TIME Venezuela

Venezuela Is Slowly Coming Apart—and President Nicolas Maduro May Pay the Price

A boy with blood on his chest kneels in front of police after 14-year-old student Kluiver Roa died during a protest in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Feb. 24, 2015.
Carlos Eduardo Ramirez—Reuters A boy with blood on his chest kneels in front of police after 14-year-old student Kluiver Roa died during a protest in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Feb. 24, 2015.

Hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods have Venezuelans angry—and looking for new leadership

CARACAS – Amid the death of a 14-year-old boy killed by a policeman during anti-government unrest, the arrest of a key opposition mayor by armed government intelligence agents and talk of a coup plot against the government spearheaded by Washington, this last week also saw another another turn in Venezuela’s growing crisis. At DolarToday, a website little known outside of Venezuela that has become a key indicator of the country’s black market exchange rate, the bolívar local currency passed the psychological barrier of 200 per greenback. Four years ago, the dollar cost eight bolívares per dollar; five months ago it was 100; now it is already at 221 and counting. This rapid deterioration in the value of the local currency, 61% drop against the dollar over the last year, is one of the best indicators of just how much trouble Venezuela—and President Nicolas Maduro—is in.

While many in Venezuela have little direct engagement with the dollar—the country’s foreign exchange is strictly controlled—the currency crisis pervades everyday life. It means many doctors and engineers earn the equivalent of just a dollar a day and prefer instead to drive taxis or smuggle pasta or gas across the border to Colombia. It means that those who want to buy basic goods for their families must line up for hours every day due to shortages, and hoping all the time that shelves won’t be empty. It means that stealing is more valuable than working, fueling one of the world’s highest crime rates and the murder of one police officer nearly every day.

It means that people like Yormina Alguilera, a street cleaner earning the same as the minimum wage of doctor or engineer, are giving up. “We’re in crisis,” she said, taking a break from the sun at a fruit stall in the square at Caracas’ 23 de enero barrio, as murals of Che Guevara and Hugo Chávez loom over. Alguilera voted for Maduro and his predecessor Chávez, “but never again,” she said. “At least under Chávez I could get things. It’s a mess with Maduro and there’s no end in sight. Things are getting worse every day.”

Maduro, who was elected after the death of Chávez in 2013, is in serious trouble. His approval ratings are in the low twenties, according to Datanálisis, a respected local pollster. This time last year, the president faced down Venezuela’s biggest anti-government protests in more than a decade, and now they appear to be starting up again. In San Cristóbal, on the country’s border with Colombia and where unrest was sparked last February by similar though less severe economic problems, 14-year-old Kluiberth Roa was killed with a rubber bullet by police. That tragedy has only sparked further public anger.

Supermarket lines often run into the hundreds if not thousands due to shortages of the most basic goods, from shampoo to condoms. Inflation last year was near 70%. The economy, which has long been propped up by high crude prices, is crumbling as oil has tumbled over the last few months. (A barrel of Venezuela oil sells for half what it did a year ago; the country obtains 96% of foreign currency from oil.) Maduro has blamed this on an “economic war” being waged by the opposition with a hand from the United States, but many ordinary Venezuelans don’t believe that. “They talk about an economic war but we’re certainly not winning it,” said Aida Guedez Álvarez, a 61-year-old housewife buying a watermelon in 23 de enero. “I voted for Maduro but I’ve been deceived, like everybody else.”

Maduro’s government faces tough legislative elections later this year. “The government isn’t necessarily falling but it is weak and losing its leadership,” said Reinaldo Manrique, 24, an accounting student and student leader who was one of the very first detained for protesting in San Cristóbal, last year, sparking nationwide unrest. “But you know what? The leaders of the opposition are even more weak.”

Though former Chavistas are much angrier than they were a year ago, they do not see the opposition, led loosely by two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, as a viable alternative. “Of course I’d never vote for Capriles,” said Alguilera, the street cleaner. “I give up. No one will change things.” Rather than protest, students are talking of finishing their studies and leaving the country. Many who took to the streets last year have left. “I’m studying to become a primary teacher,” said Leonardo Díaz, 25, in Caracas’ Plaza Altamira, a bastion of protest. “But as soon as I graduate, I’ll leave. All my friends at university are the same.”

