Austerity, Not Uncertainty, Is the Scary Part of Fiscal Showdowns

It is taken as a given that the annual fiscal policy dramas of the past few years (last year it was the “fiscal cliff,” the year before it was running up against the statutory debt ceiling, and this year it’s debt ceiling again plus the need to pass a “continuing resolution” to fund the federal government over the next year) are “bad for the economy.”

The general idea that these fiscal policy fights have hurt the economy’s recovery from the Great Recession is clearly right. However, far too many people get the story wrong about how these annual fiscal dramas have slowed recovery. In short, it’s not that they introduce damaging “uncertainty.” Rather, it’s that they have led to smaller budget deficits, which have sucked purchasing power out of an economy that remains severely demand-constrained.

This may sound doubly strange—the corrosive impact of “uncertainty” is now essentially an official talking point for the Beltway pundit class, and the most treasured cliché of economic commentary is that reducing the budget deficit is nearly always and everywhere a good thing.

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Ending corporate tax avoidance/evasion could reduce our long-term revenue problem

The Congressional Budget Office released their long-term budget outlook last Tuesday. On the spending side, growth has slowed relative to their previous long-term projection largely because of reduced projected federal health spending on Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and the health insurance exchange subsidies. Given that the trajectory of federal spending in coming decades is almost entirely driven by health costs, this is a most welcome change.

On the revenue side, to no one’s surprise, things look considerably worse because of the tax cuts enacted by the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA)—otherwise known as the “fiscal cliff deal”. The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were made permanent for 99 percent of taxpayers and the alternative minimum tax parameters were indexed to inflation. As a result, CBO projects that by 2038 federal revenues will be about 3.7 percent of GDP lower than previously thought. As Nicole Woo of Center for Economic and Policy Research has pointed out, the latest CBO report suggests strongly that in containing projected long-run deficits, the U.S. has a tax problem, not a spending problem.

An under-appreciated part of this tax problem is the continued tax avoidance (and sometimes outright evasion) by many U.S. multinational corporations. CBO assumes that corporate tax revenues will average 2.2 percent between 2014 and 2023—basically falling from 2.5 percent of GDP in 2015 to 1.9 percent by 2023. After 2023, CBO assumes that corporate tax revenues will remain at 1.9 percent of GDP, which is about what the average was between 1973 and 2012.

But the importance of corporate income tax revenues has steadily fallen since 1946. In the 1950s, corporate income tax revenue was about 4.5 percent of GDP and the average between 1946 and 1986 was 3.2 percent of GDP. If corporate tax revenues are higher by one percent of GDP after 2014, then the deficit would be reduced by about one percent of GDP every year (actually a little more because net interest payments would be slightly lower). Because of the reduced deficits, the debt-to-GDP ratio would be about 5 percent lower in 2040 than CBO’s projection.

A good start toward increasing corporate tax revenues was introduced in the senate yesterday by Senators Levin, Whitehouse, Begich, and Shaheen. The Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act (S. 1533) would close some corporate loopholes and provide measures to combat the corporate use of tax havens to evade paying U.S. taxes.

Slow economic recovery reflected in stagnant income and poverty data

The results of the 2012 American Community Survey (ACS), released by the U.S. Census Bureau, show the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and further evidence of a recovery that has been both too slow and too tentative. Both median household income levels and overall poverty rates were virtually unchanged in 2012.

Income

Between 2011 and 2012, only a handful of states saw changes in inflation-adjusted median household income, consistent with a national median household income unchanged from 2011 (the increase of  0.1% nationally is not statistically significant). Our EPI colleagues explain clearly why we see this holding pattern in effect: “Given the tight relationship between the health of the labor market and incomes for most households, it is unsurprising that incomes for most households grew only slightly if at all in 2012 after deteriorating between 2007 and 2011.” Until we see significantly more robust job growth than that which has left us with a “jobs deficit” of over 8 million, improved income and poverty data (and improved well-being and economic security for American families in every state) will remain elusive.

