Scary New Wage Data

Now for some really scary breaking news, from the latest payroll tax data.

Every 34th wage earner in America in 2008 went all of 2009 without earning a single dollar, new data from the Social Security Administration show. Total wages, median wages, and average wages all declined, but at the very top, salaries grew more than fivefold.

. . . .

The new data hold important lessons for economic growth and tax policy and take on added meaning when examined in light of tax return data back to 1950.

The story the numbers tell is one of a strengthening economic base with income growing fastest at the bottom until, in 1981, we made an abrupt change in tax and economic policy. Since then the base has fared poorly while huge economic gains piled up at the very top, along with much lower tax burdens.

A weak foundation cannot properly support a massive superstructure, as the leaning Tower of Pisa shows. The latest wage data show the disastrous results some of us warned about, although like the famous tower, the economy only lists badly and has not collapsed.

Measured in 2009 dollars, total wages fell to just above $5.9 trillion, down $215 billion from the previous year. Compared with 2007, when the economy peaked, total wages were down $313 billion or 5 percent in real terms.

The number of Americans with any wages in 2009 fell by more than 4.5 million compared with the previous year. Because the population grew by about 1 percent, the number of idle hands and minds grew by 6 million.

These figures show, far more powerfully than the official unemployment measure known as U3, how both widespread and deep the loss of jobs was in 2009. While the official unemployment rate is just under 10 percent, deeper analysis of the data by economist John Williams at http://www.shadowstats.com shows a real under- and unemployment rate of more than 22 percent.

. . . .

To give this some perspective, from 1992 to 2000 the number of people earning any wages grew by 21 million, but nine years later just 2.8 million more people had any work.

These wage data, based on the Medicare flat tax on all compensation, tell us only about the number of people who earned wages and how much. They tell us nothing about whether these individuals were underemployed, had to work more than one job, earned fringe benefits, or were employed at a level commensurate with their abilities.

But they do give us a stunning picture of what’s happening at the very top of the compensation ladder in America.

The number of Americans making $50 million or more, the top income category in the data, fell from 131 in 2008 to 74 last year. But that’s only part of the story.

The average wage in this top category increased from $91.2 million in 2008 to an astonishing $518.8 million in 2009. That’s nearly $10 million in weekly pay!

You read that right. In the Great Recession year of 2009 (officially just the first half of the year), the average pay of the very highest-income Americans was more than five times their average wages and bonuses in 2008. And even though their numbers shrank by 43 percent, this group’s total compensation was 3.2 times larger in 2009 than in 2008, accounting for 0.6 percent of all pay. These 74 people made as much as the 19 million lowest-paid people in America, who constitute one in every eight workers.

. . . .

Back in 1994, when the top category the government reported on was $20 million or more of compensation, only 25 people were in that rarefied atmosphere, and their average earnings came to just under $45 million in 2009 dollars.

What does this all mean? It is the latest, and in this case quite dramatic, evidence that our economic policies in Washington are undermining the nation as a whole.We have created a tax system that changes continually as politicians manipulate it to extract campaign donations. We have enabled ‘‘free trade’’ that is nothing of the sort, but rather tax-subsidized mechanisms that encourage American manufacturers to close their domestic factories, fire workers, and then use cheap labor in China for products they send right back to the United States. This has created enormous downward pressure on wages, and not just for factory workers.

Combined with government policies that have reduced the share of private-sector workers in unions by more than two-thirds — while our competitors in Canada, Europe, and Japan continue to have highly unionized workforces — the net effect has been disastrous for the vast majority of American workers. And of course, less money earned from labor translates into less money to finance the United States of America.

. . . .

This orgy of money exhibitionism has created a society in which commas — it takes three to be a billionaire — count more than character. We have gone so far down this path that we bailed out bankers, allowing them to keep the untaxed wealth in their deferral accounts and, with a few exceptions, retaining shareholder value, while wiping out investors in General Motors and Chrysler as a condition of their bailouts. And while autoworkers had to take severe pay cuts, bonus time on Wall Street is at new record levels.

. . . .

What the figures . . . show is that the closer you got to the top of the ladder in the era from 1950 to 1980, the smaller your relative increase in income, except for the very top, whose gains were slightly more than those of the bottom 90 percent. Since 1980, however, the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen their incomes go nowhere, while on the highest steps of the income ladder, the further up you are, the greater your gains.

Add in today’s decreased number of jobs, and all these data add up to policies that can be described with one word: failed.

View TaxAnalysts' David Cay Johnston's opinion in its entirety on TAX.com

 

Discover the features and benefits of LexisNexis® Tax Center

 

For quality Tax & Accounting research resources, visit the LexisNexis® Store