Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Everyone can get coronavirus, but economic inequality means it will be worst for those at the bottom

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is avatar_2563.jpg

Coronavirus doesn’t spare the powerful. As of this writing, two members of the Housea senator, and the president of Harvard University have tested positive. But as with so many things in the unequal United States of America, it’s going to be worse for people who are already vulnerable: low-income people, people in rural areas, homeless people, single parents, inmates, and more.

There’s the constant strain of affording health care in a system that bankrupts so many people. There’s the need to go to work no matter what if you live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have paid sick leave. There’s the fact that so many of those low-wage jobs require face-to-face contact.

COVID-19 disproportionately hits older people, and rural populations skew old. The most common jobs in rural areas tend not to offer paid sick leave. Rural areas have also lost more than 100 hospitals in the past decade, so the remaining hospitals may struggle to keep up with increased need even more than hospitals in other areas of the country—where it’s already expected to be bad.

We’re told that staying away from other people and washing our hands a lot are two of the best ways to combat the spread of coronavirus. Homeless people lack access to sanitation and often live in crowded environments, be they shelters or encampments. Inmates are another group living in crowded environments and prisons often lack soap as well.

In the workplace, a Politico analysis found that nearly 24 million people are in particularly high-risk, low-wage jobs—cashiers, home health aides, paramedics. Their jobs require them to get close to lots of people day after day, and all too often lack paid sick leave.

Low-income people also can’t stockpile food and retreat to their homes to ride it out—because most don’t have the savings to buy two weeks of food all at once. Families whose kids rely on free or reduced-price school lunches may still have access to those meals, but they are likely to have to go out every day to pick up the food. And many say that their school districts haven’t told them where to go for meals.

Anyone can get sick from COVID-19. Anyone can get very sick from it. But that doesn’t mean the suffering will be evenly distributed. 

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus

The stock market fell 7% at the open Monday morning. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a catastrophic collapse—a financial crisis type number. Typically, the market might gain or lose in a whole year the value that was lost by the time the sound of the opening bell faded.

The collapse appears to be the result of a combination of the spread of coronavirus and falling oil prices—two events that are themselves connected. But it needs to be interpreted as an alarm bell, because we are dealing with the threat of two deadly kinds of contagions—one biological and the other economic and financial—both of which pose serious but manageable threats to the well-being of working people.

We have heard a lot about biological contagion and how to stop the spread of coronavirus in our workplaces and our communities. You can get up-to-date information on workplace safety and coronavirus at www.aflcio.org/covid-19 and at the websites of our affiliated unions. But what about financial and economic contagion? This is something elected leaders, economic policymakers and financial regulators must take action to stop.

How does it work? Coronavirus is a shock to the global economy. It stops economic activity of all kinds—shutting down factories, canceling meetings, sending cruise ships into quarantine. The only way to prevent that is to stop the spread of the virus (see above). The consequence of economic activity slowing down or stopping is that businesses lose revenue, and generally with loss of revenue comes loss of profits.

People who trade on the stock market usually price stocks by making projections about the future profits of the companies whose stocks trade on the public markets. The stock market reacts instantaneously to changing expectations about what may happen in the economy and to specific businesses. The stock market itself doesn’t create or destroy jobs, but it does contribute to the overall financial health of companies and of people. When stock prices fall rapidly, they can create their own kind of contagion—exposing fragile financing structures for both companies and people. That can in turn lead to retreat—companies pulling back on investments or, in the worst case, going bankrupt.

So the stock market can create contagion all by itself. But the much more serious kind of contagion has to do with corporate debt. We have had low interest rates for years, and businesses around the world have gone on a borrowing spree. This spree has been one of the causes of relatively healthy economic growth in the last few years, but it has also led to businesses carrying a lot of debt relative to their earnings and growth. 

Here is where the danger gets very real, because, as we all know, if you borrow money, you have to make payments on that debt. What if businesses that have borrowed a lot of money suddenly don’t have anywhere near the revenue they expected to have? This is what empty planes and blocked supply chains mean.  

If no one does anything and the coronavirus leads to months of revenue shortfalls in overleveraged companies, there is a real risk of pullbacks in investments by those companies or, worse, bankruptcy. Falling stock markets and debt defaults can lead to weak business balance sheets and to weak financial institutions. That is what financial contagion means. We saw that in 2008 when first mortgage intermediaries failed, then hedge funds and stock brokerages, and then major banks.  

Even more seriously, once investment pullbacks, bankruptcies and layoffs start, that leads, like a spreading virus, to more losses of revenue to other businesses—in other words, economic contagion. Economic contagion, once it starts, is even harder to stop than financial contagion. Economic contagion means recession, unemployment, falling wages. What makes this crisis different is that it starts with a kind of layoff—shutdown of economic activity and quarantines to stop the spread of disease. 

We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.

What should government do? First, it should directly address the source of economic contraction by dealing effectively with the coronavirus itself and making sure people who are sick or need to be quarantined are able to do what they need to do for themselves and for society without being impoverished. This means emergency paid sick leave for all who need it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have proposed comprehensive emergency paid sick leave for all workers; this is an urgent medical and economic necessity. We need to recognize that until the coronavirus is contained, it will be very challenging to contain the economic consequences of the virus.

Second, government should deliver financial support credit on favorable terms to sectors of the global economy that are threatened by the coronavirus and vulnerable due to overleverage. The U.S. Federal Open Market Committee took a first step in that direction last week by lowering short-term rates by 0.5 percentage point, but that is unlikely to be enough. Central banks need to work with major financial institutions to target cheap credit to vulnerable businesses—airlines, hotels, manufacturers paralyzed by broken supply chains and the like. It is time to discard the old neoliberal idea that we should let banks lend to whomever they want when we appropriately subsidize them with cheap public assets.

