Normative Narratives


2 Comments

Economic Outlook: The High Cost(S) of Being Poor

I have previously written about different poverty traps in America, including our outdated criminal justice system (the “prisoner paradox”) and the developmental impacts of stress passed from mother to child. If these poverty traps seemed a bit abstract, consider a more traditional poverty trap–poor people shut out of traditional credit markets and relying on “payday” loans:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created at President Obama’s urging in the aftermath of the financial crisis, took its most aggressive step yet on behalf of consumers on Thursday, proposing regulations to rein in short-term payday loans that often have interest rates of 400 percent or more.

“We are taking an important step toward ending the debt traps that are so pervasive in both the short-term and longer-term credit markets,” Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement on Thursday.

The borrowing patterns speak to a stark reality underpinning the roughly $46 billion payday loan industry: The working poor in America, a group with virtually no savings and little access to traditional bank loans, borrow to cover basic expenses.

In drafting the rules, according to interviews with people briefed on the matter, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its director, Mr. Cordray, wrestled with how to protect some of the most vulnerable consumers, without choking off credit entirely.

Driving the proposal was an analysis of 15 million payday loans by the consumer bureau that found that few people who have tapped short-term loans can repay them. Borrowers took out a median of 10 loans during a 12-month span, the bureau said. More than 80 percent of loans were rolled over or renewed within a two-week period.

Nearly 70 percent of borrowers use the loans, tied to their next paycheck, to pay for basic expenses, not one-time emergencies — as some within the payday lending industry have claimed.

Until now, payday lending has largely been regulated by the states. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s foray into the regulation has incited concerns among consumer advocates and some state regulators who fear that payday lenders will seize on the federal rules to water down tougher state restrictions. Fifteen states including New York, where the loans are capped at 16 percent, effectively ban the loans.

Martin Wegbreit, a legal aid lawyer in Virginia, called payday loans “toxic,” noting that “they are the leading cause of bankruptcy right behind medical and credit card debt.”

The current economic model of low minimum wages and high payday loan fees drives people into poverty, triggering welfare payments. The U.S. government is basically transferring welfare funds to the payday loan industry.

Proposed CFPB regulations don’t go far enough, a maximum cap on loan repayments is needed. There is room for generous profit margins to compensate for the risk of lending to low income individuals without creating a “debt-trap”.

The stress and time dedicated to satisfying debt collectors amplifies the cost of being poor. Surely it would be more effective to provide access to credit, instead of wringing societies least financially secure through the payday loan system. Perhaps more money would be spent on its intended purposes, instead of paying off predatory loans.

Part of the solution could be using Post Offices as low cost banks for the poor. Sure there would be costs associated with effectively providing financial services, but the physical infrastructure and a trustworthy brand already exist. Furthermore, such a plan would provide renewed social value to an American Institution constantly under budgetary scrutiny.

Postal Banks would inject competition into the credit market, leading to better services at more competitive rates. Even if Post Office banks operated at a loss (say, giving preferential rates to low income borrowers for certain purposes), this loss may be more than offset by reduced spending on entitlement programs. More research on the cross-section between welfare recipients and payday loan borrowers is needed.

It is not a question of which of these poverty traps exists–they all exist and for some people are mutually reinforcing. This is one of the reasons social mobility is such a difficult  issue to address. Countering these different reinforcing poverty traps require the right mix of regulation, fiscal policy (progressive taxation, adequate spending on welfare programs and public services), and livable minimum wages.

In the end, lower income Americans need to overcome negative perceptions of government and vote in large numbers. Again the time crunch associated with poverty rears its ugly head; voting isn’t just a decision to go to the polls, it is also a time commitment that many cannot afford.

Advertisements


1 Comment

Economic Outlook: Of Minimum Wages and Employment (Revisited)

Another hot button topic during the 2014 midterm election season are candidates stances on increasing the federal minimum wage.

This past February, the CBO released its analysis of the effects of a federal minimum wage increase on economic growth, employment, and poverty. Those on the political right seized on the reports projection that raising the minimum wage could result in 1 million fewer jobs in America.

I found Jared Bernstein’s Economix blog on the subject pretty even-handed (click here to see my previous blog on the topic):

It is important to recognize that there is a very wide range of estimates from which the budget agency can choose, as shown in the chart below, which plots results of the employment effect from dozens of studies (from a recent set of slides from the White House Council of Economic Advisers).  This wide range does not imply that the budget office made a mistake, though it looks to me as if it applied a higher job-loss estimate than is the current consensus among economists who’ve closely studied the issue.

Note:

As the chart shows, the employment impact from this “meta-analysis” clumps around zero, which is why the report finds that the policy is a significant net plus from the perspective of low-wage workers: Many more workers get a raise from the policy than are displaced from their jobs.” (Jared Bernstein, Economix blog)

There is no policy I can think of that generates only benefits without any costs, and policy makers always have to weigh the two sides. In the case of the minimum wage, on the benefits side of ledger, the budget office shows that 16.5 million low-wage workers would directly get a much-needed pay increase at no cost to the federal budget.

16.5 million workers will benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage by 2016, 900,000 will be raised out of poverty, with negligible effects on the federal budget.

The CBO report was a projection. What have minimum wage “experiments”, carried out in America’s “laboratories of democracy” (states and municipalities), revealed?

The White House told us they were referring to the seasonally adjusted growth of non-farm jobs since December 2013. So we crunched the numbers for state-level employment data, which is collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The comparison involved nine states that increased their minimum wage automatically early in the year to keep pace with inflation (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) plus four more states that passed new laws to hike the wage (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island). The other side consisted of 37 states that didn’t boost their minimum wage at all.

Using the second method — the one that gives greater weight to high-population states — we found that job growth over that eight-month period averaged 1.092 percent in the wage-raising states, compared to 1.090 percent in the non-wage-raising states. That’s a higher rate of job growth in the minimum-wage-raising states — but by the almost comically narrow margin of 2/1,000ths of one percent.

From this 8-month comparative analysis, we can see that minimum wage changes have had essentially no impact on employment levels. The meta-analysis seems to have been vindicated–I guess economists are good for something after-all.

What does this mean? Which stance on minimum wage increases has been vindicated? I would say it has to be the pro-minimum-wage-increase side of the debate.

