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U.S. Has Worst Wealth Inequality of Any Rich Nation, and It’s Not Even Close

I’ve discussed the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Reports before, an excellent source of data for both wealth and wealth inequality. The most recent edition, from November 2016, shows the United States getting wealthier, but steadily more unequal in wealth per adult and dropping from 25th to 27th in median wealth per adult since 2014. Moreover, on a global scale, it reports that the top 1% of wealth holders hold 50.8% of the world’s wealth (Report, p. 18).

One important point to bear in mind is that while the United States remains the fourth-highest country for wealth per adult (after Switzerland, Iceland, and Australia) at $344,692, its median wealth per adult has fallen to 27th in the world, down to $44,977. As I have pointed out before, the reason for this is much higher inequality in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. ratio of mean to median wealth per adult is 7.66:1, the highest of all rich countries by a long shot.

The tables below illustrate this. First, I will present the 29 countries with median wealth per adult over $40,000 per year, from largest to smallest. The second table also includes mean wealth per adult and the mean/median ratio, sorted by the inequality ratio.

 

1. Switzerland  $244,002
2. Iceland  $188,088
3. Australia  $162,815
4. Belgium  $154,815
5. New Zealand  $135,755
6. Norway  $135,012
7. Luxembourg  $125,452
8. Japan  $120,493
9. United Kingdom  $107,865
10. Italy  $104,105
11. Singapore  $101,386
12. France  $  99,923
13. Canada  $  96,664
14. Netherlands  $  81,118
15. Ireland  $  80,668
16. Qatar  $  74,820
17. Korea  $  64,686
18. Taiwan  $  63,134
19. United Arab Emirates  $  62,332
20. Spain  $  56,500
21. Malta  $  54,562
22. Israel  $  54,384
23. Greece  $  53,266
24. Austria  $  52,519
25. Finland  $  52,427
26. Denmark  $  52,279
27. United States  $  44,977
28. Germany  $  42,833
29. Kuwait  $  40,803

Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2016, Table 3-1

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me remind you why this low level of median wealth is a BIG PROBLEM. Quite simply, we are careening towards a retirement crisis as Baby Boomers like myself find their income drop off a cliff in retirement. As I reported in 2013, 49% (!) of all private sector workers have no retirement plan at all, not even a crappy 401(k). 31% have only a 401(k), which shifts all the investment risk on to the individual, rather than pooling that risk as Social Security does. And many people had to borrow against their 401(k) during the Great Recession, including 1/3 of people in their forties. The overall savings shortfall is $6.6 trillion! If Republican leaders finally get their wish to gut Social Security, prepare to see levels of elder poverty unlike anything in generations. It will not be pretty.

Let’s move now to the inequality data, where I’ll present median wealth per adult, mean wealth per adult, and the mean-to-median ratio, a significant indicator of inequality. These data will be sorted by that ratio.

 

1. United States  $ 44,977  $344,692 7.66
2. Denmark  $ 52,279  $259,816 4.97
3. Germany  $ 42,833  $185,175 4.32
4. Austria  $ 52,519  $206,002 3.92
5. Israel  $ 54,384  $176,263 3.24
6. Kuwait  $ 40,803  $119,038 2.92
7. Finland  $ 52,427  $146,733 2.80
8. Canada  $ 96,664  $270,179 2.80
9. Taiwan  $ 63,134  $172,847 2.74
10. Singapore  $101,386  $276,885 2.73
11. United Kingdom  $107,865  $288,808 2.68
12. Ireland  $ 80,668  $214,589 2.66
13. Luxembourg  $125,452  $316,466 2.52
14. Korea  $ 64,686  $159,914 2.47
15. France  $ 99,923  $244,365 2.45
16. United Arab Emirates  $ 62,332  $151,098 2.42
17. Norway  $135,012  $312,339 2.31
18. Australia  $162,815  $375,573 2.31
19. Switzerland  $244,002  $561,854 2.30
20. Netherlands  $ 81,118  $184,378 2.27
21. New Zealand  $135,755  $298,930 2.20
22. Iceland  $188,088  $408,595 2.17
23. Qatar  $ 74,820  $161,666 2.16
24. Malta  $ 54,562  $116,185 2.13
25. Spain  $ 56,500  $116,320 2.06
26. Greece  $ 53,266  $103,569 1.94
27. Italy  $104,105  $202,288 1.94
28. Japan  $120,493  $230,946 1.92
29. Belgium  $154,815  $270,613 1.75

Source: Author’s calculations from Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2016, Table 3-1

As you can see, the U.S. inequality ratio is more than 50% higher than #2 Denmark and fully three times as high as the median country on the list, France. As the title says, this is not even close.

The message couldn’t be clearer: Get down to your town halls and let your Senators and Representatives know that it’s time to raise Social Security benefits and forget the nonsense of cutting them.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

 

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It’s about the nation’s equity. We are better than this… by Professor Edward Kleinbard

Videos below the fold.