Changes to median household income between 2011 and 2012 were statistically significant in only six states. In four of those states—Hawaii (4.8%), Illinois (1.4%), Massachusetts (1.6%), and Oregon (3.3%)—median household incomes grew modestly. In the other two—Mississippi (-1.6%) and Virginia (-2.2%)—incomes dropped slightly. In the remaining forty-four states (and the District of Columbia), median household incomes showed no significant change.1

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In Light Of Census Numbers, Cutting SNAP Would Be Irresponsible

The Census released its annual income and poverty report this week, which, among other highlights, calculates the number of people who are kept out of poverty by various government assistance programs. While many of the headline numbers stayed the same, the number of people kept out of poverty by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increased to an all-time high of 4 million people.1

The data arrived, coincidentally, as the House of Representatives announced it will be voting today to cut SNAP spending by 5 percent over the next 10 years, cutting 3.8 million people from the program by as early as next year. Understanding why SNAP has increased over the last five years helps us understand why it would be irresponsible–indeed cruel and stupid—to cut spending on the program now.

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New iPhones, Same Old Working Conditions

The hot debate over whether the new iPhones incorporate substantial improvements, or will spur even larger profits for Apple, misses a fundamental point. Whether or not the iPhones constitute a breakthrough for Apple’s business, their production process does not constitute a breakthrough for the workers making them. Despite an 18-month old highly-publicized commitment by Apple to dramatically reform working conditions in its supply chain, these conditions still include widespread abuses of labor laws and common decency, as well as widespread violations of Apple promises and its supplier code of conduct. Three of the latest undercover investigations by China Labor Watch and a recent review of Apple reform promises I conducted with Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium support this conclusion.

The first of the China Labor Watch studies was an in-depth investigation of conditions for workers making the new iPhones at Apple’s second largest supplier, Pegatron. The study, released July 29, found Pegatron in violation of 17 specific commitments made in Apple’s supplier code of conduct, and 86 labor rights violations overall in areas such as hiring practices, wages, hours worked, and living conditions. As one illustration, Apple has touted its success in ensuring that workers in its supply chain work no more than 60 hours a week, a dubious accomplishment at best, since the limit under Chinese law is 49 hours a week. China Labor Watch found even this weak standard has not been achieved.  At the three Pegatron factories examined, the average number of hours worked ranged from 66 to 69 hours per week, and in at least one factory these excessive hours were concealed because workers were forced to sign false time sheets.

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The Week in Federal Reserve News: No Taper!

This is a big week for those interested in the Federal Reserve—which should be everybody. The Fed has been the only economic policymaking institution with any real power that has been actively trying to lower unemployment and push the economy back to full recovery from the Great Recession over the past two years. If you’re looking for a job, more hours, or the confidence that you can ask your boss for a raise and might actually get it (because there aren’t three well-qualified but jobless people lined up outside to take your slot), you really should be interested in the Fed and what it’s doing.

The first bit of big Fed news is Larry Summers’ withdrawing from consideration to replace Ben Bernanke as the next Chair of the Federal Reserve. This seemingly clears the way for Janet Yellen—the current Vice-Chair of the Fed—to be offered the position. If Yellen is not offered the slot, it would be a bizarre and consequential mistake. She is eminently qualified for the job, and, most importantly right now, she has the correct diagnosis for what is keeping the U.S. economy from full recovery from the Great Recession (a continuing shortage of aggregate demand) and is committed to using the Fed’s power to hasten this recovery (by continuing its program to buy assets to keep interest rates low and inflation expectations from falling).

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Obama Administration Issues Home Care Rule

The U.S. Department of Labor issued final regulations today that extend minimum wage and overtime protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act to about two million previously excluded home care workers—personal care assistants for the frail elderly and the disabled, home health aides, and other direct support paraprofessionals working in the homes of patients and clients needing personal help with needs ranging from changing the dressings on wounds and administering non-injectable medications to personal hygiene and ambulation. The home care workforce is growing fast as the population ages and more people are cared for in their homes, rather than in costlier institutional settings. These jobs need to be decent jobs that pay a living wage.

Although domestic workers, like nannies, chauffeurs and housekeepers, were first covered by the FLSA in 1974, most home care aides have been excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections by the Act’s vague “companionship” exemption, which was never meant to cover people providing services for pay, while in the employ of a third party, rather than in a direct relationship with the patient or elderly client. An agency—and there are very large agencies, some employing tens of thousands of home care workers—could therefore ignore FLSA rules about paying for travel time when an aide moved between one client’s home and another’s, ignore the rules governing break time, and avoid paying time and a half for overtime when an aide worked more than 40 hours in a week. Some employers have even paid less than the miserably low federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

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By the Numbers: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage 2012

Key numbers from today’s new Census report, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012.