Capriles, who stood against both Chávez and Maduro in presidential elections, is the more moderate face of the opposition. He continues to govern the state of Miranda and at least on paper lead the opposition. The government has cracked down on its more hardline critics. Leopoldo López, a major opposition heavyweight, has remained behind bars for more than a year for his role in inciting last year’s protests. “The government is working in a barbaric way to steal from public funds, destroy the country, rob the country’s oil while it says it’s constructing a homeland!” López’s father, also called Leopoldo, told TIME. Antonio Ledezma, Caracas’ mayor, was arrested and charged earlier this month in a conspiracy to overthrow Maduro.

María Corina Machado, another more radical leader, was charged in December with involvement in a plot to assassinate Maduro. “With Maduro there is more persecution than ever,” she told TIME. Next on the government’s list appears to be Julio Borges, an opposition party coordinator. The government requested a probe into his alleged conspiracies against Maduro this week. “Every year there are elections but this is the first time the government is up with a political crisis of this magnitude,” Borges told TIME. “In Venezuela everyone is scared—including the government.”

Maduro has remained tough. “Every fascist has his day,” the president said on Ledezma’s arrest. And he still has some support. As he completed a crossword on a park bench in the wealthy La Castellana area of Caracas, Emilio Neumann backed the government’s stance. “Lopez and Ledezma are exactly where they deserve to be, behind bars,” said the 69-year-old public administrator. “After calling so many people to the streets and committing who knows how many murders.”

President Maduro must hope, if he is to see out the next couple of years, that he can persuade people like Neumann to stay on side. To do this he must turn the country’s economy around, though with three official exchange rates as well as a black market on the dollar — with a spread between the highest and lowest of them of some 3,400 per cent — it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so. Pragmatic moves such as consolidating those exchange rates or raising the price of gas, currently the world’s lowest at just a few cents per tank, are politically dangerous especially when Chavistas are turning away from Maduro.

TIME Economy

U.S. Economy Slowed Down at Close of 2014

But economists still forecast strongest growth in a decade this year

The U.S. economy slowed more sharply in the final three months of the year than initial estimates, reflecting weaker business stockpiling and a bigger trade deficit.

The Commerce Department said Friday that the economy as measured by the gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the October-December quarter, weaker than the 2.6 percent first estimated last month. It marked a major slowdown from the third quarter, which had been the strongest growth in 11 years.

Economists, however, remain optimistic that the deceleration was temporary. Many forecast that growth will rise above 3 percent in 2015, which would give the country the strongest economic growth in a decade. They say the job market has healed enough to generate strong consumer spending going forward.

For all of 2014, the economy expanded 2.4 percent, up slightly from 2.2 percent growth in 2013.

Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, was a bright spot in the fourth quarter. It expanded at an annual rate of 4.2 percent, down slightly from the first estimate of 4.3 percent growth but still the best showing since the first quarter of 2006.

Friday’s report was the second of three estimates for fourth quarter GDP, the broadest measure of the economy’stotal output of goods and services.

The downward revision stemmed largely from slower stockpiling by businesses. Last month, the rise in inventories was estimated to have added 0.8 percentage points to fourth quarter growth. But that was lowered to a contribution of just 0.1 percentage point in the new estimate. The change, however, will likely translate into stronger growth in the current quarter because businesses will not have to work down an overhang of unsold goods.

Trade also weighed more heavily on growth than first thought, subtracting 1.2 percentage points as imports grew much more strongly than first thought. That could be a reflection of the rising value of the dollar, which makes imported products cheaper for U.S. consumers.

Many analysts believe 2015 will start slowly, in part reflecting the disruptions caused by a rough winter. However, it’s unlikely to be as bad as the first quarter of 2014, when heavy snow and cold contributed to a 2.1 percent plunge in growth in the first quarter of 2014.

That big drop was followed by sizzling growth rates of 4.6 percent in the second quarter and 5 percent in the third quarter.

Analysts are looking for less of a roller-coaster ride this year. JPMorgan economists say growth will come in around 2.5 percent in the current quarter and then hover between 2.5 percent to 3 percent for the rest of the year. They are forecasting growth of 3.1 percent for the entire year, a significant improvement from the 2.4 percent growth seen in 2014.