I caught Edward Kleinbard the other morning on Cspan.  He is a professor of law and business at USC and a fellow at the Century Foundation.  His book: We are better than this: How Government Should Spend our Money.  If you google his name, articles will come up from October 2014.   It attracted my attention because of my thinking as expressed in my article back in February of 2013.   The rest of the dinner table deficit/debt discussion: Equity  His thesis is that we need to be spending more as it is investment that creates the capital needed to grow the nation.  Focusing just from the view summed up in the phrase “tax and spend” misses what government is about.  Government doesn’t tax, government “principally spends money” via investment and insurance.  Spending should be complimentary to the private sector.  When government “invests” the pie gets bigger not smaller.

He worked on Wall Street for “many decades” also.   How he kept his humanity as you will hear in the presentation while being on Wall Street…?

Let me start though with this short video as it is another business person like me who appears to get my posts regarding what is needed in this country to go along with the equity spending.   I first mentioned this position in 2010 regarding the SOTU address.  Here we are 2015 and we small business people are still saying the same thing.  Professor Kleinbard addresses small business too as part of understanding the overall condition and needs.

I give you Dave Boris, owner of Hel’s Kitchen Catering.

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Is Piketty wrong about British and Swedish wealth?

Embarrassingly, I missed this reply by Tim Worstsall to my post “Understanding Piketty, part 1.” My apologies to Mr. Worstall and my readers; despite his writing it August 14, I just discovered it the other day when I was mindlessly looking at site traffic data from Alexa.

In his post Worstall takes issue with Piketty’s claim (which I endorsed) that if Financial Times author Chris Giles was correct about the level of British wealth concentration (the top 10% controlling 44% of UK wealth), then British wealth inequality in 2010 was lower than that of Sweden and, indeed, lower than even the lowest share ever held by the top 10% of wealth owners in Sweden (about 53%) which, he said, “does not look very plausible.”

Worstall’s point was that, surprisingly enough, if we measure wealth inequality by the Gini index, Sweden in 2000 had greater inequality than did the U.K, 0.742 to 0.697 (higher is more unequal). His ultimate source (according to the Wikipedia article he cites) was work by the creators of the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, a research effort which Piketty praises as “innovative” in capital21c, p. 623 n. 8.

Let’s first note that even if that were true, it does not get Giles off the hook. Giles, whose error was to tack survey-based UK wealth data for 1990-2010 on to earlier tax-based wealth data (thereby biasing it severely downward; see also Howard Reed in The Guardian), does not dispute that the proper measure for inequality is the wealth share of the top 1% and top 10% of wealth owners. Giles makes no appeal to alternate measures to save himself. Thus, on their agreed measure of wealth inequality, Giles fails to make a dent in Piketty’s data.

However, Worstall’s point is an interesting one on its own merits to Piketty’s attempted reductio ad absurdum. While in part 1, I pointed out that income inequality measured by the Gini index is lower in Sweden than in the United Kingdom, the further fact that wealth inequality is always higher than income inequality within each country does not mean, as I blithely assumed, that the country with lower income inequality will necessarily have lower wealth inequality as well.

The question then becomes which is the more meaningful measure of wealth inequality. The U.K. has higher top 1% and top 10% shares but, evidently, a lower Gini coefficient. As I noted in part 3, Piketty deliberately avoids using the Gini index. As Piketty’s sometime-collaborator Facundo Alvaredo writes, “The most commonly used measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, is more sensitive to transfers at the center of the distribution than at the tails.” This is not a problem for the top shares measures; they have a much more intuitive meaning than the dimensionless Gini index. One might well argue that there is more political significance for the top 1% of wealth owners to increase their share from 20% to 30% than there is for owners at the 85th percentile to gain a corresponding amount of wealth from those below them. But to make that argument doesn’t prove it’s true.

Alvaredo also elaborates on a way to adjust the Gini index for variations at the top of the distribution, which he attributes to Atkinson. As Alvaredo shows in his paper, it is possible for the unadjusted Gini index to be falling even as the adjusted Gini index is rising. I took a stab at adjusting the figures given by Worstall by taking the top 1% share of Sweden in 2000 as 20% and the U.K.’s as 30%. That gives adjusted Gini indices of (.742*(1-0.2)) + 0.2 = 0.7936 for Sweden and (0.697*(1-0.3)) + 0.3 = 0.7879 for the UK. These are much closer, but the U.K. is still slightly more equal if I have gotten this right. In any event, while Swedish income inequality remains robustly lower using either top shares or Gini index, wealth inequality for Sweden is only lower using income shares, but still not Gini.

