times during the Great Prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s), while the pay of financial executives and traders rose into the stratosphere.”
Reich blames both Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to the disheartening spread in wealth towards the wealthy and away from the rest of the country, both parties turned a blind eye to the problem.
And he says a likely result will be angrier politics as the public, not being able to connect the dots accurately, will strike out at anyone in government.
Reich warns that the likely result will be unpleasant for everyone, including the wealthy. Beezer agrees. The political backlash will not benefit anyone, except briefly a few political opportunists.