Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Our Low-Wage Recovery

There has been lots of talk in the air about what this country needs. Republican presidential candidates have been almost unanimous about the value of cutting taxes, by which they mean the top tax rate, the one that affects the wealthy. And we must get the corporate tax rate down as well; it tops out at 35% and that must surely be why American corporations are having trouble competing, except that they aren't. The premise for lowering the top corporate tax rate is that corporations actually pay the current rate. They don't. What they do pay are the most obscene compensation packages in the world.

And let's not forget to cut spending, lots of it. Please tell me you find it odd --in a simple math that doesn't add up kind of odd-- that proponents of spending cuts, meaning nearly every conservative member of congress, simultaneously insist on budget-destroying tax cuts for the wealthy, those who have already enjoyed a generation of such largess, even as they yelp about the deficits those tax cuts created. The national debt is so horrible that we must gut spending on society's most vulnerable to save the republic, but apparently not so horrible that we can't give more tax breaks for our most privileged.

So why has our recession lasted so long? It isn't because taxes are too high, or because we have a large budget deficit.

The reason is that we are turning into a low-wage country. Look at chart below. It shows the share of employees in low-wage work. Hey, we are number one. Yes, I know, having a crappy job is better than no job at all. But this is a long ways from the can-do spirit that this country once had, back when it was an unambiguous economic superpower, back when its tax rates were much higher and wages grew along with productivity. I've discussed the wage-productivity divergence here and here.  


As Tavis Smiley and Cornel West have shown, many of the newly created jobs are " the restaurant, retail, temporary service, social assistance and hospitality sectors. In other words, low-wage jobs, most without health benefits or paid sick leave."  Additional analysis of the significance of the chart above, including America's growing wage polarization, is at "Economist's View."

In other words, low wages means marginalized families with low consumption. Not only can they not save, provide for their children's education, and pay for health care simultaneously, they simply cannot buy much of the products that both corporations and merchants need them to buy. The inability to consume more, regardless of how one feels about materialism, prolongs the weak recovery because everything is predicated on sales, not low taxes. Businesses, especially the smaller ones on Main Street America that do not have foreign sales, do not want lower taxes or cheaper workers. They want more customers.

“It is to the real advantage of every producer, every manufacturer and every merchant to cooperate in the improvement of working conditions, because the best customer of American industry is the well-paid worker.” FDR

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