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“An Invitation To Oligarchy”: McCutcheon, And The Vicious Cycle Of Concentrated Wealth And Political Power

If wealth and income weren’t already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful “McCutcheon” decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be as dangerous. But by taking “Citizen’s United” one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.

Almost limitless political donations coupled with America’s dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses – thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.

That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent — all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.

It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. “McCutcheon” merely accelerates this vicious cycle.

As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.

Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire — such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state.

In America of the late nineteenth century, the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, prompting the great jurist Louis Brandeis to note that the nation had a choice: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few,” he said. “But we cannot have both.”

Soon thereafter America made the choice. Public outrage gave birth to the nation’s first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America’s first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.

The question is when do we reach another tipping point, and what happens then?

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Economic Inequality, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Billionaires’ Crybaby Club”: Someone Get These Whiners A Bottle!

Does being super-wealthy make you extra susceptible to self-pity today? That’s the only conclusion we can draw from an epidemic of self-pitying American billionaires decrying their persecution by “despots,” and the “Kristallnacht” of rising concern about income inequality, over just the last few months.

Charles Koch is the latest to fall victim to what funnier folks than me have labeled the WATB syndrome, with a whiny op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Collectivists” in government, Koch writes – “those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives,” i.e. Democrats — “strive to discredit and intimidate opponents.” It gets worse: “They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.)”

I’m worried about Charles Koch. For one thing, with all his billions, he couldn’t find a better ghost writer? His silly op-ed, with its alarmist Marxist clichés and fusty Schopenhauer references, would have been dismissed as an April Fool’s joke if published just one day sooner. It came the same day as the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, which only increased its ridiculousness.

But Koch’s self-pity and persecution complex is downright unhealthy. He clearly suffers from the same malady as Tom Perkins, who delusionally compared rising political concern about income inequality to “Kristallnacht” for the rich. Newspaper-destroying real estate mogul Sam Zell, who cosigned Perkins, is also a victim, complaining the super-rich “are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” when in fact “the 1 percent work harder.”

Self-pity sufferer Ken Langone of Home Depot even warned Pope Francis that Catholic billionaires might stop contributing to the church because of the pope saying the “exclusionary” culture of the rich made some of them “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.” Langone had earlier joined self-pitying mogul Leon Cooperman to admonish President Obama for “new lows in polarizing rhetoric…aimed at successful people in the business sector.”

Maybe we need a public health campaign to warn billionaires about the dangers of self-pity: stress, anxiety, depression, isolation and illness. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” say that “the effect of self-pity on the body is similar to chronic anxiety.” A widely quoted 2003 study of self-pity in the Journal of Personality found:

…Strong associations of self-pity with neuroticism, particularly with the depression facet. With respect to control beliefs, individuals high in self-pity showed generalized externality beliefs, seeing themselves as controlled by both chance and powerful others…Furthermore, individuals high in self-pity reported emotional loneliness and ambivalent-worrisome attachments.

Deepak Chopra says self-pity is linked to “dependency,” so clearly Paul Ryan ought to consider a crusade to change the “culture” of his billionaire patrons in addition to that of “inner city” men:

The issue is dependency. Self-pity is the opposite of self-esteem. It arises because you feel no one will lift you out of your difficulties. With no one stronger, older, wiser and kinder to help you, there’s a tremendous sense of lack. You cannot find the same strength that these rescuers have—or you imagine them to have—and the ache of not being enough is felt as self-pity or “poor me.”

Of course, this isn’t the Koch brothers first pity-party, or their first descent into making things up about President Obama. Three years ago Charles and David sat down with the Weekly Standard and complained about their “demonization” by Democrats and President Obama, who they then went on to demonize. (A clinical note: Projection is also associated with self-pity.)

Charles accused Obama of believing “Marxist models.” David went further, blaming Obama’s views on his father, “a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “He had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.”

David also called anti-Koch protesters “very, very extreme, and I think very dangerous….That was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”

So clearly self-pity is a persistent problem for Charles and his brother. Maybe we need a public health campaign: If your bout of self-pity lasts more than four hours, call your doctor. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” have other advice:

“If you have trouble breaking the self-pity habit, you might want to try an excellent way of getting your mind off of yourself: help others.”

Oh well, that’s probably not the answer.

