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Thursday, October 27, 2016

WASHINGTON — Central to our national self-understanding is the idea that hard work pays off. Americans have always tolerated rather high levels of inequality, as long as most people had a chance to rise.

Thus was Chris Christie’s opening tribute to his hard-working parents and grandparents the most affecting part of his announcement on Tuesday that he is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The New Jersey governor bestowed praise across gender lines, describing his grandmothers as women “who knew how to work and who knew that hard work would deliver something for their children.”

This section of Christie’s speech got little attention, probably because it was seen as political boilerplate, the kind of thing politicians like to say to connect themselves to the struggles of their fellow citizens. But work, its rewards, and its discontents will be central to our nation’s debate going into the 2016 campaign. And President Obama has laid down a marker for testing how seriously politicians take the obligation to make hard work pay.

To much bellyaching from Republicans and business groups, Obama is putting forward new rules that would make up to 5 million more American workers eligible for overtime pay. He’s doing this by ending a scam through which employers designate even relatively low-paid workers as managers to get around the law, which requires an overtime premium after 40 hours per week.

Under the current rules, as Obama wrote earlier this week in The Huffington Post, salaried workers earning as little as $23,660 a year can be robbed of overtime by being given supervisory or managerial designations. The new regulation would raise the threshold to a more plausible $50,440 a year.

Not surprisingly, some firms immediately announced they would find ways of evading the rule, warning of shorter hours and fewer jobs. But there are always people in business — not everyone — who react this way to any effort to improve the bargaining position or compensation of employees. Remember all those warnings that the Affordable Care Act would be a “job killer”? Funny how we seem to have added well over 12 million new private-sector jobs since Obamacare passed in March 2010.

And avoiding overtime is not the only way in which employers are trying to cut the compensation they offer workers. This week, The Wall Street Journal‘s Lauren Weber reported on how businesses are “setting up workers as franchisees or owners of limited liability companies” to “shield” themselves “from tax and labor statutes.” My Washington Post colleague Catherine Rampell has also documented “the shifting of risk off corporate balance sheets and onto the shoulders of individual Americans.”

In discussing rising inequality, we often act as if the trend is a natural development about which we can do nothing. Of course there are big economic forces at work. But government rules and laws — on pay, health care, labor rights, and taxes — can improve the standing of workers or they can make the disparities worse. Government has a choice, and there is no purely neutral ground on this question.

And this is why Christie’s lovely tribute to work and family needs to be examined as something more than a sentiment from a greeting card. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, what are typically referred to as “values issues” quickly rose to the forefront of the argument in the Republican presidential primary and next year’s election. But no values issue is more relevant to more Americans (across the boundaries of sexual orientation, gender, and race) than whether the hard work that politicians extol pays off in the ways they claim it should.

In a very crowded Republican presidential field, will any candidate find it in his or her interest to break with the party’s orthodoxy on government regulations and labor rights? Will any of them have the temerity to appeal to their party’s many working-class supporters by making the point that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and other Democrats are sure to advance: that reinforcing our “conservative” values about the honor of work often requires what are usually seen as “progressive” measures by government to keep workers from being short-changed?

“One of the things my mother used to say all the time,” Christie declared on Tuesday, “was, ‘Christopher, if you work hard enough, you can be anything.'” That is precisely the promise that our politicians should be working harder to vindicate.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

  • “In a very crowded Republican presidential field, will any candidate find
    it in his or her interest to break with the party’s orthodoxy on
    government regulations and labor rights? Will any of them have the
    temerity to appeal to their party’s many working-class supporters by
    making the point that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and other
    Democrats are sure to advance: that reinforcing our “conservative”
    values about the honor of work often requires what are usually seen as
    “progressive” measures by government to keep workers from being

    Some of them will try to, yes. But then they’ll all rush to be the first to bury their faces into the crotch of Sugardaddy Sheldon Adelson.

  • Daniel Jones

    Employers: “You’ll be poor, or else!”

    Boil it down, and that’s what it comes down to, no joke.

    • Independent1

      I think I’m missing your point a little, but if you’re suggesting that raising the min wage will necessarily be making employers poor – you couldn’t be more wrong.

      Fact is that it’s the states in America that raised the min wage in 2014 that have seen the biggest jobs growth over the past 18 months; and when Governor Dayton in Minnesota not only raised taxes on the top 2% and edicted a $9.65 min wage and edicted that women had to be paid the same as men for doing the same job; not only did the average income in Minnesota go up, but so did the profitability of its businesses and the unemployment rate dropped to one of the lowest in the nation at 3.6%. And raising those taxes allowed Dayton to pay off 6 Billion in debt that he inherited from Pawlenty and turn that into what is now a 1.2B surplus. (This is in direct contrast to what Walker has done in Wisconsin, where not only does WI lag the nation in job creation, but the latest projections for the 2016-2017 WI budget is that there will be a 2.1 Billion deficit.)

      In addition, where a Republican named Pawlenty was only able to get around 6,200 new jobs created in Minnesota during his 8 years in office; during Dayton’s 1st 4 years, 172,000 new jobs were created – 165,000 more jobs in 4 years than a Republican could get created in 8 years!!

      Are you sitting there thinking that employers were creating that additional 165,000 new jobs because they were going poor over increasing the min wage?? If so, when are Republicans going to realize that when you raise the min wage, that actually generates more profits for businesses??

