Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Enrichment for the Few

Former AT&T Broadband CEO Leo Hindery recently acknowledged that executive pay in America has gotten completely out of control, and that it has caused a "structural breakdown of the meritocracy of our nation."

Hindery says it is "born out of cronyism." Well, yes, shameless cronyism is certainly a defining feature of American corporate culture, but who are the cronies and how do they get that way? Cronyism is an American way to avoid the obvious Marxian reality that corporatism in America is and always has been class-based and is intended to be an enrichment mechanism for the well-placed and the wealthy. It is all about enriching the upper class and not Americans in general.

All the same, Hindery's disgust is fully merited. In a recent interview;
Hindery observed that, even as CEO pay has skyrocketed in recent decades, it has not "trickled down" to workers, who must increasingly borrow money to finance their spending. That dynamic helped set the stage for the most recent recession and helps explain today's sluggish recovery.
That's exactly it; rich CEOs are not directly the problem, but more of a symptom. The real problem is how little of the country's growth in the last 30+ years has gone to the middle and working class and instead has gone to those at the very top, the 1/10th of 1%, a class of individuals who were already rich when inequality was merely significant instead of obscene. 

The problem is that too many of us must hunker down just to pay the basics. There is nothing left in a growing number of paychecks for families to buy groceries, pay the rent, pay or save for education, and put away some for retirement. So at the end of the week, something must go. A low-wage economy, which America now is, means increasing numbers of us have nothing left for an occasional splurge on just the products corporations want so much to sell us. Neoliberal politicians, some Democrats, mostly Republicans, have forgotten that one company's employee is another company's customer.
As Hindery states; "The only time the U.S. economy and any of the developed economies prosper is when there's a vibrant middle class that grows from the bottom up...We've trashed that whole principle."

To make matters much worse, the figures on inequality generally do not include assets CEOs and their investor class enablers are able to shield from taxation. And that means many billions of dollars leave the US and end up in foreign banks accounts. That does nothing for the US economy, though it is quite beneficial for places such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland. It isn't the middle class that sends these huge sums offshore. It is the very wealthy, who quite literally have more money than they know what to do with. While some of that wealth continues to be productively employed, an increasing amount is pumped into the political process--overtly creating a plutocracy--or is frittered away on ostentatious displays; the hyperwealthy's version of crass consumption.

Recent evidence of the astronomical sums the super-wealthy hide or send abroad, you know, people like Mitt Romney, demonstrates we have been seriously underestimating the amount of wealth that has left the United States. 

In a recent article in Slate, Jordan Weissmann shares the findings:
Economists Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California–Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman, of the London School of Economics, are out with a new set of findings on American wealth inequality, and their numbers are startling. Wealth, for reference, is the value of what you own—assets like housing, stocks, and bonds, minus your debts. And while it certainly comes up from time to time, it has tended to play second fiddle to income in conversations about America’s widening class divide. In part, that’s because it’s a trickier conversation subject. Wealth has always been far more concentrated than income in the United States. Plus, research suggested that the top 1 percent of households had actually lost some of its share since the 1980s. 
That might not really have been the case. 
Forget the 1 percent. The winners of this race, according to Zucman and Saez, have been the 0.1 percent. Since the 1960s, the richest one-thousandth of U.S. households, with a minimum net worth today above $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Take a moment to process that. One-thousandth of the country owns one-fifth of the wealth. By comparison, the entire top 1 percent of households takes in about 22 percent of U.S. income, counting capital gains.

This is hideous, not because a few people are hyperwealthy, but because they helped create the deeply unfair and unsustainable economy that allowed them to attain that wealth. Now they dominate society, law, commerce, media, banking, and the democratic process to ensure their interests are protected and a Dixified, socioeconomic heirarchy is ever more institutionalized.

Say good bye to democracy. 

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