How should underpayment of employees affect tax policy?

by Linda Beale

How should underpayment of employees affect tax policy?

In a pre-Labor Day blogposting, Robert Reich wrote about the brute capitalism results for many employees today–a full-time job that doesn’t play a living wage.  Walmart was his example–“America’s biggest employer” where a “typical employee is still paid less than $9 an hour.”  See Reich, Wal-Mart’s typical employee is paid less than $9 an hour, (Aug. 30, 2013) (posted originally on Reich’s blog).

Wal-Mart has used its market clout to shut out labor unions and bring the retailing sector down to its self-defined low.  I’ve written before about my own personal experiences in talking to Wal-Mart employees about unions and encountering abject fear that the employee would lose his or her job if any Wal-Mart supervisor were to be aware of the discussion, being told that Wal-Mart supervisors routinely enter employee rest areas and tear down any materials discussing advantages of unionization, and seeing the evidence of anti-Union and pro-owner sentiment in the way huge profits are channeled to managers/owners while workers are paid a mere pittance of what would be a decent wage.  Wal-Mart documents revealed several years ago that it was intentionally refusing to provide health coverage becuase it was cheaper for the “company” (managers and owners) to push employees off to Medicaid and other government assistance.

That is brute capitalism at work–ensuring that the few at the top receive all the benefits of profit-making and productivity gains, while the average workforce is paid too little to provide a decent living for a single person, much less a family.

So what does this have to do with tax policy, you say?   Reich is making an argument for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and greater recognition of workers’ rights.  Those are worthy objectives, and I fully support them.  You could add better enforcement of anti-trust laws.  In general, we should be asking ourselves why we allow one retailing giant to become so huge that it encompases distribution networks, warehousing, sales and manufacturing contracts around the globe that ensure that workers in China or Bangladesh manufacturing clothing for the company are making it on very little money and that workers in the US who sell that same clothing (or otherwise work in stores) are similarly poorly situated.

But the question I am raising is the connection between such company policies and tax policy.  I think there is a strong argument that we should consider at least the following principles, coupled with a stronger (more progressive and higher rates) corporate tax to ensure the rules have some bite:

1) our tax rules should discourage companies from ripping off workers to overreward managers and owners.

2) our tax rules should work to ensure that people in the lowest income brackets don’t have to carry the burden of paying taxes on their meager incomes


3) our tax rules should shift the incidence of tax to those at the top who control their own salaries and away from those at the bottom who have practially no say on what they work for.

We could go part way towards accomplishing the first with a strict limitation on deductible compensation.  That might perhaps deny a deduction to executive pay that is more than 30 times the pay of the average worker as well as impose a cap above which no pay is deductible in computing the company’s taxes.

We could make our rules work better to accomplish the second point by extending the personal exemption and standard deduction to ensure that some measure (2X?) the federal poverty amount is entirely exempt from federal income or payroll taxation.

Finally, we could accomplish the third point by creating a more progressive income tax structure that identifies several additional brackets at the high end (distinguishing between those who earn not quite a million and those who earn multi-millions and those who earn billions) and a more progressive estate tax structure that exempts a core amount (smaller than the high exemption recently made permanent) and then imposes a graduated tax on the excess.

If we don’t begin to address the issue of hardworking Americans who cannot get by on a single job by amending our policies (including tax) to make the existence of a highly privileged upper class and a highly disadvantaged underclass the most important topic for government to address, I fear this country is in for a rude shock.  Infrastructure expenditures will continue to dwindle especially in poorer areas,  Education will continue to be moved to easily quantifiable but not so likely to be enduringly useful online instruction under the pressure from the “accountability gurus” (who want to evaluate out of existence public teacher unions, without knowing what makes a good educator) and the likes of the (also non-educator) Bill Gates and his ilk.  The wealthy will continue to live in more and more secluded and luxurious gated communities separate from the hoi-poloi of the middle and lower classes.  Generally speaking, brute capitalism and bogus “free market” theories of economics and tax will continue to leave more and more of our citizens underprivileged, hungry, lacking in education, and turning to whatever avenue for changing their lives remains open (including crime).

Megan McArdle (one of those Bloomberg economists who tends to write in support of right-wing economic ideas) recently argued that Wal-Mart can’t pay the good wages that Trader Joe’s or Costco pays because (i) it is simply too big, with too much merchandies, to make the kinds of profit it expects doing so, and (ii) it has a low-income customer base who can’t afford to buy anything except the cheap stuff it provides [produced in unsafe conditions by a non-unionized labor force].  See Megan McCardle, Why Wal-Mart Will Never Pay like Costco, (Aug. 27, 2013).

Megan thus supports my argument that we should never allow one retailer to grow to such huge consolidated form (antitrust needs to be reinvigorated to battle giants like WalMart).  But Megan misses Henry Ford’s key insight–if you want your workers to buy your good product, you pay your workers well, and their business will further your business.  Wal-Mart has done exactly the opposite–it has driven out stores that paid workers better (and added to localities’ environmental problems in spades), in order to drain off huge profits for its owners and top managers while using every technigue in the book to block workers’ unions and prevent workers from getting paid decent wages for what they do, forcing workers to only be able to buy from the Wal-Mart type distribution network (Wal-Mart and “dollar store” or other cheap merchandisers who pay their staff very little).

Whether we think about this in terms of the growing inequality in this country that stifles economic growth for all in the long run, or the class warfare that the right has been engaging in for at least the decades since Reagan was elected President, or the corporatism (derived in large part from the “free market” rhetoric) that has taken over most American institutions, we should recognize that Wal-Mart and other big companies like McDonald’s and the other fast-food chains have built a business model that is detrimental to ordinary Americans for the benefit of the few (“the 1%” of the Occupy Wall Street rhetoric).  And we should start considering ways to counter the these harmful developments.  In particular, we should ensure that companies pay their workers a living wage and we should protect those workers at the bottom of the income scale from having to give up any of that wage in payroll or income taxes.

Cross posted with ataxingmatter