Third, government should provide support to the economy as a whole. Congress cannot leave this job to the Federal Reserve. We need to look at bigger emergency appropriations to support our weakened public health infrastructure, particularly hospitals; if the Chinese experience is any indication, we are going to face serious strains to the system as the coronavirus spreads. We need to look at macroeconomic stimulus—public spending to help the economy. This would best be done in the form of investment, such as finally funding infrastructure. But we also need immediate spending; that is why universal paid sick days would be such a good idea, as would be steps to improve the effectiveness of our social safety net—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—and make it easier for everyone to get the health care they need right now.

What we don’t need is the standard right-wing response to any and all problems—tax cuts for the rich. Even more than in a normal downturn, that would do harm, diverting desperately needed public resources to those who don’t need them at all.

Most of all, we need leadership and coordination among federal, state and local governments, between the U.S. government and the Fed and governments and central banks around the world, and with multinational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization. This is critical, because neither the coronavirus nor the world financial system respects borders, and because people will succumb to fear in the absence of credible leadership.  

If Monday morning tells us anything, it’s that we need that leadership now, because once fear becomes contagious, it may be the hardest thing to stop.

This blog was originally posted on AFL-CIO on March 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Damon A. Silvers is the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO. He joined the AFL-CIO as associate general counsel in 1997.

Silvers serves on a pro bono basis as a special assistant attorney general for the state of New York. Silvers is also a member of the Investor Advisory Committee of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department’s Financial Research Advisory Committee, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s Standing Advisory Group and its Investor Advisory Group.

Silvers received his Juris Doctor with honors from Harvard Law School. He received his Master of Business Administration with high honors from Harvard Business School and is a Baker scholar. Silvers is a graduate of Harvard College, summa cum laude, and has studied history at King’s College, Cambridge University.

Donald Trump Flat Out Lied About the Economy In His State of the Union

Robert E. ScottIn his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Trump extolled the “blue-collar boom” in the economy along with his purported “great American comeback.” He made this claim based in part on two recent signature trade deals—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and a “phase one” deal with China. Unfortunately, both agreements will likely to lead to more outsourcing and job loss for U.S. workers, and the facts just don’t support Trump’s claims about the broader economy.

Trump comes from a world that has ardently championed globalization, like many of his predecessors. However, that approach has decimated U.S. manufacturing over the past 20 years, eliminating nearly 5 million good factory jobs as shown in Figure A, below. Nearly 90,000 U.S. factories have been lost as well.

Trump has not brought these jobs back, nor will his present policies change the status quo. Globalization, and China trade in particular, have also hurt countless communities throughout the country, especially in the upper Midwest, mid-Atlantic, and Northeast regions. The nation has lost a generation of skilled manufacturing workers, many of whom have dropped out of the labor force and never returned. All of this globalized trade has reduced the wages of roughly 100 million Americans, all non-college educated workers, by roughly $2,000 per year.

In addition, more than half of the U.S. manufacturing jobs lost in the past two decades were due to the growing trade deficit with China, which eliminated 3.7 million U.S. jobs, including 2.8 million manufacturing jobs, between 2001 and 2018. In fact, the United States lost 700,000 jobs to China in the first two years of the Trump administration, as shown in our recent report. The phase one trade deal will not bring those jobs back, either.

In the State of the Union, Trump claimed that he’s created a “great American comeback” and generated a “blue-collar boom” with strong wage gains for lower-income workers. As shown in Figure B, below, globalization has generated huge wage gains for those in the top 20% and especially those in the top 10%, top 1%, and top 0.1% of the income distribution. Average wages for the top 20% increased $15 per hour (33.4%) over the past two decades. Wage gains for the bottom 80% ranged from $1.39 to $2.46 per hour (13.5% to 16.4%).

Donald Trump has failed to reverse these trends, and in many ways, has made them worse. In the past three years, the vast majority of wage gains have gone to workers in the top 20%, continuing the inequality that has been well-established in the era of globalization as shown in Figure C, below. Over the past three years, workers in the top 20% enjoyed average real wage gains of $2.61 per hour, five times the gains of workers in the bottom quintile and nearly 3.5 times the gains enjoyed in the middle 60%.

Wage gains were significantly larger for workers in the bottom 20% than they were for middle-class workers, due largely to measures such as higher minimum wages that took effect in 13 states and the District of Columbia in 2018 and 19 states in January 2019. These are policies that were implemented by state legislatures and local governments around the country to help offset the effects of a decline in the real value of the federal minimum wage. They also helped offset the negative effects of dozens of efforts by the Trump Labor Department to weaken labor standardsattack worker rights, and roll back wages.

Globalization has reduced wages for working Americans by putting non-college educated workers into a competitive race to the bottom in wages, benefits, and working conditions with low-wage workers in Mexico, China, and other low-pay, rapidly industrializing countries. The Trump administration’s two trade deals don’t change that reality. Workers counting on Trump to deliver a “great American comeback” have been left waiting at the station.

This piece was first published at the Economic Policy Institute.