Increasing the federal minimum wage is not meant to be a “job-creating” policy; its primary purpose is to redistribute income from the top of the economic pyramid (wage payers) to the bottom (wage earners). It is a “market” solution that does not require taxation and welfare spending, so money would not go to those “lazy welfare recipients” (this is not my view, however a significant proportion of Americans do view welfare recipients this way, and it is necessary to consider alternative perspectives when trying to pass legislation in a democracy).

One may think such an inequality / poverty reducing solution would be agreeable to proponents of “small government”, and one would be wrong. Since opponents of increasing the minimum wage cannot assail deficit spending going to undeserving recipients, they have relied on the “jobs lost” argument. Fortunately, this argument becomes less and less viable the more it is challenged and disproven.

Raising the minimum wage does not just address the “symptoms” of inequality / poverty–there are important long term / inter-generational implications of minimum wage increases. Having more money enables people to build their skills, take more entrepreneurial risks, and provide better upbringings for their children (which obviously affects their earning capacity later in life).

“Meta-analysis” of the effects of minimum wage increases on employment clustered around zero, and these findings have been backed up by the non-partisan statistics produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I work for the BLS, although my job has nothing to do with employment statistics).

The mechanism by which minimum wage increases raises poorer peoples income is straightforward. How people would choose to use their new-found income is less straightforward–some will predominately invest in into their and their families futures, while others will use the majority for instant gratification. While not as targeted as a welfare program, raising the minimum wage is the most politically viable solution to America’s inequality problems.

Contemporary American political discourse is dominated by the related themes of “equality of opportunity” and “social mobility”. Raising the federal minimum wage would bring immediate relief to America’s poorest workers, while moving closer to the utopian goal of “equality of opportunity”. Furthermore, it would accomplish these goals without any meaningful impact on employment rates or the federal budget.

Some redistribution of income in necessary; inequality is a drag on economic growth, and poverty is a root cause of many other societal ills. History has proven over and over again that “trickle-down” economics does not work. Minimum wages should also be linked to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), periodically (once per year?) increasing to reflect changes in cost of living.

If our federal government continues to fail in this regard, leaders at the state and municipal level must step-up–this is a matter of both present and future socioeconomic justice.

 


11 Comments

Economic Outlook: A Living Minimum Wage in Seattle

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/91ea7-minimumwagecartoon.jpg

The Seattle City Council has unanimously approved an ordinance Monday to phase in a $15 hourly minimum wage — the highest in the nation.

Drafted by an advisory group of labor, business and nonprofit representatives convened by Mayor Ed Murray, the ordinance phases in wage increases over three to seven years, depending on the size of the business and employee benefits.

The issue has dominated politics in the liberal municipality for months. Murray, who was elected last year, had promised in his campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. A newly elected socialist City Council member, Kshama Sawant, had pushed the idea as well.

“This legislation sends a message heard around the world: Seattle wants to stop the race to the bottom in wages and that we deplore the growth in income inequality and the widening gap between the rich and the poor,” Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said.

The increase in minimum wage comes amid a national movement from low-wage workers for higher pay, and a more livable minimum wage.

An individual working full time–$40 hours a week for 52 weeks at $15/hr–would earn a pretax income over $31,000 (or $62,000, for a two minimum wage income family) enough to put most U.S. families over the official poverty line. Furthermore, such an income level would lead to substantial savings on welfare programs, pushing many households into positive net tax brackets (taxes owed minus transfer payments) while unlocking public resources for other deserving causes (investments in human capital, infrastructure, R & D, etc). One would also expect a drop in crime rates (and perhaps the ability to save money throughout the law enforcement and criminal justice systems), as it becomes easier for people to earn a comfortable living legitimately.

A $15 minimum wage is an ambitious plan, as a proponent of economic populism I hope it is a resounding success. People from both sides of the political divide will be paying close attention to Seattle’s socioeconomic indicators–specifically, poverty rates, unemployment rates, crime rates and economic growth rates–in order to support their position on minimum wage laws. It is notable that businesses will have a period of between 3-7 years to phase in higher wages, which should temper any potential adverse economic shocks resulting from this policy.

When it comes to socioeconomic outcomes, there are too many variables to come to definitive conclusions by running experiments; even sophisticated randomized control trials and cohort studies have their limitations. Economics is always context sensitive, and while it may not be fair to extrapolate lessons learned from Seattle across the country, this will inevitably occur. And in these extrapolater’s defense, the only way to see how a living minimum wage works is to test it out on a sufficiently large scale. Seattle has become this testing grounds, and based councilman Rasmussen’s comments, the city welcomes this distinction.

Proponents of this minimum wage hike will likely frame it as the harbinger of a golden age of shared prosperity, while its critics will foretell of rampant unemployment and economic decline; the truth invariably lies somewhere in the middle. For what it’s worth, in the context of the modern American economy, I believe the results will be much closer to the former rather than the latter.


1 Comment

Economic Outlook: Developing or Developed, National Investment Into “Quality” Jobs Yields Strong Returns

Original article:

Developing countries that invested in quality jobs from the early 2000s grew nearly one percentage point faster every year since 2007 and were better able to weather the economic crisis than comparable economies, according to a new report by the United Nations labour agency.

The annual report of the International Labour Organization (ILO), The World of Work 2014, focuses this year on the relationship between good jobs and national development through analysis of 140 developing and emerging nations.

Decent work opportunities for women and men help trigger development and reduce poverty,” Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO,” said in a news release on the launch of the report, subtitled Developing with Jobs.

“Social protection, respect for core labour standards and policies that promote formal employment are also crucial for creating quality jobs that raise living standards, increase domestic consumption and drive overall growth,” he added.

“In view of the evidence, it is essential to make decent work a central goal in the post-2015 development agenda,” stressed Raymond Torres, Director of the ILO Research Department.

Quality jobs are an important tool for escaping poverty traps. In a recent post, I said that economics is always context sensitive; this does not mean, however, that certain things–such as quality jobs–are not important in all contexts. Whether in a rich or poor country, societies poorest are unable to escape poverty traps because they do not save–they either spend their entire income on survival or short-term luxuries to distract them from life’s problems. While “extreme poverty” (living on less than $1.25 /day, adjusted for purchasing power parity) is confined to the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), relative poverty exists everywhere. While the exact income level needed to escape a poverty trap (the inflection point on the graph above) is context sensitive, the general relationship holds in all contexts.