I don’t know what to advise Charles Koch about his unhealthy habits. He certainly has the money to get the best professional help available. But I would urge the Wall Street Journal, the official newspaper of record for the top 1 percent, to stop encouraging the damaging dependency and self-destructive behavior of its readers and patrons, before it’s too late.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Koch Brothers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“If You Go Back To 1933″: Another Billionaire With A Victim’s Complex And An Unhealthy Nazi Fixation

Ben White and Maggie Haberman report this morning that the political winds seem to have shifted lately in the One Percenters’ direction. Whereas a few months ago, economic populism looked like it’d give Democrats a boost in 2014, and polls showed strong public support for addressing economic inequality, Wall Street and its allies are feeling more confident.

In two-dozen interviews, the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation said they are still plenty worried about the shift in tone toward top earners and the popularity of class-based appeals…. But wealthy Republicans – who were having a collective meltdown just two months ago – also say they see signs that the political zeitgeist may be shifting back their way and hope the trend continues.

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Oh for crying out loud. Do we really have to deal with another billionaire with a victim’s complex who sees a parallel between economic populism and Nazis?

Apparently so.

If this sounds familiar, it was just two months ago that venture capitalist Tom Perkins caused a stir in a Wall Street Journal letter, arguing that the “progressive war on the American one percent” is comparable to Nazi genocide. “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930,” he wrote, “is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”

He later said he regretted the Kristallnacht reference, but nevertheless believed his point had merit.

Despite the controversy surrounding Perkins’ bizarre concerns, Home Depot’s Ken Langone apparently decided to embrace the exact same message.

This shouldn’t be necessary, but as a rule, Nazi comparisons in domestic political debates are a bad idea. But they’re an especially egregious mistake when they’re rooted in a ridiculous fantasy.

Whether Langone understands this or not, the scope of contemporary economic populism is often quite narrow. In a political context, it tends to focus on stagnant wages, regressive tax policies, and safeguards against the worst of Wall Street excesses. As a policy matter, we’re generally talking about a higher minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits, food stamps, access to affordable medical care, and lately, expanded access to overtime compensation.

Billionaires may have substantive disagreements with these concerns and their proposed remedies, but to see them as somehow similar to Nazi genocide is more than a little twisted.

The more annoying phenomenon isn’t an American mainstream that believes the wealthy can afford to pay a little more in taxes, but rather, coddled billionaires benefiting from a modern-day Gilded Age feeling sorry for themselves.

As we talked about in January, it’s comparable in a way to a curious strain of political correctness. The more progressive talk about the concentration of wealth at the very top, tax rates, poverty, and stagnant wages, the more some of the very wealthy tell each other, “Oh my God, they may be coming to get us.”

If liberals would only stop talking about economic justice, maybe the richest among us wouldn’t have their feelings hurt.

Or maybe billionaires should just let go of this fantasy, stop seeing themselves as victims, and abandon the disgusting notion that American liberals have something in common with Hitler because they’re concerned with the consequences of growing economic inequality.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 18, 2014

March 19, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Just Desert Adherents”: Why The Conservative Defense Of Inequality Makes No Sense

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw is notorious for trying to justify the income of the very rich on the grounds that it’s what they deserve. In this column, for example, he uses the example of Steve Jobs as a person who deserves his wealth, having been in charge of a company that built some hugely popular electronic devices. The idea is plausible at first blush: Jobs’ products are indeed very popular.

But it quickly runs into enormous problems. This “just deserts” way of looking at the world is perennially tempting for conservatives — the flip side being that poorer people also deserve what they get — but they will have to do better than this to justify and valorize the existing social structure.

Consider the case of economic growth. As Matt Bruenig points out, the mysterious “Solow residual” — the source of productivity that can’t be directly attributed to capital, labor, or land — almost certainly consists at least in part of knowledge, which has been piling up for centuries:

If we are being good “just desert” adherents, then we need to divorce out the massive chunk of the total output that constitutes the Solow residual and ensure it makes it to its rightful contributor. All of our national product attributable to the world’s accumulated knowledge of algebra — which includes much of Mankiw’s work it should be noted — rightfully belongs to ancient Babylonians, ancient Greeks, and a whole host of other long-dead historical figures. All of our national product attributable to electricity technology rightly belongs, not to anyone living, but to people like Nikola Tesla and and Thomas Edison. In short, the view that individuals should receive only their marginal product actually generates the conclusion that the substantial part of our national product resulting from inherited technology and knowledge belongs to no living person, or more reasonably to everyone in general. [Demos]

Even that isn’t going far enough! As Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, nearly all major scientific breakthroughs were made by multiple people simultaneously and independently, and were critically dependent on certain background conditions in society. In other words, if we could somehow figure out how much of economic output stems from the discovery of calculus, even Newton would not deserve full credit for it.

