TIME Economy

Europe’s Economic Band-Aid Won’t Cure What Really Ails It

Prime Minister David Cameron Tries To Take A Harder Line with Europe
Carl Court—Getty Images E.U. flags are pictured outside the European Commission building in Brussels on Oct. 24, 2014

Quantitative easing is a good start, but it won't fix the Continent's underlying wounds

Markets always love a money dump, which is why European stocks are now rallying on news that the European Central Bank will purchase 1.1 trillion worth of euro-denominated bonds between now and September 2016. Bond yields are dropping, implying less risk in the European debt markets. And the value of the euro itself is falling, which should make European exports more competitive, which could in turn bolster the European economy over all.

All good, right? For now, yes, it is all good.

But let’s remember that central bank quantitative easing (QE) of the kind that Europe is now embarking on is always just a Band-Aid on economic troubles, not a solution to underlying structural issues in a country (or in this case, a region). Just as the Fed’s $4 trillion QE money dump bolstered the markets but didn’t fix the core problems in our economy—growing inequality, a high/low job market without enough work in the middle, flat wages, historically low workforce participation—so the ECB QE will excite markets for a while, but it won’t mend the problems that led Europe to need this program to begin with.

Those consist primarily of a debt crisis stemming from the lack of real political integration within the EU. Right now, Europe has a currency and an economic union that exists in a kind of fantasy land, with no underlying political unity. Until the Germans start acting more European (meaning creating a consumption society and realizing that they’ll have to do some fiscal transfers to struggling peripheral nations in exchange for the huge export benefits they get from the euro), and countries like Spain, Italy, Portugal and France start making the changes they really need (all the usual stuff—labor market reforms, cutting red tape, fighting corruption, opening up service markets), the debt crisis won’t go away.

Indeed, the challenge now is for countries is to use the breathing room that the ECB has given them to really come together over the next 18 months and make those reforms happen while committing to a truly integrated Europe. Germany should say it will unequivocally back peripheral nations financially in exchange for a promise of real reforms in those nations. (There should also be tough penalties for failure on both sides of the bargain.)

That will be tough for sure, but Europe will find itself in an even worse place come September 2016 if it doesn’t take action now. Post QE, without any real structural reform, the EU will simply have an even more bloated balance sheet, and the market will exact punishment for it. For a historical lesson on this, look to the many emerging market crises of the past where countries tried to spend themselves out of their problems without doing underlying reforms; it always ends in a stock market crash, a financial crisis, and plenty of tears.

The buck has stopped for Europe. The ECB has called policy makers’ bluff. It’s time to create a real United States of Europe to match the common currency.

TIME Davos

The Coming Crisis Making the World’s Most Powerful People Blanch

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

If global growth slows, as some predict it will, the globe is in for a lot of very big problems

The past 50 years have been the most exceptional period of growth in global history. The world economy expanded sixfold, average per capita income tripled, and hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. That’s the good news. But according to a new McKinsey report on the next 50 years of global growth revealed today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to equal that in the future. There are two main reasons for this gloomy conclusion: the global birthrate is falling dramatically and productivity is slowing. Economic growth is basically productivity plus demographics. The result? McKinsey is forecasting that if current trends continue, global growth will fall by 40% over the next half century, to around 2.1% year.

A while back, I wrote a column about what a 2% economy would mean for the U.S. Imagine if the whole world, including emerging markets that need much higher rates just to keep social unrest under control, were growing that slowly too. Not good.

