TIME Economy

Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Looking for Answers on Income Inequality

Will the rhetoric turn into real policy?

Income inequality is clearly going to be the key economic rallying issue of the 2016 presidential campaign. If you have any doubt, consider that both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, who declared their candidacies over the last week, are already speaking out about their positions on the issue. Clinton billed herself as the candidate for the “everyday Americans,” criticizing CEOs’ swollen salaries. She also tweeted: “Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn’t have to march in the streets for living wages.” Meanwhile, Rubio told NPR he wants the Republican Party—which, he said, is portrayed unfairly as “a party that doesn’t care about people who are trying to make it”—to transform into “the champion of the working class.”

So will the rhetoric turn into real policy? Certainly, the pressure will be on Clinton to declare her position on minimum wage—she’s said she wants to have “a conversation” about the topic, but when so many states have already passed hikes, it will be hard for her to argue that there shouldn’t be a higher federal minimum wage. But as I’ve written before, that doesn’t solve the inequality problem. Clinton has said it’s unfair when “CEO are making 300 times the salary of their average workers,” but there’s an uncomfortable truth there, which is that many of the compensation and tax policies that allow those types of salaries were structured by economic advisers from her husband Bill Clinton’s administration—people like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Is she taking her own economic marching directions from that camp? Or will she go more toward the left-leaning economic ideas that people like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have been pushing for.

Hiring former CFTC chair Gary Gensler as financial head of her campaign is a smart move: He’s the only regulator who’s ever been seriously tough on Wall Street. But I’m betting Clinton will remain a centrist Democrat on the economy, and as Politico reported, her Wall Street backers aren’t too worried.

As for Rubio, whatever he might say about helping the working class, when it comes to real policy, he appears to be mouthing the same old Republican “tax cut, balanced budget” line. I really think the Right is going to have to come up with something beyond trickle-down economic logic, which most of the population now realizes is broken, in order to justify the fact that American wages have been stagnant since 2000, no matter which party was in charge, in the face of many a tax cut. How about some trickle-up ideas, guys?

For more on the economic positions of both candidates and how they might play out in 2016, listen to me discuss the topic with the FT’s Cardiff Garcia, and Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal on this week’s WNYC Money Talking.

TIME Economy

Low Wage Workers Are Storming the Barricades

Activists Hold Protest In Favor Of Raising Minimum Wage
Alex Wong—Getty Images Activists hold protest In favor of raising minimum wage on April 29, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A few weeks back, when Walmart announced plans to raise its starting pay to $9 per hour, I wrote a column saying this was just the beginning of what would be a growing movement around raising wages in America. Today marks a new high point in this struggle, with tens of thousands of workers set to join walkouts and protests in dozens of cities including New York, Chicago, LA, Oakland, Raleigh, Atlanta, Tampa and Boston, as part of the “Fight for $15” movement to raise the federal minimum wage.

This is big shakes in a country where people don’t take to the streets easily, even when they are toiling full-time for pay so low it forces them to take government subsidies to make ends meet, as is the case with many of the employees from fast food retail outlets like McDonalds and Walmart, as well as the home care aids, child caregivers, launderers, car washers and others who’ll be joining the protests.

It’s always been amazing to me that in a country where 42% of the population makes roughly $15 per hour, that more people weren’t already holding bullhorns, and I don’t mean just low-income workers. There’s something fundamentally off about the fact that corporate profits are at record highs in large part because labor’s share is so low, yet when low-income workers have to then apply for federal benefits, the true cost of those profits gets pushed back not to companies, but onto taxpayers, at a time when state debt levels are at record highs. Talk about an imbalanced economic model.

A higher federal minimum wage is inevitable, given that numerous states have already raised theirs and most economists and even many Right Wing politicos are increasingly in agreement that potential job destruction from a moderate increase in minimum wages is negligible. (See a good New York Times summary of that here.) Indeed, the pressure is now on presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to come out in favor of a higher wage, given her pronouncement that she wants to be a “champion” for the average Joe.

But how will all this influence the inequality debate that will be front and center in the 2016 elections? And what will any of it really do for overall economic growth?