There remains an obvious question for Worstall: What is the trend of U.K. wealth inequality using the Gini index? If it increased, then Piketty’s finding of an increase using wealth shares will be robustly backed up with this measure Worstall is preferring. Gini may give Worstall a desirable result for a comparison, but still unpleasantly show that Britain is more unequal in wealth than in 1980. That’s the actual question Piketty and Giles were disputing. However, I have yet to find a such a 1980 Gini index for wealth; as Piketty notes in capital21c, the drawback of the Credit Suisse research is that it does not go back in time very far. Perhaps a reader knows where a series of Gini indices for wealth (unlike income, which is easy to find) can be found.

So the answer to the question in the title is that we don’t actually know. Likely, however, it doesn’t matter as far as trends in inequality since 1980 are concerned. It’s definitely worth thinking about what it might mean that the two wealth inequality measures diverge for ranking Britain and Sweden in 2000, even if we eventually conclude that one measure is definitely better than the other.

And it’s not like Piketty is unaware of a potential for greater wealth inequality in Sweden. In June, he lectured in Helsinki, arguing against a recent trend in the Nordic countries to abolish estate (inheritance) taxes. Sweden abolished its inheritance tax in 2005. Not only does this shift the tax burden to those with lesser wealth, as he argued in Helsinki, but it follows from the argument of the book that it takes away the possibility of generating the most reliable form of data on wealth inequality itself.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Who is not retiring, and why?

Via Bloomberg comes this note on demographics and the work force, and continues a conversation about how that impacts all of us. Probably not in the way most often provided in punditry…such as taking jobs away from the millenium generation, wealthy old geezers stereotypes, or alarms sounded about who is to pay for services we want, etc.

It’s well known that the U.S. is turning gray. It’s less well known that the workforce is turning gray as well. The percentage of Americans who are 65 and older will rise from 13 percent in 2010 to 20 percent by 2030 — and, if the recent trend continues, a growing share of those elderly Americans will carry on working past the normal retirement age.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In 1990, 11.8 percent of those 65 and older worked. In 2010 the figure was 17.4 percent. By 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects it to be 22.6 percent. The numbers are even more surprising for Americans older than 75. Less than 5 percent of them worked in 1990. In 2010, it was 7.4 percent. By 2020, according to the BLS, 10 percent of them will still be toiling away.

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Romney and Private Equity’s Questionable Schemes for Paying Very Little Tax

by Linda Beale

Romney and Private Equity’s Questionable Schemes for Paying Very Little Tax

Presumably any American who wants to be informed is aware that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney‘s claim to business acumen resides in his experience at a private equity firm that made much of its money by ramping up debt at purchased firms and using that debt to repay whatever (usually relatively small) investment the equity firm partners made in what has come to be known as “LBO” deals (for “leveraged buyout”).  In LBOs, the equity firm investors almost always do well to exceedingly well, using mostly other people’s money.

Not so generally for the workers in the bought-out company.  The “rent” profits of the equity firm are often on the back of the workers, who may get fired in favor of outsourcing their jobs or get stuck in a rut, as productivity gains go to the new managers and owners and not to the workers.  At the least, the high debt load makes it very difficult for the company to succeed and certainly difficult for it to give its workers a fair shake.   Remember that one of Romney’s gaffs was to admit that he enjoys firing workers.
Why anybody thinks this kind of winner-take-all, leverage-’em-up mentality of private equity firms suggests the kind of leader desirable for a democracy that purports to provide genuine opportunity for all classes of citizens to live a decent life is beyond me.

But even if the very nature of the business and the common tools of over-leverage and “rent” profits for a very few already at the top don’t give voters cause for pause, then there are the many ways that private equity firm partners manage to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, which ensures that more of the tax burden falls on the less-well-off, that are worthy of consideration, even if candidate Romney has not (as his campaign claims) benefited from them personally.  That is because if Romney is elected president, his views on the acceptability of aggressive tax strategies of questionable legality will matter.  We should know what kinds of tax schemes are routine in the business that he touts as good evidence of his ability to serve as president of this nation–especially if some of them are obviously poor policy (the carried interest treatment) or highly questionable tax avoidance schemes (the management fee conversion waiver scheme).

1. Carried Interest   (More after the jump)

The best known way private equity firm partners reduce taxes is by earning their compensation in the form of “carried interest” and claiming that such profits should be treated the same way a real capital investment in a partnership is treated, even though it is awarded as compensation for their purported management expertise and work and not as a return on an actual investment made.   That is, they claim they are profits partners in the firm and that their compensation is a distribution of the partnership’s profits (usually from gains on sales, and hence eligible for preferential capital gains) to them rather than compensation income.  As such they benefit from the extraordinarily preferential rate for capital gains in the current law as enacted under the Bush administration (generally 15%).  Carried interest is the primary reason that candidate Romney has to pay such a very low rate of taxes on his income from his business.

