We are living in so-called first world societies where economic disparity is trending toward developing world levels. Some numbers you can argue about individually if you like (and how does your head feel buried in the sand?), but the aggregate situation is beyond debate:
— The one percent holds 35.6 percent of all private wealth, more than the bottom 95 percent combined.
— The 400 wealthiest individuals globally have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.
— Between 1983 and 2009, over 40 percent of all wealth gains flowed to the one percent and 82 percent of wealth gains went to the top five percent. The bottom 60 percent lost wealth over this same period.
— A significant amount of the redistribution of wealth, redistributed upward, took place following the 2008 market collapses in the United States as bailouts, shorts, repossession of home and land, and new laws helped the top end of the economy at cost to the bottom. More and more of government is controlled directly by corporations.
— The world’s one percent own $42.7 trillion dollars, more than the bottom three billion residents of earth.
— A rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans do not own any stock at all. The wealthiest of Americans own over 80 percent of all stock, and 40 percent of America’s land.
It’s Getting Worse
Now add to that grim tally new information that shows the problem of gross income and wealth inequality is getting worse.
A report from McKinsey finds that in developed economies such as the United States two-thirds of all households experienced “flat or falling” incomes over the past decade, from 2005-2014. In the U.S., the portion was even worse: 81 percent.
“While the recession and slow recovery after the 2008 global financial crisis were a significant contributor to this lack of income advancement, other long-run factors played a role — and will continue to do so,” McKinsey notes. “They include demographic trends of aging and shrinking household sizes as well as labor-market shifts such as the falling wage share of GDP.”
Capital Beats Labor Every Time
As predicted by economists from Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty, this is the natural progression of capital (making money by owning things) over labor (making money by working.) It represents the same basic economic world of the Middle Ages, land-owning kings and serfs who have no option but to work the fields.
It is statistically likely that you won’t live a better life than your parents did. The economic world of your parents and grandparents was an aberration, a one time exception that was called the American Dream. And even that was largely limited the white people.
Do enjoy that gig economy youngsters, and hope Uber doesn’t put you out of an income by flooding the market with more drivers.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In the presidential debates, Trump and Clinton referenced the NAFTA and TPP trade deals. What are they and are they good, or bad, for America?
What Are NAFTA and TPP?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are international trade agreements.
Trump is unambiguously, totally, absolutely, hugely opposed to both deals and any others in the future. He has held that position from Day One.
Clinton, less so. NAFTA was pushed through by Bill, and Hillary continues to defend it. As Secretary of State she strongly advocated for the TPP. She continued that advocacy during the first part of her campaign, right up until Bernie Sanders started to score points against her by opposing it. Hillary then shifted to also opposing it. No one knows what her stance will be if she is elected.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still hoping to force TPP through a lame duck Congress following the election. Hillary would then be free to shrug her shoulders come January and claim the TPP is not her responsibility.
The Basics Of Trade
International deals like NAFTA and the TPP are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”
So, if widgets made at a higher cost in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit into Hanoi’s supermarkets.
Looking at You, NAFTA
NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.
There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.
You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, the value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect like NAFTA is tough. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.
The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.
NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. That’s the good part (for a few.)
However, allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or cheap moves jobs out of the United States. A current case cited by Trump is Carrier. Carrier sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Mexican workers typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s former Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.
Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They put Americans out of work.
Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like a modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.
Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all.
The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, even if all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.
Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us
Economist Robert Scott claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.
In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens showed increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.
A Broader View
If one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.
Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for America.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?
Whether they know it or not, it’s something like this.
My Working Life Then
A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort to food benefit programs and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn’t afford childcare. (As it happens, 29% of low-wage employees are single parents.)
At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a whistleblower. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about twenty-first-century America.
I was lucky. I didn’t become one of those millions of people trapped as the “working poor.” I made it out. But with all the election talk about the economy, I decided it was time to go back and take another look at where I had been, and where too many others still are.
My Working Life Now
I found things were pretty much the same in 2016 as they were in 2012, which meant — because there was no real improvement — that things were actually worse.
This time around, I worked for a month and a half at a national retail chain in New York City. While mine was hardly a scientific experiment, I’d be willing to bet an hour of my minimum-wage salary ($9 before taxes) that what follows is pretty typical of the New Economy.
Just getting hired wasn’t easy for this 56-year-old guy. To become a sales clerk, peddling items that were generally well under $50 a pop, I needed two previous employment references and I had to pass a credit check. Unlike some low-wage jobs, a mandatory drug test wasn’t part of the process, but there was a criminal background check and I was told drug offenses would disqualify me. I was given an exam twice, by two different managers, designed to see how I’d respond to various customer situations. In other words, anyone without some education, good English, a decent work history, and a clean record wouldn’t even qualify for minimum-wage money at this chain.
