The Grand Republican Strategy: We Win, You Pay!

On a recent trip to London, I got into a conversation with a wealthy oil and gas investor about climate change. He didn’t disagree we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, he said. His job is to make sure the lights in our homes still turn on while we make the transition.

Fair enough, I said. Would you support a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program to speed up the transition?

“Sure,” he said, to my surprise, without hesitation. “As long as the revenue is spent on new technologies, and not given away to poor people.”

Ah. There’s always a catch.

At first, I thought it was a strange caveat, especially since we’d just got done talking about income inequality, an issue that he seemed quite concerned about. It wasn’t until I saw the Republican presidential hopefuls unveil their new economic plans that it all made sense:

I really want to do the right thing, he’s saying, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.

Carbon Tax BurdenThe reason for his concern, by the way, is that poor people have to spend a higher percentage of their income on oil and gas than rich people, so the burden of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program would fall the hardest on them. Many people think that’s unfair since (a) they’re already strapped for cash and (b) they’re not the ones profiting from all the carbon emissions. So progressive proposals usually include a rebate of some sort to ease their cost.

Our friend the oil-and-gas investor would rather give that money to — surprise, surprise — corporate America.

This, I realized, is the grand strategy of the new “reformocon” movement in the Republican party. No longer can a Republican run for president without admitting that the government must do something about our nation’s most pressing problems — but neither can he ask his friends in the One Percent to pay for it. Thus is born a new slogan: We win, you pay!

Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, two of the leading reformocons in the Senate, put this strategy to the test earlier this month when they released an ambitious tax plan centered around an expansion of the Child Tax Credit for middle-income households. Sounds great, right? Rather than cutting government spending for the middle class, these Republicans want to spend more. Heaven knows they could use it, after decades of dismal income growth. But who will pay for it?

Certainly not the rich. The Lee-Rubio plan eliminates taxes on investments, where they get most of their income, and it lowers the corporate tax rate and the income tax rate for the top bracket. Add it all up, and it turns out to be an enormous tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and barely any relief for everyone else.

Republican Budget CutsAnd what happens when all these tax cuts increase the budget deficit by $400 billion a year? Well, if recent history is any indicator, these same Republicans will scream “Crisis!” and demand spending cuts. If you’re wondering where those cuts will come from, look no further than the latest Republican budget, which gets two-thirds of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income households. It scorches their budgets by 40 percent!

So, who will pay for the reformocons’ new plans? You know who.

No sooner had the ink dried on Marco Rubio’s deceptive debut than his presidential competitor Jeb Bush announced, in a speech about income inequality, that he would abolish the federal minimum wage.

Among the reformocon movement, Jeb Bush is not alone in this desire. You may wonder how they can expand the Child Tax Credit in one breath and abolish the minimum wage in the next, since the two policies are basically intended to help the same people?

It’s very simple really, once you understand the “we win, you pay” principle. Wages are paid by corporations. Tax credits are paid by…well, you just saw who, and it ain’t the corporations.

So, for the reformocons: Tax credits, good. Wages, bad.

The most egregious example of this strategy is our first official presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, who’s advocating a “flat tax,” charging the same rate to everyone, regardless of their income. For that to work, he’d have to raise taxes significantly on most Americans in order to cut them significantly for the richest Americans because the only way to raise the same amount of revenue is to find a rate somewhere in the middle of what the two groups pay now. It’s basic arithmetic.

But you never hear the reformocons talk about arithmetic in their speeches. They talk about inequality and upward mobility and the American middle class. They talk about all sorts of expensive new plans, and they never mention that there’s a catch.

They can’t mention the catch because it undermines the entire point of their reforms. If they win, you pay. And if you pay, they’re not helping you after all.

So, who are they helping? You know who.

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This op-ed was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Saving Capitalism From a Painful Demise

Below is my new article in the Winter 2015 issue of the Wharton Magazine. Thanks to editor Matt Brodsky for allowing me to reprint it here!