The Internal Revenue Code (the codification of the federal statutes governing the federal income tax) does not include a specific provision governing profits interests and indicating that such “profits” partners should be treated as actual partners in a partnership (without that partnership interest itself being subject to tax as compensation) entitled to receive capital gains distributions.  Accordingly, as one partnership tax treatise puts it, the tax treatment of a transfer to a “service partner” of a “profits interest” for services “has been uncertain” because “[n]o provision of the Code specifically exempts from taxation the receipt of any partnership interest in exchange for services.”  Willis & Postlewaite, Partnership Taxation, 6th ed, at 4-124.    There is some case law about profits interests, but those cases made it even less clear how and when such interests should be taxed.

Finally, the Service resolved the issue with administrative authority (heavily lobbied for in the interests of equity partners and real estate profit partners, in particular) in Rev. Proc. 93-27 (and later proposed regs and other items) that does not treat the issuance of a compensatory “profits interest” as  a taxable event in most instances.  The main reason for the treatment may well be the so-called “Wall Street Rule”–once incredibly wealthy taxpayers hire sophisticated, high-priced lawyers to produce opinons supportive of a taxpayer-favorable interpretation and then operate as though the Code blesses a particular activity, it is hard for tax administrators to issue regulatory authority that treats that activity differently.

2, Management Fee Conversion Waivers
But there is another lesser-known aspect to the compensation that private equity fund partners earn for their services in their private equity firms–the management fee.  Most explanations describe this as  compensation paid for services that is subject to taxation at the ordinary rate (just like a secretary’s wages would be).  But that disregards a practice that exists among a significant number of equity firms (the Times article linked below says about 40% in 2009) that are willing to take aggressive positions to avoid paying taxes and can afford to pay the tax professionals to provide a way to do it–the management fee waiver conversion scheme.

The conversion of management fees from ordinary income to capital gains is purportedly accomplished by “waiving” the fees (not necessarily across-the-board throughout the life of the firm, but often selectively and on a quarter-by-quarter basis),  Instead of getting fees, the partner claims they are “converted” to a share of related profits –i.e., they become an additional carried interest–and hence eligible for treatment as (deferred) capital gains from the firm. 

Some tax professionals think this conversion waiver works.  Much of this is again the “Wall Street Rule”–the claim that lots do it, the IRS has known about it, and oh it should be justifiable because now the “fee” is (sort of, maybe, kinda) at risk.  It is not really at risk in the way we ordinarily think of investment risk, since these are pre-tax dollars — the managers are not putting after-tax dollars at risk like any other investor is doing.  And as Vic Fleischer commented to the Gothamist blog, “there is a tension between economic risk and tax risk …. The way Bain set it up there’s not much risk at all, so it’s hard to see how this income should receive capital gains treatment.”  Christopher Robbins, NY AG: Bain Capital and others may have skirted tax law, the Gothamist (Sept. 2, 2012). 

I’d guess  that most professionals do not think the conversion scheme works, at least not in most instances.  This would be especially true for those who consider that interpretations of the law should further coherent bodies of law that work as fairly as possible.  And even more tax professionals likely think that the partnership rules should be adjusted to ensure that it doesn’t work, since otherwise we are perpetuating inequities in the tax system that favor the already incredibly rich.

The conversion waiver issue has come to the attention of the public now because the New York State attorney general is investigating private equity firms who may have engaged in this conversion waiver practice.  See Nichnolas Confessore et al, Inquiry on Tax Strategy Adds to Scrutiny of Finance Firms, New York Times (Sept. 1, 2012) (noting that the AG’s subpoenas, issued by the AG’s Taxpayer Protection Bureau, cover firms like Kohlberg Kravis, TPG Capital, Apollo Global, Silver Lake and Bain, and that Bain partners may have saved more than $200 million in federal income taxes, $20 million in Medicare taxes).
It’s not clear on what grounds the New York AG is investigating this issue, which appears on the surface to be primarily a federal income tax issue.  It could be some sort of state-law fraud claim but it could also be a claim that underpayment of state taxes routinely results from the filing posture taken,  Equity partners in firms using the conversion waiver would presumably be able to save on state income taxes through either rate preferences and/or deferral, depending on the state and how much the state’s laws build on the federal filing.  Though New York State does not have a preferential rate for capital gains, if the timing of reporting the income is set by the conversion waiver, the deferral would amount to a significant state tax savings that deprives New York of needed revenues.