McKinsey got a bunch of big brains—Larry Summers, Martin Sorrel, Martin Wolf, Laura Tyson, Michael Spence, and others—together to discuss all this and figure out some possible solutions. A few interesting points that came out: while we are in the middle of a digital revolution that seems to be disrupting nearly every aspect of business and the economy, not to mention our personal lives and culture, the revolution isn’t showing up in productivity numbers yet. Part of that could be that the way we measure productivity isn’t capturing everything that individuals are doing on their smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets. (It’s also worth noting that a lot of what is being created by individuals on those devices is free, which is an economic problem all its own, in the sense that only a few big companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter capture those creative gains, and they don’t create enough jobs to sustain what’s being lost in the economy.) There’s also the possibility that this “revolution,” simply isn’t as transformative, at least in terms of broadly shared economic growth, as those of the past—the Industrial Revolution or even the 1970s computer revolution. (For more on this, check out research by Northwestern University academic Robert Gordon, who is all over this topic.)

There are things we can do to boost productivity, like getting the private sector more involved in areas like education (for more, see The School That Will Get You a Job), and by allowing the gains from the internet of things (meaning the connection of all digital devices to each other) to filter through over the next few years. It’s not yet clear that will create more jobs though. Indeed, it may create jobless productivity which is a whole new challenge to cope with, one that might require bigger wealth transfers from the small number of wealthy people who do have jobs to the larger number of people who don’t. (Paging Thomas Piketty!)

There are some other ideas on the demographic side. Women are still dramatically underrepresented in the workforce in many countries. (One WEF study estimates it will take 81 more years for global gender parity at the current rate of change—argh!) Putting more of them to work could help a lot with growth; indeed, Warren Buffet once suggested to be that the federal government should provide inexpensive, partly federally funded child care to allow other women to take jobs higher up the food chain, this boosting economic growth. A win win.

Of course, this requires governments to take the lead on what can be politically contentious policy decisions, not easy when most politicians spend much of their terms trying to get reelected. Unfortunately short-termism is rife in the private sector too. CEO tenures are now five years on average and CFOs only last 3. All of which tends to lead to decision-making that benefits corporate compensation more than real economic growth.

Depressing, I know. But I saw one ray of hope when I ran into an emerging market CEO outside the panel, one who runs a family business that does planning in 10- to 20-year cycles rather than quarterly, investing quite a lot in areas like training and education. McKinsey research shows these types of firms will make up the biggest chunk of new global multinationals. Perhaps they can take the long view and come up with some better ideas about how to ensure global growth for the future.

TIME Davos

How Technology Is Making All of Us Less Trusting

A technician checks the light in the Congress Hall before the start of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2014 in Davos Jan. 21, 2014
Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The world's major tech companies better pay attention to the growing backlash — before it's too late

Davos Man, take note: the technology that has enriched you is moving too fast for the average Joe.

That’s the takeaway from the 2015 Trust Barometer survey, released by public relations firm Edelman every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This year’s survey, which came out Wednesday, looks at thousands of consumers in 27 countries to get a sense of public trust in business, government, NGOs and media. This year, it’s falling across the board, with two-thirds of nations’ citizens being more distrustful than ever of all institutions, perhaps no surprise given that neither the private nor the public sector seems to have answers to the big questions of the day — geopolitical conflict, rising inequality, flat wages, market volatility, etc.

What’s interesting is how much people blame technology and the speed of technological change for the feeling of unease in the world today. Two to one, consumers in all the countries surveyed felt that technology was moving too quickly for them to cope with, and that governments and business weren’t doing enough to assess the long-term impact of shifts like GMO foods, fracking, disruptors like Uber or Apple Pay, or any of the myriad other digital services that affect privacy and security of people and companies.

That belies the conventional wisdom among tech gurus like, say, Jeff Bezos, who once said that, “New inventions and things that customers like are usually good for society.” Maybe, but increasingly people aren’t feeling that way. And it could have an impact on the regulatory environment facing tech companies. Expect more pushback on sharing-economy companies that skirt local regulation, a greater focus on the monopoly power of mammoth tech companies, and closer scrutiny of the personal wealth of tech titans themselves.

