This is my opinion piece, published in the San Francisco Chronicle July 11, 2014:
A free-market banker’s conversion to working-class advocate
Updated 11:10 pm, Thursday, July 10, 2014
I was an executive at some of the largest and most powerful financial services companies in the nation, including San Francisco’s Wells Fargo and Union Bank, as well as Citibank, AIG, ITT Financial and Ford Motor Credit. I enjoyed the financial benefits of my roles and took the economic status quo for granted. I’ve since repented.
Today, I support increasing the minimum wage in San Francisco to $15 per hour. I support increases on a city or county basis throughout the United States where the minimum wage is below the median wage, as it is in San Francisco. Economic studies have shown that economic growth is not slowed and jobs are not lost when this is the circumstance.
I came from a poor family in North Carolina. My parents were factory workers with high school educations. However, those of us who were able to attend decent colleges in the 1960s found an abundance of good jobs waiting for us. In my career, I climbed the ladder and made it to titles like executive vice president, group head and president of subsidiary companies. Like most of my colleagues in the upper echelons of large financial services companies, I believed the free market was the right answer for most everything. It was good to me.
However, I was not blind to the troublesome reality that the accumulation of wealth around me was not entirely meritocratic. I saw that the job market facing my children was far more challenging than what I had experienced. I witnessed the delivery of personal jets, luxury homes, ranches, vineyards and lavish art and jewelry to the more fortunate around me. Most of my neighbors in Pacific Heights began sending their kids to private schools starting at kindergarten, leaving the woes of public schools to the middle class and the poor. The furniture industry in my hometown moved to China, and displaced workers in their 50s and 60s couldn’t get new jobs. In the aftermath of Reaganomics, government support for them withered.
My work and subsequent travel abroad confirmed that these problems were not unique to the United States. I was struck by the abject poverty still existing in many parts of the world. This was the era when free trade, deregulated markets, reduced government spending and globalization were heralded as the path to prosperity, with trickle-down for all.
Then, in 2012, I had the opportunity to study in London at a unit of the University of London specializing in development economics. Professors explained the flaws in our economic system and offered tons of data to back up their arguments. For example, it turns out that most of the much-touted global reduction of poverty evaporates if you remove China, which did not follow the free trade economic prescriptions and delivered far better results than countries that did.
Since the ’80s, the middle class in the United States has seen stagnant wages, while the top 10, 1, and 0.1 percentiles have seen astronomical increases in income and wealth. Poverty worsened in much of the world.
I came away from my studies a liberal. I worried about the sustainability of our social and economic systems in the United States and around the world. I remain sensitive to the pressure on our valued San Francisco businesses, which depend on low-cost labor, but we have to balance our concerns. Our divided Congress precludes any bigger fixes, so we must make small gains where we can. The greater good this time is to retain and take care of our critical lower-paid workforce. Our good life depends on these good citizens.
There are many ways for all of us to work together to gradually restore the United States to a more egalitarian nation. Raising the minimum wage in San Francisco is a first step.
Getting by in San Francisco
Proposed minimum wage compared with current median household income:
Annual income based on the proposed hourly minimum wage of $15 an hour
Current median household
income in San Francisco
Dale Walker is a retired financial services executive and a longtime Bay Area resident.