[Aside:  By the way, some of the information about the management fee conversion waiver first came to broad public attention in connection with Bain and the trove of documents released at Gawker.com.  See John Cook, The Bain Files: Inside Mitt Romney's Tax-Dodging Cayman Schemes, Gawker.com (Aug. 23, 2012) (noting that the huge cache of Bain financial documents "shed a great deal of light on those finances, and on the tax-dodging tricks available to the hyper-rich that [Romney] has used to keep his effective tax rate at roughly 13% over the last decade”).   These documents, and the further analysis articles available at the Gawker.com site, are worth considering for their own revelation of what Romney’s real business is like and how that does (or doesn’t) suggest he can help our economy as president–it is a business where “opaque complexity” allows the “preposterously wealthy” to engage in “exotic tax-avoidance schemes”, according to the Gawker.com article.  (I have not yet personally perused much of the 950 page trove on Gawker.)  That said, Romney’s campaign issued a statement indicating that the candidate has not benefited from the conversion waiver practice.  We have not, of course, seen enough of Romney’s tax returns and supporting information to be able to judge this matter independently.  The focus on the conversion waiver thus provides yet another reason why candidate Romney should release 10 years of tax returns as other candidates have done.]

There are two additional readable pieces on this conversion waiver issue, plus a scholarly article that anyone wanting to better understand the details can peruse.  Vic Fleischer, a tax prof at Colorado who made his original contribution to academe by writing about carried interest, has an article that sets out the issues well, with an example contrasting the significant difference in after-tax results for a real investor compared to a profits-interest purported investor.  See Victor Fleischer,What’s at issue in the private equity tax inquiry, DealBook, New York Times (Sept. 4, 2012). See also Brian Beutler, Did Bain Capital Execs Break the Law Using a Common Tax Avoidance Strategy? Talkingpointsmemo.com (Sept. 3, 2012). The academic piece is Gregg Polsky, Private Equity Management Fee Conversions (Nov. 4, 2008).  The following two paragraphs are from the conclusion to that piece.

In fact, there are strong arguments that it is not. While managers argue that the safe harbor in Rev. Proc. 93-27 applies to the additional carried interest, there are both technical and conceptual claims to the contrary. Without the protection afforded by Rev. Proc. 93-27, the additional carried interest would be taxable upon receipt if it has a market value capable of determination. Both the context in which the additional carried interest is issued and the specific design features of the typical additional carried interest support the view that additional carried interests are significantly easier to value than prototypical profits interests.Under existing case law, this would mean that the additional carried interest is taxable upon receipt as ordinary income to the extent of its fair market value.

The IRS also has strong arguments under section 707(a)(2)(A), which recasts transactions that are artificially designed as partnership transactions in order to obtain tax benefits, such as character conversion. In the context of fee conversions, the most critical fact that favors section 707(a)(2)(A) re-characterization is the manager’s very limited exposure to risk. As a result, section 707(a)(2)(A) likely applies to fee conversions. If so, the manager’s attempt to convert the character of their management fee income would be thwarted.

cross posted with ataxingmatter

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Jamie Galbraith on inequality and macroeconomics

Via Naked Capitalism comes this youtube video from Jamie Galbraith on inequality and macroeconomics, a speech delivered at the INET talks in Berlin:

Galbraith has marshaled a great deal of cross country data over time, and shows how changes in equality happened in a very large number of economies in parallel. He explains, persuasively, that the most plausible culprit is changes in the financial regime.

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Guest post: Who Are the 1%?

Update: Mike Konczal also takes a  look at this question in Who are the one percent and what do they do for a living.


Update 2: Another source for historical trends on inequality is at The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

by Taryn Hart 
    
Taryn Hart publishes at her blog Plutocracy files and has interviewed John Quiggen, Bill Black, Larry Mishal to name three economists

Guest post:    Who Are the 1%?