Underpinning the universality of relative poverty is the inverse relationship between marginal propensity to consume (MPC) and income; the lower ones income, the greater percentage of it they will consume. The flip side of this is low savings–the higher one’s MPC (ranging from 0-1), the lower one’s MPS (MPS + MPC = 1). This inability to save perpetuates a vicious cycle of low productivity, low wages, and low savings resulting in inadequate investment in “human capital” (education, healthcare, etc), which is what causes the low level of productivity in the first place–a poverty trap. While different income groups in different countries have different levels of MPC/S, this general relationship between income, consumption, savings, investment and poverty holds in all contexts.

The U.N. report cited at the beginning of this post focuses on quality job creation in developing countries; I would like to shift the focus to America’s political economy. No politician, particularly in a democracy, would ever say they are opposed to creating quality jobs. Therefore, we must assess the different ideological / policy approaches to quality job creation, in order to determine which approach is most likely to succeed:

Liberals:

Invest in human capital, particularly needs-based investment (which, due to low levels of income / savings, these people cannot afford themselves) to boost worker productivity, physical capital (infrastructure projects),  and growth markets (such as renewable energy) to boost economic output and create jobs in a depressed economy (counter-cyclical fiscal policy).

Raise the minimum wage and support collective bargaining (unionization) to increase take home pay for “blue collar” workers.

Conservatives:

Cut spending to reign in the deficit, restoring confidence in the economy so “job creators” (those who hold financial capital) will reinvest into the economy. Perpetuate a “race to the bottom” by discouraging collective bargaining and subsidizing private job creation by providing tax breaks / subsidies to private companies .

Reduce taxes and regulations as much as possible (starve the “beast”). Rely on private actors, market forces, and trickle-down economics to result in the optimal allocation of resources.

Conservatives will point to a low unemployment rate (currently 6.3%) to prove that additional stimulus spending is not needed. Liberals will counter with evidence of wage stagnation and “working poor” to argue that greater labor market intervention is needed. The question then becomes, what is a quality job? Is it simply having a job, or is a minimum salary (perhaps that inflection point) needed? Further clouding the issue is the apparent disconnect between productivity and wages, implying that simply training low wage workers–the typical remedy for escaping “poverty traps”–may be insufficient to create “quality jobs” (and hence the growing minimum wage movement).

History has resoundingly and repeatedly debunked the concept of “trickle down economics” yet it keeps coming up in mainstream political economy discussions–something Paul Krugman would call a “Zombie Idea”. The reason this “zombie idea” persists is relatively straightforward–vested interests with large levels of wealth perpetuate this view through the mainstream media. They state any additional costs (taxes, regulations, wage increases) will cause massive job loss despite record high corporate profits (after taxes) and stock values , and (relatedly) historically low corporate income tax rates.

I leave my readers with this question; which plan to create quality jobs sounds more likely to work to you? Take that answer to the voting booth with you during the 2014 midterm elections, because quality jobs are the key to sustainable human development, economic growth, and social cohesion.

 


3 Comments

Economic Outlook: Of Minimum Wages and Employment

The CBO released its analysis of the employment and budgetary effects of minimum wage increase yesterday. Advocates from both sides of the isle will seize on the reports findings to “prove their point” about the (de)merits of increasing the minimum wage. I found Jared Bernstein’s Economix blog on the subject pretty even-handed:

It is important to recognize that there is a very wide range of estimates from which the budget agency can choose, as shown in the chart below, which plots results of the employment effect from dozens of studies (from a recent set of slides from the White House Council of Economic Advisers).  This wide range does not imply that the budget office made a mistake, though it looks to me as if it applied a higher job-loss estimate than is the current consensus among economists who’ve closely studied the issue.

Note:

As the chart shows, the employment impact from this “meta-analysis” clumps around zero, which is why the report finds that the policy is a significant net plus from the perspective of low-wage workers: Many more workers get a raise from the policy than are displaced from their jobs.

In fact, the study points out that the range, or confidence interval, around their central estimate ranges from a “very slight decrease” to one million.  The authors guess that there’s a two-thirds chance that the true estimate is in that range.

There is no policy I can think of that generates only benefits without any costs, and policy makers always have to weigh the two sides. In the case of the minimum wage, on the benefits side of ledger, the budget office shows that 16.5 million low-wage workers would directly get a much-needed pay increase at no cost to the federal budget.

There is one paragraph of the report Bernstein does not seize on, which I believe merits greater consideration:

An increase in the minimum wage also affects the
employment of low-wage workers in the short term
through changes in the economy-wide demand for goods
and services. A higher minimum wage shifts income from
higher-wage consumers and business owners to low-wage
workers. Because those low-wage workers tend to spend a
larger fraction of their earnings, some firms see increased
demand for their goods and services, boosting the
employment of low-wage workers and higher-wage
workers alike. That effect is larger when the economy is
weaker, and it is larger in regions of the country where
the economy is weaker. (p. 7)

The positive employment effect of increasing the minimum wage (redistributing money to lower income individuals who, by definition, spend a greater share of every dollar earned; i.e. people who have a higher “marginal propensity to consume”) is “larger when the economy is weaker“.

Can there be any question that the economy is currently very weak? Specifically, aggregate demand is most depressed for the poorest, who have seen decreases in real household income over the past decade(s) (as opposed to the wealthiest 1%, who have captured 95% of income gains since 2009).

It is, therefore, quite reasonable to assume that job losses will be closer to the “very slight decrease” end of the CBO range, if indeed they are negative at all (an assumption that is directly in line with “the current consensus of economists who have studied the issue closely”).

The other findings of the report are fairly straightforward: 16.5 million workers will benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage by 2016, 900,000 will be raised out of poverty, with negligible effects on the federal budget:

“CBO concludes that the net effect on the federal
budget of raising the minimum wage would probably be
a small decrease in budget deficits for several years but a
small increase in budget deficits thereafter.” (p. 14)

Given that any budget forecast after “several years from now” borders on divination, one can even conclude that raising the minimum wage would actually result in a net gain for the federal budget. Spending on automatic stabilizers will fall (automatically) as poorer families / individuals rise above certain income thresholds. On the other hand, lower tax revenues are estimated to come from wealthier individuals, whom tend to find ways to have an effective tax rates below what their income bracket would suggest. In other words, spending cuts will occur automatically, while drops in tax revenue are considering tax revenues that may never have been realized in the first place.

As Mr. Bernstein concluded, no policy change is without trade-offs. However, it seems pretty clear that, in the current context, the benefits of increasing the minimum wage far outweigh the losses. So when you hear conservative politicians beating the “1,000,000 jobs lost drum” and/or the “increasing the deficit drum” over the next few  months, question whether that estimate is reasonable or simply an attempt to turn public support against a common sense policy reform.