If the forecast proves accurate, it would be the best GDP performance since the economy grew by 3.3 percent in 2005, two years before the beginning of worst economic downturn the country has experienced since the 1930s.

Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisers, is even more optimistic. He’s forecasting economic growth of 3.5 percent this year.

Naroff and other economists believe the key to the economy shifting into a higher gear will be further improvements in the labor market, when stronger job gains leading to rising wage gains.

“I see 2015 as a really good year for consumer spending because of the wage gains,” Naroff said.

Even though the recession ended nearly six years ago, wage growth has been weak as businesses were able to pay less with so many unemployed looking for jobs.

Several large companies have already signaled a willingness to pay more to retain workers. Retailers like TJX and The Gap, as well as the health insurer Aetna.

News last week that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, would also increase its minimum pay could be a sign that a tighter labor market are finally leading to increased wages, some analysts believe.

The unemployment has fallen to 5.7 percent.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, testifying to Congress this week, listed stronger wage growth as one of the elements the central bank is looking for before deciding to start raising interest rates. She said as long as wage gains remained weak and inflation low, the Fed was prepared to remain “patient” in moving to raise rates.

Many private economists believe the Fed’s first move to increase its key rate, which has been near a record low of zero for six years, will not come until June at the earliest.

MONEY

Jobless Claims Surge by Highest Number Since 2013

Unemployment filings jumped by 31,000 last week, taking many economists by surprise.

Initial jobless claims last week increased by the highest amount in roughly two years, according to the latest data from the Department of Labor. The numbers, released Thursday, show those filing for unemployment last week jumped by 31,000 compared with a week earlier, pushing up the total number of individuals reporting to 313,000 from 282,000.

The news comes as unemployment is broadly improving. The U.S. economy added 257,000 jobs in January, continuing a 12-month streak in which employers hired more than 200,000 workers a month. As a result, a sharp rise in jobless claims seemed to take economists by surprise. A Bloomberg survey of 49 economists predicted jobless claims would rise by only 8,000.

However, as the Associated Press notes, more unemployment filings probably isn’t a cause for alarm. Short-term surveys of the employment market can be uneven, and the 4-week moving average showed an increase of just 11,500 jobless claims, significantly less than the week-by-week numbers. Other employment indicators, like wage growth and gross domestic product, have also been increasingly positive, suggesting the job market will continue to broadly improve.

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.

TIME Companies

Why Warren Buffett Wants to Buy a Bunch of German Companies

Germany is the über-economy of Europe

Legendary investor Warren Buffett is preparing to buy companies in Europe’s biggest and most reliable economy after purchasing a German motorcycle parts maker this month.

Buffett said in an interview published Wednesday in the newspaper Handelsblatt that his Berkshire Hathaway holding company is eyeing companies in Germany because of the size of its economy and its regulatory framework.

“Germany is a terrific market, lots of people, lots of buying power, productive, it’s got a legal system we feel very good with, it’s got a regulatory system we feel very good with, it’s got people we feel very good with—and customers,” Buffett said.

Berkshire Hathaway acquired family-owned motorcycle apparel and accessories retailer Detlev Louis Motorrad-Vertriebs in February and is looking to expand its footprint in Germany. Berkshire Hathaway purchased the company for a little more than 400 million euros ($456 million), Reuters reports.

Buffett said he was ready to pay cash for good German companies, despite the weakness of the euro currency, which has dropped more than 15% against the dollar over the past year.

[Handelsblatt]

TIME politics

3 Lessons from the French Revolution European Policymakers Should Keep in Mind

Place de Grève at the Storming of the Bastille
Lebrecht/Getty Images Place de Grève at the Storming of the Bastille, Jul. 14, 1789, from an 18th-century engraving by Letourmy of Orléans

The moment has come to diversify our analogy portfolio

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

It has become a commonplace to compare today’s economic and political news with interwar Europe. The Great Recession is measured against the Great Depression and Paul Krugman has recently suggested that demands being made on Greece are like those the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany. In his new Hall of Mirrors, however, economist Barry Eichengreen argues that repeated comparison of our current moment with the 1930s has resulted in poor policy decisions. Policymakers managed to avert another depression but, once they did so, their mission seemed complete and their hands were tied. Radical reforms—of the type necessary to prevent another recession—proved politically impossible.