A week or so back, Dan from Angry Bear passed along this Boston Globe article. On its face, the article bemoans rising inequality through a comparison of two Massachusetts neighborhoods: Sherborn, the State’s wealthiest neighborhood and Springfield, a former working-class neighborhood that now resembles a globalized ghost town. Although the article quotes a Sherborn resident disavowing his status as a one percenter, the piece clearly implies that the upscale Sherbornites are one percenters.
However, as Dan correctly pointed out, Sherbonites are not the one percent: The median income of Sherborn is $190,000 per year; not peanuts, I know, but the lowest paid one percenters make $500,000 per year (even using a significantly narrower definition of income, one percenters make in excess of $330,000 per year). Moreover, the biggest gains over the past thirty-odd years have gone to the top .1%.
When Occupy Wall Street identifies its opposition as the 1%, it’s not talking about people who live in posh neighborhoods with great schools; it’s talking about people who can hire teams of lobbyists who live in posh neighborhoods with great schools. As Gordon Gekko put it:
I’m not talking a $400,000 a year working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable, I’m talking about liquid. Rich enough to have your own jet. Rich enough not to waste time. Fifty, a hundred million dollars, buddy. A player, or nothing.
And keep in mind, that’s 1980s dollars. Given the scandalous increases that have gone to the top 1% since then, the amount required to be a player these days is several times that amount. And the problem with that kind of concentration of wealth is that it inevitably undermines the incentive for collective action required for social well being.
As Matt Taibbi has pointed out in response to the one-percenter meme that those who are so poor they don’t pay federal income tax have “no skin in the game,” concentration of wealth creates perverse incentives that ensure most of the mega rich are terrible citizens:
The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live in gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.
            *            *            *
Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors….
But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India. They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets. They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest. Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.
Nobody with real skin in the game, who had any kind of stake in our collective future, would do any of those things.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz made the same point in May of 2011 (well before Occupy Wall Street), in a must-read Vanity Fair piece entitled, Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”:
[A] modern economy requires “collective action”—it needs government to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology…. America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels. Further cutbacks in these areas lie ahead.
None of this should come as a surprise—it is simply what happens when a society’s wealth distribution becomes lopsided. The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs. The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security—they can buy all these things for themselves. In the process, they become more distant from ordinary people, losing whatever empathy they may once have had.
Be clear: This is who Occupy Wall Street is talking about – the small class of people who have amassed so much wealth that they have no need for the social infrastructure that is the life blood of the 99% (even the 99 percenters who live in swank neighborhoods like Sherborn, Massachusets).
And suggesting that Sherborn is the 1% and Springfield is the 99% – when they’re both the 99% – seems designed to falsely frame the problem of inequality as the poor (Springfield) versus the well-to-do (Sherborn). Of course, in the realm of those set on denying or deflecting inequality concerns, improperly defining the opponents of the 99% is fairly mild. (See discussions of income-inequality deniers here and here). However, this particular sleight of hand has made more than one appearance of late and therefore, is worth reviewing a bit more closely.
David Brooks recently distinguished what he termed “Blue Inequality” of the mega rich from “Red Inequality,” which Brooks claims results from an education gap and is “much more important.” According to Brooks: “The zooming wealth of the top 1 percent is a problem, but it’s not nearly as big a problem as the tens of millions of Americans who have dropped out of high school or college….”
As Dean Baker immediately pointed out, Brooks’s Blue Inequality/Red Inequality thesis is absolutely unsupported by the data:

David Brooks Complains That He Can’t Get Access to Inequality Data

Actually he didn’t complain about his lack of access to data, but he probably should have given the column he wrote today.
Let me just pause for a moment to say: Snap! Good on Dean Baker for pointing out that Brooks’s argument flat-out ignores well-known inequality data. Alright, back to Baker:
Brooks purports to lecture the Occupy Wall Street crew about how they are focused on the wrong inequality.
He tells them that that there are two inequalities in the U.S. On the one hand we have the CEOs, the Goldman Sachs crew, the lobbyists and the other members of the one percent who have done incredibly well in the last three decades. Brooks calls this the “blue inequality”….
Brooks tells us that this is less of a big deal than the red inequality, which he defines as the gap between college educated workers and those without a college degree….
This is where Brooks lack of access to data is so important….
[S]ince the 90s, the wages of workers with high school degrees have not departed much from the wages of workers with just college degrees, the vast majority of the economys gains have gone to the top 1 percent.
Despite the blatant lack of empirical support and Dean Baker’s decisive take down, Megan McArdle dutifully picked up on the trope. And, of course, the Boston Globe piece highlights the education gap between the residents of Springfield and Sherborn and implies the gap between two communities is the result of the “one percent phenomenon.” However, these arguments – and, more often, implications – are clearly undercut by the data.
The mega rich Occupy Wall Street opposes do not live in “neighborhoods,” not even well-to-do neighborhoods like Sherborn. The top 1% – and probably more accurately the top .1% – live in gated mansions with private security. As Joseph Stiglitz and Matt Taibbi have pointed out, the mega rich have reached a level of wealth that completely insulates them from society. So, don’t be fooled: Occupy Wall Street is not opposed to the affluent. Residents of Sherborn and similar affluent communities – like all citizens who still have a stake in our country’s well being – are part of the 99%.

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Romney’s Wall St. J. Interview with Gigot–Protecting the Rich