2 Comments

Economic Outlook: The Relationship Between Wages, Productivity, and Economic Inequality In America

Source: The Employment Policy Network (Huffington Post)

Note: Hourly compensation is of production/nonsupervisory workers in the private sector and productivity is for the total economy.

Source: Author’s analysis of unpublished total economy data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Productivity and Costs program and Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts public data series

THE BOTTOM (high school graduates):

This graph highlights the growing disparity between wages paid and productivity for different educational levels (which we will use as proxies for societal classes). There are a number of explanations for this decoupling. One explanation is the decline of labor union participation due to regulatory changes and pressure from globalization. Another explanation is that as technology has advanced, it has become and increasingly important factor of production; businesses are opting to spend a larger portion of their revenues on machinery as opposed to workers.

This Monday I observed a roundtable at the U.N.– “The Threat of Growing Inequalities”–where one of the speakers raised this point. Taking home a “smaller piece of the pie”, those at the bottom are able to buy less political influence, which leads to weakened labor rights and neglected falling real minimum wages. Economic forces enable those at the top to rig to laws in their favor, further exacerbating inequality–this is the political economy explanation of rising inequality. This explanation hits on another divisive element of contemporary American society, the different legal system experienced based on ones wealth.

Whatever the reason (or as is often the case in real-world economic analysis, combination of reasons), this phenomenon obviously contributes to increasing inequality. How bad is inequality today? The Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality has 20 graphs which tell much of the story, while Politifact has compiled a number of inequality related “fact-checks”.

It is heartening to see grassroots minimum-wage movements emerge, spanning many industries (and worldwide, many countries), led by people who are willing to take a stand through collective action. These people are willing to risk the wrath of vengeful corporate executives for economic justice. However, it will take a concerted effort by well intended politicians, independent media outlets (I try to do my part), and progressive judges / competent public defenders to capitalize on this grassroots activism if meaningful progress is to be made on the inequality front.

THE TOP (“the .1%” is not represented in the graph above):

What is going on at the bottom of the economic pyramid is only part of the inequality story. The meteoric rise of top earners incomes increases inequality; economic growth is important, but how evenly it is distributed also matters. Again here we see a decoupling of wages and productivity in the other direction  (much greater compensation than productivity; in fact, one could argue short-sighted investments result in negative productivity for the economy as a whole, while at the sane time lead to huge rewards for those carrying them out). A micro-example of this adverse relationship, described by former derivatives trader Sam Polk, as “wealth addiction”, is highlighted in a recent NYT opinion piece:

IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.

DESPITE my realizations, it was incredibly difficult to leave. I was terrified of running out of money and of forgoing future bonuses. More than anything, I was afraid that five or 10 years down the road, I’d feel like an idiot for walking away from my one chance to be really important. What made it harder was that people thought I was crazy for thinking about leaving. In 2010, in a final paroxysm of my withering addiction, I demanded $8 million instead of $3.6 million. My bosses said they’d raise my bonus if I agreed to stay several more years. Instead, I walked away.

The first year was really hard. I went through what I can only describe as withdrawal — waking up at nights panicked about running out of money, scouring the headlines to see which of my old co-workers had gotten promoted. Over time it got easier — I started to realize that I had enough money, and if I needed to make more, I could. But my wealth addiction still hasn’t gone completely away. Sometimes I still buy lottery tickets.

Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I see Wall Street’s mantra — “We’re smarter and work harder than everyone else, so we deserve all this money” — for what it is: the rationalization of addicts. From a distance I can see what I couldn’t see then — that Wall Street is a toxic culture that encourages the grandiosity of people who are desperately trying to feel powerful.

I was lucky. My experience with drugs and alcohol allowed me to recognize my pursuit of wealth as an addiction. The years of work I did with my counselor helped me heal the parts of myself that felt damaged and inadequate, so that I had enough of a core sense of self to walk away.

Dozens of different types of 12-step support groups — including Clutterers Anonymous and On-Line Gamers Anonymous — exist to help addicts of various types, yet there is no Wealth Addicts Anonymous. Why not? Because our culture supports and even lauds the addiction. Look at the magazine covers in any newsstand, plastered with the faces of celebrities and C.E.O.’s; the super-rich are our cultural gods. I hope we all confront our part in enabling wealth addicts to exert so much influence over our country.

This is a powerful piece, an inside voice admitting that derivatives traders “don’t really do anything”, and that an insatiable “wealth addiction” (and the political clout it buys) drives a widening income gap in this country. The idea that much investment “doesn’t really do anything”, that it is speculative rather than true investment, is not a new concept. In fact, the concept was laid out eloquently by John Maynard Keynes in “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money“:

It happens, however, that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly occupied otherwise. For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public. They are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it “for keeps”, but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence.

Of the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of “liquid” securities. It forgets that there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole. The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. The actual, private object of the most skilled investment to-day is “to beat the gun”, as the Americans so well express it, to outwit the crowd, and to pass the bad, or depreciating, half-crown to the other fellow.” 

This was written in 1936 in the context of post-Great Depression financial regulation, long before technological changes such as the internet and mass-deregulation created a risk-seeking “too-big-to-fail” financial sector which nearly destroyed the global economy in 2008. One can imagine what Keynes would have to say about the financial sector–and the inadequate regulatory response to the Great Recession–we experience today!

The top his risen due with the help of financial deregulation, enabling a “wealth addiction” by canonizing those selfish (or at best ignorant) enough to pursue such ends. This, coupled with the bottoming out of the lower end of the economic pyramid, leads to gross inequality. Inequality distorts our legal and political system, which leads to self-perpetuating social immobility; those at the top stay at the top (and continue rising), while those at the bottom stay at the bottom (an inter-generational poverty trap).

But how could we let this happen to America, once a “beacon of hope”? Wouldn’t our democratic system have stopped this from happening?

THE MIDDLE (bachelors and graduate degree earners):

It is indeed perplexing how we got into this mess, given America’s democratic system. Part of the explanation is that we canonize the rich–we want to be them, we don’t want to regulate them. We also vilify the poor–they are lazy, undeserving, and are responsible for the majority of anti-social behavior (crime, drug use, etc.). “We” here is the middle class, the last faction of American society where social mobility and meritocracy exists (to a certain extent).