Retailers Need Consumers

American business leaders rallied around Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 during his candidacy for the presidency, after which he immediately embarked on the most progressive legislative agenda in U.S. history to tackle the Great Depression. From today’s vantage point, it may seem surprising that titans of industry, executives from General Electric to Standard Oil to IBM, not only contributed to Roosevelt’s campaign but helped author many of his famous New Deal reforms. To the men who ran these companies, it was a simple matter of fiduciary responsibility — to current shareholders and to future ones — that they should ensure a more equitable distribution of prosperity, lest their own wealth be dashed to bits on the jagged rocks of a shrinking economy.

Today, we face a similar predicament. The great challenge of business in our time is reversing the destabilizing threat of inequality. While at first this may seem anathema to our profit-maximizing mission, distribution of income lies at the very heart of sustainable capitalism.

For this reason, today’s titans of industry have stepped forward to protest the growing distance between them and the rest of the country. Warren Buffett, Lloyd Blankfein, Stanley Druckenmiller, Bill Gross — legends whose lives and words are studied and idolized at the Wharton School — have all gone public with the wise advice that we steer away from those jagged rocks.

They are not alone in their concern. According to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress, 68 of the top 100 retailers cite the flat or falling wages of the average American household as a risk to their business — a number that has doubled in the past eight years. A recent poll of small businesses similarly found a strong majority of them in favor of raising the minimum wage.

These business leaders sense an essential truth about our capitalism: Workers are consumers. They spend what they earn — or what they borrow. While the latter may work for awhile, it has limits — and calamitous risks. The only sure way to grow the economy in the long run is to grow consumer spending — and that means growing worker incomes.

In recent decades, workers’ incomes have not grown much, on average. Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the average household has lost 8 percent of its income, after adjusting for inflation. All the growth — and then some — has gone to the richest 10 percent of Americans. And most of that growth — 95 percent of total growth, to be precise — has gone to the richest 1 percent. And most of that growth has gone to the richest 0.1 percent. And so on.

Unsurprisingly, economic growth has been slower since the advent of this new trend. From 1950 to 1980, real GDP grew 3.8 percent per year, versus only 2.7 percent from 1980 to 2010. On the rare occasions when it has approached its previous faster rate, it was fueled by unsustainable borrowing. This is no coincidence. Recent work by economists Özlem Onaran and Giorgos Galanis has shown that most developed countries experience lower growth when the share of their income going to wages (as opposed to profits) declines. In the United States, for example, every 10 percent decline in the wage share causes the economy to shrink by 9.2 percent. In fact, that has been the experience of the global economy as well.

High wages are what economists refer to as a “positive externality.” They generate “spillover effects” that benefit the people who don’t pay for them. When workers receive high wages, they invest more in health and education, increasing their productivity and reducing the costs we all pay for a sicker, less-informed population. They motivate firms to invest in advanced technologies to reduce labor costs, making them more innovative and globally competitive. Workers who receive high wages are less likely to go out on strike, vote against free trade and immigration, protest in the streets, shirk on the job and commit crimes. That’s why, in an analysis of 19 developed nations from 1960 to 2004, economists Robert Vergeer and Alfred Kleinknect found that higher wage growth consistently led to higher productivity growth.

In other words, low wages may be good for one firm, but high wages are better for all firms. Yet many businesses would like to raise wages, but they fear losing ground to their competitors.

The only solution is collective action.

Economists have a collective action for precisely this sort of “coordination failure”: taxing the negative externality and subsidizing the positive. It is time that we recognize inequality for the negative externality that it is, slowing our productivity growth, roiling our markets with volatility, gridlocking our political system, and starving our economy of willing and able consumers. Inequality is a risk to our businesses, and it ought to be treated as such.

We should therefore see taxes not as penalties but as investments in a better, more equitable, more sustainable system. We should strive to prevent a “race to the bottom” in workers’ incomes; if we don’t, the day will come when no one will be left to pay the profits our shareholders demand. Business schools should teach courses about this issue, and business leaders should address it in their boardrooms. It is not merely a political issue. It is very clearly the business of Business.