Romney’s Wall St. J. Interview with Gigot–Protecting the Rich

[edited to rephrase and correct typos 12/26/11 5 pm]
Joseph Rago and Paul Gigot interviewed Mitt Romney on his ‘vision’ for America–”On Taxes, ‘Modeling’, and the Vision Thing”, Wall St. J. Dec. 23-24, 2011, at A13.  In it, Romney reveals the way patrician wealth has affected his values, casting President Obama as a “European social democrat” and suggesting that contrasts with his own belief in a “merit-based opportunity society–where people earn their rewards based upon their education, their work, their willingness to take risks and their dreams.”  
Now everybody likes the idea of people being able to advance based on merit, rather than on crony capitalism, improper influence or whatever.   The problem with suggesting that America is a ‘merit-based opportunity society’ is that it isn’t much of one anymore: America in this second Gilded Age is primarily a wealth-and-status-based opportunity society. 
  • Education:  Even Romney admitted (obviously unintentionally) that wealth makes a real difference, since he noted that rewards depend in part on education.  People with wealth receive the finest educations from pre-K through post-graduate, getting preferences at the best children’s academies in Manhattan and at the highest ranked universities like Harvard and Yale.  People without wealth lose out from the very beginning, with inferior schools that are no longer fully supported by the public, as charter and for-profit schools take over offering inferior educations that no patrician family would ever accept.  The poor and middle class take on enormous loans and work loads to finance even their public university educations, since state support has slipped down to a mere 20-30% of the cost of that education.  That makes study and grades and success much more difficult for them. 
  • Working hard (with Contacts/Influence/lobbyists):  The wealthy are introduced early to the most important people of influence in society, like the Vanderbilts and the Astors of old, the private equity fund managers and the Wall Street bankers that can smooth their way through all the trials and tribulations of their ‘work’ careers–i.e., becoming owners of major league baseball team when you have no relevant experience (George W. Bush, with the aid of his papa and his papa’s influential and rich partners) or setting up a venture capital fund (like Romney’s Bain Capital). These connections ultimately permit the wealthy to mingle in a monied society that offers the right contact for every venture to succeed–including lobbyists to help a wealthy entrepreneur get his business going and ability to ‘invest’ in politicians who are willing to risk alienating the middle class to support preferential taxation of the rich. 
    • By the way, lots of the not-rich work quite hard, often at thankless jobs that provide no cushion to deal with life’s difficult blows or at a job that, at minimum wage, still leaves their family below the poverty line.  Without the contacts and influence that smooth the way of the rich, there chances of moving up are much more limited.  If they persevere, have an entrepreneurial idea, and catch a break, they may be able to move beyond where they are, but they have to do a lot more than just ‘work hard.’  
  • Taking Risks (and Getting Subsidies and Preferential Tax Provisions):  The poor take a risk every time they get up in the morning–will their health hold out so they can keep working? will they be able to make it to their job in that car that needs a new starter? can they manage to arrange for someone to take care of their kids while they work or will they have to be “latch-key kids” yet another day?  But they don’t usually have the kind of capital nest-egg to take a risk with in the way that Romney means it–the excitement of opening a new business demands from the poor and near-poor Herculean efforts to pull together family, friends, and workers to support their business ideas.  Those with money, on the other hand, have a head start on all of this.  Bill Gates’ parents offered him an educated life of relative ease; he could ‘play’ in the garage on that dream of his rather than running heavy machinery or working behind a counter at a McDonalds.  And those with contacts and money are able (and willing) to hire the best lobbyists to ensure that they get all the tax-advantaged benefits and subsidies that they can finnangle (or buy) from local, state and federal legislators for their activities.  That includes favorable tax provisions that allow them to keep a significant percentage of their wealth (and to fight for even more favorable provisions), such as the carried interest provision that gave Romney a preferential rate on almost all of his compensation income, the preferential capital gains rate that gives all the wealthy a low tax rate on their income from trading stocks and bonds with each other, and the various ways that the tax code subsidizes the kinds of personal deductions that provide the most benefit to those with money–from the charitable contribution deduction (including the ability to give away stock and claim a deduction for its value rather than for your actual basis) and the mortgage interest deduction (for interest on home loans up to a million plus $100,000) to all of those provisions that allow the wealthy to retire well–pension plans, exclusion of life insurance benefits, etc.  Then there are the many subsidies they get various governments to provide for their businesses, presumably by using those long-term family/status connections to wine, dine and influence.  They include low-cost loans such as those enjoyed by Romney’s Bain Capital for various businesses that Bain Capital was ‘turning around’.  (Handily, they can make low-taxed profits for themselves even when their turnarounds fail, with all those subsidies, so that the taxpayer sometimes ends up paying  for their losses along with the fired workers.)  See the links provided in the posting yesterday on Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns, which discuss some of the subsidies and other benefits to Romney’s business. 
That’s not a merit-based opportunity society:  it’s an influence-based society, where the poor and even most of the middle class are working against long odds to make headway. 
