To Lift The Economy Lift Wages

Dave Johnson

To lift the economy, we have to lift wages. Increased wages will restore demand. The changes that will increase wages will help restore democracy.

The social contract used to be that citizens in our democracy share the benefits of our economy through increased wages that come from increases in productivity. This broke down and working people’s incomes have been stagnant since the Reagan Revolution. (Yes, I’m telling the same story again. It needs to be told, over and over so people can understand what is happening to us. We are feeling the effects of the Reagan Revolution coming home to roost.)

Reagan and the conservatives weakened the government and broke the unions. Government and organized labor were the forces in our society that had stood up for the interests of regular people against the “moneyed interests” and weakening them fundamentally changed the fairness equation of our economy. After the Reagan Revolution working people’s share of the benefits from increased productivity turned down:

All of the benefits of improvements in our economy now flow to a few at the top. This results in intense concentration of wealth:

With more and more of the income and wealth going to a top few, We, the People are thought of less and less as citizens and more and more as “the help.” But who is our economy for, anyway? Our economy can operate for the benefit of We, the People, or it can operate for the benefit of a wealthy few at the expense of the rest of us. This is the ongoing battle. And history has shown over and over that when economies operate for the few, they don’t work.

This is not just about sharing the economy, it is about sharing the decision-making power. In our form of government We, the People are supposed to make the decisions. When Reagan said, “Government is the problem” he was really saying that decision-making by We, the People is a bad thing. When conservatives complain about “big government” they are complaining about We, the People having a big share in decision-making. When they call for “less government” they are calling for less of a share of the decisions-making by us. This means the wealthy and powerful have more of a share — of everything.

With the income, wealth and benefits of the economy increasingly flowing to a top few, working families tried to compensate for the loss in various ways. Women entered the workforce. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains, “By the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home (in 1966, only 24 percent did).” (Please read his whole post if you have time.)

Then, still not getting by on stagnant wages with rising prices, people worked more hours or added second jobs. Then they started using up their savings.

Finally they resorted to adding debt.

This all finally broke down, demand slowed, and the economy has slowed to a crawl. The 90s financialization and “dot com” bubbles obscured the way things were headed, and then the housing bubble of the 2000s continued the illusion. But debt just kept rising people kept working longer and harder to get by, while the richest few kept getting richer. Finally it all crashed and current attempts to prop it up by helping the wealthy and big businesses are not succeeding. Bailing out big banks and their executives and shareholders and not holding anyone accountable, while letting predatory corporations continue their economy-draining practices has not only kept the worst parts of the “share of the wealth” problem in place, it has undermined people’s faith in government and demcoracy. Changes need to be made.

Most people pay for things with income from jobs. If we want demand to rise, then we need to raise incomes. But things are still going in the wrong direction. As CAF’s Robert Borosage writes today,

“Over the last decade, we lost one in three manufacturing jobs. Inequality reached Gilded Age extremes. CEOs and bankers pocketed million dollar bonuses while cooking the books and gambling on exotic securities, inflating the housing bubble until it burst. Health insurance companies kept a strangle hold on a health care system that costs twice as much as those in other industrial countries, leaves millions uninsured and provides worse health care.”

Who Gets What For What?

This bad economy situation is going to drag on until we make real changes in the structure of who gets what for what in this country. Every incentive in the economy is to try to reduce wages, cut benefits and eliminate jobs. Think about that. People get bonuses and raises and owners get richer if they eliminate YOUR job or at least cut back your pay and benefits. For example, by replacing a worker with a machine, the owner of the machine gets more money, the worker gets nothing. But in the larger economy each time this happens it means there are fewer people in a position to buy whatever goods or services the same companies that eliminated the jobs are in business to provide. And it means that a few wealthy people become more wealthy and powerful.

This is where government comes in. Government is supposed to be the force that speaks for and protects the interests of the people, empowers people through education and rules, set conditions to keep wages high, lay down the infrastructure in which businesses thrive, and coordinates the international competition for industries and jobs. But the Reagan Revolution broke that. We need to restore it.

There are so many things that government could be doing to get the economy working again for working people, small and medium businesses and big corporations that want to make an honest living. Boost the minimum wage, modernize the infrastructure, provide health care, provide free education through graduate level, increase Social Security, help unions organize, impose a democracy tariff so imports don’t get around the protections provided by our democracy, and return to taxing the rich who reap the dividends and payout of all the past investment that We, the People made to make business thrive.

And there are larger structural changes we can make. Just brainstorming but what if workers replaced by machines directly got some of the income generated by the machine. Workers laid off this way several times might then have enough income to get by without working! Or what if we cut the workweek from 40 hours to, say, 35 before overtime kicks in. Maybe that would increase hiring, while giving regular people more leisure time. (And keep cutting the workweek as machines and computers do more of the work.)

And, of course, to have wages at all people have to have jobs. One would think this would go without saying but these days it seems there is a need to point out that people are hurting for jobs, because the DC elite seem to have moved on from that. We badly need government programs to directly hire people to do things that help the people of the country. We would have all of this if the Reagan Revolution hadn’t weakened government of, by and for We, the People.

Other posts in the Reagan Revolution Home To Roost series:

Tax Cuts Are Theft
Reagan Revolution Home To Roost — In Charts
Reagan Revolution Home To Roost: America Drowning In Debt
Reagan Revolution Home To Roost: America Is Crumbling
Finance, Mine, Oil & Debt Disasters: THIS Is Deregulation

See the Reagan Revolution Home To Roost series.

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