Income

  • $7,490 (-11.6%)
     The decline in median non-elderly household income from 2000 to 2012 in level terms and percentage terms, respectively
  • $51,668 vs. $49,398
    Median earnings for a man working full time, full year in 1973 and 2012, respectively
  • $29,261 vs. $37,791
    Median earnings for a female working full time, full year in 1973 and 2012, respectively
  • -5.2% vs. -0.8%
    The decline over the last decade in median earnings for full time, full year workers age 25 or more with a college degree, men and women, respectively
  • 0.6% ($1,846)
    Income gains for top 5 percent over 2009-12, only income group with improvement
  • $3,822 (-6.3%)
     The decline in median white, non-Hispanic household income from 2000 to 2012 in level terms and percentage terms, respectively
  • $5,838 (-14.8%)
     The decline in median African-American household income from 2000 to 2012 in level terms and percentage terms, respectively
  • $5,219 (-11.8%)
     The decline in median Hispanic household income from 2000 to 2012 in level terms and percentage terms, respectively

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Incomes and Poverty Stable as Wage Stagnation Continues

Modest income growth in 2012 barely begins to offset lost decade driven by financial crisis and decade-long wage stagnation

This morning, the Census Bureau released its report on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in 2012. It shows that from 2011 to 2012, median household income for non-elderly households (those with a head of household younger than 65 years old) increased 1.0 percent from $56,802 to $57,353. However, that modest growth barely begins to offset the losses incurred during the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2011, median household income for non-elderly households dropped from $62,617 to $56,802, a decline of $5,815, or 9.3 percent. Furthermore, the disappointing trends of the Great Recession and its aftermath come on the heels of the weak labor market from 2000-2007, where the median income of non-elderly households fell significantly, from $64,843 to $62,617, the first time in the post-war period that incomes failed to grow over a business cycle. Altogether, from 2000 to 2012, median income for non-elderly households fell from $64,843 to $57,353, a decline of $7,490, or 11.6 percent.

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5 Years Later: The Crisis We Averted and the One We Didn’t

Brad DeLong recently wrote an excellent piece contrasting the “Banking Versus Macroeconomics” camps in assessing how the U.S. responded to the financial crisis that peaked with the uncontrolled bankruptcy of Lehman five years ago. A quick summary:

One camp, call it the Banking Camp, sees a central bank as a bank for bankers: its clients are the banks…and its functions are to support the banking sector and …to ensure that there is enough credit and liquidity in the economy that mere illiquidity rather than insolvency does not force banks into bankruptcy and liquidation. 

Another camp, call it the Macroeconomic Camp, sees a central bank… as the steward of the economy as a whole, with its primary responsibility not to preserve the health of the businesses that make up the banking sector but rather to maintain the health of the economy as a whole.”

This is a useful dichotomy, and one that can help explain differing assessments of how policymakers responded to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/08.

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Flawed Diagnoses and Inappropriate Cures in Education

I don’t mean to pick on Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor, but he has made himself such a caricature of self-styled school reformers who are undermining American public education that it would be a mistake not to respond to the claims on which he bases his efforts.

Last year, I addressed Mr. Klein’s conclusion that public education must be failing because he himself grew up in public housing as a “kid of the streets,” yet owed his success to great public schools; and if only children from public housing projects today had schools as good as his, they too would be successful.

The analysis, it turned out, was misleading. The New York City public housing in which the Klein family lived in the 1950s was segregated, constructed for white middle class two-parent households where the husband had a stable employment history and where market rents were charged with no public subsidy. Such housing projects no longer exist, and the conditions in which Joel Klein grew up bear no resemblance to those from which minority children in impoverished families come to school today.

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Mayor Gray’s statement in support of his veto of the LRAA should embarrass him

Vincent Gray’s statement in support of his veto of the Local Retailer Accountability Act was a collection of non-sequiturs, half-truths, vague promises, and nonsense. He divides his critique of the LRAA into six sections.