As much as wage hikes are needed to help people avoid working in poverty, the truth is that they won’t do much to move the needle on inequality, since most of the wealth divide has happened at the top end of the labor spectrum. There’s been a $9 trillion increase in household stock market wealth since 2008, most of which has accrued to the top quarter or so of the population that owns the majority of stocks. C-suite America in particular has benefitted, since executives take home the majority of their pay in stock (and thus have reason to do whatever it takes to manipulate stock price.)

Higher federal minimum wages are a good start, but it’s only one piece of the inequality puzzle. Boosting wages in a bigger way will also requiring changing the corporate model to reflect the fact that companies don’t exist only to enrich shareholders, but also workers and society at large, which is the way capitalism works in many other countries. German style worker councils would help balance things, as would a sliding capital gains tax for long versus short-term stock holdings, limits on corporate share buybacks and fiscal stimulus that boosted demand, and hopefully, wages. (For a fascinating back and forth on that topic between Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, see Brookings’ website.)

Politicians are going to have to grapple with this in the election cycle, because as the latest round of wage protests makes clear, the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Read next: Target, Gap and Other Major Retailers Face Staffing Probe

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TIME Economics

The Real Reason the Dollar Is So Strong Right Now

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Purestock—Getty Images/Purestock Close-up of American dollar bills

And why it could seriously hurt American business

When is a stronger U.S. dollar not a good thing? When it causes companies to sell fewer products overseas. That’s one of the big concerns at the moment among American CEOs, many of whom are worried about what the dollar’s strength against currencies like the euro and the yen mean for US exports–and corporate profits.

They have legitimate reason to worry. Each of the five major dips in U.S. corporate profitability since 1970 have occurred following reduced sales after periods of relative dollar strength. The Fed has recently expressed concerns about whether the dollar’s strength could hold back the US recovery, which has been lackluster to begin with. Wages are still growing at only around 2 %, not enough to push up consumer spending, which is the major driver of our economy. If US exports also begin to suffer, it could be difficult for the economy to sustain the 3% a year growth figure that is needed to create more jobs.

Some economists believe the dollar’s strength reflects the fact that the U.S. is still the prettiest house on the ugly block that is the global economy. (Certainly, to employ another metaphor, it’s the strongest leg on the global stool with China slowing sharply and the Eurozone debt crisis flaring back up as Greece looks likely to run out of money next month.) But I think it’s more about central bankers and their actions. The dollar’s strength reflects the Fed’s own recent indications that it will likely raise interest rates by the end of the year.

Indeed, the dollar’s strength almost perfectly tracks Fed statements about the coming end of easy money. The tightening of US monetary policy (or even the hint that policy will tighten at some point) has driven the dollar up (and oil down) even as Europe’s beginning of its own “QE” or quantitative easing program has driven the Euro down. None of it reflects the economic reality on the ground, but rather the fact that central bankers are, as investment guru Mohamed El-Erian frequently says, the “only game in town.” For more on what the stronger dollar might mean for consumers, companies and the economy as a whole, you can listen to Josh Barro from the New York Times and I discuss the topic on this week’s Money Talking.

TIME

The Market Mirage

What stock prices do--and don't--tell us about the actual value of a company

One of the hardest-dying ideas in economics is that stock price accurately reflects the fundamental value of a given firm. It’s easy to understand why this misunderstanding persists: price equals value is a simple idea in a complex world. But the truth is that the value of firms in the market and their value within the real economy are, as often as not, disconnected. In fact, the Street regularly punishes firms hardest when they are making the decisions that most enhance their real economic value, causing their stock price to sink.

There are thousands of examples I could cite, but here’s a particularly striking one: the price of Apple stock fell roughly 25% the year it introduced the iPod. The technology that would kick-start the greatest corporate turnaround in the history of capitalism initially disappointed, selling only 400,000 units in its debut year, and the company’s stock reflected that. Thankfully, Steve Jobs didn’t give a fig. He stuck with the idea, and today nine Apple iDevices are sold somewhere in the world every second.