This article was published at InTheseTimes on February 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert E. Scott joined the Economic Policy Institute in 1997 and is currently director of trade and manufacturing policy research. His areas of research include international economics, the impacts of trade and manufacturing policies on working people in the United States and other countries, the economic impacts of foreign investment, and the macroeconomic effects of trade and capital flows and exchange rates. He has published widely in academic journals and the popular press, including in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the International Review of Applied Economics, and the Stanford Law and Policy Review,  the Detroit News, the New York Times, Los Angeles TimesNewsdayUSA TodayThe Baltimore SunThe Washington TimesThe Hill, and other newspapers. He has also provided economic commentary for a range of electronic media, including NPR, CNN, Bloomberg, and the BBC. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley.

A Low-Carbon Economy Will Be Built By Nannies, Caregivers and House Cleaners

Image result for mindy isserReinvigorated movements are charting new terrain to build worker power and reverse the dramatic climate crisis facing society. Uncompromising mass mobilizations are on the rise, as more workers participated in strikes in the U.S. in 2018 than any of the previous 31 years, and historic demonstrations, like climate strikes, have taken off to demand action around climate change. Migrant workers, many of whom are climate refugees working in the care industry are waging a tremendous struggle against the Trump administration’s relentless, racist attacks, like the new “public charge” rule, which stops immigrants who receive public benefits from obtaining a green card or permanent residency. The Green New Deal offers an opportunity to bring these fights together around a broad program that tackles not only climate change, but also advances a vision of what a society that prioritizes people—not profit—could look like. But this future can only be won if the labor and climate movements find more ways to act together, and if they strategize more seriously about how to ensure low-carbon work is also good work.

The lowest carbon jobs are the ones that don’t extract anything from the land, don’t create any new waste and have a very limited impact on the environment—an idea put forward by writers and activists Naomi Klein and Astra Taylor, along with striking West Virginia teacher Emily Comer. These jobs include teaching, nurturing and caring— invaluable jobs like cleaning homes and caring for children, seniors and those living with disabilities. Care work is generally ignored or looked down upon because it doesn’t create commodities that can be bought and sold, and because it is typically done by women. The shift towards low-carbon work should necessarily include a dramatic expansion of care work. But in order to make that possible, the standards and conditions of that work must be urgently raised.

Care work is not only immensely important for individuals and families who depend on it, but for the economy at large. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (my employer) describes it as “the work that makes all other work possible.” By taking care of young children, nannies and child care workers allow parents to produce at their jobs. And by caring for seniors, home care workers, Certified Nursing Assistants and other caregivers keep those in the “sandwich generation,” caring for both children and parents, in the workforce. If there were no more caregivers—or if there were a nationwide caregiving work stoppage—our economy would crumble almost instantly.

The history of domestic work and care work, however, is stained by our country’s legacy of racism and sexism. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed, giving workers the legal right to organize, and recourse if they were intimidated or fired for doing so. But not all workers were afforded these rights—domestic workers and farm workers were purposefully excluded as part of a compromise in order to pass the NLRA. Democrats in the South feared that allowing farm and domestic workers to unionize would give black workers—who were the vast majority of farm workers and domestic workers—too much economic and political power.

We’ve seen how this legacy affects care work today: low pay, no benefits, and it’s often illegal to unionize. In addition to their lack of labor protections, these workers’ social standing makes them even more susceptible to abuse at work, including wage theft and sexual harassment or assault. The vast majority of domestic and care workers in this country are women of color, many of whom are migrants.

By understanding this connection, we can build deeper solidarity between care workers organizing for power on the job and the climate movement more broadly. The exclusion of domestic workers from the NLRA, and the ensuing degradation of their working conditions and lack of rights at work, was a compromise rooted in economic injustice and political exclusion—two historical wrongdoings that the Green New Deal seeks to undo.

While presidential candidates and other politicians are lauding these jobs as the key to a just transition away from fossil fuels and into a Green New Deal, we can’t expect to meaningfully transition to low-carbon work without first focusing on how to improve that work. That effort must be a central part of the transition’s strategy. Every worker deserves a union job with high wages and benefits—including domestic and care workers.

In the midst of the Great Depression and massive unemployment in the 1930s, the New Deal created nearly 10 million union jobs. We face a challenge of even larger proportions today: how to radically reconfigure our economy away from industries that poison the environment, and how to create millions of new, green union jobs.

The Green New Deal resolution put forward by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) promises to do just that, stating that it will establish “high-quality union jobs” that provide a “family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security.” While millions of people will be put to work repairing the damage inflicted by climate change and setting the foundation of a new economy that will help us weather the crises we couldn’t stop, millions of workers will be left to find other low-carbon work.

When we transition workers away from well-paying oil and gas jobs, we don’t just want their tacit acceptance, we want their support, participation, and excitement: It’s the only way we’ll build the political will to actually pass the Green New Deal, and transform our economy at the speed and scale necessary to halt future damage. To do this, we need a real plan to make low-carbon jobs good jobs.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which has already passed in 9 states and one city, was introduced into Congress by Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) earlier this year. The legislation will essentially amend the NLRA to include domestic workers, while also giving them some new rights too, like the right to overtime pay, safe and healthy working conditions, and written agreements with their employers. Passing the Bill of Rights is a first step in ensuring that all domestic workers are treated with respect and dignity.

In California, child care workers just won a 16-year battle for the right to unionize. Now, 12 states allow child care workers to negotiate over wages and benefits. A handful of states have recognized unions for home care worker paid through Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, although the Trump administration is now trying to make it illegal for unions to deduct dues from workers’ paychecks.