Two of the most interesting pieces of journalism I have read in recent years look at how the speed of digital change is affecting culture and public sentiment. Kurt Andersen’s wonderful Vanity Fair story from January 2012, posited the idea that culture is stuck in retro mode — think fashion’s obsession with past decades, and the nostalgia that’s rife in TV and film — because technology and globalization are moving so fast that people simply can’t take any more change, cognitively at least. Likewise, Leon Wieseltier’s sharp essay on the cover of the New York Times book review this past Sunday lamented how the fetishization of all things Big Tech has led us to focus on the speed, brevity and monetization of everything, to the detriment of “deep thought” and a broader understanding of the human experience.

I agree on both counts. And I hope that some of the tech luminaries here at Davos, like Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt and Sheryl Sandberg, are paying attention to this potential growing backlash, which I expect will heat up in the coming year.

TIME Davos

What Obama and Davos Plutocrats Have in Common

A logo sits on a glass panel inside the venue of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 19, 2015.
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg—Getty Images A logo sits on a glass panel inside the venue of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 19, 2015.

Global wealth has changed dramatically. It's time our tax code should, too

If President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night and the chatter at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which opened Wednesday, are any indication, inequality will be the hot economic topic for another year running.

The president’s proposals for changes to parts of the US tax code that mainly benefit the wealthy revives the conversation Warren Buffett started a few years back with his op-ed about why his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. (Answer: She works for wages, whereas the Oracle of Omaha earns money on money itself, in the form of capital gains, interest income, etc.) At the WEF in Davos, where world leaders meet every year to hash out the big geopolitical and economic issues of the day, one of the most talked about reports is Oxfam’s new brief looking at how the 85 richest people on the planet have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50%, a huge jump from last year when it took a full 388 plutocrats to equal that wealth. Some 20% of the billionaires come from the world of finance and insurance, a group whose wealth increased by 11 % in the last twelve months. And $550 million of it was spent lobbying policy makers in places like Washington, something Oxfam believes has been a major barrier to tax and intellectual property reform that creates a fairer economic system.

Plenty of those plutocrats are here on the Magic Mountain, and some are undoubtedly checking in with their tax planners. I expect that we’ll hear lots more in Davos this week about how to restructure tax codes for the 21st century, mainly because the nature of wealth and how it gets created has changed so dramatically. Today, more than ever since the Gilded Age, money begets money; income earned from wages has been stagnating for years, or decades even, depending on which type of workers you tally. Meanwhile, changes in the tax code and corporate compensation over the last 30 years or so has concentrated more financial resources at the very top of the socio-economic food chain. Indeed, financial assets (stocks, bonds, and such) are the dominant form of wealth for the top 0.1 %, which actually creates a snowball effect of inequality.

As French economist Thomas Piketty explained so thoroughly in his now famous 693 page tome on wealth inequality, Capital in the 21st Century, the returns on financial assets greatly out-weigh those from income earned the old-fashioned way—by working for wages. Even when you consider the salaries of the modern economy’s super-managers—the CEOs, bankers, accountants, agents, consultants and lawyers that groups like Occupy Wall Street railed against—it’s important to remember that somewhere between 30% to 80 % of their incomes are awarded not in cash but in stock options and stock equity. This type of income is taxed at a much lower rate than what most of us pay on the money we receive in our regular checks. That means the composition of super-manager pay has the booster-rocket effect of lowering taxes (and thus governments’ ability to provide support for the poor and middle classes) while increasing inequality in the economy as a whole.

MORE How 7 ideas in the State of the Union would affect you

It’s a cycle that spins faster and faster as executives paid in stock make short-term business decisions that might undermine long-term growth in their companies even as they raise the value of their own options in the near. It’s no accident that corporate stock buybacks, which tend to bolster share prices but not underlying growth (you know, the kind that creates jobs for you and me), and corporate pay have gone up concurrently over the last four decades. There are any number of studies that illustrate the intersection between the markets, our tax system, and wealth gap; one of the most striking was done by economists James Galbraith and Travis Hale, who showed how during the late 1990s, changing income inequality tracked the go-go NASDAQ stock index to a remarkable degree.