This story illustrates the truth: Stock prices are usually short-term distractions, while true value is built up over time. According to McKinsey, 70% to 90% of a company’s value is related to its likely cash flow three or more years from the present. That makes sense–making money from new inventions takes time. Yet Wall Street analysts, whose opinions help set stock prices, typically base their assessments of a firm on one-year cash-flow projections. What’s more, like all individuals, they have their biases; during boom periods, they tend to believe that corporate earnings will be higher than during bear markets, regardless of the underlying corporate story.

CEOs, who are paid mostly in stock and live in fear of being punished by the markets, race to hit the numbers rather than simply making the best decisions for their businesses long term. One National Bureau of Economic Research study found that 80% of executives would forgo innovation-generating spending if it meant missing their quarterly earnings figures. It’s a system that, as behavior economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller puts it, has emerged from “convenience rather than logic.”

That’s not to say that stock prices don’t give valuable insight into what’s driving corporate America. A recent report from the Office of Financial Research (OFR), a government body that monitors financial stability, dug into why U.S. stocks have tripled over the past six years. While the gains in the market have indeed been driven by rising corporate earnings, that fact obscures a more troubling truth beneath–sales growth is trailing well behind earnings growth. Companies have higher profit margins (and thus higher stock prices) not because the economy is booming and they are selling more stuff but because they have cut costs, kept salaries flat and not invested in new factories or research and development.

Share prices have also been driven up by low interest rates that have allowed companies to borrow money on the cheap and use it for short-term gain. Corporate debt (not including debt held by banks) has risen from $5.7 trillion in 2006 to $7.4 trillion today. Much of that money has been used for stock buybacks, dividend increases and mergers and acquisitions. The OFR believes that “although this financial engineering has contributed to higher stock prices in the short run, it detracts from opportunities to invest capital to support longer-term organic growth.” As William Lazonick, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who does research on the topic, puts it, “We’ve moved from a world in which companies retain and reinvest their earnings to one in which they downsize and distribute them.”

Nobody–not Economists, not CEOs and not policymakers–thinks that’s good for real economic growth. Yet the markets stay up because of the dysfunctional feedback loops. Eventually, of course, interest rates will rise, money won’t be cheap anymore, and markets will go back down. None of it will reflect the reality on the ground, for companies or consumers, any more than it did during the boom times. For individual investors, there’s no clever strategy to get around any of this–you simply buy an index fund and hold it as long as you can before moving into T-bills or cash.

But there’s a deeper conversation to be had about how we might fix our system to bridge this gap between markets and reality. There are plenty of ideas out there, from a sliding capital gains tax based on how long you hold a stock to big limits on buybacks and corporate options pay. Any or all of these might help stock prices reflect what they should–the real value of a corporation.


This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Economy

Don’t Trust the Markets: A Correction Is Coming

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Getty Images

The Fed, despite its recent pronouncements, will trigger a fall in stock prices later this year

Up until yesterday’s Fed meeting, America’s central bankers said they were going to be “patient” about the timing of an interest rate hike, which most experts believe will ultimately result in a significant stock market correction (see my recent column about why). So why did that make markets go up so dramatically yesterday?

Because everything else about the Fed’s communication said “we’re going to be more patient than ever” about when and how to raise rates. The central bank downgraded its forecast on the US economic recovery, saying that the pace of the recovery had “moderated somewhat,” in large part because of the strong dollar.

Why is the dollar strong? Mainly because everyone knows that the easy money monetary policy in the US is coming to an end. (QE is over, and most economists are now predicting a rate hike by September.) Meanwhile, pretty much every other central bank is now easing monetary policy—witness the ECB’s new money dump, which has sent European markets soaring.

What does all this tell us? That markets and the real economy are disconnected in a way that is terrifying. Central banks are, as chief economic advisor to Allianz and former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian put it to me recently, “the only game in town.” Every time the Fed says it will keep rates low a little longer, the market party goes on. All that means is that there will be more pain, eventually, when the punch bowl gets pulled away.

TIME

Who Let the Bears Out?