Joseph Kennedy thought so when he went to work for President Roosevelt. As one of the nation’s most notorious stock manipulators, Kennedy might have been the last person we’d expect to join Roosevelt’s crew, but when Roosevelt named Kennedy as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he saw it as an opportunity to save the market from itself.

“We of the SEC do not regard ourselves as coroners sitting on the corpse of financial enterprise,” said Kennedy in a radio address to the nation. “On the contrary, we think of ourselves as the means of bringing new life into the body of the security business.”

As Wharton graduates, let us think of ourselves in the same manner, and act accordingly.

Why President Obama Is Right to Focus on Inequality

Real Household Income, 1967 to 2012

In his recent speech at Knox College, President Obama renewed the nation’s focus on income inequality, drawing criticism from the right for pandering to the usual Democratic interest groups instead of addressing real economic issues like jobs and growth. This reaction stems from a misunderstanding of recent history that is sadly prevalent among the American public. To set the record straight, let’s take a trip back in time…

Three decades ago, we awoke to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”

It was 1983, and our economy had been through the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Reagan had slashed tax rates and broken the unions. In return, we were promised a bright future with faster economic growth for all.

At first glance, it looks like the Gipper delivered on his promise.

From 1983 to 2013, our economy’s output more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation. The average worker today is 85 percent more productive than their predecessors were when Reagan took office. Taxes take a much smaller bite out of our income than they did in Reagan’s day, and American businesses are more profitable than ever before.

If the story ends there, it’s not hard to see why Republicans still believe in the power of Reaganomics.

But, as in every good story, there’s a twist. In this case, the twist is inequality, a politically charged word that Republicans rarely speak of. And for good reason: It invalidates their entire belief system.

The aggregate data leads you to believe that everyone’s income doubled, but that’s so far from the truth that it’s nearly criminal to foist that story on the public.

In fact, since 1983, the only incomes that have doubled after inflation are the incomes of the richest 0.1 percent of Americans. That’s one-tenth of the infamous “One Percent.” For the other 99.9 percent of Americans, inflation-adjusted incomes have grown by less than 20 percent.

But that’s a high threshold. In order to be a member of the top 0.1 percent, you have to earn over $1.5 million. What if we set the bar at a more reasonable level? Let’s exclude everyone making over $110,000. That’s a pretty good cutoff for what we consider to be “rich,” and it still leaves us with 90 percent of Americans earning less than that. These are the people who were supposed to enjoy the benefits of Reagan’s “trickle-down economics.” How much didthey gain since 1983?

Nothing.

For the 90 percent of Americans earning less than six figures, there has been absolutely zero income growth after inflation in the last three decades.

Sit back and contemplate that fact for a moment. During a period when the economy doubled in size, the total income earned by 90 percent of Americans didn’t increase by a single penny. All the gains went to the richest 10 percent.

Of course, the size of the economy is not directly comparable to the incomes of individual households. The economy grows when the population grows, even if individual incomes don’t grow. Also, the individual statistics don’t include taxes and transfers like Social Security and unemployment insurance. However, none of these facts change the big picture: After three decades of strong economic growth, the average American’s paycheck has barely budged.

You have to ask yourself: What’s the point? Why do we work so hard to make the economy grow if none of it is going into our pockets?

It hardly seems fair, but that’s not the only problem. Inequality isn’t just the by-product of a broken system; it’s a cause of the brokenness as well.

A growing economy is like a growing child. It needs to be fed often and well. The more an economy produces, the more its citizens must consume. If most Americans aren’t earning more money, they can’t afford all that extra consumption. So they borrow more than they should, but all that borrowing requires growing paychecks to repay the loans. When debt outstrips income, they default, and the economy comes crashing down.