The moment has come to diversify our analogy portfolio. What happens, for instance, if we think about the Eurozone crisis in terms provided by the history of the French Revolution? The comparison may initially seem contrived, but it offers significant lessons nonetheless.

Consider: debt dominated public debate in 1780s France as it does in Eurozone negotiations today. For decades, the monarchy had struggled to effectively tax the Catholic Church and the nobility. For decades, as Michael Kwass has conclusively shown, the wealthy and super wealthy branded such efforts despotic; they used the resulting power struggles to their own, political ends. Appealing repeatedly to notions of the public good—new taxes would mean “the loss of our liberty, the destruction of our laws, the ruin of our commerce, and the desperate misery of the people”—they blocked all attempts to spread taxation more fairly. Social elites thereby successfully defended their own riches, made themselves popular spokesmen for the common good, and pushed France further into borrowing (since it could not tax). Norman noblemen and Paris magistrates were the Koch Brothers of their day: bent on conserving their own privileges by fueling grass-roots populism. Their effective depiction of the monarchy’s fiscal crisis as a result of its own opulence—even now, don’t we imagine the money was spent on Marie Antoinette’s dresses and the King’s hunting dogs?—made state finances look like moral, rather than political, issues. (For in-depth discussion of this point, see Clare Haru Crowston’s Credit, Fashion, Sex and John Shovlin’s Political Economy of Virtue).

Like many in the United States and Europe today, these critics of the centralizing monarchy played politics with money. None of these men—all members of the privileged elite—intended to start a revolution. But by blocking needed tax reform, they provoked a political showdown that eventually turned summer 1789 into a social, cultural, and economic crisis of unparalleled proportions.

Lesson One Revolutions are their most revolutionary when no one sees them coming.

Money and debt played a crucial role in further revolutionizing France. In one of the first acts of the Revolution (prior even to the storming of the Bastille), the National Assembly declared France’s existing debt “sacred.” Unlike the later Bolsheviks (who in 1918 defaulted on everything the Russian Empire had borrowed, thereby giving rise to the doctrine of Odious Debt), the French revolutionaries accepted an inherited burden. The formerly royal debt became the national debt, and the new political body faced the same fiscal problems as had the old. At the same time, however, the National Assembly also challenged all existing taxes because they had been imposed by the monarch alone (the French version of “no taxation without representation”). Monetary-fiscal policy at this point was not intentionally revolutionary. The National Assembly was in many ways conservative. Like Angela Merkel’s Germany and other core economies today, it insisted that debts had to be honored and bills had to be paid. Like critics of quantitative easing, its members recoiled from the thought of merely printing money. They demanded that France put “solid assets” behind its promises to creditors.

With debt on the books and taxes delegitimized, a small majority within the National Assembly moved to nationalize and then monetize lands held by the Catholic Church. Here any parallel between the current moment and the 1790s appears to break down. Today, austerity means shrinking the public sector, whereas balancing the budget in 1789 involved expanding it (since the state took over the Church’s traditional welfare-providing role as well as its property). The social effects of the measures, however, were strikingly similar: widespread resistance, popular unrest, and growing political polarization. And, as today, uncertainty and confused expectations led investors to flee risk and seek safe places to put their money. Commercial credit, the backbone of eighteenth-century economic growth, dried up overnight. Lack of confidence in the new regime quickly metastasized into a generalized collapse in trust. All debts came due at once.

Lesson Two Insisting on balanced books and sound money may be conservative rhetoric but it often has radical effects.

Since Maastricht, the EU has tried to use currency to create a stronger sense of European identity. So too did policymakers in 1790s France, who believed widespread use of a new currency (paper notes backed by the value of the nationalized properties) would force people to “buy into” the Revolution whether they supported its politics or not.

Like many Europeans and Americans today, most revolutionaries in the 1790s understood “liberty” as entailing both political freedom and market non-regulation. The majority within the National Assembly therefore embraced free trade in money as they had in grain. Radical monetary liberty—such that any merchant was free to accept the nationally issued paper for less than its face value—pushed both freedom and money to their breaking point.