The end of easy money means a market correction of significant proportions

New skyscrapers tend to correlate with market peaks. Construction of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings marked a top in equities back in the 1920s, just as the completion of the World Trade Center pegged the top in the 1970s, as behavioral economist Peter Atwater recently pointed out to me. So will the current proliferation of luxury skyscrapers correspond to the end of a multiyear bull market in the U.S.? Quite possibly, yes. In the short run, that could complicate the lives of average investors, but at root it really shows how scrambled the world of international finance has become.

Savvy investors everywhere have been chattering for some time about the arrival of a new bear market. Recently, those worries have reached a fever pitch. It’s not the nosebleed buildings that have them spooked but the machinations of the world’s central bankers. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the trillions of dollars they’ve poured into markets in an attempt to buoy the global economy have basically dictated the direction of stocks–up.

No single actor has done more to bolster markets than the U.S.’s Federal Reserve bank. But in October, the Fed ended its $4.5 trillion bond-buying program, and a strengthening U.S. economy means it is mulling an interest-rate hike, probably by September. Higher rates will mean lower stock prices. In Europe, where the European Central Bank just began a similar bond-buying program, the opposite is true: stocks are going up.

What’s amazing is that the real economy in the U.S. is getting stronger (recent payroll numbers were the best since 2006), even as the European economy is plunging into another episode of the telenovela that is its debt crisis. It’s a bizarro world that makes sense only if you try to understand how central banks work. Central bankers pump money into the market when they perceive their home economies as being weak. They pull back when they sense a sustainable recovery is in hand. The end result is a complete divergence between the real economy and the markets.

This problem has been brewing for decades, as loose monetary policy has become the fallback position for governments that don’t want to do the hard work of training a 21st century workforce, paying for new infrastructure or coming up with smarter, less consumption-based means of growth.

Certainly this was the case post-2008, and the results have been mixed. Many will rightly argue that quantitative easing in the U.S. helped the rich more than the poor, since they hold the majority of stocks. But particularly in the early days, it also greased the wheels of a weak recovery that has benefited everyone, even if unequally. It certainly kept unemployment lower than it would have otherwise been. In lieu of more political action to address the root causes of slower growth, central bankers felt they had no choice but to keep the money spigots on. Fed Chair Janet Yellen, a Keynesian, told me as much when she took up her position last year.

For politicians, it’s always easier to let the central bankers of the world keep the sugar high of easy money going rather than tell this or that vested interest group that things are going to be tough for a while. But what happens when the sugar is metabolized? A market correction, no doubt. The only question is how long and how deep.

The ramifications aren’t likely to be pretty. The Bank for International Settlements, a bank for central banks, based in Switzerland, has warned that the coming Fed pullback in the U.S. could have “significant” consequences. “The disconnect today between the markets and the real economy has never been bigger,” explains Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz and chairman of President Obama’s Global Development Council, who is working on a book about how central bankers have distorted the market in pursuit of better economic outcomes. “It scares me to think what happens if we reach the end of this policy road and the economic results are disappointing,” he adds. That leaves average consumers with few good options aside from buying and holding an index fund.

Already we’re seeing more market volatility this year than we saw all of last year, as investors begin to jitter. The U.S. markets may not be the prettiest house on the ugly block that is the global economy anymore. Now that European markets have been sprinkled with central-bank fairy dust, look for money to rush there, despite slower real economic growth. Investors aren’t outright panicking–yet. From the world’s penthouses, it can be hard to see what’s happening on the ground.


This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Oil

The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

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Getty Images

It isn't supply and demand, as most people believe

I am obsessed with how the top tier of finance has undermined, rather than fueled, the real economy. In part, that’s because of I’m writing a book about the topic, but also because so many market stories I come across seem to support this notion. The other day, I had lunch with Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management and chief of macroeconomics for the bank, who posited a fascinating idea: the major fall in oil prices since this summer may be about a shift in trading, rather than a change in the fundamental supply and demand equation. Oil, he says, is now a financial asset as much as a commodity.

The conventional wisdom about the fall in oil prices has been that it’s a result of both slower demand in China, which is in the midst of a slowdown and debt crisis, but also the increase in US shale production and the unwillingness of the Saudis to stop pumping so much oil. The Saudis often cut production in periods of slowing demand, but this time around they have not. This is in part because they are quite happy to put pressure on the Iranians, their sectarian rivals who need a much higher oil price to meet their budgets, as well as the Russians, who likewise are on the wrong side of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East via their support for the Syrian regime.