  1. “The bill is not a living wage bill because it would raise the minimum wage only for a small fraction of the District’s workforce.” The Mayor says he wants, instead, “to raise the minimum wage for all District residents.” Of course, the District could do both: require a higher minimum wage for billion-dollar corporations and a lower one for other businesses, including mom and pop stores. But the fact is that Mayor Gray hasn’t put forward any minimum wage increase, and the level that Councilmember Tommy Wells has suggested is $10.25—far below a “true living wage.” Each member of a 2-parent family with two kids would need to earn nearly $20 an hour to have a true living wage in the District.
  2. “The bill is a job killer, because nearly every large retailer now considering opening a store in the District has indicated they will not come here or expand here if this bill becomes law.” The Mayor should identify the expansions Target, Home Depot, Wegmans, Lowe’s, Walgreens, Harris Teeter, AutoZone and Macy’s will make if the bill doesn’t pass. If they have such plans, why haven’t they announced them? And how credible is this threat? What billion-dollar retailer would invest here with a minimum wage of $10.25 an hour but not with a minimum wage of $12.50 that gives a credit for other benefits? The Mayor is either being dishonest, or gullible, or is simply unwilling to stand up to corporate bullies. (more…)

What We Read Today

Social Welfare Spending, Part II: Looking Forward—It’s Still All About Health Costs

If House Republicans were at all serious last July, then they should be putting the finishing touches on their “menu” of social welfare spending cuts that they plan to force the president to choose from in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. Presumably, with this “menu,” a large increase in the debt ceiling would require a large reduction in social welfare spending while a small debt ceiling increase would require a smaller spending cut. This means that House Republicans are again preparing to risk America’s credit rating to eviscerate important and popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

I recently showed that the rise in social welfare spending since 1975 was due to: (1) the steady rise in federal health spending, driven in large part by increasing costs in the private-sector delivery of health care goods and services, and (2) the jump in safety net spending during the 2007-2009 Great Recession as programs like unemployment compensation and SNAP  expanded (both because the recession pushed more people into eligibility and because Congress temporarily expanded the programs to blunt the impact of the downturn). Social welfare spending has fallen relative to GDP in the past couple of years as the economy slowly recovers, yet the unemployment rate is still over 7 percent, nearly 40 percent of the unemployed have been looking for work for over 6 months, and the labor force participation rate is at a 35 year low.

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ACA Implementation Advice: Encourage Timely Reports Of Income Changes

In a recent Health Affairs article, we, along with coauthor Dave Graham-Square, examine a potential pitfall in the design and implementation of the tax subsidies individuals and families may receive through the new health insurance marketplaces beginning in 2014. Next month, eligible Americans will be able to apply for subsidies to purchase health insurance in the new state and federally facilitated insurance exchanges. The amount of subsidy is determined by a person or family’s income over the past year. A problem may arise at the end of the year if income changes substantially and the family’s subsidy levels are not adjusted accordingly. Families may owe large sums at tax time if the subsidies aren’t recalculated as income rises.

Our article examines the extent to which eligible families in California experience income changes, which could have substantial effects on their subsidy levels. Using two-year panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), matched to the California Simulation of Insurance Markets (CalSIM), we construct the projected demographic profile and participation of the state’s subsidized exchange population in 2018 to 2019.

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2012 Income Numbers: What to Expect Next Tuesday and Why It Matters

Next Tuesday, the 2012 income numbers will be released by the Census Bureau and will reveal whether or not U.S. households have begun to dig out of the hole left by the Great Recession.

Between 2007 and 2011, median household income dropped by 8.1 percent (Excel file). Unfortunately, Tuesday’s numbers are unlikely to show much of a rebound for the median household in 2012.

Two things that will have pushed the income numbers in a positive direction are average weekly hours worked, which increased by 0.3 percent in 2012, and the share of the population that is employed, which grew by 0.3 percent when considering the entire 16+ population and 0.8 percent when considering just “prime-age” workers (workers age 25-54). However, those increases will be at least partially offset by the fact that due to the weak labor market, workers were earning less per hour in 2012 than they did in 2011. (Real hourly wages for the median worker dropped by 0.6 percent in 2012.) Putting these factors together, my back-of-the-envelope calculation is that, in 2012, median household income likely grew somewhere between zero percent and one-half of one percent.

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Top 1 Percent Receive Record High Share of Total U.S. Income

The United States has experienced increasing economic inequality since the late 1970s. New data released this week confirm that the Great Recession was only a blip on the road toward growing income inequality. Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty updated their now-famous data on cash, market-based income, allowing one to track trends in inequality in the United States between 1913 through 2012.

