Thursday, December 8, 2011


 First, a couple of historical tidbits:

"[In America], wealth is two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave and farmer society. That's how huge the gap is." 

'Oligarchy': History of how the super-rich defend their wealth

"In his book The Haves and the Have Nots, Branko Milanovic tries to discover who was the richest person who has ever lived. Beginning with the loaded Roman triumvir Marcus Crassus, he measures wealth according to the quantity of his compatriots’ labour a rich man could buy. It appears that the richest man to have lived in the past 2000 years is alive today. Carlos Slim could buy the labour of 440,000 average Mexicans. This makes him 14 times as rich as Crassus, nine times as rich as Carnegie and four times as rich as Rockefeller. "
Inequality in America is greater than it has been in almost a century. Those fortunate enough to belong to the 1 percent, made up of the super-rich, stand on one side of the divide; the remaining 99 percent on the other. Even for a country that has always accepted opposite extremes as part of its identity, the chasm has simply grown too vast.

Those who succeed in the US are congratulated rather than berated. Resenting other people's wealth is viewed as supporting class struggle, which is something very frowned upon.

Still, statistics indicate that the growing disparity is genuinely overwhelming. In fact, the 400 wealthiest Americans now own more than the "lower" 150 million Americans put together.

Nearly two-thirds of net private assets are concentrated in the hands of 5 percent of Americans. In comparison, the upper 5 percent of Germany hold less than half of net assets. In 2009 alone, at the same time as the US was being convulsed by mass layoffs, the number of millionaires in the country skyrocketed.

Indeed, if you look at the reports it compiles on every country in the world, even the CIA has concluded that wealth disparity is greater in the US than in Tunisia or Egypt.

Through the 1970s, income for Americans across all social classes rose nearly in lockstep, by an annual average of roughly 3 percent. Starting in the 1980s, however, this trend underwent a fundamental transformation. Granted, the economy continued to grow -- but almost exclusively to the benefit of the country's top earners. The major economic expansion under President Ronald Reagan benefited only a few, and the problem only grew worse under George W. Bush.

At least since the beginning of the millennium, it has no longer been a simple matter of two societal extremes drifting further apart. Instead, the development is also accelerating. In the years of economic growth between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of the income gains went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. Likewise, although the productivity of the US economy has increased considerably since the beginning of the millennium, most Americans haven't benefited from it, with average annual incomes falling by more than 10 percent, to $49,909 (€35,184).

Even for a country that loves extremes, this is a new and unprecedented development. Indeed, as Hacker and Pierson see it, the United States has developed into a "winner-take-all economy."

The political scientists analyzed statistics and studies concerning income development and other economic data from the last decades. They conclude that: "A generation ago, the United States was a recognizable, if somewhat more unequal, member of the cluster of affluent democracies known as mixed economies, where fast growth was widely shared. No more. Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster, and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, with their much greater concentration of economic bounty."

This 1 percent of American society now controls more than half of the country's stocks and securities. And while the middle class is once again grappling with a lost decade that failed to bring increases in income, the high earners in the financial industry have raked in sometimes breathtaking sums. For example, the average income for securities traders has steadily climbed to $360,000 a year.

Still, that's nothing compared to the trend in executives' salaries. In 1980, American CEOs earned 42 times more than the average employee. Today, that figure has skyrocketed to more than 300 times. Last year, 25 of the country's highest-paid CEOs earned more than their companies paid in taxes.

By way of comparison, top executives at the 30 blue-chip companies making up Germany's DAX stock market index rarely earn over 100 times the salaries of their low-level employees, and that figure is often around 30 or 40 times.
Has America Become an Oligarchy? (Der Spiegel)
The debate over ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich sidesteps a serious problem. The issue is not just whether the wealthiest Americans should be taxed, but can they be taxed?

The ultra rich have extraordinary means to engage in tax avoidance and evasion that ordinary citizens do not. In the first decades after World War II, the richest Americans began paying large fees to armies of professionals whose sole task was to help them avoid taxes.

By the 1960s, an entire Income Defense Industry had arisen to satisfy this demand. It has grown more sophisticated and effective with each passing decade.

The industry lobbies key committees in Congress, quietly inserts provisions in a tax code only top attorneys in the industry comprehend, structures complex partnerships and tax shelters few auditors at the IRS can disentangle, and often uses these instruments to move wealth and income offshore.

All of this is done off the political radar screen and there is no countervailing lobby or parallel income defense industry for the average Joe. The few public interest organizations arguing for "tax justice" on behalf of average citizens are vastly out-staffed and out-funded.

The Senate estimates that the industry helps the wealthiest Americans avoid paying nearly $70 billion in taxes a year through "abusive offshore tax avoidance schemes" alone. The number is much higher if corporations are included.
America's Income Defense Industry (Huffington Post)
This is what nowadays passes for the heart and soul of American democracy. It used to be that citizens in large numbers, mobilized by labor unions or political parties or a single uniting cause, determined the course of American politics. After World War II, a swelling middle class was the most powerful voting bloc, while, in those same decades, the working and middle classes enjoyed comparatively greater economic prosperity than their wealthy counterparts. Kiss all that goodbye. We're now a country run by rich people.

Not surprisingly, political power has a way of following wealth. What that means is: you can't understand how the rich seized control of American politics, and arguably American society, without understanding how a small group of Americans got so much money in the first place.