Sharma rightly points out, though, that supply and demand haven’t changed enough to create a 50% plunge in prices. Meanwhile, the price decline began not on the news of slower Chinese growth or Saudi announcements about supply, but last summer when the Fed announced that it planned to stop its quantitative easing program. Sharma and many others believe this program fueled a run up in asset buying in both emerging markets and commodities markets. “Easy money had kept oil prices artificially high for much longer than fundamentals warranted, as Chinese demand and oil supply had started to turn back in 2011, and oil prices have now merely returned to their long-term average,” says Sharma. “The end of the Fed’s quantitative easing has finally pricked the oil bubble.”

If this is the case, the fact that hot money could have such an effect on such a crucial everyday resource is worrisome. And the fact that the Fed’s QE, which was designed to buoy the real economy, has instead had the unintended and perverse effect of inflating asset prices is particularly disturbing. I think that regulatory attention on the financialization of the commodities markets will undoubtedly grow; for more on how it all works, check out this New York Times story on Goldman’s control of the aluminum markets. Amazing stuff.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Ruchir Sharma. He is the head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Read next: The U.S. Will Spend $5 Billion on Energy Research in 2015 – Where Is It Going?

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TIME Economy

Why Finance Is Still a Problem

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Inequality, tepid job growth, lack of innovation are partially the result of finance's warped incentives

Warren Buffett warned investors that bankers were still up to their old tricks in his recent investor letter. Vanguard founder Jack Bogle is writing about how high fee mutual funds are ripping off investors and endangering retirement security. And Fed Chair Janet Yellen is touting new, tougher capital rules for “Too Big to Fail” banks. Despite the recovery and strong jobs numbers last week, the re-regulation of the financial sector isn’t yet finished. But a deeper worry, and one that’s taking center stage amongst academics, is the fact that finance has yet to be re-moored to the real economy. That may be dampening the recovery for many.

A growing slew of research, including several just-published papers, has found that over a multi-decade period, the rise of finance is associated with lower capital investment in the real economy, greater inequality, and the demise of more productive industries. Brandeis International Business School professor Stephen G. Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi, a senior economist at the BIS, recently published a paper entitled “Why Does Financial Sector Growth Crowd Out Real Economic Growth?”

The answer: because finance looks for quick growth rather than long-term rewards. And because finance wants to invest in industries like real estate and construction where there are tangible assets to be collateralized, rather than intangible assets like the ideas and intellectual property that typically power more productive sectors like, say, technology, pharmaceuticals, or advanced manufacturing. What’s more, the disproportionate pay of bankers (they still make about three times what their similarly well-educated colleagues in other sectors do, even post crisis) continues to lure talent away from areas that create more and better jobs for the population as a whole. “When I was at MIT many years ago,” says Cecchetti, “everyone wanted to work in cold fusion or recombinant DNA. By the 1990s, nobody wanted to do that.” Solution? “I think we should take some proportion of the smartest people in the room and make sure they don’t go into finance,” says Cecchetti, only half joking.

Part of the problem with the rise of finance is that it encourages the culture of shareholder value over all else. That means CEOs focus more on buoying stock prices rather than making the best long-term decisions. The effects can be seen in the fact that since the 1980s, share buybacks and dividend payments have increased in direct proportion to a decrease in productive capital investment, according to a recent Roosevelt Institute paper entitled “Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment.”

What’s more, says JW Mason, a Roosevelt fellow who authored the paper, the low interest rates that have prevailed particularly since the 2008 crisis have sped up the trend as firms actually borrow money at lower rates to do more buybacks, rather than invest in the real economy. (The later is, by the way, what the Fed’s easy money policy was intended to encourage.) In fact, business investment dropped 20 % since 2008, as almost all borrowing went back to investors in the form of such payments. “It may be that we need to move to a more active control of investments to make sure that useful projects get funded,” says Mason, who says a kind of “World Bank for the US” might be one answer.