As does the European Union, the French Revolution emphasized equality, rights, and citizenship. In both contexts, this political rhetoric collides with the social reality of growing inequality to create a feedback loop. A political choice (be it free trade in money or European monetary union) disrupts social-economic life; that disruption makes political ideals (such as liberty) seem all the more desirable and elusive; upholding those ideals causes further economic dislocation and social uncertainty.

Lesson Three Playing politics with money is a sure way to make policy decisions matter to ordinary people. The results are often explosive.

Rebecca L. Spang is the author of “Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution” (Harvard University Press, 2015) and a faculty member at Indiana University, where she directs the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies and is the Acting Director of the Institute for European Studies. Her first book, “The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture” was also published by Harvard.

TIME Economy

How Walmart’s Pay Hike Puts Pressure on McDonald’s

A change in hourly wage could have ripples

Walmart just upped the ante on wages.

The announcement Thursday by America’s largest private employer that it will give half-a-million employees a raise could add to the pressure that a host of other low-wage employers are already facing to pay their workers more. Walmart has 1.3 million workers and is the dominant employer in many American communities, which means that it often sets the floor for wages locally.

“For that prospective employee looking at $10 dollars at Walmart vs. $7.25 at McDonald’s, it’s obvious where they are going to want to work,” said David Cooper, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for a higher minimum wage. “Walmart needs to think about raising wages to hang on to the best people, and to do this in a public way—that’s an added bonus for them.”

MORE Walmart Is Giving Half-a-Million Employees a Raise

The retailer said it would raise its minimum wage to $9 dollars an hour in April and to at least $10 by next February, both of which are above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The announcement follows months of protests from Walmart’s workers and many Democrats to raise the minimum wage, as well as a growing campaign to raise pay for fast food workers. In last year’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama called on Congress to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $10.10.

Walmart is not the first big retail company to raise its minimum wage. This time last year, Gap announced it would hike pay to $10 an hour by this year, and last summer, IKEA said it would raise minimum hourly wages to $10.76 effective Jan. 1. But labor advocates said the decision by Walmart, a company notorious for low wages, could put more pressure on employers and policy makers to follow suit.

“I think there will be people that will say: ‘Look, even Walmart, with its record of paying such poverty wages and its record of being opposed to wage increases has recognized that we have to do something raise wage floor,'” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

The National Restaurant Association, an industry group that represents fast-food companies, declined to comment on whether Walmart’s decision would have any impact. “As an Association we can’t comment publicly on what our members plan to do within their own business models,” spokeswoman Christin Fernandez said. McDonald’s, which has been a primary target of advocates campaigning for and organizing strikes of fast food workers, did not immediately comment on Thursday. The median hourly wage at McDonald’s is $9.15, but 13% of employees make only $7.25, according to an analysis of data last year by the website FiveThirtyEight.

MORE Fast-Food Strike Progress Measured in Pennies, Not Dollars

Others said that while Walmart’s decision is certainly good news for works, it may amount to little more than a smart public relations move for a company that, for legal and economic reasons, would have had to raise wages anyway. By 2016, many states will already have raised their minimum wage to $10, meaning that Walmart will soon be legally obligated to pay that rate to many of its employees. And with low-wage jobs continuing to grow in number as the economy picks up steam, companies may need to raise wages to compete for workers and stop turnover in their workforces.

“It’s clever politics on Walmart’s part, ” said Jefferson Cowie, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The writing is on the wall on this question, given the social pressure. They’ll get a big PR payoff for something they’ll have to do in the next couple of years anyway—its already ticking up in the state level.” Cowie said the wage hike is also likely good business. “I think this is a move towards efficiency for them,” he said, “they want to keep the employees they want, so I think they are also making an investment in a stable and committed work force that’s been dragging them down recently.”

MORE The Wage Warrior

But the work isn’t over for organizers. Taking inflation into account, $10 an hour is still slightly lower than the federal minimum wage was in 1968. The Organization United for Respect at Walmart, an employee group fighting for higher wages, said Thursday that it was “proud” of the raise, but called for a continued push to get $15 an hour.

 

As for whether labor organizers should count this as a victory, Cowie said: “They should be celebrating and then they should immediately get back to work—this is far from over and they have a long way to go.”