To make child care and home care jobs not just low-carbon jobs, but good jobs, every single worker in this country needs the right to collectively bargain. Without being able to stand together to bargain for wages, benefits and rights at work, workers are forced to negotiate individually—just them against the boss. For workers who are oppressed due to their race, gender or migration status, this unequal reality is compounded by the ways employers use these social systems to further erode conditions, and to undermine workers’ abilities to advocate for themselves. Collective bargaining builds power for workers to push back both against bosses who want to exploit them for their labor, and corporations that want to maximize profit through environmental destruction. Building a union and engaging in shared struggle is also our best method to build solidarity across oppression and fight our common enemy — the ultra-rich who make decisions about both our working conditions on the job and our living conditions on our planet.

Although traditional collective bargaining is possible for certain child care and home care workers—because their employer is the state—it’s more complicated for domestic workers who tend to have multiple gigs. Because nannies, private-pay home care workers and house cleaners are often isolated in individual homes, we need the government to intervene to set a wage floor for the industry, and to ensure benefits and rights for all workers.

The Albany Park Workers’ Center in Chicago experimented with a living-wage hiring hall for day laborers and domestic workers by allowing those workers to connect with employers use written contracts, and find jobs that pay a living wage. Workers were able to access a daily job distribution list, and secure jobs through a coordinator. In 2015 and 2016, workers reported an average wage of $32 per hour, which was three times Chicago’s minimum wage at the time. Experiments like this must be expanded upon at a scale that sets a wage floor for all domestic workers.

One of the biggest challenges with domestic worker rights is enforcement, because these workers are so isolated. But that’s why we need a labor movement and a climate movement that’s dedicated to prioritizing care work—both for workers’ rights and for the future of our earth. A powerful movement of working-class people is the only way we will be able to force the government to both make the economic transitions we need to save our planet, and to improve conditions for care workers. As the need for care and the need to transform our economy for the sake of our environment both continue to grow astronomically, our movements need a plan to put care workers first. And because care work intersects with so many other social struggles—sexism, racism, migration, climate justice—focusing on it expands the base in in support of a movement of workers to transform both the economy and climate.

A transition away from extractive and destructive work will necessarily mean a growth of the care industry. Organizing and raising standards for care workers needs to be a central focus of a strategy to bring labor and climate together—to envision a low carbon economy that works for all of us.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on October 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

Economic and environmental cost of Trump’s auto rollback could be staggering, new research shows

The Trump administration’s plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards in defiance of California’s stricter, more environmentally friendly rules is set to have dire ramifications for emissions levels and the economy, according to new research out Wednesday.

Rolling back California’s robust vehicle emissions requirements will cost the U.S. economy $400 billion through 2050, an analysis from the environmental policy group Energy Innovation found. President Donald Trump’s efforts to undo Obama-era rules will also increase U.S. gasoline consumption by up to 7.6 billion barrels, subsequently increasing U.S. transport emissions up to 10% by 2035.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been engaged in a bitter feud with California over emissions standards.

California has set its own standards for decades under the Clean Air Act’s Section 177 through an EPA waiver, with significant success: 14 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the same standards. Data shows that those “Section 177 states” — which represent more than 35% of the U.S. auto market — have reduced pollution and improved air quality, improving both public health and the environment.

But the Trump administration has targeted California’s waiver, arguing in favor of freezing fuel efficiency standards on new vehicles through 2025 nationally while stripping the state of its exemption. The government is also embroiled in litigation with the Section 177 states, which are fighting to keep their standards.

As California and the White House escalate their feud, Energy Innovation’s new modeling gives a preview of what the Trump administration’s plans would mean long-term.

“Freezing federal fuel economy and [greenhouse gas] emissions standards will harm U.S. consumers, who will pay more money to drive their cars the same distance,” the Energy Innovation report warns, pointing to both economic implications and likely associated climate impacts and poorer air quality.

“The only winners are the oil companies, who stand to sell more gasoline at the expense of American consumers, manufacturers, and the environment,” the group underscores.

Initially, the firm found that there would be economy-wide financial gains, as low-efficiency cars are cheaper to make. But over the years, increasing fuel expenses are projected to cut into those gains, ultimately costing the national economy hundreds of billions.

Using the open-sourced and peer-reviewed Energy Policy Simulator (EPS), the group looked at the economic impact of freezing the standards nationally and revoking California’s waiver, in addition to a scenario in which California retains its waiver following litigation but the rest of the country is held to the frozen standard.

In the first scenario, the economic cost by 2050 is projected to be $400 billion.

The second scenario is more uncertain. However, the report estimates it would affect around 65% of vehicle sales and could create a split market — one where automakers sell more efficient vehicles in Section 177 states and less efficient vehicles elsewhere.

Energy Innovation estimates that scenario would cost between $240 billion and $400 billion by mid-century. Costs on the lower end reflect a situation in which carmakers in non-Section 177 states would still largely comply with California’s standards, while those on the higher end reflect a split market possibility.

In addition to the economic costs, the report also underscores the climate implications. While the growing market for electric vehicles would mitigate climate impacts beginning in the 2040s, Energy Innovation finds that vehicle emissions would spike to their highest point in the 2030s based on current trends.

Under current policy, “transportation sector emissions are projected to be 1,370 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)” by 2035, the report notes. But with a nationwide freeze, emissions would increase to 1,510 MMT in 2035 — a 10% increase. If Section 177 states retain their autonomy, that increase would fall between 1,460 and 1,510 MMT.

The report’s authors clarify that all estimates should be viewed as somewhat conservative, however, given that they assume a trend towards purchasing electric vehicles — meaning the actual emissions impact could be much larger.

Energy Innovation policy analyst and report author Megan Mahajan told ThinkProgress that the overall result of a freeze would be rising emissions and increasing costs.