That story begins in the late 1970s and continues through the Obama years, a period in which American policy has been so skewed toward the rich that we're now living through the worst period of income inequality in modern history. Consider the statistics: 50 years ago, the wealthiest 1% of Americans accounted for one of every 10 dollars of the nation's income; today, it's nearly one in every four. Between 1979 and 2006, the average post-tax household income (including benefits) of the wealthiest 1% increased by 256%; the poorest households saw an increase of 11%; middle class homes, 21%, much of which was due to the arrival of two-job families.

Tax guru David Cay Johnston recently crunched new Social Security Administration data and discovered an even starker divide. On the one hand, the number of Americans earning a steady income declined by 4.5 million between 2008 and 2009, and the average wage in the US dipped by 1.2%, to $39,055. On the other hand, the average wage among Americans earning more than $50 million per year was $91 million in 2008 and $84 million in 2009.

Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz put the situation Americans now find themselves in this way:

"Think of the American economy as a large apartment block. A century ago—even 30 years ago—it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most."

Let's call those select few in the penthouse the New Oligarchy, an awesomely rich sliver of Americans raking in an outsized share of the nation's wealth. They're oil magnates and media tycoons, corporate executives and hedge-fund traders, philanthropists and entertainers. Depending on where you want to draw the line, they're the top 1%, or the top 0.1%, or even the top 0.01% of the population. And when the Supreme Court handed down its controversial Citizens United decision in January, it broke the floodgates so that a torrent of anonymous donations from this oligarchic class could flood back down from the heights and inundate the political lands below.

How did we get here? How did a middle-class-heavy nation transform itself into an oligarchy? You'll find answers to these questions in Winner-Take-All Politics, a revelatory new book by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The authors treat the present figures we have on American wealth and poverty as a crime scene littered with clues and suspects, dead-ends and alibis.

Unlike so many pundits, politicians, and academics, Hacker and Pierson resist blaming the usual suspects: globalization, the rise of an information-based economy, and the demise of manufacturing. The culprit in their crime drama is American politics itself over the last three decades. The clues to understanding the rise of an American oligarchy, they believe, won't be found in New York or New Delhi, but on Capitol Hill, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and around K Street, that haven in a heartless world for Washington's lobbyists.

"Step by step and debate by debate," they write, "America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many."
How The Oligarchs Took America (Mother Jones)
This appropriation of the economic surplus to pay bankers is turning the traditional values of most Europeans upside down. Imposition of economic austerity, dismantling social spending, sell-offs of public assets, de-unionization of labor, falling wage levels, scaled-back pension plans and health care in countries subject to democratic rules requires convincing voters that there is no alternative. It is claimed that without a profitable banking sector (no matter how predatory) the economy will break down as bank losses on bad loans and gambles pull down the payments system. No regulatory agencies can help, no better tax policy, nothing except to turn over control to lobbyists to save banks from losing the financial claims they have built up.

What banks want is for the economic surplus to be paid out as interest, not used for rising living standards, public social spending or even for new capital investment. Research and development takes too long. Finance lives in the short run. This short-termism is self-defeating, yet it is presented as science. The alternative, voters are told, is the road to serfdom: interfering with the “free market” by financial regulation and even progressive taxation.

There is an alternative, of course. It is what European civilization from the 13th-century Schoolmen through the Enlightenment and the flowering of classical political economy sought to create: an economy free of unearned income, free of vested interests using special privileges for “rent extraction.” At the hands of the neoliberals, by contrast, a free market is one free for a tax-favored rentier class to extract interest, economic rent and monopoly prices.

Rentier interests present their behavior as efficient “wealth creation.” Business schools teach privatizers how to arrange bank loans and bond financing by pledging whatever they can charge for the public infrastructure services being sold by governments. The idea is to pay this revenue to banks and bondholders as interest, and then make a capital gain by raising access fees for roads and ports, water and sewer usage and other basic services. Governments are told that economies can be run more efficiently by dismantling public programs and selling off assets.

Never has the gap between pretended aim and actual effect been more hypocritical. Making interest payments (and even capital gains) tax-exempt deprives governments of revenue from the user fees they are relinquishing, increasing their budget deficits. And instead of promoting price stability (the ECB’s ostensible priority), privatization increases prices for infrastructure, housing and other costs of living and doing business by building in interest charges and other financial overhead – and much higher salaries for management. So it is merely a knee-jerk ideological claim that this policy is more efficient simply because privatizers do the borrowing rather than government.

There is no technological or economic need for Europe’s financial managers to impose depression on much of its population. But there is a great opportunity to gain for the banks that have gained control of ECB economic policy. Since the 1960s, balance-of-payments crises have provided opportunities for bankers and liquid investors to seize control of fiscal policy – to shift the tax burden onto labor and dismantle social spending in favor of subsidizing foreign investors and the financial sector. They gain from austerity policies that lower living standards and scale back social spending. A debt crisis enables the domestic financial elite and foreign bankers to indebt the rest of society, using their privilege of credit (or savings built up as a result of less progressive tax policies) as a lever to grab assets and reduce populations to a state of debt dependency.

The kind of warfare now engulfing Europe is thus more than just economic in scope. It threatens to become a historic dividing line between the past half-century’s epoch of hope and technological potential to a new era of polarization as a financial oligarchy replaces democratic governments and reduces populations to debt peonage.
Europe's Deadly Transition From Social Democracy To Oligarchy (Michael Hudson)

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