Read next: Here’s How Long a Wal-Mart Employee Would Have to Work to Match CEO’s Salary

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TIME Economy

See How the Wealth Gap Between Whites and Non-Whites Is Getting Wider

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Getty Images

The average white family has accumulated seven times the wealth of the average black family

The average white family accumulated $677,656 in total assets in 2013, more than six times that of Latino families and seven times that of African-American families, according to a new study that shows ethnic minorities slipping behind in the post-recession economy.

The Urban Institute released a series of graphics that shows the wealth gap between white and non-white families widening from a multiple of five in the early 80’s to multiples of six and seven by 2013.

 

WealthByRace-avg

Urban Institute’s researchers highlighted several drivers of disparity, including lower rates of homeownership among non-white families, smaller savings accounts and heavier loads of student debt. Together, these trends suppress lifetime earnings, making disparities toward the end of life particularly acute.

“By their 60s, whites have over $1 million more in average wealth than African Americans (11 times as much),” write the study’s authors.

 

TIME Economy

These Are the States Where the Middle Class Is Disappearing

two-story-house
Getty Images

The average income among middle class families shrank by 4.3% between 2009 and 2013

This post is in partnership with 24/7 Wall Street. The article below was originally published on 247WallSt.com.

The American economy is by many measures well on the road to full recovery. The national unemployment rate was 6.2% in 2013, down from 9.3% in 2009; U.S. gross domestic product grew 5% in the third quarter of 2014; and the S&P 500 recently reached its all time high. And yet the middle class, which historically was the driver of economic growth, is falling behind. The average income among middle class families shrank by 4.3% between 2009 and 2013, while incomes among the wealthiest 20% of American households grew by 0.4%.

Based on average pre-tax income earned by the third quintile, or the middle 20% of earners in each state, middle class incomes in California declined the most in the country. Incomes among middle class Californian households fell by nearly 7% between 2009 and 2013, while income among the state’s fifth quintile, or the top 20% of state earners, grew by 1.3%. Based on an analysis of household incomes among America’s middle class, these are the states where the middle class is suffering the most.

According to Joe Valenti, director of asset building at the Center for American Progress, the American middle class is essential for economic growth because middle income families are spending relatively large shares of their incomes on goods and services. “An additional dollar in the hands of a middle income earner is going to drive a lot more spending than an additional dollar in the hands of someone in that top quintile,” Valenti said. While households in the top quintile are able to spend enormous sums of money, “at some point there’s only so much that an individual can spend, even on all different kinds of luxury goods.”

While the middle class is the most important cohort in terms of spending and has in the past been essential for economic growth, middle income families have been the victims of wage stagnation. Valenti argued that as early as the 1970s, American companies started becoming much more productive. However, because of “a decoupling of productivity and wages,” wages among many workers have remained stagnant, and many in the middle class “have not been able to reap the benefits of higher productivity,” Valenti explained. Instead, returns from higher productivity have gone to owners and investors and not to the workers, he said. Many of the beneficiaries of these returns are likely part of the wealthiest 20% of households, whose incomes have grown in recent years.

Much of the income growth among the highest earning households is likely due to stock market gains. As Thomas Piketty argues in his book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” income inequality results from a higher return on capital — money used to make more money in the stock market or other revenue-generating assets — than wage and GDP growth. With the rich holding a disproportionate share of money in the stock market, their incomes have recovered much faster than those of middle class workers.

In all 10 of the states on this list, the share of total income earned by the bottom 80% of households fell between 2009 and 2013 and was redistributed to the highest quintile. The top 20% of U.S. households held more than 51% of total income in 2013, up 1.14 percentage points from 2009. Even among top earners, income was not evenly distributed. Over that five-year period, the top 5% of households accounted for nearly 75% of income gains in the top 20% of earners.

Income from capital gains may partly explain why the income distribution has skewed towards the rich in recent years. “We have seen the stock market recover quite well for many Americans who do have access to the market and who are investors,” Valenti said. Meanwhile, average workers do not.

According to data collected by Piketty, the average capital gain income of households in the bottom 90% was $558 in 2012. The average capital gains of the top 10% of households was nearly $30,000. And the comparable figure for the top 1% of U.S. households was a whopping $242,000 in 2012.

