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.

Speak Up and Give Back if You Want the Economy to Improve

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of giving. We give presents, money and love. We give to show we care, and we give to share our good fortune. But giving isn’t what it used to be.

Years ago, the richest Americans gave a lot more of their income than they do now. Back then, the economy was healthier, the middle class was wealthier, and the nation was less divided. The American experience was a shared experience. Giving, after all, is sharing.

Today, the income gap is growing. It hasn’t been this high since the Great Crash of 1929. The wider it grows, the less the rich associate with the rest of us, and the less they feel the need or the desire to give back.

Relationship Between Social Class, Narcissism, and EgalitarianismRecent work by the psychologist Paul K. Piff has shown that people become more narcissistic as they get richer. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the poor and the middle class feel “entitled” nowadays, Piff finds that entitlement is higher among the rich.

But Piff has also discovered something that should give us hope. In one experiment, before he tested them for narcissism, he asked them to write down three benefits of treating other people as equals. Suddenly, their narcissistic tendencies disappeared. In the rest of the experiment, they stopped thinking of themselves and started thinking, well, like everyone else.

The economy is stuck in a rut right now. Most Americans’ inflation-adjusted income hasn’t increased since the onset of the Great Recession. But Piff’s research shows us that this trend doesn’t have to be permanent. We have the power to change it.

That’s what I tried to do in my book Letter to the One Percent. In it, I reached out to the richest one percent of American households. I asked them to do what they did in Piff’s experiment: to think of their fellow citizens as equals.

But the real world is not an experiment. Outside the lab, changing hearts and minds takes a little more convincing.

In another recent experiment, marketing professors Saerom Lee, Karen Winterich, and William Ross found that most people drew a sharp distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of aid. They were far more likely to donate money, for example, if they were told that a person was poor because he could only find a low-wage job than if they were told that the poor person had a drug problem. They didn’t think of these people as equals.

Since publishing my book, I’ve heard people make this distinction often in response to my message to the One Percent. And so, over the past year, I’ve written op-eds showing that the rich aren’t rich because they work harder than the rest of us; that the poor don’t lie and cheat any more than the rest of us (and in fact the rich lie and cheat more); that you can’t simply get rich by choosing to get an education; that people can’t make more money by being poor or unemployed; and that much, if not most, of the difference between the rich and the poor can be explained by childhood experiences over which they had no control.

Some of us have made better decisions than others. Some have been given better opportunities than others. But the belief on which this nation was founded, “that all men [and women] are created equal,” rings as true today as it did in 1776.

No one is arguing for complete equality of income. Not even close. We celebrate the success of the One Percent, and rightly so. All we ask, especially in this time of giving, is for the compassion, the humility, the shared experience that existed only a few decades ago.

Your voice is more powerful than you might realize. The researchers James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao conducted an experiment where they showed that people tended to give away four times as much of their money if the recipient simply asked for it. If the recipient was silent, the giver only donated a tiny fraction.

The message is clear: Speak up. Vote. And if you can afford to, give back.

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

No, Education Isn’t Enough to Get You Out of the Ghetto

Want to know how to get rich? Wilbur Ross has the answer: Go to school.

“Education is the way that people get out of the ghetto and into, if not the One Percent, something close to it,” said the billionaire investor in an interview earlier this year.

That’s it. So simple.

So simple, in fact, that you have to wonder: Why doesn’t everybody do it? Why don’t we all study our way into the One Percent?

Actually, many have tried. Over 73 million adults have a college degree in this country, but less than 2 million of them are members of the One Percent. Most earn less than a fifth of what they’d need to qualify for the One Percent.

The same is true of postgraduate degrees. Approximately 38 million adults have a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree, and over 37 million of them earn less than the One Percent. Most aren’t even close. To be a member of the One Percent, you have to earn more than $393,000 a year. The average PhD grad earns less than $93,000.

Declining Wages for College GraduatesAnd it’s getting worse. New college graduates entering the workforce today are earning wages 5 percent lower, after adjusting for inflation, than their predecessors earned a decade earlier. Over half of them can’t find full-time work, and half of the ones who do get a job aren’t using their degrees. Even law school grads only have 50/50 odds of finding full-time legal jobs. As a result, college graduates are this nation’s fastest-growing group of food stamp recipients.

That’s a far cry from the lucrative lifestyle that Wilbur Ross promised them.

It’s not hard to see why Ross would make this mistake. The average member of the One Percent is more educated than the average member of the 99 Percent. Ross looks around at his fellow One Percenters and sees their education and assumes that’s how they got there. It’s like the old joke about the guy who was born on third base and assumed he’d hit a triple.

Ross’s own life is a classic example. His father was a graduate of Yale, one of the most elite universities in the world. He sent his son to the college preparatory Xavier High School in Manhattan, where the current annual tuition is $14,450. From there, Ross went to — surprise, surprise — Yale, where his faculty adviser got him his first summer job on Wall Street.

Contrast that story with the childhood that most Americans experience.

The divergence starts before they even set foot in a classroom. By the age of 3, low-income children hear 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers. Kids whose parents can afford to send them to high-performing preschools are more likely to graduate from high school, half as likely to get arrested, and almost three times more likely to own a home in adulthood.

If they overcome those odds, lower-income children attend schools that have lower education ratings, and they spend less time in those schools because they have to work or take care of family members. They also miss more days because they’re more likely to be sick.

It’s a myth that lower-income parents spend less time exploring school options or engaging their kids in home-learning activities. Contrary to what Wilbur Ross may tell you, low-income parents are just as committed to their kids’ education as their wealthier counterparts, according to studies of thousands of families across America. The problem is, they are less able to navigate the educational system because they are less informed. They also have less money to spend — and the gap in money spent on “enrichment activities” has been growing for the past four decades.

Shift in Financial AidThese problems become painfully clear when it comes time to apply to college. Most high-achieving, low-income students don’t even apply to elite universities like Yale because they don’t know how. No one encourages them. No one shows them how to pay for it. They see high tuition costs — and financial aid that has been going more and more to wealthy students in recent years — and they opt for lower-rated schools instead. If you take a rich kid and a poor kid with equally high achievements and test scores in high school, the rich kid is twice as likely to attend an elite university, simply because he comes from a wealthier family.

And even if the average American child manages to overcome all of these obstacles, they still face daunting odds to reach the hallowed One Percent. According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, “rich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who do graduate from college.” It turns out that education isn’t a silver bullet after all.

Wilbur Ross is right about one thing, though. “I think the right focus would be how do you help the lower classes elevate themselves,” he said in the same interview. “And I think what’s disappointing with all the rhetoric, they’re not doing anything to fix the educational system.”

It is possible to give all Americans the same opportunities that young Wilbur Ross enjoyed. We can pay for all children to attend preschool. We can create home visitation programs that read to kids at an early age and help parents create a healthy environment for them. We can raise the minimum wage and create more jobs for parents so their kids don’t have to skip school to pay the bills. We can equalize funding for public schools between rich and poor school districts so all students have the same level of quality education. We can return to the days when Pell grants and other financial aid allowed kids to go to the college of their choice without onerous student loans. And once they’re in the workforce, we can invest in the kind of research and development that puts those advanced degrees to use.

But every one of those solutions requires Wilbur Ross and his fellow One Percenters to share a little of their good fortune with the 99 Percent. The only question is, do they really want to be a part of the solution? Or is “education” their scapegoat for an unjust inequality of opportunity that they are content to enjoy as long as it benefits them?

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

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.