That’s what President Obama meant when he said this crisis has been three decades in the making. That’s why it has become his highest priority. All our economic problems — high unemployment, weak economic growth, excessive debt and financial instability — have the same root cause: Most people aren’t earning enough money — and it’s not because the economy isn’t producing it. It’s because a tiny portion of the population is siphoning too much of it for themselves.

It’s not just a matter of politics, as the President’s critics would have you believe. It’s a matter of basic economics. “Morning in America” has only been bright for a select few. For most Americans, it’s been as dark as night.

The Reaganomics experiment has failed. It’s time for all of us to see the light.

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This op-ed was originally published in today’s Huffington Post.

Outsourcing Isn’t an Excuse to Abandon the Working Class

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree on one thing: Outsourcing is a problem.

Of course, they disagree on who’s to blame. To Obama, it’s private equity firms like Romney’s Bain Capital. To Romney, it’s deficit spending like Obama’s 2009 fiscal stimulus.

(As I pointed out two weeks ago, there’s plenty of evidence that the 2009 stimulus created millions of jobs right here in America. But never mind.)

“Countries around the world are…giving their workers and companies every advantage possible,” says Obama, but “we can win that competition.”

On Romney’s website, you can find the same language. He says our tax code “needs to be more competitive and business friendly.” We need to create a “level playing field for American products in foreign markets.”

This rhetoric is more dangerous than it seems.

It’s true that many of our exports are at a disadvantage. In countries that we trade with, the average manufacturing wage is 65 percent of the American average. In Mexico, manufacturing workers earn 11 percent of what their U.S. counterparts make. In China, they earn 3 percent.

So, the question is: Just how “level” does Mitt Romney want the “playing field” to be?

When it comes to outsourcing, Romney has a solution, but he won’t say it…because you won’t like it: The easiest way to create a “level playing field” is to lower American wages.

The dirty secret about Republican economics is that it’s all about cheap labor.

While most of the industrialized world (and much of the developing world) has experienced rising real wages in the past thirty years, American wages have stagnated.

Union membership has plummeted. The minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation. Taxes and regulations that previously restricted the rich from siphoning the wealth of the middle class have been eviscerated.

In short, Mitt Romney’s game plan has already been put to the test.

We were told that it was a new era. We were told that we needed to sacrifice our job security, our wage increases, our retirement benefits — all in the name of globalization. We were told that America couldn’t compete with those costs around its neck. We were told that the manufacturing sector was deadweight. We were told that the working class was pulling us down. We were promised a better world filled with high-tech jobs and rapid innovation, low taxes and rising asset prices, cheap imports and even cheaper investments.

We did everything we were told. We gave up our protections and our power. And, in return, we got lower economic growth, higher inequality, productivity growth that went almost entirely to the top 1 percent, and — irony of all ironies — even bigger trade deficits.

All that cheap labor didn’t make us “competitive” after all.

All it did was line corporate coffers with more profits than ever before.

But not everyone made that mistake. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, U.S. tax revenue is currently 27 percent of GDP. In Denmark, it’s a whopping 49 percent. They have the world’s highest minimum wage and arguably the lowest level of income inequality. Yet their unemployment rate (7.7 percent) is currently lower than ours (8.1 percent), and their economy grew at the same rate as ours from 1979 to 2007.

For another comparison, look at Sweden, where tax revenue is 48 percent of GDP. They consistently battle Denmark for the world’s lowest level of income inequality, yet they’re also ranked as the second most competitive country in the world (after Switzerland). Their unemployment rate (7.8 percent) is also lower than ours, and their economy grew faster than ours from 1979 to 2007.

Needless to say, unions are more prevalent and powerful in both of these countries than in the U.S. But arguably the most heavily unionized country is Germany, where employee representatives sit on corporate boards and have a say in industry-wide decisions. Germany’s unemployment rate (5.6 percent) is way lower than ours, and they boast a large trade surplus.

Clearly, we can raise wages and compete in the global economy at the same time. We don’t need a “level playing field” to beat outsourcing. We just need a proactive government.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.