And there’s not much evidence that Romney recognizes this fundamental difference in existence of the well-off and the not-so-well-off here in America.  Take the Gigot story’s discussion of tax policy and what kinds of “reforms” Romney supports.  The Journal apparently thinks Romney is too timid on ‘risk-taking’ because he didn’t espouse the kind of tax agenda that the Journal supports–moving to a consumption tax–like the national sales tax– that shifts most of the tax burden to ordinary folks (since they will pay tax on most or all of their  income since they spend most of it on food, shelter, clothing and other necessities) and leaves a zero percent tax rate on the capital gains, dividends, and other income from capital that makes up most of the income of the wealthy and little of the income of everybody else.  Why, the Journal notes, Romney’s plan merely calls for extending the Bush tax cuts, cutting the statutory corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%, and eliminating capital gains and dividends taxes only for those who make $200,000 or less.  Romney won’t even say he supports a consumption tax til he’s studied it more, though he likes the purported “simplicity” of a flat tax.    Romney also says he likes “removing the distortion in our tax code for certain classes of investment”.  This means that Romney does not understand the real economics of the consumption tax and the so-called ‘flat tax’, both of which result in taxation of 100% of the income of the poor and near poor and most of the middle class while leaving the rich with a minimal tax burden.  Any system for alleviating that burden (such as a low-level exemption at the bottom of the income scale) would thrust a truly burdensome recordkeeping requirement on those least able to cope with it.  Especially for versions that merely zero out the tax rate on income from capital, distortions would be magnified: the categorization of income into different types is one of the primary distortions in our system, and any plan to eliminate taxes on one type of income while retaining them on another increases distortions rather than removing them!
What about Romney’s saying he won’t propose cuts in individual tax rates for those making more than $200,000?  The Journal seems to think that is rather cowardly, since such a proposal accepts President Obama’s linedrawing on where rate cuts might be reasonable.  Now, aside from the failure to consider dropping the entire bunch of Bush tax cuts and letting all the rates go back to the level that they were when Bush took office (which might well be the best tax reform the Congress could do at this point), Romney should be commended for at least recognizing that the wealthy have gotten a fistful of tax gifts from the Bush individual tax cuts (and, indirectly, from the various corporate tax provisions that have allowed companies to pay less and less into the federal fisc) and for not wanting to proffer even more. 
But here’s the rub.  Romney doesn’t recognize the damage from the wealthier among us continuing to get even wealthier while the vast majority suffers stagnation and decline:  as the concentration of income increases at the top and inequality becomes the defining characteristic of this society, opportunity for all is threatened as is democracy itself.  Tax policies that could serve as a deterrent to that wealth buildup at the top–e.g., a stiffer, progressive estate tax, a financial transactions tax to discourage trading and capture a tiny amount in connection with those secondary market trades amongst the wealthy, and bracket expansions that would create a more progressive set of tax rates for the highest income that would distinguish between those who have $400,000 a year and those who have $2 million a year–aren’t even on Romney’s radar screen.  He’s content with the current system’s distribution, one that is highly favorable to the wealthy.  As a recent FED Finance and Economics Discussion Series article made clear, inequality has made permanent inroads and tax policies haven’t done much to dampen them.  See Jason DeBacker et al, Rising Inequality, Transitory or Permanent? New Evidence from a U.S. Panel of Household Income 1987-2006.
Romeny’s made it clear that he isn’t about to challenge the status quo of an easy tax life for the wealthy.  Here’s what he said to the Journal on the question of making sure that the wealthy never see any kind of a tax increase.
“My intent is to simplify our tax code and create growth, and so I will also look to see whether the top one-half of 1% or one-thousandth of 1% or top 1% are still paying roughly the same share of the total tax burden that they have today.  I’m not looking to lower the share paid for by the top.”  Wall St. J., Dec. 24-25, 2011, at A13 (quoting Romney).
So after a decade of cutting taxes on the wealthy and passing more and more provisions that benefit the wealthy in particular either directly or indirectly, Romney declares today’s status quo as the perfect state for things to be in–the current low taxes on the wealthy, in perpetuity, are his goal.  And while we may applaud him for not intending to lower taxeds further on the wealthy, it is hard to see how continuing current tax policy towards the wealthy makes sense for the fisc or for democracy.   Carried interest–won’t be taxed under Romney as the ordinary compensation that it is.  Mortgage interest deduction on million-dollar loans–won’t be pulled back to a more reasonable amount such as the interest on a loan that is 80% of the value of the median-priced US home.  Charitable contribution deduction for value rather than basis in stocks contributed–won’t get rid of that one.  Establishment of new brackets to recognize the drastic expansion of incomes at the top so that those with progressively more income are paying progressively more in taxes–won’t happen under Romney.  Why?  Because he is going to make sure that the top 1%, the top 1/2%, the top 1/1000% don’t pay less, but also don’t pay a bit more in taxes than they are paying now, this perfect state where the GOP wants to cut people off Medicaid to save money, turn Medicare into a ‘premium support’ system that will shift more and more of the burden of health care in one’s old age to the vulnerable elderly with a pension they can’t count on and a Social Security system that the GOP is trying to ensure that they can’t count on.
Most tax “simplification” promoted by lobbyists won’t create growth–it is much more likely to result in tax loopholes that the wealthy can drive a truck through.  Refusing ever to increase taxes, even on the ultra-rich who can clearly afford to pay more (without really noticing the difference in spending power) won’t create growth–it most likely will result in a stagnant economy where the burdened middle class gradually falls into the ranks of the New Poor. 

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