As Piketty’s work shows, in the absence of some change-making event, like a war or a Great Depression that destroys financial asset value, the rich really do get richer–a lot richer–while the rest of us become relatively worse off. One of the few levers that governments have to combat this trend is the tax code. While Piketty argues for a global wealth tax, something that will likely never happen, President Obama’s stab at capital gains taxes and trust taxes is probably just the opening round in a tax debate that will go on throughout this year, and into the 2016 presidential race.

I say, bring it on—given that the nature of wealth has changed, it’s high time the tax system should too.

TIME 2016 Election

This Could Be Hillary Clinton’s Economic Policy

A new report from her allies offers some 2016 clues

Hillary Clinton’s allies appear to be taking their first shot at framing an economic policy agenda for her presumptive 2016 presidential campaign, with a new report out Thursday from the Clinton-friendly liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

This report is very significant for many reasons. For starters, as I mentioned in my TIME column this week about how progressive Elizabeth Warren is pushing Clinton further left, the CAP report was spearheaded by former Clinton economic adviser and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Like his predecessor Robert Rubin, this is a guy much better known for deregulating financial markets than worrying about the working classes. I think the report is a sign not only that Summers is trying to reinvent himself, but that wage stagnation and the plight of the middle class is going to be the key economic issue in the 2016 presidential race.

MORE 9 Times Hillary Clinton Has Taken a Stand

So, how does Hilary stack up on this front? The CAP report, which is quite extensive, has some very good ideas. Among my favorites are ideas for tax reform befitting an era in which so much of the world’s income comes from assets (stocks, capital gains, etc.) rather than from wages. See my article on Thomas Piketty, the author of the bestseller “Capital in the 21st Century,” which explains why that’s important.

There’s also a lot on educational reform and vocational training, both good ideas. Most important, the report lays out how other developed countries—like Canada and Australia, for example—do a better job keeping wages up than we do (it has a lot on international best practices that the U.S. might adopt).

But on that score, the report is also quite telling about Clinton’s potential Achilles heel in this election: the legacy of Clintonian market deregulation that was carried out by her husband, along with both Rubin and Summers. These are the guys that got rid of Glass-Steagall banking regulations that had kept the system safe for years (Rubin went to work for Citibank, which pushed that move, shortly after rolling back the regulation that allowed it to become the original Too Big To Fail bank). Yes, we’d still have financial crises with that regulation in place, but it would help stem some of them, and most important, the rollback is symbolic of how the Clintonian wing of the Democratic Party completely capitulated to the financial community—a battle that is still taking place today as Jamie Dimon rails against regulators and a Republican Congress attempts to roll back Dodd-Frank.

The CAP report has a few interesting ideas about helping change corporate governance to make companies think longer-term, but it goes very light on the key reason behind short-termism in the market: the financialization of American business, and the fact that finance, an industry that takes over 30% of corporate profits while creating only 6% of American jobs, calls the shots in corporate American today

This is going to be the biggest challenge for Clinton in 2016: how to distance herself from the money culture, but also how to really address the deeper root-to-branch shifts in our financial system, and the market system at large, that must happen in order to truly fix the wage and middle class issue.

Read next: Huckabee Explains Why His Next Campaign Will Be Different

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TIME politics

How Elizabeth Warren Is Yanking Hillary Clinton to the Left

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

She may not run, but she’s already exerting a gravitational pull

Elizabeth Warren, the famously anti–Wall Street Senator from Massachusetts, has become the lunar goddess of liberal politics. Just as the moon pulls the tides, Warren is slowly but steadily towing the economic conversation in the Democratic Party to the left. Witness the barn-burning speech she gave on the Senate floor in December, railing against the fact that lobbyists from Citigroup and other big banks had been allowed to squeeze a rider into the latest congressional budget bill that would make it easier for federally insured banks to keep trading derivatives, which Warren Buffett once described as the “financial weapons of mass destruction” that sparked the 2008 crisis. Then there was her opposition to President Obama’s most recent Treasury nominee, Antonio Weiss, a banker who Warren told me “has no background to justify his nomination other than working for a big Wall Street firm.” (Weiss dropped out shortly after Warren began denouncing him.) Couple that with her continued calls to break up the big banks and criticism of policies espoused by longtime Democratic economic advisers like Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, and you’ve the makings of a consequential gravitational pull.