      Yup!! You heard that right. Raising the min wage raises profits for businesses because customers have more money to spend, which means customers can buy the higher profit items a business is selling instead of always looking for a sale or something cheap AND THAT INCLUDES A BUSINESSES OWN EMPLOYEES!!

      In Germany, where most places have a min wage around $12/hr, most fast food restaurants are more profitable there than they are here in America. And why is that, because in Europe even min wage workers can come in and buy items on a fast food company’s menu that are far more profitable, while here in America, min wage workers which are often a big chunk of fast food companies customers, generally have to buy items off what was the DOLLAR MENU!! Which in some cases were even loss leaders or marginally profitable.

      How many years of being proven wrong is it going to take for Conservatives to realize that they have it all wrong with their convoluted ideas of running an economy???

      • Daniel Jones

        That ain’t what I’m saying at all.

        That’s what employers want to have us believe, but whenever they talk about jobs going away if we dare raise the minimum wage or provide any amount of anything to workers, what it means is they are threatening to fire everyone rather than give any money, security, or safety to their wage slaves.

        • Independent1

          I couldn’t agree with you more. What really surprises me is that these business people, even like the Walton’s and Koches don’t seem to have a clue that they’re actually depressing their profitability by keeping the min wage where it is and millions of
          Americans struggling to buy the products they’re trying to sell.
          All I can say is: Even the wealthy can be really stupid!!!

          Not only with the min wage, but just the notion of the wealthy sucking morel and more of America’s wealth and incomes. The wealthy seem to be clueless to the fact that they’ve gotten income inequality almost to the point of ‘diminishing returns”. The bottom 80% of Americans have so little of the wealth and incomes left that the wealthy are sucking America dry!!

          See these charts created back in 2010 – the inequality today is even worse than these charts show:

        • Independent1

          I forgot to include the charts: One shows the enormous inequality and the other shows when the inequality really started to skyrocket – thanks to Ronald Reagan.

    • Independent1

      I don’t mean to be picking on you, but I want to get some points across. If supporting unions and pushing for higher wages results in making employers poor, why is it that since 1900 under Democrat presidencies, that America’s Gross Domestic Product has averaged a growth of 4.23%/yr; while under Republican presidencies which tend to hold down wages and fight unions, GDP has only averaged 2.6%/yr increases over the past 110 plus years??

      And since Carter was in office, why have their been almost 40 million new jobs created in 18 years under Carter, Clinton and Obama? While only a paltry 20 million jobs were created in 20 years under Reagan and the 2 Bushes??

      And even with respect to the stock market, which is generally a bell weather of corporate profitability, has the stock market shown a ZERO net gain under 42 years of Republican governance since the 1929 stock market crash- while there has been more than a 300% gain under about 43 years of Democrat governance??

  • stcroixcarp

    The employer who threatens shorter hours and fewer jobs to avoid paying overtime is not thinking logically. If “managers” work fewer hours, then the employer will have to hire additional workers to fill in those hours of unpaid overtime. He will probably not save money. Even if the new employees work only 10-20 hours a week, he will have to pay social security tax for them. The alternative would be to cut the number of hours the company is open for business and lose out on business. In that case the employer is spiting himself and making room for more new competitive businesses to take up the slack.

    • johninPCFL

      You understand the red-herring issue.
      Businesses hire workers because they need those labor hours to fulfill the needs of the business to deliver the business’ goods and services. Giving the employee a title to avoid overtime pay is a scam. Slamming the door on the scam does NOT eliminate the need for the employee.

  • johninPCFL

    There are lots of ways to avoid paying overtime for the crooked employer to use. My son-in-law worked for a boss that owned three construction companies. He routinely moved the employees’ working hours to one of his alternate companies whenever they approached full-time hours, forget about overtime. The son-in-law routinely worked nearly 60 hours per week but got no health insurance or overtime. Those perks were reserved for the owners kids.

  • charleo1

    The picture of gov. mandated increases in the minimum wage in the past, have been pretty straight forward. And have not been shown to produced the decreases in low end jobs, substantially added to the inflation rate, or overburdened employers with business killing labor costs. As was, and continues to be trotted out by it’s so called, free market advocates, in opposition to any gov. action on the behalf of workers. Or in corporate political speak, mucking around with the engines of our economy, the vaunted, “Job Creators.” It is a false, and self serving narrative, that serves to create it’s own hungry, welfare dependent, (read gov. subsidized wage slaves,) that ill serves the larger economy. By first, failing to create demand, and increasing the public debt. Decreasing the tax base, providing unstable jobs, and softening the overall employment market. By contrast, increasing the minimum wage serves to offset all those negatives. But, the fact is, do so effects such a relative number of workers. If or how much our current economic system values labor, believes in investment in labor, in education, healthcare. How important is worker retention, and so on? Does treating workers more fairly in terms of pay, and benefits, reward employers with long term dividends? It seems that is a very open question for many low wage employers. Are many workers losing their ability to have a say in anything job related? Absolutely. And, so begs another question workers must answer for themselves. How valuable do they believe their input is in answering question “A.”

  • tdm3624

    An informed and voting population is needed to keep the government in check; the government is needed to keep big business in check.