The fundamental law of capitalism is that if workers have no money, businesses have no customers. That’s why the extreme, and widening, wealth gap in our economy presents not just a moral challenge, but an economic one, too. In a capitalist system, rising inequality creates a death spiral of falling demand that ultimately takes everyone down.
Low-wage jobs are fast replacing middle-class ones in the U.S. economy. Sixty percent of the jobs lost in the last recession were middle-income, while 59 percent of the new positions during the past two years of recovery were in low-wage industries that continue to expand such as retail, food services, cleaning and health-care support. By 2020, 48 percent of jobs will be in those service sectors.
Policy makers debate incremental changes for arresting this vicious cycle. But perhaps the most powerful and elegant antidote is sitting right before us: a spike in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
True, that sounds like a lot. When President Barack Obama called in February for an increase to $9 an hour from $7.25, he was accused of being a dangerous redistributionist. Yet consider this: If the minimum wage had simply tracked U.S. productivity gains since 1968, it would be $21.72 an hour -- three times what it is now.
Traditionally, arguments for big minimum-wage increases come from labor unions and advocates for the poor. I make the case as a businessman and entrepreneur who sees our millions of low-paid workers as customers to be cultivated and not as costs to be cut.
Here’s a bottom-line example: My investment portfolio includes Pacific Coast Feather Co., one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of bed pillows. Like many other manufacturers, pillow-makers are struggling because of weak demand. The problem comes down to this: My annual earnings equal about 1,000 times the U.S. median wage, but I don’t consume 1,000 times more pillows than the average American. Even the richest among us only need one or two to rest their heads at night.
An economy such as ours that increasingly concentrates wealth in the top 1 percent, and where most workers must rely on stagnant or falling wages, isn’t a place to build much of a pillow business, or any other business for that matter.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would inject about $450 billion into the economy each year. That would give more purchasing power to millions of poor and lower-middle-class Americans, and would stimulate buying, production and hiring.
Studies by the Economic Policy Institute show that a $15 minimum wage would directly affect 51 million workers and indirectly benefit an additional 30 million. That’s 81 million people, or about 64 percent of the workforce, and their families who would be more able to buy cars, clothing and food from our nation’s businesses.
This virtuous cycle effect is described in the research of economists David Card and Alan Krueger (the current chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers) showing that, contrary to conventional economic orthodoxy, increases in the minimum wage increase employment. In 60 percent of the states that raised the minimum wage during periods of high unemployment, job growth was faster than the national average.
Some business people oppose an increase in the minimum wage as needless government interference in the workings of the market. In fact, a big increase would substantially reduce government intervention and dependency on public assistance programs.
No one earning the current minimum wage of about $15,000 per year can aspire to live decently, much less raise a family. As a result, almost all workers subsisting on those low earnings need panoply of taxpayer-supported benefits, including the earned income tax credit, food stamps, Medicaid or housing subsidies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government spent $316 billion on programs designed to help the poor in 2012.
That means the current $7.25 minimum wage forces taxpayers to subsidize Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other large employers, effectively socializing their labor costs. This is great for Wal-Mart and its shareholders, but terrible for America. It is both unjust and inefficient.
A higher minimum wage would also make low-income families less dependent on government programs: The CBO report shows that the federal government gives about $8,800 in annual assistance to the lowest-income households but only $4,000 to households earning $35,500, which would be about the level of earnings of a worker making $15 an hour.
An objection to a significant wage increase is that it would force employers to shed workers. Yet the evidence points the other way: Workers earn more and spend more, increasing demand and helping businesses grow.
Critics of raising the minimum wage also say it will lead to more outsourcing and job loss. Yet virtually all of these low-wage jobs are service jobs that can neither be outsourced nor automated.
Raising the earnings of all American workers would provide all businesses with more customers with more to spend. Seeing the economy as Henry Ford did would redirect our country toward a high-growth future that works for all.
(Nick Hanauer is a founder of Second Avenue Partners, a venture capital company in Seattle specializing in early-stage startups and emerging technology. He has founded or financed dozens of companies, including aQuantive Inc. and Amazon.com, and is the co-author of two books, “The True Patriot” and “The Gardens of Democracy.”)
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