Warren is more than just a dogged critic. The former Harvard law professor’s influence comes in large part because she’s tapped into an existential crisis on the left: namely, liberals’ belated anxiety over the capture of the Democratic Party by high finance, which began two decades ago. Ronald Reagan might be the President most closely associated with laissez-faire economics, but both Republicans and Democrats have frequently turned to finance to generate quick-hit growth in tough times, deregulating markets or loosening monetary policy rather than focusing on underlying fixes for the real economy. Shrugging and citing a market-knows-best philosophy to avoid difficult political decisions has been a bipartisan exercise for quite a long time now.

And the anxiety is deepened because democrats, like Republicans, bear blame for the financial crisis of 2008. Jimmy Carter deregulated interest rates in 1980, a move that pacified consumers and financiers grappling with stagflation but also helped set the stage for the home-mortgage implosion. In 1999, as President Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Rubin signed off on the Glass-Steagall banking-regulation death certificate, a move that many, Warren included, believe was a key factor in worsening the crisis. Loose accounting standards supported by many Democrats during the Clinton years also encouraged the growth of stock options as the main form of corporate compensation, a trend that French academic Thomas Piketty, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and many other economists believe exacerbated the staggering gap between rich and poor in the U.S. today. I asked Warren whether she blamed such policies for our current wage stagnation, which has persisted despite robust economic growth. “I’d lay it right at the feet of trickle-down economics, yes,” she says. “We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years, and it hasn’t worked.”

Speculation has been rife that Warren might consider a presidential run of her own, taking on front runner Hillary Clinton just to make sure the same trickle-down team doesn’t end up in office again. When I ask her flatly if she’d run if she thought a Rubin or Summers would be making economic policy for the next four years, she paused. “I tell you … I’m going to do everything I can. I’m going to fight as hard as I have to. This has to change.”

Change won’t come easily. Resetting the economic table is not just about breaking up big banks or raising the minimum wage. Real change would mean grappling with a deep, multidecade shift from a society in which the state, the private sector and the individual all shared responsibility for economic risks to one in which individuals are now increasingly left on their own to pay for the trappings of a middle-class life–health care, education and retirement–while corporations capture a record share of the country’s prosperity without necessarily reinvesting in the common good. Complaining about too-big-to-fail banks, sleazy lobbyists and the 1% is easier than crafting an entirely new, inclusive growth policy.

Warren is likely to conjure more change by being a progressive foil to Clinton than by running herself. Her sway has old economists scrambling to learn new tricks. The Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Clintons, is releasing a new report on wages and the plight of the middle classes on Jan. 15. Its chief author: none other than Summers. Meanwhile, Clinton recently took an ideas meeting with Stiglitz, once considered too far left to touch. In politics, stars may rise, but the moon is constant.


This appears in the January 26, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Economy

5 Global Risks You Should Care About Right Now

From Left: Ian Bremmer President and Founder of Eurasia Group, Nouriel Roubini, Chairman and Co-Founder of Roubini Global Economics and Rana Foroohar, Assistant Managing Editor at TIME speak on global politics and the economy at the Time & Life Building in New York City on Jan. 13, 2015. (Adam Glanzman for TIME)
Adam Glanzman for TIME From Left: Ian Bremmer President and Founder of Eurasia Group, Nouriel Roubini, Chairman and Co-Founder of Roubini Global Economics and Rana Foroohar, Assistant Managing Editor at TIME speak on global politics and the economy at the Time & Life Building in New York City on Jan. 13, 2015.