As illustrated in the graph below, the share of income going to the top 1 percent has surpassed its 2007 peak of 18.3 percent and is now 19.3 percent—the highest share since 1928.

At the same time, the Piketty and Saez data show that the Great Recession has battered incomes for the bottom 90 percent so badly that they are now back to the same levels that prevailed in 1966.

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Entitlement Spending, Part I: Looking Back

It was reported earlier this summer that congressional Republicans planned on demanding that the Obama administration choose from a “menu” of mandatory spending cuts in exchange for raising the country’s statutory debt limit. “Mandatory spending” (or the even less flattering “entitlements”) is a budget wonk’s way of referring to programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment Compensation as well as for important programs for low-income individuals and families such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI, a means-tested benefit for the low-income blind, disabled, and elderly).

Before looking ahead at some of the specific proposals for “entitlement reform,” it is instructive to look back at spending on these programs in recent decades to see which have been growing and which have not, and to examine the sources of this growth. The GOP narrative, after all, on why these popular programs must be cut is that they are allegedly spiraling out of control. This post examines whether or not there’s any evidence for this view.

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Workers’ Pay Hasn’t Always Lagged Productivity Growth

In a recent blog post, we introduced a calculator showing how much higher your wages (for a stylized definition of “your”—more on this below) could be if they had kept pace with economy-wide productivity, defined as economic output produced in a given hour of work. Why is this relationship between wages and productivity interesting? Well, for decades following World War II, wages across the board closely tracked productivity. In recent decades, however, while average wages (almost) track productivity growth, wages for the vast majority of Americans have not. So, telling people what this wedge between productivity and wage-growth means in dollar terms seems like a useful way to make rising inequality less abstract and more salient.

The calculator itself is pretty spare, so I figured I’d take this blog post to explain a little more about our methods. First, we constructed the actual wage distribution for 2012 by using the BLS’s CPS-ORG data (Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group).

Next, when somebody inputs their own wage into the calculator, we use this 2012 distribution to figure out where they fall in the overall wage distribution. Specifically, we are looking at where that wages falls with respect to the ventile cuts in that distribution—that is, for instance, between the 55th and 60th percentile of the wage distribution. Next, we look at that same point in the wage distribution of 1979.

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What We Read Today

What we read today, as well as some good pieces from Labor Day:

How Much We Have Backslid

The nation has made great progress in race relations in the last 50 years. But in some respects, we’ve gone backwards, and we continue to do so.

A case in point is a Wednesday interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.

Host Susan Page asked the secretary about his views on racial integration. I was a panelist on the program, and was asked to comment.

Ms. Page’s specific question concerned a lawsuit in Louisiana. This is what Secretary Duncan said about the broader issue of racial integration:

“I fundamentally think the need for integration and more integrative schools is very real, and there are things that we can do. Obviously, there are housing patterns that present challenges.… But I was fortunate to go to an integrated school, you know, all the way through K-12.

And I don’t think I could do a job like this was I not, you know, didn’t have that kind of opportunity. And far too many children today are denied that opportunity. So, yes, we want to do everything to make sure they’re, you know, getting rigorous course work and have great teachers and are academically prepared for college. But you want children to grow up comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds from them.

And if they don’t have those opportunities—not that you can’t learn it as an adult, but it’s much harder. So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way—I don’t think you could force these kinds of things—we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.”

It was a shocking statement in two respects, but typical of how even many liberals who claim to support racial justice today think of integration.

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Mayor Gray Should Sign the Large Retailer Accountability Act

Washington, DC, Mayor Vincent Gray has not announced a decision yet on whether he will veto the bill to require big, billion-dollar retailers to pay a fair wage to their employees in the District of Columbia. The writing seems to be on the wall, however, given that Gray’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Victor Hoskins, is holding the bill up as a “job killer.”

Why is a bill that requires total compensation far below the national median wage ($16.30) considered a job killer? The Large Retailer Accountability Act would require the biggest retailers to pay $12.50 an hour in total compensation (wages and benefits), barely more than the federal poverty income threshold of $23,550 for a family of four and nowhere near what it costs to live in the District. The LRAA is flexible and permits a lower wage: it would permit an $11.50 an hour wage, for example, if the business paid other benefits like health care or a pension contribution that equaled at least $1.00. How is that a job killer for a billion dollar corporation? Well, it just is, says Walmart, which has threatened to abandon plans for three new stores in DC if the bill is enacted.