“Although the current administration argues the standards freeze is in Americans’ best interest, we find that it hurts consumers and the climate,” Mahajan said. “Our results show that the economic impacts to consumers will only grow over time as they continue to lose out on the significant fuel savings that come with stronger standards.”

The report also focuses on the international implications of the proposed freeze. Due to the Canada-California fuel economy memorandum of understanding, impacts associated with the move will be felt across the border. Canada’s auto market is closely tied with the United States and the country has indicated it will likely side with California in a split market scenario.

But if that doesn’t happen and Canada follows the U.S. federal freeze, Energy Innovation predicts the move could cost Canadian consumers up to $67 billion through 2050. It could also increase Canadian transport emissions up to 11% by 2035.

“In addition to hurting U.S. consumers, a fuel economy and… emissions standards freeze would have global implications,” the report argues.

Energy Innovation’s findings are only the latest to counter the Trump administration’s push for the freeze. Even the auto industry has expressed deep reservations. Many carmakers had already incorporated the emissions standards into their products, along with Obama-era efficiency efforts. The sudden change could cost companies, and some have made efforts to insulate themselves from any shifts in policy.

At the end of July, California inked a deal with Ford, BMW, Honda, and Volkswagen, with all four major carmakers pledging fuel-efficient cars. At the time, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) linked the deal to broader efforts to combat global warming.

“Clean air emissions standards … are perhaps the most significant thing this state can do, and this nation can do, to advance those goals,” the governor said. “The Trump administration is hellbent on rolling them back. They are in complete denialism about climate change.”

But the standoff between California and the White House is only set to escalate. Last Friday, the EPA and NHTSA sent the final proposed rule to the White House for review.

That same day, California and New York led a group of states in suing NHTSA, which has reduced the penalties facing automakers who fail to meet Obama-era corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Under Trump, the penalty has been reduced from $14 to $5.50 per tenth of a mile per gallon.

And on Tuesday, 30 Senate Democrats encouraged 14 major automakers to join the four companies that have already made a deal on emissions with California.

“In the absence of an agreement between the Federal government and states, the California agreement is a commonsense framework that provides flexibility to the industry to meet tailpipe standards while also taking important steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money on fuel for consumers,” the senators wrote in a letter to the companies, which include Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo.

The letter was signed by several presidential candidates, including frontrunners Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

This article was originally published at Think Progress on August 7, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress. Originally from Texas, Ev has reported from many parts of the country and previously covered world issues for Muftah Magazine, with an emphasis on South Asia and Eastern Europe. Reach them at: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

Why Has the U.S. Economy Been Doing So Well?

arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bio

This question immediately invites a couple of additional questions: What does it mean to say the economy has been “doing so well”? And: Has the U.S. economy really been doing so well?

Long and Slow

The most widely used measure of how well an economy is doing is the growth of gross domestic product (GDP). On the one hand, GDP has been growing for an unusually long time. Since the economic expansion began in June of 2009, it has continued for 118 months, as of April 2019. If the expansion continues into the summer, it will surpass the longest expansion on record, which lasted for 120 months in the 1990s.

On the other hand, it has been an historically slow expansion, with GDP averaging about 2.24% per year. In the two years since Trump took office, GDP grew 2.22% in 2017 and 2.86% in 2018, the latter almost as fast as the 2.88% in 2015. This is quite slow compared to the 3.6% rate in the 1990s, and the 4.8% rate in the 106-month expansion of the 1960s. (All figures are adjusted for inflation.) It is remarkable that, in spite of this comparison with the rates of growth in other long expansions, media reports frequently refer to the economy as “roaring” or “sizzling.”

The employment situation also has its positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, the unemployment rate has fallen almost steadily since its 2009 peak at 10% during the Great Recession. And the rate has been at the historically unusual rate of less than 4% for the past year. Relatively few people who want jobs are unable to get them. On the other hand, in spite of the low unemployment rate, wages have risen quite slowly. Between mid-2009 and today, the average hourly rate for all private employees on private payrolls has gone up by only slightly over 4%; about half of that increase has come in the last two years.

Even with many more people employed than at the time of the Great Recession, the very slow increase in wages has meant a rise in income inequality. In 2007, the average income of households in the top 5% was 25 times as great as the average income of households in the bottom 20%. By 2017, the average income in the top 5% was 29 times that in the bottom 20%. (These figures are for pre-tax income. The after tax distribution was slightly less unequal, but changed in the same way. Moreover, the tax cut at the end of 2017 surely has made the after-tax distribution of income more unequal.)

Perhaps the combination of the slow increase of GDP and the rising income inequality can be summarized as: The economy is doing well, but the people aren’t.

What Keeps the GDP Growing?

In the spring of 2019 it appears that the growth of GDP is slowing. Still, even if the economy tanks soon, the current expansion will be the longest on record. A record requires some explanation. Part of the explanation, ironically, is that the expansion has been so long because it has been so slow. Because growth was slow and the unemployment rate, while falling, came down slowly, wages have risen very slowly. This limited the extent to which wage costs were cutting into firms’ profits.

Another factor, also easing cost pressures on profits, was that commodity prices fell and remained low—that is, prices of basic raw materials, everything from copper and oil to soy beans and corn. In 2017, the Bloomberg index of commodity prices was only 43% of its 2011 peak. While it has gone up and down in recent months, at the beginning of April 2019 the index was still only 46% of its 2011 high. These price changes were partly affected by the large increase of U.S. production of oil, but also by the slowdown in the growth of demand in the United States, relative stagnation in Europe, and even weakening of the Chinese economy. Still another factor keeping businesses’ costs down and the recovery growing, however slowly, was the low interest rate policy of the U.S. Federal Reserve. From the Great Recession until 2018, the real interest rate at which banks could borrow was effectively zero, or even negative. (The “real” interest rate is the nominal rate less the anticipated inflation rate.)

