Justin Miller

Justin Miller is a former Prospect writing fellow and is currently covering politics for the Texas Observer

Recent Articles

Was Beto the Texas Democrats’ Lone Star?

O’Rourke’s near-victory has them seeing purple—but can they keep turning out more voters and moving Texas leftward when he’s not on the ballot?

This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . The mood was bittersweet at the El Paso Chihuahuas’ Minor League stadium—just blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border—where thousands of Beto O’Rourke supporters had gathered for their election night party. For an hour or two, it appeared possible that O’Rourke was going to pull off the near-impossible: a Democratic victory in a Texas statewide election. Turnout had spiked all around the state, coming close to 2016 levels. It looked like maybe, just maybe, big urban margins and suburban gains could propel O’Rourke to victory. There was just one problem: Republicans were turning out in a big way, too. And when rural county returns started trickling in, it became clear that Ted Cruz was going back to the Senate. Just two years previous, O’Rourke was a backbench congressman from a dusty border town with no discernible profile in Washington, D.C.,...

Trump’s Tax Cuts Incentivized Corporate Offshoring. These Dems Want to Reverse That.

Democrats have waffled on how, or if, they will repeal the new tax laws. This is a step in the right direction.

(Photo: AP/Alex Brandon) Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September 2017. trickle-downers.jpg Ever since President Trump and the GOP enacted their gargantuan tax cut, Democrats have done a pretty good job of highlighting how the plan disproportionately benefits the wealthiest few, how it sets the table for future cuts to the federal safety net, and how corporations’ newfound savings have generated more than $200 billion in stock buybacks and minimal increases in worker pay. But they haven’t done a good job of articulating an affirmative tax policy agenda of their own—let alone whether they even intend to push for a “repeal and replace” of the cuts, should they regain any semblance of political power. Earlier this month, Washington Post reporter David Weigel asked New York Representative Joe Crowley, who is part of the Democratic House Leadership team, whether the party would run in 2018 on repealing...

In the Face of Preemption Threats, Austin Passes Paid Sick Leave

Can the blue dots of Texas elude a likely crackdown on local progressive policy from Republican legislators?

(Work Strong Austin/Facebook) Austin City Council member Greg Casar speaks at a Work Strong Austin rally in September. After five hours of intense debate, the Austin, Texas, City Council voted late last Thursday night to approve an ordinance that will mandate paid sick days for some 87,000 workers . The capital city of Texas is now the lone municipality in the state—and in the entire South—to require that employers allow workers to take a day off to, say, recover from the flu or care for a sick family member without losing out on a day’s pay. The ordinance was pushed by a coalition of progressive groups called Work Strong Austin that included the Fight for 15, labor union UNITE HERE, and the Workers Defense Project. As the Texas Observer reported , the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America also advocated for the policy, knocking on 5,000 doors since December. But in the heart of a deep-red state with Republican legislators who are hostile to local...

The White House’s Internal Trade War Heats Up

There’s a trade war brewing in the White House—and President Trump will soon have to choose a side.

In January, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recommended protectionist tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the specifics of which were released on Friday: Ross wants Trump to place steep tariffs and quotas on the world’s biggest dumpers of aluminum and steel—most notably, Brazil, China, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Axios quotes one anonymous “trade expert” as saying, “This would be beyond a trade war. You’re talking about blowing up the WTO [World Trade Organization].”

Robert Scott, a trade economist at the Economic Policy Institute who supports stronger trade restrictions, says such a comment is laughable. “Total U.S. steel and aluminum imports in 2017… made up less than 2 percent of total U.S. goods imports,” Scott said in an email. “If other members of the WTO want to throw out the whole deal over what amounts to a tiny share of total U.S. and world trade, then that is their problem.”

He added that a more useful response than knee-jerk alarmism about trade wars “would be to encourage other fair trading countries to join the U.S. in eliminating exports from unfairly trading nations that are the targets of these (possible) trade restrictions.”

Ross’s proposal includes a 23.5 percent tariff on aluminum from China, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam (7.7 percent on other countries) and a minimum 53 percent tariff on steel from Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Korea, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam (24 percent on other countries). There would also be quotas on aluminum and steel imports, limiting countries to 2017 export levels or lower, depending on the country.

The issue of trade protectionism is fueling an internal war among Trump’s top advisers. The so-called globalist wing, including Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin, Rex Tillerson, and James Mattis, are all vehemently opposed to imposing tariffs that they worry would spark a trade war that would upset global markets and aggravate diplomatic relations. The protectionist wing—including Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer—occupies a lonely island within the administration.

Under U.S. trade law, the president has 90 days after Ross’s January recommendations to take some type of action. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to crack down on Chinese trade manipulation—namely steel and aluminum dumping—and to restore U.S. industries, but as I reported in January, his administration has delayed and deferred action through his first year in office.

Trump, of course, notoriously flip-flops his positions based on the last person he spoke with, and it’s unclear which way he is leaning. He has already shown a willingness to implement tariffs on washing machines and solar panels. The question is whether he would defy his top military, diplomatic, and economic advisers on such a critical issue.

This was the populist fight that Steve Bannon hoped for when he was still in the White House. Trump has until April to make a final decision. Until then, the White House’s internal trade war is sure to intensify.


Welcome to the One-Time Bonus Economy, Where Your Pay Doesn’t Go Up

The new trend of companies rewarding employees more often with one-time bonuses and less often with permanent pay increases has drawn greater attention in the aftermath of the Trump tax cuts, as corporations have made flashy announcements about how they are delivering one-off rewards to employees (though not all employees).

The New York Times had a front-page story on Sunday entitled “What Happened to Your Raise? It Could Have Become a Bonus.”

As economics reporter Patricia Cohen writes, “Ordinarily, the jobless rate and wage growth are like two ends of a seesaw: When one drops, the other is supposed to rise. But that link seems broken, and like film-noir detectives, analysts have scrutinized hard-edge statistics and fuzzier psychological indicators for clues about why.”

Part of the reason is that companies are opting to spend less of their profits on higher regular employee paychecks and more on one-time bonuses that, as we’ve seen recently, make for savvy public relations. According to a Times analysis of a survey by Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm, spending on bonuses amounted to an average of 3.1 percent of total compensation budgets in 1991, but by 2017, that share rose to 12.7 percent. Meanwhile, the share dedicated to permanent raises fell from 5 percent to just 2.9 percent.

The average worker’s pay has remained stagnant for the past few decades. The shift to a bonus-based economy is part of a larger effort by business leaders to cut labor costs down to the bone. Bonuses, of course, are welcome news for many workers—but not if they’re coming at the expense of a sustained pay bump. 

Permanent salary increases mean higher fixed costs—and slimmer profit margins. One-time bonuses, with no guarantees, are cheaper. As is the outsourcing, union-busting, contracting, on-demanding, and part-timing of the American workforce. That is what is keeping wages low even in a very tight labor market.

The problem is not that corporations don’t have the money to invest in their workforce. It’s that they’re just choosing to plow it all back to the shareholders and CEOs. A recent analysis found that S&P 500 companies have promised $3.7 billion in one-time bonuses and announced more than $157 billion in stock buybacks.

The problem is that even with what many economists say is close to full employment, a tight labor market is apparently not a strong enough countervailing force for sustained pay increases over skimpy one-time bonuses. At one point, unions were that force.