The Biggest, Most Important 2016 Debate

Now that Republicans are opportunistically talking about stagnant wages, Democrats finally have the chance to throw supply-side economics in the dustbin of history.

01.17.15 11:45 AM ET

It’s now shaping up that wages and the condition of the middle class are going to be the dominant issues as we enter this first phase of the 2016 slog. Don’t take it from me, or even from Elizabeth Warren. Speaker John Boehner said as much (well, almost) on the day he opened the new session of Congress.

This is a very big deal, and it’s about more than our usual, tug-of-war politics. Boehner’s mention of wage stagnation was clearly opportunistic, because it’s a current problem that can be hung around the President’s neck. But middle-class wage stagnation is much more than an Obama problem. It’s our main economic reality for 30-plus years now.

The first chart in this article tells the basic story. Since 1979, American workers’ productivity has increased by 80 percent. The income of the top 1 percent has increased 240 percent. And the average American wage, adjusted for inflation, has gone up just a few percentage points, maybe 8 percent. It wasn’t always this way, and it isn’t nearly this bad in other advanced countries. The median wage in the United States today is around $50,000. If wages had kept pace with productivity gains, the median wage would be more than $90,000.

But look: It’s highly serendipitous that the wage problem is something the Republicans can use against Obama (at least for now). That means they’ll talk about it. What they’ll come up with in terms of solutions beyond tax cuts and deregulation is another matter, but the mere fact that they’ll talk about it means that both parties will be talking about it, and when both parties are talking about an issue, that issue tends to rise to the top of the charts.

On paper at least, this is great for Democrats, because wage stagnation is basically a Democratic issue, one that most voters would probably trust the Democrats to do a better job on than Republicans. Although of course, if it comes to be October 2016 and wages are still as flat as they’ve been since the crash, that could be a problem for the Democrats. So what they need to do is frame wages not as a post-crash, Obama-era problem, but instead to make sure Americans know that this is a deep historical problem, and that the moment to address is right now.

To that end, you should know that this past week was a really good one for progressive economics in Washington (and none of it had anything to do with Warren!). Two major proposals were floated to address these problems. They’re real and meaty. And if events go in the direction I hope they do, their release in mid-January 2015 will be remembered as the moment when the debate turned.

First, on Monday, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland put out a report by the Democratic staff of the House Budget Committee called “An Action Plan to Grow the Paychecks of All, Not Just the Wealthy Few.” All right, a bit cumbersome as a title. But give it credit anyway for getting to the point.

“I sat down with our team many months ago,” Van Hollen told me Thursday, “and we began to really tackle what would need to be done to deal with wage stagnation.” The plan is built around nine ideas. The one that’s gotten the most attention because of the obvious “class warfare” angle is the so-called Wall Street tax, a fee of .1 percent on financial market transactions.

But there are much more interesting ideas in the paper. The most notable may be a limit on the amount of deductions corporations can take for executive pay if those executives are keeping wages stagnant or laying off workers. “From 2007 to 2010,” Van Hollen says, “corporations took $66 billion in deductions on executive pay. That’s a huge amount of money. We say here that if you want to take a tax deduction, you’d better be giving your employees a raise.”

Van Hollen unveiled his proposals at the Center for American Progress on Monday. Then, two days later, CAP president Neera Tanden led a press conference unveiling a major new report on inclusive prosperity, under a panel co-chaired by Larry Summers and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer for the British Labour Party. The CAP plan, which Tanden stressed is international in the scopes of its analyses and proposed fixes (hence Balls’s inclusion), is aimed at the same basic problem Van Hollen is shooting at—the need to raise the incomes of the middle class.

Summers, speaking at the press conference, emphasized an issue he’s been talking up for a long time, a “very substantial” increase in infrastructure investment. “When we can borrow at 1.8 percent in our own currency, and when construction unemployment approaches double digits,” as it is now, Summers said, “that’s the moment when Kennedy Airport should be fixed.”

No one is under the illusion that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are going to rush out and pass these measures. That isn’t the point. The point is to influence the direction of the debate, especially the presidential campaign debate. And that, of course, raises the question of the extent to which a certain former senator and secretary of state will embrace these ideas. Tanden was a longtime Hillary Clinton staffer. The imprimatur of Summers on these progressive ideas should raise Clinton’s comfort level with them. If Clinton runs on half of these ideas, and she’s signaling that she might, she’ll be a more progressive candidate than she was in 2008.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve lived with this kind of wage picture, this kind of raging unfairness, for nearly 40 years. Of course, part of the reason that we have lived with it for 40 years is that the Democratic Party wasn’t always much good at articulating a theory of economic growth that could counter the Republicans’ trickle-down argument. They’re finally finding their voice on this. And so, the real importance of the next election is not the Supreme Court, not climate change, not foreign policy, crucial as all those things are. It’s that it could write the obituary of supply-side economics.