These factors affecting firms’ costs kept the economy growing. However, the government provided only limited stimulus to demand, so the growth has been slow. The federal government provided some stimulus in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of early 2009. The Act did help boost the economy out of the recession, but was neither large enough nor lasting enough to sustain strong growth in subsequent years.

Now and Going Forward

The large tax cuts put in place by the Republicans at the end of 2017 do appear to have had some stimulatory impact, as people spent the gain they received. But the tax cut greatly favored the very rich, and the rich tend not to spend at a high rate. So the growth impact was limited. Also, while the Republicans promised that the tax cut for corporations would lead to a surge of investment, the surge never materialized. Instead, major corporations used their windfalls from the tax cut to buy back large amounts of their stock, an action which enhanced the incomes of their executives and other stockholders, but has had created no lasting stimulus for the overall economy.

Then there is the developing trade war with China. All indications are that this conflict will not be resolved soon and will have a negative impact on economic growth—not only on the U.S. and China, but possibly on the global economy.

We are left, then, in early 2019, with an impending economic slowdown of an already slowly growing economy. While many things can happen in the coming months, it is unlikely that a year from now anyone will be asking, “Why has the U.S. economy been doing so well?”

 is professor emeritus at UMass Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

 Arthur MacEwan and John Miller, “The U.S. Economy: What is Going On?” New Labor Forum, Vol. 27, Issue 2, Spring 2018; Census Bureau, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017” (census.gov); Bureau of Economic Analysis, “National Income and Product Accounts” (bea.gov); Investing.com, “Bloomberg Commodity Historical Data” (investing.com); Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Real Earnings Archived” (bls.gov).

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on May 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

The Reality Behind the ‘Surging’ U.S. Economy

And yet most of the gains from our growing economy are still going to those who least need a boost. Stock market rallies, for example, further concentrate wealth among the very richest Americans. The top 1% of Americans own more than half of stocks and mutual funds. The bottom 90% own just 7%.

For ordinary Americans, the slight uptick in wages is not enough to make up for many years of stagnation. Average hourly pay rose just 6 cents in April 2019 and 4 cents the month before that.

Workers need a much bigger raise if they are to receive their fair share of economic gains, especially with prices for many essentials rising much faster than wages. For example, compared to the 3.2% increase in average earnings over the past year, spending on prescription drugs is up 7.1%while the average house price rose 5.7%. Average childcare costs jumped 7.5% between 2016 and 2017.

Such small pay increases won’t do much to chip away at the country’s $1.6 trillion in student debt — a burden leading 1 in 15 borrowers to consider suicide, according to a recent survey.

Wages have also lagged far behind the increase in corporate profits (7.8% in 2018). Despite promises that workers would reap huge benefits from the Republican tax cuts, big corporations have used most of their tax windfalls to enrich wealthy shareholders and CEOs, blowing a record-setting $1 trillion on stock buybacks that inflate the value of their shares.

Another reason for the disconnect between the rosy headlines and people’s lived experiences: GDP is a deeply flawed measure of economic well-being. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C. hosted by People’s Action, many grassroots activists told stories that underscored this point.

Sonny Garcia from Illinois People’s Action talked about how his mother’s insulin prescription had just jumped from $100 to $700 per month. Increased profits for pharmaceutical firms contribute to GDP growth, but they can mean extreme hardship for people like Sonny’s mother.

Crystal Murillo, a city council member from Aurora, Colorado talked about how almost all the building going on in her city is for luxury condos. High-end real estate development is also good for the GDP, but not for people who get gentrified out of the housing market.

Laurel Clinton, from Iowa CCI, talked about her fears that her son could get racially profiled and swept into the exploding prison population in her state. New prison construction shows up as a plus for the GDP, but it’s not exactly good news for communities, especially communities of color.

The rosy topline indicators also mask our country’s deep racial divides. The black unemployment rate remains more than twice as high as the rate for whites (6.7% versus 3.1% for whites) and it has increased from 6.5% in April 2018.

People of color are also more likely than whites to be among the more than 27 million Americans who lack health insurance. The uninsured rate is 19% for Latinos and 11% for blacks, compared to 7% for whites. And according to a recent report co-published by the Institute for Policy Studies, 37 percent of black families and 33 percent of Latino families have zero wealth or are in debt, compared to just 15.5 percent of white families.

Despite the overall tightening of the labor market, a large share of U.S. jobs are still “precarious,” with little security in terms of retirement benefits, affordable health insurance, or predictable scheduling.

While presiding over an economic recovery that started under his predecessor, Trump has done nothing on his own to lift up working people.

The president has signed several executive orders to curtail labor union rights and his Labor Department recently announced plans to scale back an Obama policy to expand overtime rights to millions of workers. He has also lent his support to “right to work” laws that undercut unions by prohibiting them from requiring workers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements to pay dues.

Unless workers have more power to negotiate for their fair share of economic awards, even a real economic boom will have limited benefit for those who need it most.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. For more of her analysis of the state of the U.S. economy, check out her recent interview on NPR’s 1A

 

The Fiscal Myth That’s Killing The Economy, In 7 Steps

RichardEskowA new economic working paper reinforces an important reality: We need more government spending to repair the economy for millions of working Americans. Unfortunately, our political debate is being held back by an economic myth – one that has yet to be challenged in political debate, despite an ever-growing body of evidence against it.