Middle class families can afford the necessities needed for “equality of opportunity”, even if they cannot afford great luxuries. They earn college degrees and go on to make living wages. These workers still see a connection between productivity and compensation. An income of $50,000/yr is probably related to the amount you produce. Perform well and there is a promotion in it for you; you may even “make it to the top”!

To paraphrase John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”

Those at the top receive more than they produce, so why complain (however they do get defensive anytime someone proposes a common sense regulation)? Those in the middle earn roughly what they produce, and have a reasonable belief they will make it to the top; you don’t want to regulate what you one day aspire to be! Those at the bottom–well fuck em’ they’re lazy drug users!

How have those at the top succeeded at winning the PR war on income inequality? The best explanation I have heard comes from Matt Taibbi’s book “Griftopia”. In this book, he tells a story of local level governance which is overrun by regulations (he uses an example of a bureaucracy ramming affordable housing down a communities throat). Knowing that middle-class people experience over-regulation at the local level, those at the top seize on this “big-government” narrative to drum up support for financial deregulation; they create a narrative of “the poor banker trying to earn a buck”.

This narrative resonates with the middle-class worker who experiences the aforementioned local government over-regulation. It is reinforced by media commentary, which is often a pawn of those at the top (another tool, like political clout, enabled by surplus wealth).  Furthermore, this narrative also vilifies financial regulation as a something which stifles economic growth / cost jobs / lead to higher consumer finance costs (and in this economy, we simply cant afford it!), even though economic theory and common sense suggest that inequality stifles consumption, job creation, and economic growth.

Of course this is a false equality; federal (and international) financial sector regulation and local / state government regulation are unrelated (local governance may well be over-regulated in some instances, but the financial sector is undeniably under-regulated). But unless you have studied the way the government works (which most people haven’t), you have no idea you are being fed horseshit; you hear the word “regulation” and cry bloody murder. Because local governance is often intervening on behalf of lower class citizens, this creates a rift between the middle and lower class, while the real culprits are laughing all the way to the bank (quite literally–they tend to work at banks).

If this sounds like class warfare, that’s because America is experiencing class warfare.

This post relied heavily on generalizations, there are undoubtedly people in each class of society who do not fit into these generalizations. But in general these descriptions hold (that’s why they’re called generalizations).

This post focused on America; globally the inequality problem is much worse. According to a just-released Oxfam report, the richest 85 people in the world control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion (that’s nearly half the global population!). Recently, UNDP chief Helen Clark spoke about the link between inequality, poverty, and standard of living. Least developed countries experience different problems (extreme poverty, authoritarian / incompetent governance, lack of access to credit, armed conflict, etc.), but these problems manifest themselves in similar ways (poverty, inequality, power imbalances).

The whole world must confront and stop enabling “wealth addiction”, if we hope to realize sustainable human development in the 21st century. We must try, through regulation, taxation, and incentives, to restore the productivity-to-earnings relationship. As inequality becomes more of a “mainstream” issue (it has recently been emphasized by, among others, Barack Obama and Pope John Francis), we can expect to see a larger portion of society begin to champion pro-poor causes.


3 Comments

Economic Outlook: Public-Private Partnerships, for Better or for Worse

The following blog combines two previous topics discussed here at NN–Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and State subsidies to private corporations. While both technically represent a “pubic-private partnerships” (both public and private money going towards the same goal), that is where the similarities end.

Public-private partnerships, as they are intended, leverage public (tax-payer) money to raise private sector money for a cause. These partnerships often raise money for innovative purposes, in order to help cultivate new industries which indirectly lead to future jobs and tax-revenue. Universities, as centers of R & D and learning / training, also have a role to play in PPPs teaching people the skills needed to take part in this innovation. An example of a PPP that functions this way are President Obama’s recently announced manufacturing institutes.

With less than two weeks till his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Mr. Obama hastened to make good on a pledge from last year’s speech, announcing the creation of a high-tech manufacturing institute aimed at creating well-paying jobs.

Speaking to 2,000 students at North Carolina State University, which is leading a group of universities and companies that established the institute, Mr. Obama said it was the kind of innovation that would reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing economy.

This is the first of three such institutes the White House plans to announce in the coming weeks. It will be financed by a five-year, $70 million grant from the Department of Energy, which will be matched by funding from the consortium members, including the equipment maker John Deere and Delphi, an auto-parts maker.

The institute will use advanced semiconductor technology to develop a new generation of energy-efficient devices for automobiles, consumer electronics and industrial motors. Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Obama toured a Finnish company, Vacon, that makes drives used to control the speed of electric motors, to increase their energy efficiency.

Confessing that there was “a lot of physics” in the company’s presentation, the president seemed most interested in which of the components were made in the United States.

The announcement Wednesday of the new manufacturing institute showcased the White House’s determination to press ahead with jobs programs, with or without Congress. Mr. Obama said he was determined to make 2014 “a year of action.”

But it also laid bare the limits of Mr. Obama’s authority, since Congress has stymied his more ambitious proposals that require legislation. In last year’s State of the Union address, the president announced a $1 billion plan, modeled on one in Germany, to create a network of 15 institutes that would develop new industries.

But setting up 15 institutes would require congressional authorization. So last year, Mr. Obama narrowed his focus to establishing three institutes using existing funds and executive authority. At the same time, he increased his long-term goal to 45 institutes over 10 years, while acknowledging this would require congressional action.

To be clear, PPPs are not a call for charity–they represent mutually beneficial and sustainable economic arrangements. Businesses need future employees and customers, governments need non-dependent tax payers, a Universities future success is linked to it’s graduate employment rate, and people need jobs. If these projects prove successful, it will be difficult for congress to block the programs expansion.

Subsidizing individual corporate initiatives, on the other hand, does not lead to many of the positive externalities associated with PPPs. Unlike traditional PPPs, it does not give the government any ownership of a project–a company is free to leave for greener pastures if it receives a better offer after the terms of an agreement end, leaving a municipality with nothing but a large bill. Furthermore, this practice represent one aspect of a “race-to-the bottom” that pits the private sector against workers and society as a whole:

Boeing is a company that pits state governments against one another to compete for larger subsidies and forces communities into a race to the bottom to see who can fight unions and lower wages the fastest. It is a prime example of 21st century business in the United States. As a result of these tactics, American workers, both unionized and independent, have little choice but to accept the lowered living standards their employers offer as conditions for their doing business.