And believe me, I earned that money. Any shift under six hours involved only a 15-minute break (which cost the company just $2.25). Trust me, at my age, after hours standing, I needed that break and I wasn’t even the oldest or least fit employee. After six hours, you did get a 45-minute break, but were only paid for 15 minutes of it.
The hardest part of the job remained dealing with… well, some of you. Customers felt entitled to raise their voices, use profanity, and commit Trumpian acts of rudeness toward my fellow employees and me. Most of our “valued guests” would never act that way in other public situations or with their own coworkers, no less friends. But inside that store, shoppers seemed to interpret “the customer is always right” to mean that they could do any damn thing they wished. It often felt as if we were penned animals who could be poked with a stick for sport, and without penalty. No matter what was said or done, store management tolerated no response from us other than a smile and a “Yes, sir” (or ma’am).
The store showed no more mercy in its treatment of workers than did the customers. My schedule, for instance, changed constantly. There was simply no way to plan things more than a week in advance. (Forget accepting a party invitation. I’m talking about childcare and medical appointments.) If you were on the closing shift, you stayed until the manager agreed that the store was clean enough for you to go home. You never quite knew when work was going to be over and no cell phone calls were allowed to alert babysitters of any delay.
And keep in mind that I was lucky. I was holding down only one job in one store. Most of my fellow workers were trying to juggle two or three jobs, each with constantly changing schedules, in order to stitch together something like a half-decent paycheck.
In New York City, that store was required to give us sick leave only after we’d worked there for a full year — and that was generous compared to practices in many other locales. Until then, you either went to work sick or stayed home unpaid. Unlike New York, most states do not require such a store to offer any sick leave, ever, to employees who work less than 40 hours a week. Think about that the next time your waitress coughs.
Minimum Wages and Minimum Hours
Much is said these days about raising the minimum wage (and it should be raised), and indeed, on January 1, 2016, 13 states did raise theirs. But what sounds like good news is unlikely to have much effect on the working poor.
In New York, for instance, the minimum went from $8.75 an hour to the $9.00 I was making. New York is relatively generous. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and 21 states require only that federal standard. Presumably to prove some grim point or other, Georgia and Wyoming officially mandate an even lower minimum wage and then unofficially require the payment of $7.25 to avoid Department of Labor penalties. Some Southern states set no basement figure, presumably for similar reasons.
Don’t forget: any minimum wage figure mentioned is before taxes. Brackets vary, but let’s knock an even 10% off that hourly wage just as a reasonable guess about what is taken out of a minimum-wage worker’s salary. And there are expenses to consider, too. My round-trip bus fare every day, for instance, was $5.50. That meant I worked most of my first hour for bus fare and taxes. Keep in mind that some workers have to pay for childcare as well, which means that it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which someone could actually come close to losing money by going to work for short shifts at minimum wage.
In addition to the fundamental problem of simply not paying people enough, there’s the additional problem of not giving them enough hours to work. The two unfortunately go together, which means that raising the minimum rate is only part of any solution to improving life in the low-wage world.
At the store where I worked for minimum wage a few years ago, for instance, hours were capped at 39 a week. The company did that as a way to avoid providing the benefits that would kick in once one became a “full time” employee. Things have changed since 2012 — and not for the better.
Four years later, the hours of most minimum-wage workers are capped at 29. That’s the threshold after which most companies with 50 or more employees are required to pay into the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) fund on behalf of their workers. Of course, some minimum wage workers get fewer than 29 hours for reasons specific to the businesses they work for.
It’s Math Time
While a lot of numbers follow, remember that they all add up to a picture of how people around us are living every day.
In New York, under the old minimum wage system, $8.75 multiplied by 39 hours equaled $341.25 a week before taxes. Under the new minimum wage, $9.00 times 29 hours equals $261 a week. At a cap of 29 hours, the minimum wage would have to be raised to $11.77 just to get many workers back to the same level of take-home pay that I got in 2012, given the drop in hours due to the Affordable Care Act. Health insurance is important, but so is food.
In other words, a rise in the minimum wage is only half the battle; employees need enough hours of work to make a living.
About food: if a minimum wage worker in New York manages to work two jobs (to reach 40 hours a week) without missing any days due to illness, his or her yearly salary would be $18,720. In other words, it would fall well below the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s food stamp territory. To get above the poverty line with a 40-hour week, the minimum wage would need to go above $10. At 29 hours a week, it would need to make it to $15 an hour. Right now, the highest minimum wage at a state level is in the District of Columbia at $11.50. As of now, no state is slated to go higher than that before 2018. (Some cities do set their own higher minimum wages.)
