The former secretary of labor explains how this line of thinking keeps minimum wages (and the American people) down
Mar 15, 2014
It’s often assumed that people are paid what they’re worth. According to this logic, minimum wage workers aren’t worth more than the $7.25 an hour they now receive. If they were worth more, they’d earn more. Any attempt to force employers to pay them more will only kill jobs.
According to this same logic, CEOs of big companies are worth their giant compensation packages, now averaging 300 times pay of the typical American worker. They must be worth it or they wouldn’t be paid this much. Any attempt to limit their pay is fruitless because their pay will only take some other form.
“Paid-what-you’re-worth” is a dangerous myth.
Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour.
Does this mean the typical GM employee a half-century ago was worth four times what today’s typical Walmart employee is worth? Not at all. Yes, that GM worker helped produce cars rather than retail sales. But he wasn’t much better educated or even that much more productive. He often hadn’t graduated from high school. And he worked on a slow-moving assembly line. Today’s Walmart worker is surrounded by digital gadgets — mobile inventory controls, instant checkout devices, retail search engines — making him or her quite productive.
The real difference is the GM worker a half-century ago had a strong union behind him that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members. And because more than a third of workers across America belonged to a labor union, the bargains those unions struck with employers raised the wages and benefits of non-unionized workers as well. Non-union firms knew they’d be unionized if they didn’t come close to matching the union contracts.
Today’s Walmart workers don’t have a union to negotiate a better deal. They’re on their own. And because fewer than 7 percent of today’s private-sector workers are unionized, non-union employers across America don’t have to match union contracts. This puts unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage. The result has been a race to the bottom.
By the same token, today’s CEOs don’t rake in 300 times the pay of average workers because they’re “worth” it. They get these humongous pay packages because they appoint the compensation committees on their boards that decide executive pay. Or their boards don’t want to be seen by investors as having hired a “second-string” CEO who’s paid less than the CEOs of their major competitors. Either way, the result has been a race to the top.
If you still believe people are paid what they’re worth, take a look at Wall Street bonuses. Last year’s average bonus was up 15 percent over the year before, to more than $164,000. It was the largest average Wall Street bonus since the 2008 financial crisis and the third highest on record, according to New York’s state comptroller. Remember, we’re talking bonuses, above and beyond salaries.
All told, the Street paid out a whopping $26.7 billion in bonuses last year.
Are Wall Street bankers really worth it? Not if you figure in the hidden subsidy flowing to the big Wall Street banks that ever since the bailout of 2008 have been considered too big to fail.
People who park their savings in these banks accept a lower interest rate on deposits or loans than they require from America’s smaller banks. That’s because smaller banks are riskier places to park money. Unlike the big banks, the smaller ones won’t be bailed out if they get into trouble.
This hidden subsidy gives Wall Street banks a competitive advantage over the smaller banks, which means Wall Street makes more money. And as their profits grow, the big banks keep getting bigger.
How large is this hidden subsidy? Two researchers, Kenichi Ueda of the International Monetary Fund and Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the University of Mainz, have calculated it’s about eight tenths of a percentage point.
This may not sound like much but multiply it by the total amount of money parked in the ten biggest Wall Street banks and you get a huge amount — roughly $83 billion a year.
Recall that the Street paid out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even a Wall Street banker to see that the hidden subsidy the Wall Street banks enjoy because they’re too big to fail is about three times what Wall Street paid out in bonuses.
Without the subsidy, no bonus pool.
By the way, the lion’s share of that subsidy ($64 billion a year) goes to the top five banks — JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo. and Goldman Sachs. This amount just about equals these banks’ typical annual profits. In other words, take away the subsidy and not only does the bonus pool disappear, but so do all the profits.
The reason Wall Street bankers got fat paychecks plus a total of $26.7 billion in bonuses last year wasn’t because they worked so much harder or were so much more clever or insightful than most other Americans. They cleaned up because they happen to work in institutions — big Wall Street banks — that hold a privileged place in the American political economy.