From Russia and China back to America

Ian Bremmer, the head of Eurasia Group, and Nouriel Roubini, the founder of Roubini Global Economics, are two of the world’s preeminent risk forecasters. They joined me Tuesday morning at the offices of Time Inc. for our yearly look ahead about what you should—and shouldn’t—worry about in the geopolitical and economic landscape for 2015.

Here are my top 5 takeaways from the conversation:

Russia is being underplayed as a major political risk, especially for Europe

Yes, we’ve all followed the conflict in the Ukraine. But according to Bremmer, there’s a good chance that petro-autocrat Vladimir Putin will become even more dangerous and unpredictable as oil prices plummet, stirring up more trouble abroad (possibly in other border states) in order to keep attention at home off the total collapse in the Russian economy. The European Union-United States divide over how best to handle Russia and Putin also underscores a transatlantic relationship that is becoming even more polarized.

America is becoming more unilateral, but not in the ways that you might think

Economically and politically, the U.S. is decoupling from the rest of the world. As Roubini pointed out, America is the one bright spot on the global economic map this year, with a solid recovery that could well have it growing faster than many emerging markets. On the other hand, there’s also a sense that the U.S. is withdrawing politically from the rest of the world, heightened by President Barack Obama’s absence this week from the Paris anti-terrorism rally (Bremmer believes this was a public relations blunder, not purposeful). That’s not the right way to think of it, says Bremmer. “The U.S. is projecting power through an arsenal of disparate mechanisms that allow is more easily to act alone,” including everything from drones to economic statecraft including more freezing of assets of problematic nations (think Russia or Iran), a strategy that Bremmer dubs “the weaponization of finance.”

Low oil prices won’t last forever

Both Roubini and Bremmer feel that the conventional wisdom about the Saudis keeping the pumps going and depressing prices in order to stick it to rivals Iran and Russia is wrong. “This is about economics,” says Roubini, who believes that the Saudis are simply trying to push competitors (including U.S/ shale producers) out of the market and that they’ll start pumping more oil once the marketplace is clear. While the impact for American homegrown shale could be bad in the short term, it will be outweighed by the consumer effect of lower prices (witness gas falling below two bucks a gallon in some parts of the country).

China is still a big mystery

It’s slowing economically, that’s for sure. But is President Xi Jinping’s massive consolidation of power a sign that the country is about to undergo pro-market reforms of the type that it hasn’t seen since the days of Deng (something that China watchers hope will vault the country into the middle-income bracket and help it create more jobs)? Or is it rather a sign that China is going back to the scary days of Mao, when dissent of any kind could land you in jail or worse? Bremmer is hopeful that China can make the middle market leap and maintain social stability. Roubini (like me) is less bullish, and feels that the country’s economic model is still based on cheap labor and cheap capital (it’s worth noting it takes four dollars of debt to create every dollar of growth in China these days, which is not good). Both agree that 2015 will be a crucial pivot year for China.

Bifurcation, polarization, inequality and volatility are the buzzwords for 2015

Politically and economically, old alliances are fracturing and new ones are being formed. Sectarian conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region will get worse before it gets better, Europe is headed toward a scary deflationary debt spiral that’s galvanizing far-right politics (witness Marine Le Pen’s rise in France), and China’s slowdown and the fall in oil prices is rejiggering the geopolitical landscape. Markets will be skittish this year—so fasten your seatbelts.

TIME Economy

The Left’s Opening Gambit for 2016 Is All About Your Paycheck

Elizabeth Warren
Cliff Owen—AP Elizabeth Warren Sen. Elizabeth Warren ponders the nation's problems at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on anti-money laundering on March 7, 2013.

The unifying value for progressives in 2016? Wages, if leaders like Elizabeth Warren and Richard Trumka have anything to say about it

See correction below.

