It’s a really bad time to even be middle class in this country, and forget about being poor. The only way to be protected is to be very wealthy: then you are guaranteed that your house is safe, your medical care is covered, and your children will have a future. It’s that bad, and not one bit of this is subtle.
There is a class war underway in this country. The rich, or those that represent their interests, and corporations want control. Dave Johnson, blogger for the Campaign for America’s Future, nailed it when he wrote that: “This budget fight is about a stark choice: jobs and growth for We, the People, or going down the road of plutocracy — rule by the super-rich and big corporations — with little or nothing left over for the rest of us.”
This is the power grab of our generation playing out in Obama’s budget. It reflects true entitlement for the super wealthy. The government revitalization of the “too big to fail” banks was only the tipping point. Of course, the bankers deserved their bonuses. Remember that you heard it here. The battleground is not about the so-called entitlement programs espoused by the Democrats. Social Security, and other such programs are not the culprits; they are the scapegoat for the real agenda. Obama is being forced to rip open the social fabric of this country to reduce the Bush generated debts. In the President’s proposed budget, most social programs will be ravaged left and right (no pun intended). Yes admittedly, this budget is a massive jobs creation machine. But watch out – don’t get sick folks or have an on-the-job accident because there will little if any safety net. Certainly, we all know about health care reform, yet if Speaker Boehner and his boys have their way — that too will be reduced to a hill of beans and severely compromised. The fight for survival of the middle class and the poor has been ratcheted up a notch. Strap in folks, this is class warfare.
Note, this will also appear in the Huffington Post.
Many people don’t understand our country’s problem of concentration of income and wealth because they don’t see it. People just don’t understand how much wealth there is at the top now. The wealth at the top is so extreme that it is beyond most people’s ability to comprehend.
If people understood just how concentrated wealth has become in our country and the effect is has on our politics, our democracy and our people, they would demand our politicians do something about it.
How Much Is A Billion?
Some Wall Street types (and others) make over a billion dollars a year – each year. How much is a billion dollars? How can you visualize an amount of money so high? Here is one way to think about it: The median income in the US is around $29,000, meaning half of us make less and half make more. If you make $29,000 a year, and don’t spend a single penny of it, it will take you 34,482 years to save a billion dollars. . . . (Please come back and read the rest of this after you have recovered.)
What Do People Do With SO Much?
What do people do with all that money? Good question. After you own a stable of politicians who will cut your taxes, there are still a few more things you can buy. Let’s see what $1 billion will buy.
Here is a photo gallery of some other expensive hotels, where people pay $20-30,000 per night. Yes, there are people who pay that much. Remember to send me a postcard!
A billion dollars will buy you a $20,000 room every night for 137 years.
This one is going for only $24.5 million – castle included. You can only buy 40 of these with your billion.
This modest home (it actually is, for the neighborhood it is in) is offered right now at only about $8 million. I ride my bike past it on my regular exercise route, while I think about how the top tax rate used to be high enough to have good courts, schools & roads and counter the Soviet Union and we didn’t even have deficits.
I ride there but that neighborhood is not like my neighborhood at all. While there is one family in that house, I live closer to the nearby soup kitchen that serves hundreds of families. One family in a huge estate and hundreds at a soup kitchen roughly matches the ratio of wealth concentration described below.
The one in this picture costs more than $5 million. You can buy 200 of these with your billion.
Just for fun, this is Derneburg Castle. Do you remember the big oil-price runup a few years ago that too the price of a gallon at the pump up towards $5? One speculator who helped make that happen got a huge bonus paid with government bailout money. He owns this castle. He has filled it with rare art. You can’t go in and see any of the rare art.
So you say to yourself, “I want me some of that. I’d like to place the following order, please.”
One Maybach Landaulet for $1 million to drive around in. (Actually to be driven around in.)
One $100 million yacht for when I want to get seasick.
One Gulfstream G550 private jet for $40 million.
One private island for $24.5 million (castle included) for when I want to escape the masses.
One $8 million estate for when I have to go ashore and mingle with the masses (but not too close.)
One $5 million watch so I can have one.
Total: $178.5 million.
My change after paying with a billion-dollar bill is a meager $821.5 million left over. I might be hard up for cash after my spending spree, but I can still stay in a $20,000 room every night for 112 and 1/2 years.
So, as you see, $1 billion is more than enough to really live it up. People today are amassing multiples of billions, paying very little in taxes and using it in ways that harm the rest of us.
How Extreme Is The Concentration?
Now you have a way to visualize just how much money is concentrated at the very top. And the concentration is increasing. The top 1% took in 23.5% of all of the country’s income in 2007. In 1979 they only took in 8.9%.
It is concentrating at the expense of the rest of us. Between 1979 and 2008, the top 5% of American families saw their real incomes increase 73%, according to Census data. Over the same period, the lowest-income fifth (20% of us) saw a decrease in real income of 4.1%. The rest were just stagnant or saw very little increase. This is why people are borrowing more and more, falling further and further behind. (From the Working Group on Extreme Inequality)
Income VS Wealth
There are a few people who make hundreds of millions of income in a single year. Some people make more than $1 billion in a year But that is in a single year. If you make vast sums every year, after a while it starts to add up. (And then there is the story of inherited wealth, passed down and growing for generation after generation…)
Top 1% owns more than 90% of us combined. “In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available from the Federal Reserve Board, the richest 1% of U.S. households owned 33.8% of the nation’s private wealth. That’s more than the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent.” (Also from the Working Group on Extreme Inequality)
400 people have as much wealth as half of our population. The combined net worth of the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans in 2007: $1.5 trillion. The combined net worth of the poorest 50% of American households: $1.6 trillion.
