People who have read this blog for any length of time are familiar with some of my preoccupations–civic literacy and civics education, climate change, competent governance, and job creation. (Admittedly, I have a lot of “hot buttons”…)
I have been fairly consistent in my approach to most of these issues over the years, but I’ve changed my tune when it comes to growing the economy and creating jobs. I used to be persuaded by the argument that significant raises in the minimum wage would lead to job losses–it seemed logical that forcing a business to pay more to worker A would leave that business with fewer dollars with which to hire worker B. What I didn’t understand was the unspoken caveat: all things being equal. In the real world, it turns out that all things aren’t equal.
What the real world evidence shows is that paying workers a living wage–and thus providing them with a modicum of disposable income–is what creates jobs. As I now understand, demand is what creates jobs, not the beneficence of the factory owner. The guy who owns the widget factory isn’t going to hire more workers to make widgets if no one has the money to buy them.
A recent article in The Week emphasized the point
For many years, rich oligarchs have posed as the engines of the economy — the entrepreneurs whose beneficence and wise decisions create economic prosperity. In a 2019 article for Fox News, Sally Pipes, president of the right-wing Pacific Research Institute, called for Americans to “celebrate America’s job creators” during Labor Day. “Let’s honor the people responsible for that grandeur — namely, the profit-seeking entrepreneurs and business people who make our economy hum,” she wrote.
This is bunk. The real engine of the economy is the dollars in the pocket of the humble average citizen.
The article goes further, however. Most economists now recognize that putting additional money in the hands of workers stimulates demand, but they tend to think of that demand in the context of a fixed economic capacity–as a mechanism for getting to full employment in existing factories and other enterprises.
In reality, as Skanda Amarnath and Alex Williams argue at Employ America, spending also affects overall capacity. A factory, for instance, is not some immortal thing — at a minimum, it must be continually maintained because of entropy and ordinary wear and tear on equipment. To remain competitive, it must be regularly upgraded with the latest production technologies. But businesses will logically invest in new capacity only if they see a market for the goods and services that capacity would produce. This is especially true with respect to high-tech manufacturing investment, which is very complex and expensive — taking over half a decade to pay off.
Amarnath and Williams argue that slack demand afflicted America’s economy well before the 2008 recession, and that it is only surging again now because of the huge boom in sales of computer products–a boom generated by two things; the pandemic surge in working from home, and government transfers to individuals, also due to the pandemic.
All of the available evidence confirms that giving poorer people more money generates economic growth. When you give rich people more money–through Republican policies like deregulation, union busting and especially the numerous, generous tax cuts so dear to GOP hearts–they disproportionately save it, rather than spending it and boosting the economy.
As the article says, cash in the pockets of the working poor isn’t just good in in a humanitarian sense (giving people money they need to live.) It’s good because spending those dollars is what will keep businesses humming, investment high, and the economy healthy.