The paper, by L. John Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute, is called “Why is recovery taking so long – and who’s to blame?

The myth is called “austerity,” and it can be roughly defined as “the persistent but false belief that government spending cuts are always a good idea.”

Here are seven things about austerity worth knowing:

1. Our current recovery is too slow, and isn’t reaching everybody it should.

As Bivens points out, employment took longer to reach its pre-recession levels this time around than it did in the previous three recovery periods. Perhaps even more significantly, the rate of job creation remained slower after the recession officially ended.

What’s more, the jobs created after the 2009 crisis were weighted heavily toward lower-income professions. Labor force participation for people of working age remains low, even though it has improved somewhat.

And, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently reported, the percentage of people who are involuntarily working part-time rather than full-time is 25 percent higher now than it was before the recession.

As CEPR’s Nick Buffie notes, “Over 6 million people are working part-time involuntarily, and on average they work 23 hours per week. Because full-time workers are typically employed 42–43 hours per week, this is effectively a wage cut of almost 50 percent for the affected workers.”

2. The weak recovery affects a lot of full-time workers.

It is not just the unemployed and underemployed who are affected by the weak recovery. Many full-time workers are earning less than they would be if the economy had rebounded at a faster pace, creating more and better jobs than it has.

The American middle class needs a raise. But millions of people won’t get their raises until the economy is stronger and the demand for workers goes up. And demand will remain low until there are more jobs to fill.

3. We know what to do about it.

Government has two tools at its disposal in situations like this: monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy was promptly deployed after the latest crisis, both to bail out Wall Street and to improve the overall economy. The Federal Reserve should have been more attentive to the Main Street economy, using some of the creativity it used to rescue the financial sector, but it did cut interest rates and that helped.

Unfortunately, fiscal policy, in the form of job-creating government spending initiatives, was used only sparingly at the federal level. Over the past seven years there have been spending cuts at the federal, state and local levels. That’s the opposite of what’s needed, especially in an economy like this one.

As Bivens points out, it’s necessary to increase demand under conditions like those we see today. A simplistic overview of the process: The government creates jobs, the people who get those jobs spend more, the economy’s “pump” is primed and growth follows.

We aren’t talking about radical, far-left ideas here. This approach has been mainstream economic thinking for many decades, and was successfully applied under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

4. We relied on the myth of austerity instead.

But recent years have seen the rise of different ideas – ideas that were tended and nurtured by right-wing institutions like the Peterson Foundation, and by conservative economic thinkers too numerous to mention. “Austerity economics” – the belief that governments can cut their way to growth – became conventional thinking in the halls of academe and the halls of power. It is obsessed with deficit spending, to the exclusion of other concerns that are often more pressing.

Austerity-driven cuts have hurt the U.S. economy. Austerity’s done even more damage in Europe. When the global financial crisis of 2008 struck, multilateral decision-makers (including the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or IMF) imposed a harsh austerity regimen on Greece and other struggling European economies. The result, as we now know, was disastrous.

To its credit, the IMF conducted an internal review of its actions during this period. The report found that IMF officials ignored a number of warning signs and had a “strongly optimistic bias” about the effects of austerity. The report also agreed with an earlier investigation that found “a high degree of groupthink, intellectual capture … and incomplete analytical approaches.”

That’s pretty much what happened here, too.

The crisis of 2008, and the events that followed, disproved austerity economics and other hallmarks of conservative economic thought. But it remains popular in powerful circles – perhaps because, as Upton Sinclair said (in the gendered language of his time): “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

5. It’s mostly a Republican problem …

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to government spending – even for government jobs like teaching, firefighting, and emergency management.

As Bivens explains:

“We are enduring one of the slowest economic recoveries in recent history, and the pace can be entirely explained by the fiscal austerity, particularly with regard to spending, imposed by Republican policymakers, members of Congress primarily but also legislators and governors at the state level.”

The Republican Congress can even take much of the blame for state-level spending cuts, since transfers from the federal government account for more than 20 percent of state and local spending.

Bad economies aren’t an act of God. They are a result of human action – or inaction.

6. … but a lot of Democrats have bought into the myth, too.

A number of top Democrats echoed the rhetoric of austerity, too. That led to weaker political support for the spending we needed, and probably clouded the judgment of Democratic leaders when it came time to make the case for needed spending increases.

President Obama spent far too much time fighting for a “grand bargain” on spending with congressional Republicans that was rooted in austerity thinking, and too little time challenging that thinking. He also had the habit, especially in his first term, of echoing the false economic tropes of the austerity crowd by saying things like “just like every family in America … the Federal government has to live within its means …”

National budgets don’t work like family budgets at all – that is, unless the family in question issues its own sovereign currency.

There are strong hints of austerity-oriented thinking in Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric, too. That puts her at odds with enthusiastic backer Paul Krugman, who wielded a poison pen on her behalf during the Democratic primaries but is currently making the case for borrowing and spending.

Austerity thinking was highlighted at last month’s Democratic National Convention when Gene Sperling, a senior economic advisor to former presidents Clinton and Obama, was featured in a humor-oriented anti-Trump video produced by “Funny or Die.” Whether or not hilarity ensues must remain a matter of personal opinion, but the video clearly relies on austerity economics – specifically, an exaggerated fear of deficits – to scare viewers.

There has never been a better time for the federal government to borrow money and invest in the economy. It can obtain very low interest rates, the economy would respond very well to job creation, and we urgently need to spend money on repairing and expanding our national infrastructure. (The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020.)