Several other factors, such as union membership rates and a particular state’s tax climate, such as no income tax or higher sales taxes, can also affect the redistribution of wealth across the nation. “Traditionally, union organizing has stepped in when policy makers have been unwilling to,” Valenti said. For example, depending on the union’s size and its sway, “policy makers may not feel the same pressure to pass or increase a minimum wage” if unions can negotiate a wage increase on their own.

While union organizing was a major component of the middle class’ formation in America after World War II, the level of labor force participation in unions fell from 12.4% in 2009 to 11.3% in 2013. In some states the decline was even more pronounced. Oregon’s union membership, for example, fell by 3.3%, the second largest decrease nationwide.

To determine the states where the middle class is suffering the most, 24/7 Wall St. used data on the average pre-tax income earned by each income quintile from the U.S. Census Bureau. We defined middle class as the third quintile, or the middle 20% of earners. We examined the growth in average incomes in the third and fifth quintiles between 2009 and 2013 to identify income trends in the middle and upper class. The final list was composed of states where middle class incomes fell by more than 4.3% and fifth quintile incomes rose by more than 0.4%, the national aver. Both benchmark figures reflect the national change of their respective quintiles. Because Census income data reflect pre-tax levels, they may overstate the degree of income inequality in the poorer quintiles. However, it is unlikely that the tax burden of the third quintile is significant enough to skew the data.

We also looked at data on the share of aggregate income by quintile from the Census Bureau, and how that share changed between 2009 and 2013. Also from the Census Bureau, we reviewed poverty rates, the share of households making less than $10,000 a year, as well as the share of households making more than $200,000 a year. All data are from 2009 to 2013. Additionally, we considered the Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient indicates the degree to which an area’s incomes deviate from a perfectly equal income distribution. Scaled between 0 and 1, a coefficient of 0 represents perfectly equal incomes among all people. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we looked at annual unemployment rates from 2009 and 2013. The percentage of non-agricultural employees who identify as members of a union came from Unionstats.org. Tax data come from the Tax Foundation’s 2014 State Business Tax Climate Index.

These are the states where the middle class is dying.

10. Massachusetts
> Middle income growth 2009-2013: -4.4%
> Fifth quintile income growth 2009-2013: 1.3%
> Fifth quintile share of income: 51.2%
> Middle class household income: $66,974 (6th highest)

Although the average income of a middle class household in Massachusetts was $14,000 above the national level in 2013, it had nevertheless declined by more than 4% since 2009. By contrast, incomes of the wealthiest 20% of households in the state grew by 1.3% between 2009 and 2013 to $235,246. Nationally, income of the top quintile grew by only 0.4% over the same period. The top quintile of Massachusetts households accounted for more than 51% of the state’s total income in 2013, a substantial increase from 2009. The declining share of middle class income may be related to the loss of worker bargaining power. The percentage of employees who were union members fell from 16.7% in 2009 to 13.6% in 2013, the fourth largest decline in the country.

9. Indiana

> Middle income growth 2009-2013: -4.4%
> Fifth quintile income growth 2009-2013: 2.6%
> Fifth quintile share of income: 49.0%
> Middle class household income: $47,680 (17th lowest)

Middle class households in Indiana had an average income of $47,680 in 2013, down 4.4% from 2009. As in most of the nation, even as the income of middle class households declined, the income among Indiana’s highest earners grew. Yet, just 2.6% of households earned more than $200,000 in 2013, roughly half the comparable national figure. While wealthy Indiana residents had among the lower incomes compared to their nationwide peers, average incomes in the highest quintile grew by more than 2.5% between 2009 and 2013, one of the faster growth rates. As a result, the state’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, worsened at a faster pace than in most states over that time, moving to the fourth highest nationwide in 2013.

8. Oregon
> Middle income growth 2009-2013: -4.6%
> Fifth quintile income growth 2009-2013: 1.1%
> Fifth quintile share of income: 49.4%
> Middle class household income: $50,425 (23rd lowest)

Oregon’s unemployment rate dropped by 3.4 percentage points to 7.7% in 2013, only slightly higher than the national unemployment rate and a better improvement than in most states. Despite the job market gains, however, income inequality has been getting worse in the state. The highest earning 20% of Oregon households had an average income of nearly $167,000 in 2013, up 1.1% from 2009. Meanwhile, the income of a typical middle class Oregon household fell by 4.6% between 2009 and 2013, more than the comparable national decline of 4.3%. Union membership, which is often associated with middle class health, fell by 3.3% over that time, three times the nationwide decline and the second-highest figure among all states. At the beginning of this year, Oregon raised its minimum wage to $9.25 an hour, one of the highest minimum wages nationwide. Many have argued that raising the minimum wage is essential to addressing income inequality.