And why, exactly, do these institutions continue to have such privileges? Why hasn’t Congress used the antitrust laws to cut them down to size so they’re not too big to fail, or at least taxed away their hidden subsidy (which, after all, results from their taxpayer-financed bailout)?
Perhaps it’s because Wall Street also accounts for a large proportion of campaign donations to major candidates for Congress and the presidency of both parties.
America’s low-wage workers don’t have privileged positions. They work very hard — many holding down two or more jobs. But they can’t afford to make major campaign contributions and they have no political clout.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the $26.7 billion of bonuses Wall Street banks paid out last year would be enough to more than double the pay of every one of America’s 1,085,000 full-time minimum wage workers.
The remainder of the $83 billion of hidden subsidy going to those same banks would almost be enough to double what the government now provides low-wage workers in the form of wage subsidies under the Earned Income Tax Credit.
But I don’t expect Congress to make these sorts of adjustments any time soon.
The “paid-what-your-worth” argument is fundamentally misleading because it ignores power, overlooks institutions, and disregards politics. As such, it lures the unsuspecting into thinking nothing whatever should be done to change what people are paid, because nothing can be done.
Don’t buy it.
Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.
This wealthy mogul thinks that rising income inequality is fantastic, celebratory stat
by Egberto Willies
Jan 23, 2014
Millionaire investor and star of Shark Tank Kevin O’Leary believes income inequality serves a purpose. In fact, he believes income inequality is fantastic.
The following exchange occurred on his Canadian show the Lang & O’Leary Exchange:
Amanda Lang: The wealth, that’s according to Oxfam, of world’s 85 richest people is equal to the three and a half billion poorest people.
Kevin O’Leary: It’s fantastic. And this is a great thing because it inspires everybody. They get the motivation to look up to the one percent and say I want to become one of those people. I am going to fight hard to get up to the top. This is fantastic news and of course I applaud it. What can be wrong with this?”
Stunned Amanda Lang: Really?
Kevin O’Leary: Yes really.
There should be context to every dialogue. That snippet seems to give the impression that Kevin O’Leary is an unfeeling and callous person. When taken into context with the rest of the interchange something becomes more obvious...
Amanda Lang asks if O’Leary believes some poor kid wakes up in Africa thinking about being the next Bill Gates. He replies that income inequality creates the motivation that everybody needs. Lang made the most important statement that simply flew over his head. She asserts that one cannot pull up their socks if they don’t have any.
O’Leary immediately plays the redistribution card. “Don’t tell me that you want to redistribute wealth again,” O’Leary said. “That’s never going to happen, okay?” He further says the stat on income inequality is “a celebratory stat,” O’Leary said. “I am very excited about it. I am wonderful to see it happen.”
A few days ago I wrote this blog post titled “Most Of The Rich Are Undeserving Of Their Wealth & Income.” It received some pushback from a few people. O’Leary’s sentiment is currently codified in an ideology that prevents the poor in the aggregate, access to success.
The ideology that says “I did it and therefore you can too” is flawed in the context of opportunity. O’Leary's dismissal of Lang’s statement about the poor person not having a sock to pull up in the first place is where those that think like O’Leary fail. There are exceptions where some, because of sheer luck and brawn, are able to supersede their environment and condition. However in the aggregate one’s station is static and one’s upward mobility is very low. Increasing income inequality makes this worse.
The following snippet from the referenced Oxfam report should be heeded.
Given the scale of rising wealth concentrations, opportunity capture and unequal political representation are a serious and worrying trend. For instance:
Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population. The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post financial crisis growth since 2009,while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems. Instead of moving forward together, people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown.
O’Leary’s joy in increasing levels of income inequality is at best ignorant. He fails to understand that all forms of capitalism are at risk. The increasing instability that will increasingly come about with exploding income inequality is unstoppable by him or any army. He disregards it at the peril of his own wealth and the world’s current order.