For politicians, the prospects of visible new jobs (no matter how poorly they pay) are almost irresistible, so any threat to the three Walmart stores, however much it smacks of bullying and exploitation, makes some of them blind to the other implications of Walmart jobs paying about $8.90 an hour.

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What to Watch on Jobs Day: Public Sector Job Growth

In last month’s jobs report, virtually every indicator demonstrated that, more than four years since the official end of the Great Recession, we have not yet entered a robust jobs recovery. That main point will not change when the August numbers are released on Friday; we will very likely see a continuation of these troubling labor market trends that persist due to weak hiring.

Additional Indicator to Watch: It is possible that the public sector will have added jobs in August. If so, this would be the second month in a row of gains (in July, the public sector added 1,000 jobs). This would represent an important step in the right direction—jobs losses in the public sector have been an enormous drain on the recovery. However, it’s useful to keep in mind just how large a public-sector jobs hole in the economy faces. Since the recovery began in June 2009, the public sector has lost 733,000 jobs. Public sector employment should naturally grow as the population grows. To keep up with population growth over this period, public sector employment should have increased by around 680,000.

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Budget Debates Matter: The Difference in GOP and Democratic Levels of Discretionary Spending for 2014 Translates into Nearly 1 Million Jobs

Americans probably have a vague sense (and dread) that Washington will once again be preoccupied with budget issues this fall. Debates over the budget get airy and general very quickly, so it’s useful to focus on some key, specific issues that actually matter. One of these real issues—one that matters a lot for the pace of economic recovery—is the level of discretionary spending that will be agreed to in the “continuing resolution” for fiscal year 2014.

The current fiscal year ends September 30, so some arrangement to fund the federal government after this date must be arranged. But because prospects for agreeing on any substantive change to spending priorities is so dim, the assumption is that a “continuing resolution” will be passed that simply funds the government at levels currently called for under law.

But even this budget auto-pilot approach will not be uncontroversial, and the major sticking point regards discretionary spending levels for 2014.

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What Should You Be Earning?

In honor of Labor Day, we made a little tool—based on our project inequality.is—that shows how much you would be making if wages had kept pace with productivity, a key indicator of an economy working for all.

Economic inequality is a real and growing problem in America. Since the 1979, workers are working more, making more goods, and not reaping the rewards of their increased productivity. Instead, CEOs and executives—the top 1% of earners—now take home 20% of the nation’s income.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Growing inequality isn’t an inevitability—it was created. It’s the result of intentional policy decisions on taxes, trade, labor, and financial regulation. But that’s the good news: if inequality is not inevitable, then it can be fixed.

Take a look, and share with your friends. And remember that American workers should be earning more than we are. To do something about it, visit inequality.is.


What should you be making?

Americans' wages have lagged further and further behind productivity gains since the late 1970s, but it wasn’t always this way. After World War II, our pay rose with productivity—the more we made, the more we were paid. Today, the gap between American workers’ productivity and their wages is at an all-time high. What could you be making if wages had grown with productivity?

Enter your current annual wage:

If wages had kept up with productivity over the last three decades, your pay would be closer to:

Source: Economic Policy Institute | Methodology

Economy Boosting Jobs

Last week, Dylan Matthews wrote that, “You can always rely on the Economic Policy Institute for really depressing charts about just how far behind the U.S. middle class is falling.” In an attempt to show our positive side, here’s a new video, from our friends at the Topos Partnership, that explains the economy in terms everyone can understand.

The video makes the case that helping low wage workers helps everyone, and it does it without depressing charts or regression analyses. Given that today’s weak labor market is due to a severe demand shortage, raising wages at the bottom and middle can indeed boost economy-wide demand. When the economy is closer to full-employment, raising wages at the bottom and middle may not necessarily lead to higher GDP, but increasing the minimum wage and strengthening labor standards creates a floor that raises living standards for everyone. That, to us, is the very definition of a better-working economy.

EPI Family Budgets: Why More Tools Are Better Than One

NPR’s Planet Money had a good story this week about problems with the official measure of poverty, noting the general consensus among academics, researchers, and policy analysts alike that the federal poverty line has some fundamental flaws.