We can take it even further: what about the English language itself? That is to say, practically every single economic activity depends on a foundation of literacy that has been built into society. No business today can operate without a functional language as a bedrock condition. That is quite obviously the result of thousands of years of communal creation and evolution. Today’s Job Creators can’t possibly claim to have “built that,” and the very idea of trying to single out individuals in the creation of English is ridiculous on its face, with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare or William Tyndale.

Finally, merest existence means being ensnared in a web of obligation that it would be futile to map out. Every person alive is built at great effort and pain from the flesh and blood of another person: your mother. How could one possibly begin to even “repay” such a debt? Presumably, she deserves all of your income less what it takes to keep you alive, since she is literally responsible for your creation. But that’s not even the end — before your mother, there was her mother, and so on, in an unbroken chain of life creating life stretching 3.6 billion years back to the primordial sea. Remove just one of the links, and you wouldn’t exist.

Anyway, one could continue in this vein, but I’ll leave it there. In my view, the sheer impossibility of ever allocating desert in any sort of systematic or consistent way means we should guarantee a minimum of safety and security for every person. But at a minimum, Mankiw and his fellow 1 percent apologists would do well to abandon this line of reasoning.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, March 14, 2014

March 17, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tax-Payer Financed Capitalism”: The Great American Tax Debate Misses The Point

Casting the tax debate as an argument in which liberals want to use the tax system to reduce income inequality after the fact by taxing the wealthy at higher rates than middle and lower income classes, while conservatives favor flat taxes that tax rich and poor at the same rate, misses the main point. Deregulation of the financial system over the last 35 years and tax preferences that benefit corporations and wealthy individuals have done much to increase the before-tax incomes of the top 1 percent. An army of tax accountants, many of them recruited from the IRS, has figured out how to push the envelope on tax avoidance for the big businesses and wealthy individuals that can afford their high-priced services. For these folks, tax accounting has been transformed from a service that makes sure that required taxes are paid to a profit center that manipulates the tax code to generate huge returns at the expense of the tax-paying public. Increasingly what we see in the United States is the growing importance of tax-payer financed capitalism.

There is no economic reason that the debt taken on by corporations should be treated differently in the tax code from the equity invested by shareholders, but it is. Corporations get to deduct the interest paid on debt from their earnings, thus reducing the corporate income tax they have to pay. The tax code also provides an incentive for private equity firms, which plan to hold companies they acquire for their portfolios for just a few years, to load these companies with debt. In good times, this greatly increases the returns to investors. In poor economic conditions, this greatly increases the risk of financial distress and even bankruptcy, and imposes great costs on workers, creditors and communities. For investors with a time horizon measured in years and not decades, this is a risk worth taking for the promise of higher returns.

Tax preferences mean that income from owning stock is taxed at a far lower rate than income from working—a point made by Warren Buffet who famously pointed out that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. The fiction that bonuses earned by partners in private equity and hedge fund firms is ‘carried interest’ that should be taxed at the lower rate on earnings from owning stock, rather than at the higher rate on ordinary income that ordinary workers and managers pay on their bonuses, boosts the income and wealth of these already wealthy economic players.

The use of aggressive tax avoidance schemes is rampant among big businesses and wealthy individuals. Setting up a subsidiary that lives in a file drawer in a tax haven and owns the company’s intellectual property and collects the royalties on it, or that owns the loans the company has made and collects the interest, allows financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and IT companies to park their profits outside the United States and defer taxes on this income indefinitely while waiting for a tax holiday to bring their profits home. Setting up so-called blocker corporations in offshore tax havens to launder taxable income for foreigners and pension funds, and turn it into nontaxable income is another favorite scheme.

Tax preferences and tax loop holes enrich the already wealthy and increase their incomes while starving the country of much needed tax revenue. The meaning of this rise in tax-payer financed capitalism is that the rest of us must either pay higher taxes or do without necessary services.

 

By: Eileen Appelbaum, U. S. News and World Report, September 19, 2012

September 21, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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