This practice has become common. In the last year alone, 13 states granted corporate subsidy packages of over $100 million to companies like Toyota, Yokohama Rubber, Boeing and MetLife. Many of these subsidies are not for job creation but for job relocation — to lure business over to one state at the expense of its friends and neighbors.

The story of Boeing is an example of how ruthlessly U.S. businesses use the needs of some workers to justify lowering the standards of others, to the ultimate detriment of both.

Boeing’s strategy is a profitable one. It saves the company money, reduces wages and benefits for workers and ultimately absolves the company of any financial responsibility to take care of its retirees. As a result, production workers, regardless of their state, are left with a smaller slice of a bigger pie. This is, of course, the point: “Now that we have internal competition (among production sites), we’re going to get much better deals,” Boeing CEO Jim McNerney explained in May.  The deals aren’t only on the price of labor, but on the size of subsidies, which states and municipalities must fit into their budgets by either raising taxes or cutting services.

Unless American workers miraculously rediscover collective bargaining or begin to lay claims on the government to promise what organized labor once provided, then their lives will continue to be shaped by companies like Boeing. Their wages will be taken out of their pockets, their tax money out of their schools and roads…

These initiatives, unlike PPPs which are aimed at innovation and job creation, only benefit a single corporation. Furthermore, these projects often amount to job relocation, as opposed to job creation. There are many good reasons for subsidies to exist; for example, subsidies can help promote “infant industries” and to reward positive externalities. However, giving tax-payer money to already profitable companies in order to lure jobs from one municipality to another is not one of them. Private sector job creation is not charity, it is a cost of doing business that companies would face regardless of a subsidy.

The problem is this country has empowered corporations at the expense of workers and societies as a whole. Don’t believe me? There is ample evidence of the different “recoveries” experienced by the “haves” and the “have nots” in America (spoiler: the wealthiest have done great post-recession, while masses have seen declining wages and standards of living). There are no easy fixes to this reality; only by championing workers rights, increasing minimum wages, and ending the municipal “race-to-the-bottom” (perhaps by creating a federal oversight board with the exclusive power to negotiate private-sector subsidies, based on needs-based C-B analyses) can we hope to take America back for the average working man / woman. PPPs can play a positive role in this transition, if they are used to spur new investment and industry. On the other hand, taking money out of public programs and giving it to private corporations will only exacerbate the divergence between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

It is true that we face a depressed labor market; in such an environment, people are afraid to speak up in fear of losing whatever job they do have. On a larger scale, politicians are unwilling to take any stand that may be met with retaliation by corporate interests. This fear is being used against the American public by corporations to further push down their costs even as they realize record profits. If we can overcome this fear, and challenge the bellicose rhetoric of private sector interests, we can begin to realize a redistribution of wealth which would benefit not only individuals but our economy as a whole.

It is up to Americans to decide what role we want the private sector to play in our economy, and elect leaders who will fight for those goals. Will we support corporations that share in the costs of sustainable human development, or will we continue to reward corporations that value short-term profits above all else?


Leave a comment

Economic Outlook: When Gauging Support for Raising the Minimum Wage, Poll its Biggest Opponents

Trend: Minimum Wage -- Real and Nominal Value, 1938-2013

There has been a strong push this holiday season (really dating much farther back) by a variety of labor groups seeking higher minimum wages. Specifically, Walmart employees, Fast-Food Workers, and most recently low-level financial sector employees have taken to the streets to make their demands for “livable wages” heard.

As one who believes in the positive externalities of a more egalitarian society, as well as a proponent of collective action, I am happy to see people using the tools at their disposal to overcome power-asymmetries that have persisted for decades. It would appear that I am not alone in this sentiment–according to Gallup polling, 76% of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $9/hr (69% support raising the minimum wage to $9/hr and indexing the minimum wage to cost of living increases).

Furthermore, the main fear associated with raising minimum wages–that it will lead to higher unemployment–has been debunked:

The idea of fairness has been at the heart of wage standards since their inception. This is evident in the very name of the legislation that established the minimum wage in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act. When Roosevelt sent the bill to Congress, he sent along a message declaring that America should be able to provide its working men and women “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” And he tapped into a popular sentiment years earlier when he declared, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Support for increasing the minimum wage stretches across the political spectrum. As Larry M. Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, shows in his book “Unequal Democracy,” support in surveys for increasing the minimum wage averaged between 60 and 70 percent between 1965 and 1975. As the minimum wage eroded relative to other wages and the cost of living, and inequality soared, Mr. Bartels found that the level of support rose to about 80 percent. He also demonstrates that reminding the respondents about possible negative consequences like job losses or price increases does not substantially diminish their support.

It is therefore not a surprise that when they have been given a choice, voters in red and blue states alike have consistently supported, by wide margins, initiatives to raise the minimum wage. In 2004, 71 percent of Florida voters opted to raise and inflation-index the minimum wage, which today stands at $7.79 per hour. That same year, 68 percent of Nevadans voted to raise and index their minimum wage, which is now $8.25 for employees without health benefits. Since 1998, 10 states have put minimum wage increases on the ballot; voters have approved them every time. But the popularity of minimum wages has not translated into legislative success on the federal level. Interest group pressure — especially from the restaurant lobby — has been one factor.

The social benefits of minimum wages from reduced inequality have to be weighed against possible costs. When it comes to minimum wages, the primary concern is about jobs. The worry comes from basic supply and demand: When labor is made more costly, employers will hire less of it. It’s a valid concern, but what does the evidence show?

For the evidence, lets turn to Dr. Krugman, who succinctly explains the evidence against this valid concern, and how “good” this evidence is:

Still, even if international competition isn’t an issue, can we really help workers simply by legislating a higher wage? Doesn’t that violate the law of supply and demand? Won’t the market gods smite us with their invisible hand? The answer is that we have a lot of evidence on what happens when you raise the minimum wage. And the evidence is overwhelmingly positive: hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment, while significantly increasing workers’ earnings.

It’s important to understand how good this evidence is. Normally, economic analysis is handicapped by the absence of controlled experiments. For example, we can look at what happened to the U.S. economy after the Obama stimulus went into effect, but we can’t observe an alternative universe in which there was no stimulus, and compare the results.

When it comes to the minimum wage, however, we have a number of cases in which a state raised its own minimum wage while a neighboring state did not. If there were anything to the notion that minimum wage increases have big negative effects on employment, that result should show up in state-to-state comparisons. It doesn’t.