So add it up: The idea of raising the minimum wage (“the fight for $15”) is great, but even with that $15 in such hours-restrictive circumstances, you can’t make a loaf of bread out of a small handful of crumbs. In short, no matter how you do the math, it’s nearly impossible to feed yourself, never mind a family, on the minimum wage. It’s like being trapped on an M.C. Escher staircase.
The federal minimum wage hit its high point in 1968 at $8.54 in today’s dollars and while this country has been a paradise in the ensuing decades for what we now call the “One Percent,” it’s been downhill for low-wage workers ever since. In fact, since it was last raised in 2009 at the federal level to $7.25 per hour, the minimum has lost about 8.1% of its purchasing power to inflation. In other words, minimum-wage workers actually make less now than they did in 1968, when most of them were probably kids earning pocket money and not adults feeding their own children.
In adjusted dollars, the minimum wage peaked when the Beatles were still together and the Vietnam War raged.
Many of the arguments against raising the minimum wage focus on the possibility that doing so would put small businesses in the red. This is disingenuous indeed, since 20 mega-companies dominate the minimum-wage world. Walmart alone employs 1.4 million minimum-wage workers; Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) is in second place; and McDonald’s takes third. Overall, 60% of minimum-wage workers are employed by businesses not officially considered “small” by government standards, and of course carve-outs for really small businesses are possible, as was done with Obamacare.
Keep in mind that not raising wages costs you money.
Those minimum wage workers who can’t make enough and need to go on food assistance? Well, Walmart isn’t paying for those food stamps (now called SNAP), you are. The annual bill that states and the federal government foot for working families making poverty-level wages is $153 billion. A single Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance money, and Walmart employees account for 18% of all food stamps issued. In other words, those everyday low prices at the chain are, in part, subsidized by your tax money.
If the minimum wage goes up, will spending on food benefits programs go down? Almost certainly. But won’t stores raise prices to compensate for the extra money they will be shelling out for wages? Possibly. But don’t worry — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would mean a Big Mac would cost all of 17 cents more.
My retail job ended a little earlier than I had planned, because I committed time theft.
You probably don’t even know what time theft is. It may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, but minimum-wage employers take time theft seriously. The basic idea is simple enough: if they’re paying you, you’d better be working. While the concept is not invalid per se, the way it’s used by the mega-companies reveals much about how the lowest wage workers are seen by their employers in 2016.
The problem at my chain store was that its in-store cafe was a lot closer to my work area than the time clock where I had to punch out whenever I was going on a scheduled break. One day, when break time on my shift came around, I only had 15 minutes. So I decided to walk over to that cafe, order a cup of coffee, and then head for the place where I could punch out and sit down (on a different floor at the other end of the store).
We’re talking an extra minute or two, no more, but in such operations every minute is tabulated and accounted for. As it happened, a manager saw me and stepped in to tell the cafe clerk to cancel my order. Then, in front of whoever happened to be around, she accused me of committing time theft — that is, of ordering on the clock. We’re talking about the time it takes to say, “Grande, milk, no sugar, please.” But no matter, and getting chastised on company time was considered part of the job, so the five minutes we stood there counted as paid work.
At $9 an hour, my per-minute pay rate was 15 cents, which meant that I had time-stolen perhaps 30 cents. I was, that is, being nickel and dimed to death.
Economics Is About People
It seems wrong in a society as wealthy as ours that a person working full-time can’t get above the poverty line. It seems no less wrong that someone who is willing to work for the lowest wage legally payable must also give up so much of his or her self-respect and dignity as a kind of tariff. Holding a job should not be a test of how to manage life as one of the working poor.
I didn’t actually get fired for my time theft. Instead, I quit on the spot. Whatever the price is for my sense of self-worth, it isn’t 30 cents. Unlike most of this country’s working poor, I could afford to make such a decision. My life didn’t depend on it. When the manager told a handful of my coworkers watching the scene to get back to work, they did. They couldn’t afford not to.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
But rich people have problems, too. Luckily, a group of brave psychiatric professionals, dubbed “wealth therapists,” have emerged to come to their aid.
The UK Guardian (America’s best newspaper) profiled Clay Cockrell, a former Wall Street worker turned therapist, who spends his days helping New York’s wealthiest people.
So what issues are America’s One Percent struggling with? Cockrell tells us there is guilt over being rich in the first place, which makes the rich feel that they have to hide the fact that they are rich. And then there is the isolation – being in the One Percent, it turns out, can be lonely.
