Biden All, No, It's Cool, Making Enough To Live On Is Good Actually!
Earlier this week, Sen. Ron Johnson complained about wages rising as a result of businesses having to compete for workers, and claimed that paying workers enough to live on will result in inflation, and then everything will cost more, making those new, higher wages worth less in terms of purchasing power.
Not only is that a grotesque thing to say, it is tantamount to admitting that America's economic structure is a failure. If our economy doesn't allow for everyone to make enough to live on, and we "need" some people to make less than that, then how do Republicans justify crying that all those people who don't make enough to live on are just lazy, because everyone can make it in America as long as they work hard?
Speaking to a crowd in Cleveland, President Joe Biden responded to Johnson and other "critics" yesterday, going full Robert Reich/Elizabeth Warren and explaining that not only can our economy "handle" people not working on starvation wages, but that wage stagnation for workers has been a far worse economic problem overall. The increase in wages, he said, was not a "bug" but a "feature."
"Instead of workers competing for each other for jobs that are scarce, we want employers to compete with each other to attract workers," Biden told a crowd in Cleveland, Ohio.
He continued: "That kind of competition in the market doesn't just give workers more ability to earn a higher wage, it gives them the power and demand to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace."
Critics of the recent wage hikes have also deemed them a symptom of rampant inflation that could spark a new economic crisis. Stronger inflation typically does translate to higher pay, as workers demand greater compensation to counter rising prices.
Biden instead linked the raises to a reversal in long-stagnant wage growth. Worker salaries and wages have made up a smaller and smaller share of US economic output since the 1960s. At the same time, compensation for CEOs and shareholders has boomed.
Boosting compensation for workers at the bottom of the pay scale is long overdue and poses little risk to the recovery, the president said Thursday.
"We have more than ample room to raise workers' pay without raising customer prices," Biden added.
The fact is, people at the bottom of the economic pyramid having more money does way more for our economy than tax cuts for the rich do. Why? Because they actually spend that money and put it right back into the economy, rather than just hoarding it like billionaires do. In order to have an economy, in order for people to be able to start businesses that require customers, people have to have money to spend. Starvation wages are not just bad for the people who make them.
People like Johnson love to claim that if you pay people a living wage, cheeseburgers will suddenly cost one million dollars. Except the thing is, when you have higher wages across the board ... businesses will then have more customers. Because more people can afford to eat out or to buy other things beyond basic necessities. And having more customers attracts more customers because no one wants to go to an empty restaurant in non-pandemic times.
The thing is, as expensive as many things are, we're still not actually paying enough for them. Sort of. In order for the rich to get everything they feel they need, not only do wages need to be depressed, but costs do as well, which is why child labor, slave labor, prison labor, and sweatshop labor are considered "necessities" in many industries. The actual cost of a candy bar or a dress, were everyone involved in the production of those items paid fairly, would be a lot higher. The actual cost of a meal, if the farmers harvesting the vegetables and raising the animals were paid a fair wage, and those who serve it were being paid a fair wage, would be a lot higher than it is now. But people on the bottom can't get paid fairly because people in the supposed middle class aren't making enough to sustain that, and at the end of the day, you can't actually charge more for things than people are willing to spend on them.
So it is possible that the cost of some things would go up were we to pay everyone involved in the process of making them fairly, but that wouldn't be inflation so much things costing an appropriate amount in relation to how much it costs to make them without exploiting people.
The only group whose income has significantly increased in terms of purchasing power over the last 40 years is the rich, and there are simply not enough of them to sustain a working economy.
Changes in annual wages, by wage group, 1979-2018
The graph above shows that in 1979, the average income for the bottom 90 percent of earners was (in purchasing power of 2018 dollars), $30,330. In 2018, it was $37,574. And hey! That sounds kind of good, right? It's at least an increase! But the problem is, the average income of the 0.1 percent went from $637,180 to $2.8 million.
We're working within very tiny parameters here. You've got all of the poor and the working class and the "middle class" smushed together, having to share a much smaller slice of the economy than the very rich. You make a little more room for everyone, let things spread out a little more, those small, positive changes will have less of a major effect on the economy.
Wealth distribution in the United States.
Of course, increasing wages isn't the only thing that needs to happen to change all of this and make our economy more stable. Rich people also need to have less money. Not just because they need to pay their fair share (although that would be nice), but simply because things need to even out a little bit in order to keep everything stable and to keep our country livable.
They ought to be taxed to the point that it is simply "not worth it" to have a company like Walmart, because we are all better off economically when instead of one Walmart, there are five local small businesses that pay their employees a living wage. You still have the people who own those stores making a good deal of money, but instead of making 380 times what their workers make, they make a couple times what their workers make, and the really, really necessary CEOs who are so necessary and nobody else could possibly do their jobs make 10 times what their workers make and they put that money back into their local economy so that other people can also make money. That will create a far more stable and sustainable economy than just insisting that 44 percent of the country subsist on less money than it takes to survive here, so that inflation doesn't go up.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse