Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blowing Up the Economy

Here's Rachel Maddow giving an excellent overview of how Wall Street blew up the economy. This is the corrupt casino mentality that now dominates our lives. It is what happens when wealth is dramatically concentrated in the hands of so few that they literally don't know how to put it all to productive use. 

It doesn't help that many of those same people are America's most rapacious and reckless, the ones that want you to think they are creating wealth and should only be envied. Perhaps you have heard that investment bankers show personality characteristics very similar to psychopaths. And no, it is not the occasional rogue trader.

And who protects these guys? Who refused to investigate years of fraud? Who denounces Occupy Wall Street as unAmerican practitioners of class warfare, but has shown remarkable indifference to Wall Street's trillion dollar scams?

Who were Elliot Spitzer's mortal enemies, the ones who gleefully rejoiced when he was brought down?

Those are not rhetorical questions. You know the answer.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Conservatives Get Their Way

At the heart of America's often shallow debate about political economy, policy, and the direction this country should take, is the cluster of variables surrounding taxes, regulation, economic policy, and the proper role of government. The basic conservative argument is that taxes are too high, regulation is too onerous and counterproductive, and business is too hobbled by misguided bureaucrats. 

The Republican prescription has been simple, persuasive for some, and amazingly consistent for a generation: cut taxes and everything good will happen. It is the elixir, the panacea, the cure-all for all that ails you. And if tax cuts are not enough (they are always a prerequisite), then just cut back on all that wasteful spending, which for conservatives means the welfare state and other transfers that go from deserving producers to the undeserving takers. 

To hear Republicans tell it, America is near comatose because of high taxes, radical unions ("big labor," as they say with a straight face), and more recently, government spending, not on defense of course, but on character-destroying entitlements such as social security, medicare, welfare, public education, and infrastructure boondoggles. 

Millions of Americans believe this argument; teabaggers in particular have been convinced that they are "taxed enough already" and that Democrats are transferring massive amounts of money "we don't have" to undeserving liberals who vote Democrat for that precise reason. Joshua Holland has an excellent article the title of which precisely captures what has become a real problem for the reality-based community: Thanks to Decades of Conservative Spin, Americans Are Hopelessly Confused About Taxes, Spending and the Deficit

As Holland states:
A good number of Americans are hopelessly confused about taxes, deficits and the debt. And it's no mystery why – conservatives have spent 30 years divorcing the taxes we pay from the services they finance. They've bent themselves into intellectual pretzels arguing that cutting taxes – on the wealthy – leads to more revenues in the coffers. They've invented narratives about taxes driving “producers” to sunnier climes, killing jobs by the bushel, and relentlessly spun the wholly false notion that we're facing “runaway spending” and are “taxed to death.”
Holland implicates the mainstream media for its failure to critically assess and challenge what has been Republican class warfare disguised as common sense. It is a narrative that has proved persuasive to people who do not often hear, and don't want to hear, analyses that challenge that narrative.

My immediate purpose is not to resolve ideological differences or to prove the efficacy of certain policy preferences. In this occasional series; let's call it "Conservatives Get Their Way," I want to show that regardless of how else you or I might feel about it, the inescapable conclusion is that on economic policy and legislation, including taxation, conservatives, the right-wing, the Republican party, and most assuredly, corporate America, have gotten most of what they have wanted on the policies, legislation, and legal opinions that overwhelmingly benefit them.

It is not a matter of conservatives wanting to move away from what they consider to be harmful, liberal policies. The reality is that Republicans, with the help of some Democrats, have undercut what they hate, and have already turned over power to wealthy oligarchs. The conservative charge that liberals, socialists, Democrats, dirty fucking hippies, a black President, "teh gays," and all the rest are destroying America, is demonstrably false. We do not have "Big Labor", high taxes, or profit-killing regulations, a large and expensive public sector, high social spending, or job-killing environmental regulations. In fact, we lag other industrialized nations on each of these points; our taxes are among the lowest, as is union membership and pubic sector spending.

So where does the US lead? Corporate profits and executive compensation. And of course, we do spend a pantload on defense, precisely what most conservatives and nearly all Republican politicians demand. 

The evidence more clearly shows that corporate America, the Republican party, and the conservative policies and legislation they say we need, but have already enacted, are undermining America's economic strength, its political institutions, and its social fabric. In other words, America's right wing not only has got its arguments mostly backwards, it is precisely the conservative policies they claim we need that have created the current mess, one that has been in the making for 35 plus years.

Conservatives get their way and they have the results one would expect; massive inequality, an unending gravy train for our bloated defense industry, executive compensation that has reached obscene levels, is largely detached from job performance (golden parachutes anyone?), and is loaded with money-saving perks denied to the rest of us. 

They succeeded in largely gutting private pension systems for workers, outsourced much of our manufacturing base to cheap labor countries, hobbled unions, have enjoyed significant productivity increases but have not shared those increases with their employees, and have beat back nearly all efforts to hold them accountable on the environment, tax loopholes, and regulations.

Much of this is vividly on display on Wall Street, where the perpetrators of massive fraud and malfeasance have managed to beat back essentially all efforts to hold them accountable and to rein in their ridiculously irresponsible behavior. 

Any no, it is not because Congress can't do anything; progressive Dems favor and vote for legislation that would return us to more stable and equitable times, legislation that we once had in place, such as Glass-Steagal.

It is because nearly all Republicans, joined by a few Blue Dog Democrats, have voted for the legislation that is so overwhelming favorable to the overclass.