And the problem is growing. According to Oxfam, the richest One Percent have seen their share of global wealth increase from only 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014. It will break 51 percent by next year.
The wealth therapists also say things have only gotten worse for their clients since the debate over income inequality that has been spurred on by movements like Occupy Wall Street.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement singled out the One Percent and painted them globally as something negative,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, another wealth psychologist. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but it really is making value judgments about a particular group of people as a whole.”
Traeger-Muney specializes in the unique issues inheritors face. “You can come up with lot of words and sayings about inheritors, and not one of them is positive: spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in their mouth, trust fund babies, all these things,” she said, adding “I am shocked by things that people say. If you substitute in the word Jewish or black, you would never say something like that.”
Hyper-wealthy, we all feel your pain. Thus, today, we are all part of the One Percent. #WealthyLivesMatter (say the wealthy.)
Luckily, if you’re among the 1 percent, you are not alone. Repeat that: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people ready to help you with the complications of owning more than 99 percent of your fellow citizens.
One such resource in your time of need is Bessemer Trust, a “Private Client Wealth Management” company. As a way of reaching out, they ran this print ad in the Sunday New York Times:
At Bessemer Trust, we believe maintaining wealth from generation to generation is the true art of wealth management. So we have a team of specialists targeted at precisely that… Our client advisory team helps prepare the next generation to responsibly guide your wealth… Our tax strategists help fend off a significant threat to your wealth… Let’s face it, history is littered with family names once associated with great wealth that now are mere footnotes. Everything we do is designed to keep you from becoming one of them. Call us. Minimum relationship $10 million.
Bessemer Trust is There for You
Indeed, on the company’s website, they do warn “Ironically, the more wealth one accumulates, the more complicated life can become.” So, here are some of actual quotes from the company about easing those complications:
— “Whether you are interested in creating a Family Mission Statement, setting up trusts, or establishing a foundation, we can work with you to reflect your family’s core values in your legacy plan.”
— “Reducing the erosion of wealth by implementing planning techniques designed to minimize taxes.”
— “Raising children with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to be financially independent is a complex task for any parent, but wealthy families face a unique set of challenges… Do your children have the ﬁnancial knowledge to manage wealth? Do members understand the family’s wealth plan?”
— “Engaging and educating the next generation on wealth management issues can be a powerful way to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities life may offer.”
— ”Naming the potential risks to your family and property can be uncomfortable. But not taking the steps necessary to minimize your exposure can prove more onerous in the end.”
— “For many wealthy families, concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.”
The company also arranges “intimate gatherings with other families who face common issues” and has a special advisory service on Yachts and Private Aircraft to “help you understand and assess your personal travel options.” They can also “assist in evaluating the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.”
One Percent Problems
See, while you struggle with simple problems like paying the rent and scavenging dented cans of hobo beans to feed your feral children, the One Percent have real issues.
Apparently one of the most pressing issues for the wealthy, while admonishing the rest of us to work harder, stop being lazy and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, is how to make sure their money gets passed on to their kids, so those kiddies do not have to work harder, stop being lazy or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This assures that while most of us struggle against glass ceilings of one sort or another to rise, rich kids are held safe by marble floors that prevent them from falling. And all thanks to folks like Bessemer Trust!
And kids today, amiright? While many of us hope to pass on skills to our own like how to kite a check and where to redeem aluminum cans for scrap value, the rich face the task of teaching their off-spring how to stay rich.
Another issue for the rich is making sure they and their children don’t have to actually work. That’s the whole idea cited above about “concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.” That means owning stuff, primarily stock. You most likely don’t have this problem, because less than half of Americans don’t own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock. Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock.
However, it is Bessemer Trust’s special services that really get to the heart of why being super rich is such a grind. I mean, who really has time to personally evaluate “the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.” Daaady, can you help me with my homework? It’s not fair, I have to evaluate all these club and resort programs by tomorrow and they’re so stupid and complex!!!
I for one am glad I don’t have to deal with stuff like that, and worry about whether my kids are prepared to continue my exploitation of the workers I
own employ. What a load off.
BONUS: All of the above is what companies like Bessemer Trust say without shame in public. Imagine what goes on behind their closed doors: “Welcome Mr. Van Buren. Please just leave your satchels of bullion over there next to the complimentary blood of virgins bar. Let me introduce Klaus, who will guide you through the ever-increasing and complex programs for acquiring fresh human organs for your next transplant. Oh, and I understand your daughter would very much like to see a poor child ritually slaughtered for her eighth birthday party. That would be Marie, who sorts those things out for our clients. Refreshment? We feature today a chilled glass of orphan tears.”