For the rest of the list, please go to 24/7WallStreet.com.

TIME Economy

What’s Really to Blame for Weak Economic Growth

The George Washington statue stands covered in snow near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S. Wind-driven snow whipped through New Yorks streets and piled up in Boston as a fast-moving storm brought near-blizzard conditions to parts of the Northeast, closing roads, grounding flights and shutting schools.
Jin Lee—Bloomberg via Getty Images The George Washington statue stands covered in snow near the New York Stock Exchange

Finance is a cause, not a symptom, of weaker economic growth

After years of hardship, America’s middle class has gotten some positive news in the last few months. The country’s economic recovery is gaining steam, consumer spending is starting to tick up (it grew at more than 4 % last quarter), and even wages have started to improve slightly. This has understandably led some economists and analysts to conclude that the shrinking middle phenomenon is over.

At the risk of being a Cassandra, I’d argue that the factors that are pushing the recovery and working in the favor of the middle class right now—lower oil prices, a stronger dollar, and the end of quantitative easing—are cyclical rather than structural. (QE, Ruchir Sharma rightly points out in The Wall Street Journal, actually increased inequality by boosting the share-owning class more than anyone else.) That means the slight positive trends can change—and eventually, they will.

The piece of economic data I’m most interested in right now is actually a new report from Wallace Turbeville, a former Goldman Sachs banker and a senior fellow at think tank Demos, which looks at the effect of financialization on economic growth and the fate of the working and middle class. Financialization, a topic which I’m admitted biased toward since I’m writing a book about it, is the way in which the markets have come to dominate the economy, rather than serving them.

This includes everything from the size of the financial sector (still at record highs, even after the financial crisis and bailouts), to the way in which the financial markets dictate the moves of non-financial businesses (think “activist” investors and the pressure around quarterly results). The rise of finance since the 1980s has coincided with both the shrinking paycheck of most workers and a lower number of business start-ups and growth-creating innovation.

This topic has been buzzing in academic circles for years, but Turberville, who is aces at distilling complex economic data in a way that the general public can understand, goes some way toward illustrating how the economic and political strength of the financial sector, and financially driven capitalism, has created a weaker than normal recovery. (Indeed, it’s the weakest of the post war era.) His work explains how financialization is the chief underlying force that is keeping growth and wages disproportionately low–offsetting much of the effects of monetary policy as well as any of the temporary boosts to the economy like lower oil or a stronger dollar.

I think this research and what it implies—that finance is a cause, not a symptom of weaker economic growth—is going to have a big impact on the 2016 election discussion. For starters, if you believe that the financial sector and non-productive financial activities on the part of regular businesses—like the $2 trillion overseas cash hoarding we’ve heard so much about—is a cause of economic stagnation, rather than a symptom, that has profound implications for policy.

For example, as Turberville points out, banks and policy makers dealt with the financial crisis by tightening standards on average borrowers (people like you and me, who may still find it tough to get mortgages or refinance). While there were certainly some folks who shouldn’t have been getting loans for houses, keeping the spigots tight on average borrowers, which most economists agree was and is a key reason that the middle class suffered disproportionately in the crisis and Great Recession, doesn’t address the larger issue of the financial sector using capital mainly to enrich itself, via trading and other financial maneuvers, rather than lending to the real economy.

Former British policy maker and banking regular Adair Turner famously said once that he believed only about 15 % of the money that followed through the financial sector went back into the real economy to enrich average people. The rest of it merely stayed at the top, making the rich richer, and slowing economic growth. This Demos paper provides some strong evidence that despite the cyclical improvements in the economy, we’ve still got some serious underlying dysfunction in our economy that is creating an hourglass shaped world in which the fruits of the recovery aren’t being shared equally, and that inequality itself stymies growth.

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