So a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects.

But what do these “egg-heads”, in their “ivory-towers” know? They are out of touch with the real world! The person who suffers from minimum wage increases is not the academic, or even the large corporation. It is the small business owner who suffers–Mom and Pop! Well, Gallup polled small business owners on their thoughts of minimum wage increases, and responses were not as overwhelmingly negative as one would think:

vyrfizzd50i0v1wqhs_w_q.png

They were also polled on the effects of a minimum wage increase on how they invest back into their business:

4t56yhgje0ytveiaeoavtg.png

The majority of small business owners responded they would not reduce their current workforce (64%) or reduce worker benefits (60%) if the minimum wage was increased. The largest negative effect would be a reduction in capital spending (38%). However, in the context of a divergence of worker compensation from productivity, and a declining share of income going to labor (in favor of capital), perhaps such a re-balancing is not such a bad thing.

Small business owners are not thrilled about the prospect of a minimum wage increase–they are not expected to be. However, the fact that nearly half support raising the minimum wage says something about small business owners.

Perhaps they recognize peoples purchasing power is tied to their wages, so increasing wages will eventually lead to higher sales (especially considering minimum wage employees have a much higher marginal propensity to consume than wealthier people). Or perhaps these people are simply more in touch with what happens in the communities they live in than their big-business contemporaries. They know people living on the minimum wage aren’t lazy people waiting for a government handout; they are their friends, family, and customers. Perhaps they believe that more egalitarian communities are friendlier, safer places, and are willing to pay a little extra in order to achieve that goal. 

Increasing the minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular, and more popular among small business owners than one would expect. Furthermore, it would save billions of dollars in Welfare programs by ending an implicit subsidy for businesses who pay non-livable wages and stimulate the economy by redistributing income to people who are more likely to spend it.

The time to act has come; people are literally taking to the streets. It is also important to index the minimum wage to cost of living increases, so we do not experience the declining real minimum wage we have had for the past 4 decades. Indexing also avoids a political battle every-time the cost of living changes (which it constantly does).

I for one am interested and excited to see the myriad benefits that decreasing poverty rates and reversing the trend of increasing income inequality have on American society as a whole.


2 Comments

Green News: Walmart, Wages, Emissions, and Personal Accountability in a Democracy

Original Article:

Walmart is one of the biggest and fastest-growing polluters in the nation, despite the company’s 2005 pledge to become an environmental leader, according to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

The retail giant emits 45 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), slightly more than Target, at 42 million metric tons, and significantly more than Costco, at 16 million metric tons, according to the report.

“The scale of Walmart’s energy efficiency and renewable power measures is not up to the scale of their business or their growth,” Stacy Mitchell, the author of the report, told Al Jazeera. “They been placing solar powers on the rooftops and getting some wind power and so on, but Walmart only derives 4 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources.”

“This is a business model that is built on these far-flung distributors and goods that are trucked all over the country [and shipped all over the world],” Mitchell said. “There are fundamental aspects of Walmart’s business model that are at odds with sustainability.”

Walmart spokesperson Christopher Schraeder told Al Jazeera that the company is “working hard every day to find solutions to the most pressing sustainability issues,” and that has “ambitious sustainability goals to improve our operations, increase fleet efficiency, source locally and sell more sustainable products.

Mitchell acknowledged that significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’

But with Congress more divided than ever, that’s not likely to happen soon, especially when companies use their financial resources and lobby members of Congress to block environmental protection measures.

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy. In the 2012 elections, 70 percent of donations went to people who supported the Keystone XL pipeline

Walmart has gotten a bad rap over a number of issues, and in the past I have been critical of Walmart’s business model as well. But I was still fair in my analysis back then; the two main issues Walmart receives flack for–employee compensation and emissions–need to be addressed by government policy:

 

1) Employee Compensation: This is as clear cut an example of policy failure there can be. Walmart, by paying its sales associates an average of $8.81 cents / hr, is not breaking any laws. This comes out to a yearly income of a little over $15,000, placing a large burden on the social safety net:

On the flip side of this, it costs the nation an estimated $1 billion a year in social safety net use. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s  low wages, which systematically produce full-time workers living below the poverty line.

It should raise a red flag that the same ideology opposed to safety net policies also tends to be against higher minimum wage legislation as well. It used to be that if you worked hard you could live a comfortable middle-class life and have enough to invest in a better future for your children. With the current minimum wage, the American Dream is no longer a reality for a large number of hard working but less-skilled Americans.

The plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $10/hr  (and thereafter tying it to a cost of living metric such as the CPI) beginning in 2014 (I believe the plan is to phase it in over three years) is a good start. This could also have the effect of pushing up non-minimum wage compensation as well, as employers looking for more skilled labor will have to compete with higher minimum wage employers. Such changes are all the more important in the context of rising inequality and falling median incomes (which are at their lowest level since 1995).

2) Emissions: 

As the report states, “significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’”. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nice idea, but it only changes things at the margin. As with employee compensation, the real driver of change must come from carbon tax / cap-and-trade legislation. With proper legislation in place, CSR gives way to more enforceable corporate accountability.

Another important element of environmental sustainability should come from tax incentives for using local producers. This legislation would be less politically contentious than carbon taxation, but would have a huge impact on emissions. According to the ILSR report, Walmart’s carbon emissions disclosure does not include emissions from international shipping. However, this is a large component of Walmart’s competitive advantage, finding the lowest cost producers, which are always in developing countries due to lower labor costs. Since there is no taxation on emissions, as long as the price of production + transporting from the developing world is lower than the price of producing domestically, retailers such as Walmart have little incentive to choose the later.

By evening the playing field through tax incentives, the benefits would be twofold: 1) stimulating the U.S. economy through more local production and 2) lower emissions due to less transportation from production site to the store. These tax incentives could be paired with carbon tax / cap-and-trade revenue (to fulfill the revenue-neutrality legislative condition the G.O.P. lives by), further tilting the playing field towards lower emission  American production.

Walmart’s own CSR initiatives have led to an increase in American production, appropriate legislation can (literally and figuratively) bring these changes home.

I would like to take this opportunity to also highlight an example of the political economy definition of a “collective action problem”:

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy.

