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Why the Wealthiest Americans Are the Real 'Job-Killers'

The top 1 percent takes in more than twice the share of national income today than they did 30 years ago, and that's a big reason why consumers are tapped out.
 
 
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That the wealthy are “job creators,” and therefore have interests that must be defended by the public at large, is a talking-point that, however facile, is so popular it slips effortlessly from the lips of conservatives every day.

It can be deployed for any purpose – not only in calling for more tax breaks for the rich, but also when opposing public interest regulation, consumer litigation and worker protections. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, even used it to deflect attention from the "gay rehabilitation" services her clinic allegedly offers. When asked about it by ABC News, Bachmann merely acknowledged, “we do have a business that deals with job creation.” When pressed, she stuck with it: “As I said, again, we’re very proud of our business and we’re proud of all job creators in the United States.”

It's also complete nonsense; the opposite of the truth. Sure, the wealthy create a few jobs – people who offer exclusive services or sell them high-end goods. But the overwhelming majority of jobs in this country are “created” by ordinary Americans when they spend their paychecks.

Consumer demand accounts for around 70 percent of our economic output. And with so much wealth having been redistributed upward through a 40-year class-war from above, American consumers are too tapped out to spend as they once did. This remains the core issue in this sluggish, largely jobless recovery. The wealthy, in their voracious appetite for a bigger piece of the national pie, are the real job-killers in this economic climate.

Don't take my word for it. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that “the main reason U.S. companies are reluctant to step up hiring is scant demand, rather than uncertainty over government policies, according to a majority of economists” the paper surveyed. That jibes with what business owners themselves are saying. Last week, the National Federation of Independent Businesses released a survey of small businessmen and women that found widespread “pessimism about future business conditions and expected real sales gains.”

New York Times reporter David Leonhardt wrote this week that “We are living through a tremendous bust. It isn’t simply a housing bust. It’s a fizzling of the great consumer bubble that was decades in the making.”

The auto industry is on pace to sell 28 percent fewer new vehicles this year than it did 10 years ago — and 10 years ago was 2001, when the country was in recession. Sales of ovens and stoves are on pace to be at their lowest level since 1992. Home sales over the past year have fallen back to their lowest point since the crisis began. And big-ticket items are hardly the only problem.

Leonhardt cites worse-than-expected retail sales and a study conducted by the New York Federal Reserve Bank that found “discretionary service spending” – which excludes housing, food and health care – to have dropped 7 percent, more than twice the decline we saw during previous recessions.

“If you’re looking for one overarching explanation for the still-terrible job market,” Leonhardt concludes, “it is this great consumer bust. Business executives are only rational to hold back on hiring if they do not know when their customers will fully return. Consumers, for their part, are coping with a sharp loss of wealth and an uncertain future (and many have discovered that they don’t need to buy a new car or stove every few years).”

Average American households' economic malaise started long before the current downturn, as those at the top started grabbing an ever-increasing share of the pie in the 1970s. These graphs, courtesy of Mother Jones, tell the tale:

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Discounting those in the top 20 percent of the pile – according to economists Emanuel Saez and Thomas Picketty it's actually the top 10 percent – Americans haven't seen their real incomes rise in the past 30 years.

Paul Buchheit, a professor with City Colleges of Chicago, crunched some numbers using IRS data and found that “if middle- and upper-middle-class families had maintained the same share of American productivity that they held in 1980, they would be making an average of $12,500 more per year.” In other words, because the share of income going to the top has increased so dramatically, ordinary people have $12,500 less in their wallets today. Studies have shown that when wealthy people grab more post-tax income they're more likely to bank it than to spend it, so much of that $12,500 also represents lost demand, and hence less jobs. Wealthy Americans' avarice is a job-killer.

American households compensated for their flat incomes first by sending millions of women into the workforce – the single-earner household is largely a relic of the past – and then by running up lots of debt. In the 1970s, Americans socked away between 8-12 percent in case hard times hit, but the national savings rate declined precipitously as the top earners started grabbing an outsized share of the nation's income.

As a result, we were among the least prepared citizens in the developed world to handle the crash – we didn't have a rainy-day fund put away.

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Then came the Great Recession. The federal Reserve did a study in 2009 in which it went back and surveyed the same households that had been examined in a 2007 snapshot of consumer finances to see how they were faring during the recession. The study found that between 2007 and 2009, median family net worth fell 23 percent, from $125,400 to only $96,000.

Like income, that continued a longer trend that began as those at the top of the pile began grabbing an ever-greater share of the nation's wealth. As Edward Wolff, an economist at NYU, noted, between 1983 and 2007, only those in the top 5 percent of the income distribution added to their households' net worth (PDF). The rest of us tread water. Economists talk about a “wealth effect,” which simply means that when you have more wealth you tend to spend more freely. So, this concentration of wealth has also impacted demand.

None of this is particularly complex. In 1978, the top 1 percent of the ladder took in just under 9 percent of the nation's income, leaving a bit more than 91 percent for the rest of us. In 2007, the year before the crash, they took in 23.5 percent, leaving just 76.5 percent for the rest of the population to split up.

They banked most of that income, whereas we would have spent it. The fact that we're broke means that businesses are facing less demand for their goods and services than they otherwise would, and have less need to hire a bunch of employees. And that dynamic explains why it's the wealthiest Americans who are the real “job killers.”

 
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