Our Opinion: A quicksand economy?

There's been a lot of talk about how great the stock market has been doing this past year? How's your portfolio?

Well, if you are like the average American, you don't have a portfolio; you're just concerned about how to pay the bills, put food on the table and clothes on your kids, and save up for a new car or repairs to the house; all the while you haven't seen a raise in your pay for several years.

You've all heard about the studies that have concluded that due to inflationary costs, most Americans are actually making less today than they did 30 years ago. And then we've all heard about the protests and walkouts at fast-food franchises where people are asking for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Meanwhile, demand is up at food shelves and shelters, more children are qualifying for a free or reduced meal at their schools and food stamps are a major resource for the working poor.

But don't you worry. Things are going gangbusters on Wall Street. And it's all your fault for not getting in on the bonanza by investing that $10,000 or so you have stuffed into your mattress.

"Don't be fooled by all the year-end upbeat business news," wrote Robert Reich, labor secretary under Pres. Bill Clinton. "Yes, retail sales rose 2.3 percent this holiday season compared to .7 percent last year - but that was mainly because of deep discounts at retailers offering up to 75 percent off."

And what about the so-called "Santa Claus rally" that's driving the stock market to new highs? asks Reich.

"That's not due to rising profits; it's mainly because of record stock buy-backs. Corporations have been using whatever cash they have (and can borrow) to buy up their own shares, thereby pushing up the prices of their remaining shares - and, not incidentally, guaranteeing corporate and Wall Street executives big year-end bonuses. But without real wage growth, it's all built on quicksand."

Depending on who you talk to, consumer spending is responsible for between 60 and 70 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

While we're not esteemed economists, it just seems to be Econ 101 that if Americans had more cash, they could pay down debt while keeping the engine of commerce humming. A way of getting more cash into the hands of consumers could be raising the minimum wage.

There are 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have minimum wages that exceed the federal $7.25. In Vermont, the minimum wage is set to increase to $8.73 in 2014, the third highest in the country.

The Senate is currently considering a bill that would raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. While the Senate might pass such a bill, it's doubtful it would even make it to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

"Few economic issues are such sweet catnip to ideological camps, and there is precisely zero consensus about whether these minimums have positive, negative or no effect," writes Zachary Karabell, for Reuters.

While supporters argue that a higher minimum wage will give people a better standard of living and boost consumption, detractors argue that it will lead companies to hire fewer workers and kill job creation, notes Karabell.

"One thing no one addresses, however, is that regardless of whether the government raises the minimum wage, our society can't endlessly coast with a system that includes wage stagnation for the many and soaring prosperity for the few."

As Karabell points out, the top 10 percent of earners in the United States have gone from constituting a third of all income in the U.S. in the 1970s to half today. The top 1 percent accounts for 20 percent of the nation's wealth.

"In 1996, the minimum wage was $4.75 an hour. Today's $7.25 is only a few cents above that, when adjusted for inflation," writes Karabell.

But will raising the minimum wage help to combat income inequality?

"Even an increase to $10 ... would leave a family of two that depends on it with less than a living wage," states Karabell.

There are various programs, ranging from food stamps to the earned income tax credit to Medicaid, that exist to close that gap, but many legislators in Washington, D.C., seem intent on punishing the working poor for, well, being poor.

"The real problem with the minimum wage debate, however, is that it is a simple argument that masks some uncomfortable realities for all sides of the ideological spectrum. You cannot reduce inequality by the simple working of the unfettered free market, nor can you reduce inequality without money coming from somewhere. You cannot mandate an increase in the minimum wage without a concomitant increase in spending."

As Karabell notes, an increase in wages would require higher costs somewhere, lower incomes for the rich or larger amounts of debt, all of which most Americans are unwilling to even contemplate, never mind approve of.

Writing for the New York Times, Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to V.P. Joe Biden, refutes the argument that raising the minimum wage would force employers to cut jobs.

"The fact is that along with the many changes in the national minimum over time, we now have dozens of states and localities with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum," writes Bernstein. "If there were a problem with widespread job losses among intended beneficiaries, we'd probably know."

We believe raising the minimum wage is a good way to get more money into the hands of people who will spend it right away, thereby taking care of their immediate needs and perhaps giving the economy a little needed boost. But it doesn't address the long-term fundamental flaws in the system that are creating a new generation of robber barons who are only enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else. We don't expect those flaws will be rectified in the near future as the corporatocracy is so embedded in our government that it is hard to distinguish one from the other.

The flaws in our economic system can't be addressed until the failings of our representative democracy are addressed as well. That means restricting the access of lobbyists to legislators and reforming campaign finance laws. But does anyone see that happening anytime soon?

Until then, the majority of Americans will wonder if they will be the next victims of our quicksand economy.


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