If unemployment and slow growth were the central economic issues of the last presidential election cycle, wage stagnation and inequality are shaping up to be the focal point of 2016. The U.S. is now solidly in recovery, posting 5 % GDP growth in the third quarter of last year. But growth isn’t necessarily the same as shared prosperity. Inflation-adjusted middle class incomes have actually gone down for the last decade, something even the most rabid free market advocates won’t quarrel with statistically. And working class wages have been stagnant for much longer than that. (On balance, men with only high school degrees haven’t gotten a raise since 1968.) In an economy made up of 70 % consumer spending, that’s obviously an economic problem: no spending equals no business investment equals no jobs equals no spending…you get the picture. But inequality is increasingly taking on social and cultural dimensions, evident in everything from the debate over immigration to the killings that have rocked Ferguson and New York.

Put simply, chronically flat wages are no longer just about the lifestyle divide between the 1 % and everyone else. They’ve become an issue of social justice, democracy, and stability.

The question is, who has an answer to the problem? Liberals will be taking a first crack at it this Wednesday (Jan. 7) at the AFL-CIO-sponsored summit on Raising Wages. As Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who’ll be giving the keynote address, told me in an exclusive interview in advance of the summit, “Things are getting better, yes, but only for some. Families are working harder, but not doing better. And they feel the game is rigged against them–and guess what–it is!”

In her speech, Warren will be talking through numbers from a database compiled by French academic Thomas Piketty (author of the best-selling Capital in the 21st Century) showing that while 90 % of the workers in the US shared 70 % of all new income between the 1930s and 1970s, things started to change in the 1980s, with the 90 % capturing essentially zero percent of all new income since then.

Funny enough, that’s around that time that the laissez faire economic policies advocated by President Reagan, and later, President Clinton’s administration, took off. Former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin was the one who lobbied Clinton to roll back the Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking regulation that many (like Warren) believe was a key factor in the financial crisis (which, in and of itself, greatly exacerbated inequality, particularly for African American and Latino families). He and other Clinton advisors like Larry Summers also crafted changes in tax policy that allowed for the growth of stock options as the main form of corporate compensation, a trend that Piketty, Nobel laureate and former Clinton advisor Joseph Stiglitz and many other economists believe has been a reason for growing inequality. I asked Warren if she blamed such Rubinesque policies for our current wage stagnation problem. “I’d lay it right at the feet of trickle down economics, yes. We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years and it hasn’t worked.”

Which will be an interesting challenge for Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner for 2016, and those in her orbit to overcome. Neera Tanden, the policy director for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, now head of the left wing think tank Center for American Progress, will also be speaking at the AFL-CIO summit and, next week, CAP will be debuting a brand new report on what can be done about wage stagnation. The report was spearheaded by none other than Larry Summers. When I mention to Tanden that many people might not associate Summers with “inclusive growth,” she insists that the document is “quite progressive” and that “he’s been right there with it.” This echoes what I’ve heard from other economic insiders about Summers shift away from his historic (some might say infamous) work in financial alchemy and toward more populist concerns like worker wages.

If this conversion has in fact taken place it could be described as either Biblical, or, given current public sentiment around Wall Street, opportunistic. CAP’s report will focus on what the US can learn from other developed countries like Australia, Canada, and Sweden, which have managed to keep worker wages relatively high in the face of globalization and technological disruption. It’s worth noting that they also have much more sensibly managed financial systems than the US.

One thing that all the VIP summit participants, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, seem to agree on: the US is the outlier in developed economies in viewing workers as “costs” rather than “assets to be invested,” as Trumka puts it. It’s a philosophy that underscores America’s focus on the rights and profits of investors to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It’s a mythology that will be under fire in 2016, as workers, business people, and politicians alike are beginning to question the viability of a system that encourages inequality-bolstering share buybacks rather than real economy investment, and a chase for quarterly profits over what’s best for the economy–and society—at large. On that note, Trumka will be announcing some big policy steps to put the wage issue front and center in the 2016 election conversation. “We want to establish raising wages as the key, unifying progressive value,” he says. “We want wages to be what ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together.” Sounds like a rallying cry to me.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

