February, the first full month of the Trump presidency, witnessed solid jobs growth of 235,000 with the headline unemployment rate little changed, at 4.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Services monthly report.
Trump has already tweeted to claim credit for the results, but neither his plan nor his administration were in place. In fact, the February figures, a record 77th straight month of jobs growth, result from the momentum of the Obama recovery, plus whatever benefit or harm came from Trump’s bombast.
The jobs growth will harden the Federal Reserve’s resolve to raise interest rates again when its Open Market Committee meets next week. The Fed is acting in anticipation of an expected rise in inflation, that is to date not much in evidence.
By raising rates, The Fed is choosing to put a drag on the economy, even though full recovery is a long way off. Nearly 15 million people are still in need of full-time work. The share of the population in the workforce - 60 percent - is still down from 2000. If our work rate were back to where it was, about 10 million more Americans would have jobs.
Over the course of the recovery, most of the jobs created are contingent – part-time, short-term, contract work – with few benefits and often low wages. Lawrence Katz and former Obama economic advisor Alan Kreuger found that a staggering 94 percent of new jobs created from 2005 to 2015 were “alternative work,” contract or short-term or contingent.
Trump’s trickle-down agenda – to cut taxes on rich and corporations so they will create jobs – doesn’t address this reality. In fact, corporations are swimming in money, and using it increasingly to buy back shares or for mergers that do little to create jobs. Companies, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, don’t lack capital or access to it, they lack demand for their products.
Democrats are sensibly critical of the Trump agenda, but too many fall back to a defense of Obama’s policies as the alternative. Obama helped save the economy that was in free fall when he took office, and presided over record months of jobs growth, but his policies, frustrated by Republican obstruction, did little to counter the stagnant wages, growing inequality and increasing insecurity of the modern economy.
The challenge is not simply to expose Trump’s bait and switch on the working people who voted for him, but to lay out elements of a bold alternative agenda. Bernie Sanders modeled that effort in his surging primary challenge.
Now, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is up for re-election in 2018, has stepped boldly into the breach. Brown has released a 77 page, meticulously documented report -Working Too Hard for Too Little – that delves into how policies and power have undermined workers, and offers the elements of an agenda to rebuild the middle class.
Brown’s central insight is a direct counter to Trump’s recycled voodoo. Trump believes that cajoling and bribing companies is the way to generate good jobs. Brown argues “It’s not businesses who drive the economy – it is workers.” Workers with decent wages and secure jobs generate the demand that allow companies to grow and the economy to thrive. As it is, “Between 2000 and 2013, the middle class shrank in all 50 states. And that’s hurting our country. When hard work doesn’t pay off – when workers have no economic security and their paychecks don’t reflect the work they do – our economy cannot grow.”
The unemployment rate, Brown argues, isn’t the measure of a good economy. “The unemployment rate is one thing, but whether workers have jobs that pay a decent wage and provide security is another. And the unemployment rate certainly doesn’t reflect the frustration, the worry, the anger, the pain that workers feel.”
Senator Brown details how the policies that have structured globalization, technology, corporate management have undermined workers, savaged unions, and pushed companies to offshore, contract out, and cut back on jobs, wages and benefits. He then offers a worker based alternative agenda, some old and some new.
He’d act directly to lift the floor under workers – requiring a $15.00 minimum wage, setting up a national fund to finance 12 weeks family and medical leave, mandating minimum paid vacation days and enforcing overtime pay.
He calls for empowering workers at the workplace– cracking down on labor violations, curbing wage theft, policing misuse of contract labor, and reviving the right to organize and bargain collectively. While Republicans are intent on destroying unions, Brown argues that clearly we all have a large stake in challenging the current imbalance of power in the workplace.
He details measures to help workers save for retirement – including matching grants and expansion of opportunities for part-time and short-term workers.
Then Brown offers a far more coherent plan than Trump to change corporate incentives. He’d create a “Corporate Freeloader Fee,” levied against all corporations “whose pay is so low that taxpayers are forced to subsidize their workers.” The fee would force companies to reimburse American taxpayers for the insult. He’d accompany this with offering companies that do right by the workers a tax break - if they “commit to staying in the US, to hiring in the US and to providing good wages and fair benefits for workers.”
The academic rigor – complete with footnotes – of Brown’s report is a rarity among politicians. It exposes House Speaker Paul Ryan’s much celebrated power points for the thin gruel that they are. Brown doesn’t see creating jobs as a standalone – affordable health care, better schools, access to colleges and good training, aggressive anti-trust and more are also vital.
Work unites all of us, Brown writes, citing Pope Francis: “We don't get dignity from power nor money or culture. We get dignity from work.” With Working too Hard for Too Little, Brown has shown Americans that there is an alternative. The choice is not between Trump’s antics and more of the same. Good analysis leads to bold alternatives that offer a way out. His courage and his leadership should be applauded.