A collective action problems occurs when a large group of people would be better off with a change, but that change does not occur because the gains to each individual in that large group are small, while the losses imposed by the change on a small group are large. In this case, the American public would be better off with regulations on GHG emissions, but these improvements in environmental quality are hard to quantify and will occur only in the future. In contrast, the cost to the small group (Walmart) is large and immediate–having to pay for emissions. Therefore, it is rational for Walmart to use it’s resources ($22 million in this case) to lobby against these changes.

But there is strength in numbers and in public opinion, particularly in a democracy. While civil society may not be able to raise money to counter Walmart’s lobby, it need not do so to overcome the collective action problem. This comes down to an issue of social accountability. In a democracy, we can vote for lawmakers who will stand up to lobbies for the greater public good.

The fact that these politicians are rare-to-non-existent is partially due to legislation (lobbying money is allowed to influence lawmakers), but mainly it is due to a failure of social accountability. People are either too busy or too cynical to vote, with the aggregate outcome of a legislature that represents the interests of it donors rather than its constituents.

Democracy is powerful, voting is powerful. It is why we see wars fought in the name of democracy; people are willing to die for the rights we as a nation largely take for granted. Our ability to move forward as a nation whose laws represents the interest of the general public hinges on overcoming cynicism in the democratic process.

Finger-pointing and playing the blame game are not the answers. Education / information dissemination is an important element of overcoming collective action problems, and is largely why I do what I do here at NN. But ultimately the responsibility lies with each and every U.S. citizen. Belief in the power of the democratic process is the only way to return to the more egalitarian America of yesteryear.


4 Comments

Transparency Thursday: Wal-Mart, a Microcosm of the U.S. Economy

Walmart is the nation’s largest retail employer. Walmart’s competitive advantage is no secret; by providing goods at prices lower than competitors, it has been able to capture market share by driving competitors out of business. This translates into savings for customers. But looking further into the specifics of how Walmart keeps its costs down, it may also translate into higher costs for consumers in the long run. As is often the case, the “devil is in the details”.

Take, for example, the fact that Wal-Mart systematically underpays their employees. The average Walmart associate makes $15,500 per year ($8.81 per hour). Walmart’s CEO Mike Duke will bring home over $23 million in salary and performance based benefits in 2012, a whopping 1034:1 CEO to employee pay ratio (by far the highest, the next being Target at 597:1, also this figure is based on a median Wal-Mart salary of $22,400, so based on which figure you use the ratio could be much higher). It is estimated that it would cost Wal-Mart shoppers on average another $0.46 per visit to if the company offered a minimum wage of $12 / hour.

On the flip side of this, it costs the nation an estimated $1 billion a year in social safety net use. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s  low wages, which systematically produce full-time workers living below the poverty line.

Next, consider environmental degradation. One common way to keep costs down is through “supply chain fractionalization”, producing certain products in low wage countries. This leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions, as goods are transported all over the world; without a system of taxing carbon, nobody pays for these emissions. “In the U.S. Walmart’s reported emissions grew by roughly 7% between 2005-2009. In Asia, its greenhouse gas emissions have doubled. The company expects 13 million metric tons of cumulative growth in emissions by 2015”. For all the lip service Walmart pays to environmental sustainability, this amounts to little more than a PR move.

Supply chain fractionalization—or outsourcing—has cost the U.S. an estimated 196,000 jobs from 2001-2006 due to Chinese Imports. This number has probably continued to grow, and represents jobs lost to production in other countries (outsourcing), and smaller domestic firms who were priced out of the market by Walmart’s business practices.

How is Walmart a microcosm of the current U.S. economy? This issue is highlighted in a recent New York Times article. According to the article, “Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, has cut so many employees that it no longer has enough workers to stock its shelves properly, according to some employees and industry analysts.”

“Labor groups and some employees say the low staffing levels are hurting the in-store experience.”

Like America in general, Walmart appears to be producing under capacity because of it’s reluctance to hire workers.

In an attempt to save money, Walmart has undermined consumer confidence in its produce—one of the bulwarks of Walmart’s profitability (“Grocery made up 55 percent of Walmart’s United States sales in 2012”). Does the concept of low consumer confidence sound familiar? It should, it is one of the things depressing aggregate demand and is related to stagnant wages, unemployment, and general pessimism of peoples belief in the economy.

“Before the recession, at the start of 2007, Walmart had an average of 338 employees per store at its United States stores and Sam’s Club locations. Now, it has 281 per store, having cut the number of United States employees while adding hundreds of stores.”

Walmart has undermined its consumer confidence, which threatens to hurt its bottom line in the long run (it has not in the short run, which I will address shortly). However, when questioned about the possibility of hiring more workers, “Ms. Scott [a manager at a Los Angeles Walmart] says she has pushed for additional staff or for more hours for existing staff, ‘and the answer that I receive is they want to focus on productivity with the workers that we do have.’”

Does this sound eerily familiar to an overall justification for stubbornly high unemployment in the U.S.? It should. Corporations (including Walmart) are sitting on record profits, yet have not increased hiring to post recession levels. Compounding the issue is that employee productivity and wages have diverged greatly. Employers, Walmart being the largest, are systematically relying on higher worker productivity to make up for a smaller labor force, with no inclination that the higher productivity they seek will result in higher wages.

Walmart, like many other large corporations, is answerable to its stockholders and high level executives. Executive pay is incredibly high, profit’s continue to rise, and stock prices are now well above their pre-recession levels. With all this positive reinforcement, why would Walmart change its practices?

Ultimately, market forces determine the success of a business. No-one is forcing people to shop at Walmart, they go there for low prices and good selection. However, there are systematic issues with how Walmart keeps its costs down—most notably paying low wages and increasingly relying on practices which damage the environment.

Some of these issues, such as minimum wage and environmental regulation, need to be addressed by government policy. People need to be aware of the facts, so they can vote for policies that hold large corporations responsible for the negative externalities they cause. More immediately, people can vote with their wallets, by shopping at Wal-Mart’s competitors (which, based on the breadth of their operations, can include almost all retailers).

If Walmart can post hundred-billion dollar profit margins, and pay its CEO over 1000x the median employee salary, it can afford a more sustainable and egalitarian business model. Walmart’s primary competitive advantage is taking advantage of economies of scale—there is nothing wrong with this. However, cutting corners in other ways unfairly shifts the burden of Walmart’s costs onto taxpayers and the environment. If Walmart’s profits begin to fall, they will rethink their corporate strategy. Until then, we can expect business as usual.

For the sake of it’s own profitability and the U.S. economy, Walmart should hire more workers at more livable wages.

Enhanced by Zemanta