The invisible hand of Loki

Linda Tirado is the author of Hand to Mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world. In this guest post she explores the vast gulf between the ultra-wealthy and the poor in the US and asks whether trickle-down economics has achieved anything other than deliver more wealth to those who are already wealthy.

We’ve given it long enough, America. For decades we’ve been patiently waiting for trickle-down economics to finally take hold and bring us shared prosperity. The theory is that if the powerful are left to their own devices, they will naturally buy things and invest in our economy so much that everyone will prosper.

This is where economics and faith start to collide. Here’s some magic for you: the whole economy is kept functioning by what’s called the invisible hand. That’s the idea that in acting selfishly, we’ll find that we have naturally also benefited society, as though the whole market were designed by some benevolent intelligence for the mutual benefit of mankind.

So, according to this philosophy, it would make sense for big box retailers to support higher minimum wages because it would broaden their customer base and stimulate spending in the working classes, which really benefits the stores in the long-term. Thus the invisible hand, taking corporate people gently by the shoulder, will guide them to decisions that benefit everyone in the pursuit of profits. It’s like that Footsteps poem about walking on a beach with God that’s in everyone’s grandmother’s house, only for multinationals.

What if the hand weren’t benevolent, though? That might explain the disparity between what we dream of and what happens in the economy. There are plenty of pantheons with gods that are neither good nor evil, but simply mischievous. What if it’s been making obscene gestures at us the whole time? Tax cuts and record-setting markets do not a functioning economy make, any more than massive military spending has ever been good as a long-term economic plan. History tells us that inequality is only a good thing to a point.

The statistics have become boring through repetition. CEOs make record amounts more than their workers, the top earners make eleventy billion percent more than the bottom everybody else combined. And we always find a way to ignore the fact that active duty military personnel are on food stamps while there are people whose expertise is valued so highly that they make tens of thousands of dollars in ten minutes.

We’re not even managing to actually support the military that we spend so much money on.

The trouble we run into when we demand a change is that we’re not only debating politicians or a company owner. We’re contending with corporate citizens, too, mythical figures which have Constitutional protections but no faces, and the people who run their boards, and the thousands of employees that work on their behalf, and the millions more shareholders. Say what you will about the Kochs or Walmart heirs or Jamie Dimon (and I do) they’re merely symptoms of the problem.

That problem is simple: there is an imbalance of power in America, and the economy is no exception.

Of course, the money people are only half the trouble. There’s as much zealotry amongst our political leaders as there is amongst our corporate bodies. For example, Kansas cut income taxes pretty drastically, to a top individual rate of 4.8% and a top corporate rate of 7%. The plan was to cut taxes, then sit back and wait for the magic to happen. Jobs would be created as companies would flock to the state. Instead they’re losing the race for jobs to neighbouring states, underfunding basic services like schools and facing over a billion dollars in budget shortfall. The governor’s office is now reversing course and likely to raise taxes along with cutting education some more.

In November, Congress deregulated the banks (again.) Basically, part of the last bailout we gave banks was to cover really risky bets. So we passed regulation that said they had to trade that stuff with their own money, in accounts that taxpayers weren’t guaranteeing. This, of course, was tyranny and Congress changed the rules again in the fall budget.

Last year, Clarence Thomas essentially told a bunch of Amazon temp workers that they had no legal right to claim wages after they were off shift. Amazon had made them stay over after work for mandatory bag searches, adding twenty minutes or half an hour to their total workday. The Supreme Court ruled that it was a labour dispute, conveniently ignoring the fact that the workers had no union.

Even after Alan Greenspan, protege of Ayn Rand herself, declared that he’d made a massive error with his policies, our leaders still act as though if we just leave everything alone things will work out eventually (because the market is guided by an invisible hand and so major actors will naturally behave for the greater good. Just wait for the ripple effects, guys. Any minute now. )

This has brought us impossibly incremental wage gains, a growing service sector full of dead-end jobs for people without degrees, higher education that put an entire generation so far in debt that they can’t afford to start families and buy homes, tax laws that reward companies who actually move jobs overseas, unsustainable levels of inequality and a populace increasingly alienated from the people making the rules.

America is increasingly becoming an oligarchy (“economic elite domination” or “biased populism” are the actual terms used by the researchers at that bastion of working-class ethos, Princeton) and it’s only a matter of time before we see another round of worried press conferences featuring sombre faces explaining to us why, again, we need to give a whole bunch of public money to rich people who lost their bets in order to stave off the Apocalypse.

It’s completely possible for us to try something different. We simply have to accept that neither the money nor the political power are trickling down, and behave accordingly. It isn’t impossible. Impossible is raising a family on restaurant wages. Making anything like a life for yourself when you live at the whims of two or three different employers is impossible. Millions of people manage to do those things every year somehow anyway.

In hundreds of cities nationwide, everyday people have taken to the streets demanding ten or fifteen dollars an hour. It’s substantially less than the $21 they’d be making if the minimum wage had kept up with overall income growth since 1968. Just over half the country (51% according to Goldman Sachs in November) makes under $20 an hour. Those people are demanding a seat at the table, and they’re winning. Twenty-one states passed minimum wage laws last year. None of the places affected have yet collapsed into anarchy or Zimbabwe-style inflation.

There are better solutions than simply waiting around for faceless rulers to suddenly get benevolent.

I worry that the hand might be Loki’s.

This post was first published on Linda Tirado’s blog, Bootstrap Industries. Linda will be in Australia as a guest of ACOSS and VCOSS in June 2015.