It isn't Congress; it is Republicans in Congress.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tax Loafers? Maybe Not

Conservative media continues to repeat the infantile and laughably incomplete argument that roughly half of Americans don't pay taxes, the implication of which is that rich guys are bearing the burden and that millions of Americans are loafing off the hard work of others.

There is a lot to this Republican morality play, except maybe for facts. I will set aside the political psychology of conservative morality for the moment, except to say that it drives all conservative attitudes; not facts, not empiricism, not logic.

The federal income tax burden may be low for many of us, but payroll taxes disproportionately hit the working poor and the middle class. The tax-free argument really falls apart when we include all taxes. Republicans either don't notice, or hope you don't notice, these numerous other taxes; they are much more regressive, and they hit lower income people much harder. These include sales taxes, especially those on food and other basic needs, and indirect or semi-hidden taxes, such as those on phone bills, or those with a tax already built into the price, such as gasoline.

Here is David Leonhart of the New York Times, explaining why the conservative spin is so misleading:
The reason is that poor families generally pay more in payroll taxes than they receive through benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. It’s not just poor families for whom the payroll tax is a big deal, either. About three-quarters of all American households pay more in payroll taxes, which go toward Medicare and Social Security, than in income taxes.

Focusing on the statistical middle class — the middle 20 percent of households, as ranked by income — underlines this point. Households in this group made $35,400 to $52,100 in 2006, the last year for which the Congressional Budget Office has released data. That would describe a household with one full-time worker earning about $17 to $25 an hour. Such hourly pay is typical for firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Taking into account both taxes and tax credits, the average household in this group paid a total income tax rate of just 3 percent. A good number of people, in fact, paid no net income taxes. They are among the alleged free riders.

But the picture starts to change when you look not just at income taxes but at all taxes. This average household would have paid 0.8 percent of its income in corporate taxes (through the stocks it owned), 0.9 percent in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes. Add these up, and the family’s total federal tax rate was 14.2 percent.

If anything, the government numbers I’m using here exaggerate how much of the tax burden falls on the wealthy. These numbers fail to account for the income that is hidden from tax collectors — a practice, research shows, that is more common among affluent families. “Because higher-income people are understating their income,” Joel Slemrod, a tax scholar at the University of Michigan, says, “We’ve been overstating their average tax rates.”

State and local taxes, meanwhile, may actually be regressive. That is, middle-class and poor families may face higher tax rates than the wealthy. As Kim Rueben of the Tax Policy Center notes, state and local income taxes and property taxes are less progressive than federal taxes, while sales taxes end up being regressive. The typical family pays a lot of state and local taxes, too — almost half as much as in federal taxes.

There is no question that the wealthy pay a higher overall tax rate than any other group. That is an American tradition. But there is also no question that their tax rates have fallen more than any other group’s over the last three decades. The only reason they are paying more taxes than in the past is that their pretax incomes have risen so rapidly — which hardly seems a great rationale for a further tax cut.
I have slightly edited the original due to length. Go here to read the whole article.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gallows Humor

In solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, I share with you a few timely and appropriate funnies. They would be funnier if they were not so true.

This last one is my favorite. I recall the John Maynard Keynes quote: "Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all."

Friday, October 14, 2011

Our Corrupt and Fraudulent Economy

Here's Dylan Ratigan from a while back, just in case you missed it the first time. Ratigan's anger is what Occupy Wall Street is all about.

I share that anger and disgust. The only thing unusual about his critique is that it aired on mainstream television.

Hat tip to Angel Guerrero for refreshing my memory.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street is Angry

This country once had a stable financial system. It was the direct result of the New Deal. The crash of '29 had been created by greed, lax rules, and government institutions unequipped and ideologically unprepared to tame capitalism's most rapacious players.

Enter FDR and the New Deal. With it Americans enjoyed roughly 50 years of prosperity and a largely stable banking system. The good 'ol days, as conservatives seem to pine. And there was good reason why we look fondly at what seems to have been our economic heyday. What conservatives forget is that we had far less income inequality, higher taxes, greater union membership, lower consumer, state and federal debt. We had a trade surplus, a much larger manufacturing base, and little outsourcing. And we did not have job-killing free trade agreements, such as NAFTA!

Underlying all of this was a rigid set of banking rules that, among other things, kept commercial banks out of the stock market and enforced prudent capitalization requirements. Upon assuming office, President Reagan immediately worked to overturn regulations and help Wall Street's rise to dominance, a rise that continues today despite Obama's half-hearted and ineffectual efforts to reprioritize Main Street.

Banks quickly capitalized on the changes Reagan set in motion; systemic banking failure began within a few years. Those failures have been with us in regular intervals ever since, all the while wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of those who created the economic chaos in the first place.

Here is Elizabeth Warren explaining the process.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's Message

Leave town for a week and look what happens. Our corporatist media is finally paying some attention to Occupy Wall Street. Not that it is offering many insights. The prevailing characteristics seem to be that protesters are malevolent malcontents, dirty fucking hippies, and anarchists, all in a stew of disorganized resentment. In particular, the claim is that the OWS protesters do not have a coherent message.

No coherent message? Really? Anyone who cannot immediately grasp the significance of the protest is likely to be uninformed teabaggers, fearful of all that they don't understand, or class warriors, like the Republican presidential candidates, Romney and Cain in particular.

How obtuse, or ideologically rigid, do you have to be to not see that America's wealthy corporatist media is determined to delegitimize citizens who have decided to fight back against Wall Street's recklessness?

Here is Alan Grayson taking the small amount of time needed to explain to dickhead PJ O'Rourke what the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about.

The privileged class is letting its fear show. Nice to see we got their attention.