For one, the poverty line doesn’t take into account geographic differences—ignoring the widely varying regional prices for necessities like rent and child care. In New York City for example, where Marion Matthews, the single mom in the NPR story lives, rent and child care for a one-adult-one-child family can cost $2,544 per month, but only costs $923 per month in Simpson County, Mississippi.

Furthermore, the federal poverty line is calculated using a method that is obsolete given recent and historical trends in the U.S. economy. The current methodology was designed in 1963, and it basically set the poverty line at three times the cost of a basic food budget. Since then, the line has been only updated to account for overall inflation. Thus, for example, it doesn’t accurately reflect the increasing share of family budgets going towards housing and health care and the decreasing share going to food.

Besides these problems in calculating the right threshold for poverty, the current methodology does not account for resources that help raise living standards, such as food stamps and tax credits.

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Broken Promises and Continuing Worker Abuses as Apple and its Suppliers Miss Deadline

On February 13, 2012, Apple announced that it would be relying on inspections by the Fair Labor Association as a path to ending labor rights abuses in its supply chain, leading to front page coverage in the New York Times. Six weeks later the FLA released a report documenting a range of serious labor rights violations at three Foxconn factories making Apple products, most of them previously reported by independent investigators whose findings Apple had largely ignored. Apple, Foxconn and the FLA pledged that these violations would be addressed through reforms to be implemented by July 2013.

That deadline has now passed, strangely unremarked upon by Apple and its chosen labor rights monitor, and Apple has not made good on its commitments. It is clear from interim verification reports by the FLA and from independent assessments that progress in Apple’s supply chain has fallen far short of the sweeping change promised early last year, particularly in the areas of unpaid compensation, inadequate wages, illegal overtime, violations of workers’ rights to freedom of association, and the scope of the reform efforts within Apple’s full (and massive) supply chain. The FLA’s August 2012 and May 2013 interim reports claimed great strides, but included concrete findings that often belied this positive spin (as we discussed here and here).

The FLA reports helped obscure a number of disturbing realities.

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The Unfinished March Toward a Decent Minimum Wage

It was fifty years ago the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place. The demand for a higher minimum wage was part of a package of demands seeking economic justice for workers through government intervention in the labor market. At that time, the wage floor was $1.15 and marchers were demanding a raise to $2.00. Today, that 50 year old demand would be worth about $13.39 when adjusted for price changes.

To Work with Dignity” with my co-author Steven Pitts is the first in a series titled “The Unfinished March” that the Economic Policy Institute is releasing to review the demands, analyze the progress made, and determine the unfinished steps necessary to fully achieve each of the goals of the 1963 March.

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Labor Department Should Crack Down on Illegal Unpaid Internships

Juliet Lapidos had a nice editorial in The New York Times on Saturday that took on the issue of unpaid internships—based on the recent news about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation using Facebook to find a “part-time, unpaid” intern “with editorial and social chops” as well as “Web skills.” Lapidos reports that the ensuing uproar made the foundation reconsider and promise to pay the rather skilled employee they were looking for. Given that an estimated two-thirds of unpaid interns are women, and given that unpaid internships on average lead to much poorer employment prospects than do paid internships (fewer job offers and much lower salary offers), Lean In’s attempt to exploit this sketchy alternative to paid employment was embarrassing. The way to help young women get ahead is to pay them for their work, for their “editorial chops” and for their web skills, not to exploit them.

Lapidos made an important point about what’s needed to change the culture that makes this exploitation seem OK. A recent spate of lawsuits has brought the law to the attention of many employers for the first time, and it is dawning on some of them that there is a risk to cheating young workers out of the minimum wage. But interns looking for references for their resumes are unlikely to sue, and most cases–even if meritorious–don’t involve enough back pay to be worth a private lawyer’s time. What’s needed is energetic enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor and the various state departments of labor. Very little effort would be required to make a difference. If investigators scanned Craigslist they could find plenty of cases to prosecute, and with appropriate publicity and media attention it wouldn’t take long for employers to catch on and clean up their act.

As Lapidos put it, “proper enforcement of labor law shouldn’t depend on exploited interns’ willingness to suffer through courtroom ordeals.” That’s what we pay government lawyers for.