All this dovetails with the country’s inequality problem, which is an issue that will be big in the 2016 election cycle. As Wallace Turbeville, a Demos fellow who has done yet another influential paper on financialization points out, both the Republican and Democratic positions on inequality are lacking. Conservatives believe in bootstrapping, and liberals in redistribution of wealth. But if the very structure of our capitalism is designed to reward mainly elites (something Thomas Piketty’s best seller Capital in the 21st Century pointed out so well last year), then no amount of redistribution or hard work can fix the problem.

We need to fix the structure of capitalism itself and, in particular, figure out a way to make it work better for the masses. Turbeville has some of his own ideas about how to do this, including incentivizing long-term share ownership over high-speed trading, and limiting the use of derivatives. I hope that the economic debate in the primary season will be filled with many more.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the surname of Brandeis International Business School professor Stephen G. Cecchetti.

TIME Economy

Hard Math in the New Economy

Rana Foroohar is TIME's assistant managing editor in charge of economics and business.

Tech is disrupting traditional work. Is that really a bad thing?

Technology has always been a net job creator. So why do so many of us feel that the robots (or algorithms) are about to take our jobs? A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll of unemployed Americans ages 25 to 54 found that 35% believed that they’d been displaced by technology. It’s true that software can do more work that human beings used to do. But it’s also true that Silicon Valley hasn’t dealt particularly well with growing fears about tech-related job displacement, at least from a public relations standpoint.

The truth is that technology has long served as an easy target for employment alarmists–in no small part because innovators tend to tout new efficiencies and cost savings foremost. But as a recent Brookings Institution analysis put it, “Historically, technological progress has created winners and losers, but over the long run, [it] has tended to create more jobs than it has destroyed.”

If you look at the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society, that’s certainly true. From 1900 to 2000, the proportion of the workforce working on farms fell from 41% to 2%, yet agricultural output increased and farmers eventually found jobs in factories or, later, in cubicles. That’s not to say that periods of technological change aren’t fraught. There’s a reason the textile artisans who came to be known as Luddites started smashing knitting machines in 19th century England.

Nobody has started smashing their Laptops or iPads yet. But it is disturbing to see how unevenly the gains from the past 20 years of technological innovation have been shared. Many economists associate the middle class’s shrinking partly with the fact that technology is displacing people. Increasingly, there are jobs for Ph.D.s and hands-on laborers like, say, home health care aides, but more and more of what’s in between can be automated. Self-driving cars are coming for chauffeurs; drones threaten delivery drivers. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper co-written by economist Jeffrey Sachs hypothesized that software developers themselves might someday be replaced by the very programs they create.

There is a strong counterargument that the jobs and value technology create just aren’t being counted properly. “GDP was designed to measure the output of 20th century industrial nation-states making stuff, not a 21st century economy generating bytes and ideas,” says Zachary Karabell, whose book The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World examines what our current system does and doesn’t tally.

Academics like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Erik Brynjolfsson, who believes we vastly underestimate the productivity created by the “free goods of the Internet,” would agree, as would Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. His company may have 30 million users and only 1,600 employees, but Chesky says it creates many more “21st century jobs” by helping generate extra income for hosts who monetize their homes and for local businesses and such service providers as cleaners who benefit from the influx of vacationers. For New York City alone, Chesky puts the value of that additional income at $768 million annually, which the company claims supports 6,600 jobs. Of course, those are “jobs” without the health care, 401(k) or other benefits that a traditional position might provide.

Which underscores a disturbing truth about the new economy: it’s all on you. People who are smart, well educated and entrepreneurial may well do better in this paradigm. But what about those who aren’t as well positioned or at least need help in tooling up?

The obvious answer is for government to provide more help through a reformed educational system, workforce training and a social safety net to pick up slack. That’s what I consistently hear tech titans and other CEOs calling for. The hitch is that they are calling for it even as they pay a smaller share of the tax pie to fund it all. (About a third of all the corporate profit sitting in overseas bank accounts is from technology-driven firms.) Certainly some companies are making big private contributions to educational reform; Google, Microsoft and IBM are prime examples. But more will be needed.

