As the Gilded Age has been peaking, a number of the rich and their foundations have been helping the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the battered, the less educated and veterans in need of opportunity. However, aside from the palliative approach, “the system,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to call it, until now, has had no serious proactive strategy to address the inequality in incomes and wealth.
The dominant social message has been that for most of the population – the huge middle class – one can work hard and raise oneself up through education, solid contributions, good performance and, ultimately, economic rewards that will be the fruit of these virtues and labor. But there are signs everywhere that this is no longer the case. Wages are flat, returns to education are down, and solid-paying jobs with benefits are the old, not the new, norm. As recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows, employee compensation – wages and benefits – comprise an ever-smaller piece of the economic pie, while wealthy Americans collect significantly more in capital income – interest and dividend payments. As Brookings Institution labor economist Gary Burtless put it, “everything’s coming up roses for people who own a chunk of American capital.” The structure of the economy rewards those who own capital and derive income from that capital. Work hours alone simply do not cut it. Automation and robotization will only accelerate the process.
Who has stepped forward to analyze the problem and start a national conversation about the solution? Many have, but one recent surprising group of trenchant commentators this summer is the wealthy and powerful themselves. In defining the problem of inequality in early June, Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein told CBS This Morning that inequality is “destabilizing” and “responsible for the divisions in the country. The divisions could get wider. If you can’t legislate, you can’t deal with problems. If you can’t deal with problems, you can’t drive growth and you can’t drive the success of the country. It’s a very big issue and something that has to be dealt with.” In mid-July, Bill Gross, a billionaire in Southern California and the founder of PIMCO Asset Management, headlined a USA Today op-ed with the claim that “Economic inequality threatens capitalism.” In the piece, Gross goes on to argue that “income equality is good for business” – underscoring this group of observers’ concern that inequality threatens economic growth – and says that solutions to inequality should guide a Republican platform. In the July issue of Politico, billionaire Nick Hanauer wrote a “memo” to his “fellow zillionaires.” As the first nonfamily investor in Amazon.com and founder of an Internet company that sold to Microsoft to for $6.4 billion, Hanauer represents the high technology side of “the system.” His message would be downright scary if it were not written by a billionaire himself. In his piece, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats,” he wrote, “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and a more feudal society…. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality.” In mid-July, Walmart President and CEO Bill Simon commented to Reuters and CNBC that its lowered sales were because the "middle and down are still pretty challenged." Even philanthropy magazines are filled with worry about the inequality conundrum. Alms for the poor and vulnerable just won’t cut it anymore.
This group has not been shy about discussing possible solutions. Bill Gross called attention to Henry Ford’s “broad-based” solution to expand incomes early in the last century – which echo the generous cash profit-sharing checks on top of wages, which every Ford worker still enjoys today – and suggested large increases in the minimum wage. While not offering specifics, Hanauer suggests our policies must “change dramatically,” and he admits the performance/reward gap of the new economy by saying that “I’m not the smartest guy you’ve ever met, or the hardest-working.” Blankfein’s solution is to “grow the pie” and “distribute it in a proper way.” He lays out this criterion for a solution: “If you grow the pie and too few people enjoy the benefits of it and the fruit, then you have an unstable society.”
The insights from the top do not let up, and their analyses are wide-ranging and sharp. However, “the system” has not been systematic about exploring solutions. If one trolls the websites of the foundations of the rich and powerful, there is a decided lack of willingness to look at systematic economic solutions. Occasional ideas should not be mistaken for careful and deliberate problem-solving on this complex problem.
We will never solve the problem of inequality unless we develop mechanisms for the middle class to share in the ownership and profits – the capital – of the economy. The reason is that the private ownership of capital assets, such as businesses, stocks and bonds, are highly concentrated. Moreover, in 2011 almost 90% of all capital gains and all capital income, such as dividends and interest, went to the top 20% of the population.
One possible avenue is to apply to the middle class at large the approaches that the rich and powerful apply to themselves. Most of their income is from having a share of ownership and profits in businesses. In order to give middle class workers access to these types of capital income, we must dramatically expand the tax incentives for businesses of every size to offer shares of ownership to all of their employees. This ownership can come in the form of grants of restricted stock, stock options, ESOPS (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) and profit sharing, a la Henry Ford. There is a long history of citizen shares in American workplaces since the late 1700s, with many worthy examples among the Fortune 500, high tech firms and the thousands of privately held corporations offering generous ESOPs.
Shares of profits and equity at the workplace will help, but will not be sufficient because much of the population works in the public sector – in the military, government or non-profits. Big ideas are necessary. For soldiers and teachers and others, we need to explore how to apply the lessons of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation to the rest of America. The Corporation receives oil and mineral rental, royalty and revenue-sharing payments from corporations allowed to use Alaska’s resources. This capital is invested in a diversified portfolio so that every Alaskan citizen can receive an annual dividend check.
To replicate this arrangement here, assets and leases of the Federal government and states should be made available to private corporations – similar to the Alaskan initiative – in order to pay citizen dividends nationwide. The wind and solar energy fields popping up around the nation should be largely owned by these corporations, as should the wireless spectrum controlled by the Federal Communications Commission and other future technologies receiving tax subsidies funded by citizens at large. States and cities should stop the corporate welfare of huge tax abatements and receive ownership shares to be deposited in citizen share corporations. For example, the DeBlasio Administration should do a top to bottom review of New York City’s tax abatements and monetize them as equity shares for the middle class. These corporations can be licensed by the Treasury and borrow funds to invest in the new technologies and robots of the future. As a sign of hope for the younger generation, we should revisit the idea of Baby Bonds, where an account is set up for each newborn using the same low interest loans that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve recently used to bail out Wall Street and revive its capital ownership. These Baby Bond funds would also be privately managed to be invested in assets that pay regular capital income. Relatives and the rich could make deposits to the accounts, the children could learn how to track them in elementary school, and the dividend income could supplement wages in adult life.
If citizens do not privately own more of the economy, the flat wages of the middle class will never dig us out of inequality. It is time for the rich and powerful to encourage both political parties to set up a national bipartisan commission to explore these and other useful ideas. Charity and philanthropy will never be enough.
Joseph Blasi’s latest book, The Citizen’s Share: Reducing Inequality in the Twenty First Century (written with Richard B. Freeman and Douglas L. Kruse) tells the story of the American history of the shares in business and the economy. Blasi is the J. Robert Beyster Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University.