As making the rounds of late, a devastating graph of rising income inequality in America, “post-trickle-down”. “This isn’t a totally new story. But it is a vivid and visceral illustration of what we’ve basically known to be true for a while.”
Along the same lines, Mother Jones is posting a new chart on income inequality every day this week. “In the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about overtaxed ‘job creators’ and freeloading ‘takers.’ But consider this: As the income rates for the wealthiest have plunged, their incomes have shot up.”
If it’s any consolation, presumptive 45th president Hillary Clinton has recently “talked to friends and donors in business about how to tackle income inequality without alienating businesses or castigating the wealthy.” Er…sorry, that’s not going to get it done.
Wonkblog’s Matt O’Brien briefly surveys the downward pressure on our sinking middle class. “[I]t’s still a heckuva lot better than households in the bottom 25 percent, whose wealth never grew during the good times, and then plunged 60 percent during the bad ones. That’s because, for both the middle and working classes, real wages have been stagnant the past 30 years, and housing equity has taken a nosedive.”
In the NYRB, and in very related news, Paul Krugman sings the praises of Thomas Piketty’s new magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century. “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics…Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”
As a counterpoint of sorts, CEPR’s Dean Baker — neither a Pollyanna nor a conservative — argues Piketty has picked up some of Marx’s bad habits, and finds the book too deterministic and despairing by far:
“[T]here are serious grounds for challenging Piketty’s vision of the future…the book [suffers from a] lack of attentiveness to institutional detail…In the past, progressive change advanced by getting some segment of capitalists to side with progressives against retrograde sectors. In the current context this likely means getting large segments of the business community to beat up on financial capital…[T]he point is that capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it in this book. Given that we will likely be stuck with it long into the future, that is good news.”
Update: Galbraith weighs in. “[This] is a weighty book, replete with good information on the flows of income, transfers of wealth, and the distribution of financial resources in some of the world’s wealthiest countries…Yet he does not provide a very sound guide to policy. And despite its great ambitions, his book is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length, and reception (so far) suggest.”
In the wake of Michael Lewis’ publicity blitz for Flash Boys, and per his “let’s focus on solutions” argument to Piketty above, CEPR’s Dean Baker explains how to easily fix the problem of high-frequency trading. “[O]ne simple method…would virtually destroy the practice. A modest tax on financial transactions would make this sort of rapid trading unprofitable since it depends on extremely small margins.”
A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)
But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.
ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”
Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarism — congrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.
In his recent major encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls out the obvious shenanigans that is trickle-down economics, and has some choice words for the financial sector:
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”
I already sung the praises of this Pope a few months ago, but it can’t be said enough: this Holy Father is such a breath of fresh air. His recent courage in this regard even encouraged our President to make his own quite-good speech about income inequality last week: “So let me repeat: The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”
Unfortunately — like Obama’s Osowatomie speech in 2011 and his election night speech in 2012 — this seems to be just another example of Obama’s rhetorical tourism on the progressive front. He’s talked a good game — on the occasions when he’s not hippie-punching or parroting Third Way — for close to five years now. But where’s the action to back this rhetoric up? After years of his touting grand bargains and deficit hysteria and allowing sequestration, and looking at the emerging budget deal, I’m not holding my breath. Whatever happens the next three years, it’s already past clear that the tremendous, once-in-a-generation opportunity granted to Obama in 2008 to effect real and positive change has, unfortunately, been wasted.
In an interview with Joshua Holland, journalist and tax expert David Cay Johnston discusses how our current tax code, among other things, is fueling inequality. For example:
1) “Very, very wealthy people…are not required to report most of their economic gains and legally they can literally live tax-free or nearly tax-free by borrowing against their assets. You can borrow these days, if you’re very wealthy, against your assets for less than 2 percent interest and the lowest tax rate you could pay is 15 percent…[I]f you’re a billionaire and you borrow, let’s say, $10 million dollars a year to live on, you pay $200,000 interest, but your fortune through investing grows by $50 million. At the end of the year you pay no taxes, your wealth is up almost $40 million dollars and your cost was just the interest of $200,000.”
2) “Well, one of the reasons some Americans feel they’re being taxed to death is that if you add up our taxes, which are low compared to other modern countries, and then you add in private expenditures for things the tax system pays for in other countries — a lot of our health care costs, higher education costs, admissions and fees and tickets and licenses for a lot of things — lo and behold, we end up being a relatively high-tax country.”