Tell ‘Em, Obama

Obama Should Take on the Private Sector’s Wage Delusion

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

President Obama is giving a big speech on the economy today, the first in a promised series. In a blog post entitled “You’re Going to Want to Watch This Speech,” White House communications ace Dan Pfeiffer says the new economic agenda “will include new ideas and new pushes for ideas he has discussed before.” So expect to hear plenty about Obamacare, the need to invest in training, infrastructure investments, renewable energy, trade, more money for research and student aid, immigration reform, targeted tax cuts and incentives for businesses to hire. And so on.

Don’t get me wrong. Virtually all of the measures Obama has proposed—and will propose—would improve the economy to some degree. But thanks to the obstinacy of congressional Republicans, they’re not going anywhere. In fact, one of the central facts of our economy is that government-enforced austerity is now the problem. No speech will change that. But while he’s got our attention, and while he’s got the media focused on the economy, Obama could use his bully pulpit to discuss one of America’s most serious economic problems: low wages.

Things are going OK at many levels, and they’re going fantastically well when you compare America with the rest of the world. In an age of long business cycles, the U.S. has entered its 49th month of expansion. The stock market has recouped all its losses from the financial crisis, and then some. Corporate profits and cash holdings of U.S. companies are at a record high. Exports are booming. Housing prices are seeing sustained growth. The economy is adding jobs at a rate of 200,000 per month. USA! USA!

Policy—the stimulus, the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing—has helped. But two other factors have made a big difference. First, the ability of U.S. companies to restructure, innovate, find new markets, and grow, at home and globally. And second, the heroic American consumer, who has been paying down debt, doing a much better job of staying current on financial obligations, and continuing to shop.

So why is there so much ennui? After all, the number of people who rate the economy as good, according to The New York Times, is about 39 percent, an improvement but hardly a positive assessment. Economic confidence, as measured by Gallup, has stalled and remains in negative territory. Measures of consumer confidence, while rising, are hardly buoyant. The economy grew at just a 0.7 percent annual rate in the recently concluded second quarter.

There are many problems. But the biggest problem in the U.S. today is lack of demand, and a lack of wages. This has long since stopped being a jobless recovery. The private sector has added about 7 million positions since early 2010. But the level of wages and salaries is another story. The outstanding feature of this recovery is that companies have been utterly unwilling, or constitutionally unable, to share their wealth with their workers. Median income is below where it was in 2009. In real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation), it’s back where it was in 1995. That’s not supposed to happen in a normally functioning economy. In the second quarter of 2013, median weekly wages for full-time workers were $776, up just 0.6 percent from the first quarter of 2012.

It’s a question of norms and priorities. Today’s CEOs are operating under the dangerous delusion that the compensation they offer is adequate. Which is one of the ways you get absurd exercises like the McDonald’s budget. Executives generally believe that because the job market is weak, they should never have to raise wages. And nobody that matters tells them otherwise. Unions are essentially a nonentity. Investors don’t care. The financial media barely utters a peep about wages. Neither do politicians.

Confronted with piles of cash mounting in their coffers, companies generally decide to return it to shareholders by paying dividends, buying back stock, or boosting CEO pay. When you suggest to CEOs that they might be better served by channeling that cash into higher wages, as I’ve done on a few occasions, they look at you like you have a third arm growing out of your forehead. It simply doesn’t occur to them.

This is a serious problem. In fact, I’d argue that the pathology surrounding wages is the most serious problem holding back growth. Yes, there’s a need for infrastructure investment, better training, greater investments in renewable energy, and educational programs. But the last, best form of stimulus available is the only one that hasn’t been tried: paying people more.

Of course, there’s not much President Obama can do about wages. The government does set certain (very low) standards. We could boost the minimum wage and enact policies that require government contractors (and their contractors) to pay better. Good luck getting that through the House.

No, the issue is that norms have to change. People have to start thinking differently about wages, salaries, and benefits. Companies should be encouraged to pay more rather than less. It’s partially a moral question: how can you run a business that rests on people not getting raises and not making enough to be able to afford the necessities of life?

But the economic argument is much more compelling. Obama has shown a remarkable ability over the course of his political career to connect the dots on a range of complicated issues: race, health care, foreign policy. The dots are all there: Weak demand is a problem. Americans tend to spend about 97 percent of what they earn. When you pay them more, it is axiomatic that they will spend more. While some of that money will be spent on imports, the overwhelming majority of it will be spent on goods and services that are produced in the U.S. And the money American workers save will most likely be managed by American firms. In other words, when business pays people more, they’ll find that their business will rise on an arithmetic basis. CEOs and shareholders have received immense raises in the past several years. Isn’t it time American workers got one, too?

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That’s the speech I’m going to want to watch.