Corporate wealth is also personal wealth. When you hear about corporations doing well, think about this chart:
The top 1% also own 50.9% of all stocks, bonds, and mutual fund assets. The top 10% own 90.3%.
Worse Than Egypt
In fact our country’s concentration of wealth is worse than Egypt. Richard Eskow writes,
Imagine: A government run by and for the rich and powerful. Leaders who lecture others about “sacrifice” and deficits while cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy. A system so corrupt that rich executives can break the law without fear of being punished. Increasing poverty and hardship even as the stock market rises. And now, a nation caught between a broken political system and a populist movement that could be hijacked by religious extremists at any moment.
Here’s the reality: Income inequality is actually greater in the United States than it is in Egypt. Politicians here have close financial ties to big corporations, both personally and through their campaigns. Corporate lawbreakers often do go unpunished. Poverty and unemployment statistics for US minorities are surprisingly similar to Egypt’s.
The Harmful Effect on The Rest Of Us
This concentration is having a harmful effect on the rest of us, and even on the wealthy. When income becomes so concentrated people who would otherwise think they are well off look up the ladder, see vastly more wealth accumulating, and think they are not doing all that well after all. This leads to dissatisfaction and risk-taking, in an effort to get even more. And this risk-taking is what leads to financial collapse.
Aside from the resultant risk of financial collapse, the effect of so much in the hands of so few is also bad psychologically. People need to feel they earned that they have earned what they have, and develop theories about why they have so much when others do not. Bizzare and cruel explanations like Ayn Rand’s psychopathic theories about “producers” and “parasites” take hold. Regular people become little more than commodities, blamed for their misery (“personal responsibility”) as they become ever poorer.
Teddy Roosevelt, speaking to the educators about “False Standards Resulting From Swollen Fortunes,” warned that while teachers believe their ideals to be worth sacrifice and so do non-renumerative work for the good of others, seeing great wealth makes people think that obtaining wealth is itself a lofty ideal,
The chief harm done by men of swollen fortune to the community is not the harm that the demagogue is apt to depict as springing from their actions, but the effect that their success sets up a false standard, and serves as a bad example to the rest of us. If we do not ourselves attach an exaggerated importance to the rich man who is distinguished only by his riches, this rich man would have a most insignificant influence over us.
Societies that are more equal do better. In the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make the case that great inequality harms us physically as well as spiritually, and the these harmful effects show up across society. The book examines social relations, mental health, drug use, physical health, life expectancy, violence, social mobility and other effects and show how inequality worsens each.
There is a problem of the effect on our democracy from the influence that extreme, concentrated wealth buys. In the book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson make the case that the anti-democracy changes we have seen in America since the late 1970s that led to intense concentration of wealth and income are the intentional result of an organized campaign by the wealthy and businesses to use their wealth to, well, buy even more wealth.
Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the panel signed a pledge distributed by a Koch-founded advocacy group — Americans for Prosperity — to oppose the Obama administration’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Of the six GOP freshman lawmakers on the panel, five benefited from the group’s separate advertising and grassroots activity during the 2010 campaign.
… Republicans on the committee have launched an agenda of the sort long backed by the Koch brothers. A top early goal: restricting the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Kochs’ core energy businesses.
We Must Address This
We owe it to ourselves to come to grips with this problem. We owe it to democracy to begin taxing high incomes and inheritance again. We owe it to future generations to use a temporary wealth tax to pay off the debt.
This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF.
How many ways can people be tricked about taxes? Here are a few tricks I have come across.
* The rich already pay most of the taxes. You hear variations of this, most recently the news that 47% of Americans don’t owe any federal income tax. But the fact is that the rich take in most of the income and literally own almost everything. You probably heard about 25 hedge fund managers getting $25 billion income last year? They get a special deal and don’t pay income tax rates on that money. But regular people still pay Social Security, state and local and sales taxes on their income. In fact working people pay a higher overall tax rate than the super-rich, even if federal income taxes are not part of that.
One more thing – really, don’t get me started – most income at the top comes from “capital gains” from things like stocks and property, but capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate than income that comes from from actually working.
* The new Tea Party Contract From America has as item 4: “enact fundamental tax reform; Adopt a simple and fair single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words — the length of the original Constitution. (64.90 percent).”
Think about this. Since the rich pay most of the taxes, guess what happens to their taxes – and yours – if we move to a single tax rate for everyone. Clue: their taxes go way down and everyone else’s go way up.
* Raising taxes on rich unlikely to cut deficit. You often hear stories like this — that there just isn’t enough money at the top to pay off the debt, so why bother? First, even if it doesn’t completely close the budget gap, it sure would make a dent. Next, think about those 25 hedge fund managers who brought in $25 billion last year but don’t even pay income taxes. That’s a please to start right there, and it’s just 25 people. Then think about the $140 billion Wall Street bonus pool that was paid out last year – a recession and bailout year. That all went to just a few more people. There’s lots of money at the top.
* Taxes “take money out of the economy,” or otherwise hurt economic growth. Where do they think the money goes? Taxing the rich might take money out of the economy of the Cayman Islands, but when used to fund investment in our economic future (roads, schools, R&D, etc.), it actually grows the economy. Please let us know about some tax tricks you have heard, in the comments. And finally — Take a look at CAF’s Taxes: Myths And Realities Sign up here for the CAF daily summary.