For now, the power divide between the public and private sectors is only growing. The public sector holds most of the world’s debt, as well as responsibility for the welfare of those who are being “disrupted.” Big Tech has the profits but could stand to do some creative thinking about how better to share–or at least account for–the rewards of innovation. Otherwise it risks breeding a whole new generation of Luddites.


This appears in the March 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

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TIME Economy

The Real Meaning of $9 an Hour

Walmart’s decision on Feb. 19 to raise its base wage to $9 an hour, $1.75 higher than the federal minimum, has been heralded as a major victory for American labor. Wall Street punished the world’s largest retailer for the pay hike–which will cost the firm $1 billion this fiscal year–by driving down its shares. But labor economists and liberals lauded the raise as a new wave of “Fordism,” referring to Henry Ford’s historic 1914 decision to double wages in his factories, which not only boosted productivity and reduced turnover but also created more customers for his company’s products.

Walmart’s move is seen by some as a sea change for the retail sector. “Walmart sets the standard, and the fact that they’ve kept wages so low has made it hard for others to raise them,” explains Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Now it’s likely that pay for other low-income workers will rise, not just in retail but also in other sectors like home health care, child care and fast food, all of which compete for the same workers as Walmart.

The question is, how much will it matter? Labor’s share of the economic pie has been decreasing since the 1970s, thanks to globalization, which has outsourced low-wage jobs (and technology, which has destroyed them outright); the shrinking of unions; and pressure from Wall Street to reduce costs, which turbocharged all these trends. The corporate share, meanwhile, is at record highs. That means Walmart’s move to $9 an hour won’t make much difference in macroeconomic terms. The $1 billion it will effectively put in the hands of 40% of its 1.3 million U.S. employees is a tiny fraction of our $16 trillion economy. Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, estimates that even if all low-wage employers followed Walmart’s lead, it wouldn’t move the needle on labor’s share by even a single percentage point. “That’s not to say that the Walmart workers’ victory isn’t an important step forward for low-wage workers,” he says. “But it also shows what a small piece of the pie they’ve been getting.”

Indeed, the Walmart workers who have spent much of the past year in parking lots with bullhorns were asking for $15 an hour and better schedules. “When I started, I saw how many of us were working for one of the richest companies in the world and yet we had to be on public assistance,” says Kelly Sallee, 22, who has worked for Walmart for eight months and took part in wage protests in Dayton, Ohio. Despite the pay increase, employees like Sallee, who says she’d like to work full time but can’t get enough hours, are still struggling for improvements in scheduling, an important labor-rights issue. Retailers across the country use software to optimize scheduling around store traffic. This often means less notice given for when workers must report to their jobs and erratic cuts in some of their hours, which labor activists believe may also be intended to decrease the number of workers on full-time benefits. Walmart denies this and says it would prefer more full-time workers to multiple part-timers. The company also says that the $9 it will pay is better than the $7 and change paid by many other retailers, even some unionized ones, and that it gives more notice of shift changes than many others. It says that workers can ask for more hours via Walmart’s intranet system and that 1 million hours a week regularly go unclaimed.

But the fact that Walmart workers, who aren’t unionized in the U.S., got anything at all shows the PR pressure that companies like it are coming under as economic inequality gains clout as a political issue. Twenty-nine states have raised the minimum wage, and presidential candidates from both parties are expected to wrestle with the challenge for the next 18 months. Whether or not Walmart’s top brass, a conservative bunch, has experienced an ideological shift is not the point. That it is concerned about turnover costs as a better economy gives laborers more options for where to work is most significant.

An extra couple bucks an hour will certainly help low-wage workers, and they’ll be more likely to spend it than the rich, meaning it will drive more economic growth. It will not be a net job destroyer, as some believe. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that while a $9 minimum wage could put from zero to 500,000 low-end jobs at risk as companies try to limit staffing, it would also lift 1 million people out of poverty and increase earnings for 16.5 million workers. As Sawhill puts it, “That’s not quite a free lunch, but it’s pretty cheap.” That’s a reason for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. But even if it doesn’t, Walmart workers have proved they can move the most powerful retailer in the world to change. That means they, and others, can do it again. And that, more than anything else, may be the real victory.


This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

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