TIME Economy

Here’s the Big Problem With America’s Economic Recovery

Janet Yellen
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Federal Reserve Bank Board Chairman Janet Yellen

Yes, the U.S. is roaring back—especially compared to competitors—but that doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet exactly

If you could write one headline to encompass the past six years of economic history, it would probably be “U.S. Leadership Is Over.” The financial crisis, the Great Recession and the tepid recovery that followed seemed to mark a permanent decline in American market hegemony. But the past few months of economic data are calling all that into question: U.S. gross domestic product and jobs growth are the strongest they’ve been since the crisis. CEO surveys are predicting a new era of business spending. And the effect of the dramatic fall in oil prices since last summer will likely mean the equivalent of a $100 billion tax cut for U.S. consumers.

For an economy made up 70% of consumer spending, that could mean the beginning of that virtuous, job-creating consumption cycle that we’ve been awaiting since things went to hell in 2008. What’s more, with trouble in developing markets like Russia, India and Brazil as well as most of Europe, the U.S. is suddenly no longer the epicenter of market trouble but rather the best hope for global prosperity. The question everyone is asking now is, Can the U.S. lead the world again?—-economically, at least.

Times have changed since the U.S. last found itself in a similar position. Then, back in the late 1990s, when the Asian debt crisis had everyone predicting the end of a great run of global growth, the worst-case scenario never came to pass. Even as China and the other big Asian markets tanked, U.S. growth powered along at nearly 4%, helping the rest of the world maintain a respectable 2.5% average.

But now China represents four times as much of the world’s growth as it used to, having swapped places with Europe in terms of importance. The debt crisis and major economic slowdown happening in the world’s most populous nation are big reasons that oil prices have fallen—Chinese businesses and consumers are using much less energy these days. That creates a contagion effect in countries like Brazil, Nigeria and Russia and in parts of the Middle East, which have economies that are increasingly driven by China. No wonder experts like Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma are proclaiming that the next global recession will be “made in China.”

What does all that mean economically for the U.S.? While the fall in oil prices is great short-term news for middle- and low-income Americans—who are already buying more gas, cars and big-ticket appliances as a result—it also makes it tougher for American energy producers to pump out of the ground all that homemade shale oil and gas we’ve been hearing about for the past several years.

Unlike the Saudis, who can practically dig with a teaspoon and hit oil, we have to frack for it, and that’s expensive. Saudis need about $25 a barrel to make money on oil. We need at least $70, and most of the energy development and production happening in the U.S. now was set up at a time when prices were over $100. Currently they are hovering around $60, thanks not only to a sluggish China but also to the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to cut production in order to boost prices (which may be part of a complex geopolitical strategy by the Saudis to put pressure on rival petro-autocrats in Iran, as well as Putin’s Russia).

All of this matters, and not just because energy is the de facto scoreboard for the global economy these days. If U.S. energy producers decide that they can’t afford to stay in the game with prices so low, that could hurt American manufacturers who were basing their expansion plans on cheap power. They might cut jobs, which cuts consumer spending, which cuts jobs … head-spinning, I know. The bottom line is that the evolution of the global economy over the past couple of decades blunts the ability of the U.S. to carry the rest of the world economically in the years ahead.

While it’s an amazing thing that the U.S. is likely to outgrow many emerging markets this year, the crucial question will be how robust the U.S. recovery will remain in the face of the global slowdown. At the risk of being a Cassandra, I’d feel better if I thought the U.S. recovery had been built on a firmer foundation, like a strong housing recovery or a real pickup in wages. Neither is the case. Rather, this recovery is genetically modified—it was engineered by the Fed’s $4 trillion money dump and interest rates that are still near zero. As they begin to rise—as they almost certainly will toward the middle to end of 2015—the monetary scientists in Washington will step back from the petri dish and see if the economy can sustain what they kick-started. Only then will we be able to gauge whether the U.S. has regained its position as the driver of the global economy.

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