7. We need a national debate about austerity economics.

Hillary Clinton has proposed modest levels of infrastructure investment and other government spending – modest, but better than nothing. President Obama put forward similar spending proposals. But these proposals suffer from a fatal flaw that renders them useless in today’s climate: They’re too large to get past the Republicans in Congress and too small to change the political debate.

Democrats have not directly challenged Republicans on government’s proper role in the economy. Too often, they have tried to co-opt the rhetoric (and sometimes the policies) of austerity instead.

Republicans, on the other hand, offer a clearly articulated and internally coherent (if utterly fallacious) economic perspective. Democrats can also offer a coherent perspective, too – one with the added advantage of having been proven by experience. That perspective can make life better for millions of people.

This is the economic debate this country needs. But we won’t get it until someone challenges austerity economics and the conservative philosophy behind it – directly, unambiguously and fearlessly.

This article originally appeared at Ourfuture.org on August 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

What Is “Economic Freedom,” And Who Is It For?

Terrance Heath

The Heritage Foundation has released its annual “Index of Economic Freedom.” As America enters an election season increasingly influenced by anger at an economy rigged in favor of the wealthy, maybe it’s time to ask: What is “economic freedom,” and who is it for?

What does economic freedom mean to you, personally? Given that we only recently recovered from a serious national bout of “Powerball Fever,” it’s a safe bet that for most people it means not having to worry about having enough money. It means earning a livable wage; enough to meet basic needs, like food, shelter, transportation, and medical care. It means earning enough to support your family, and having leisure time to enjoy your family. It means being able to educate your children — or yourself — without putting yourself in hock with debt. It means having a fair shot at reaching the next rung on the economic ladder, and securing a better future for your children. It means being able to retire with a decent standard of living.

For the Heritage Foundation, “economic freedom” is “the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.” Who’d disagree with that? However, the Heritage definition quickly moves from a focus on the individual to a society in which “governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself.”

It sounds good, until you realize we’re not talking about the rights or freedoms of persons like you and me, but wealthy people and “corporate persons.” Heritage breaks “economic freedom” down into four pillars: “Rule of Law,” concerning property rights and “freedom from corruption”; “Limited Government,” concerning “fiscal freedom” and government spending; “Regulatory Efficiency,” concerning “business freedom”, “labor freedom”, and “monetary freedom”; and “Open Markets,” concerning “trade freedom”, “investment freedom,” and “financial freedom.” They repeat the word “freedom” as often as possible, but what do all of those things mean in reality?

If you’re an average worker, it means little to no “regulations concerning minimum wages.” So employers can pay you as little as they like. If you can’t live on what they pay, you’re free to try to earn more elsewhere. Good luck with that, because who gets rich paying higher wages than their competitors? Several of the countries in the Heritage’s “economic freedom” top 10 had the lowest hourly minimum wages, including Chile ($2.20) and Estonia ($2.70). Others have no minimum wage.

There are some developed countries with no minimum wage on Heritage’s index, like Switzerland (number 4) and Denmark (number 12, just behind the U.S.), but they tend to rely on strong trade unions to negotiate fair wages for workers.

If you’re an American worker, it means driving down wages with trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), that institute what Heritage calls “trade freedom,” defined as “the absence of tariff and non-tariff barriers” on imports and exports of goods and services. The top 10 on Heritage’s index is almost a membership list of TPP countries, including Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, Australia and Canada.

It means there are few, if any, labor laws prescribing maximum working hours. There’s no limit on how many hours your employer can require you to work. It means you don’t even have a right to a two-day weekend.

It means there are few, if any, “laws inhibiting layoffs,” “severance requirements,” or “measurable regulatory restraints on hiring and hours worked.” In other words, forget about “right to work” states. It’s a “right to work” world, in which you have the right to work harder and longer for less.

It means no Social Security as we know it. In fact, it means no government programs, as Heritage’s index uses zero government spending as a benchmark. (So underdeveloped countries with little governmental capacity may receive “artificially high scores” for government spending.) The government won’t have anything to spend anyway, because “fiscal freedom” means a low top marginal income tax rate, and a low top marginal corporate tax rate. The lower the rates, the higher the “fiscal freedom” score. Serving as a tax haven for corporations and wealthy individuals seeking to avoid taxes back home, under the banner of “investment freedom,” can earn countries like Ireland (number eight on Heritage’s index) high “economic freedom” scores.

How does all this “economic freedom,” mostly for the wealthy and “corporate persons,” work out for the rest of society? According to Heritage, more “economic freedom” is supposed to mean less inequality. Yet, some of the highest ranking countries on Heritage’s index have the highest rates of inequality.

? Despite being number one on Heritage’s index, Hong Kong’s yawning gap between rich and poor has fueled protests, despite increasing minimum wages.
? Number two on Heritage’s index, Singapore has one of the highest rates of inequality, leading to calls for the government to take action.
? The “miracle of Chile” (number seven on Heritage’s index), so christened by conservative economist Milton Friedman, has lost its shine as Chile’s plantation economy has made it one of the countries with the most serious inequality problems.

Every year Heritage comes out with a new “economic freedom” index, and every year the questions behind the numbers is the same: What is economic freedom, and who is it for? The answer remains the same, too. Heritage’s “economic freedom” is freedom for the wealthy and giant corporations to further consolidate their wealth and power, and not much else.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on February 2, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Terrance Heath is the Online Producer at Campaign for America’s Future. He has consulted on blogging and social media consultant for a number of organizations and agencies. He is a prominent activist on LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.