"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Wealth Concentration’

Multinational Greed Is Threatening The Stability Of Societies Across the Planet

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Oldspeak: “Around the globe, people are getting increasingly frustrated by governments going out of their way to ensure an enabling environment for big business while making drastic cuts in public spending on social welfare. This is fuelling alienation among electorates, spurring protests. Of great concern, is that those seeking to expose the nexus between governments and big business are being subjected to various forms of persecution with state complicity….. while the power of transnational corporations has expanded exponentially, income and wealth disparities are threatening to tear societies apart. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 annual survey of global risks identifies severe income disparity as a key concern likely to manifest itself over the next decade. The International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director has admitted that the top 0.5 percent of the globe’s population holds 35 per cent of its wealth . Civil society group, Oxfam estimated that in 2012, the world’s top 100 billionaires earned enough money to end poverty four times over.  ….But despite the grave warnings from civil society, governments and financial institutions continue to spin arguments about the need to privatise services when they should be focusing on how to make the public sector fit for purpose. Shockingly, during a global economic downturn, political leaders and captains of industry have together managed to subject ordinary people to double jeopardy: having to pay taxes to the state and then having to fork out profit-adjusted higher costs for privatised health, education, public transport, telecommunications, road works, electricity, water supply and so on. These services are indeed governments’ responsibility to provide as part of the social contract between citizens and the state.” -Mandeep Tiwana

“It seems pretty obvious at this point that the people who’ve profited the most from the 2008 global economic collapse, our corporate citizens who’ve been bailed out and are constantly being supported by monthly taxpayer financed subsidies via “Quantitive Easing” policies are driving the current global economic and ecological  downturn. Depressing wages, eliminating workers, stripping worker protections, destroying food and water supplies, taking ownership of all,  replacing jobs with living wages with jobs with slave wages, asserting supra-governmental control via a number of secret laws, directives, policies, treaties and trade agreements.  Logic dictates that fewer workers with less spending power = failing economy.  Yet this logic is ignored. This is happening world wide for the most part. It’s clear that the governments worldwide are no longer representative of their people. They’re serving as facilitators and gatekeepers of a global neo-feudalist control system being emplaced. The people continue to honor the social contract between them and the state while the state has thrown it out, and entered into a new contract with the 0.5%. How else to explain half the world living in poverty, when the 100 people could end it 4 times over. How else to explain GM and Chrysler being bailed out while the city around them, Detroit, is being allowed to go bankrupt, not mentioned ONCE in Obama’s latest rhetorical master speech on the U.S. Economy, even as he crowed about saving the U.S. Auto Industry. How else to explain Citigroup’s profits increasing by 42% as it cuts its workforce and makes more than 50% of its profits outside of the U.S.? We have to have real conversations about the fatal corruption of the capitalist system by greed for money. The system is irreparably corrupted by money and amorality. What do we do when a computer’s system is corrupted? We fix it, or if it’s beyond repair, we replace it with a new system. This is what must be done with our economic system. We must replace it.” – OSJ

By Mandeep Tiwana @ Al Jazzera English:

The people are angry. In Turkey, Brazil, and most recently again, Egypt, thousands have taken to the streets to voice their anger and frustration at the lack of social and economic justice. Political and economic elites, working in tandem, have managed to neutralise the aspirations of ordinary people, in part spurring the disenfranchisement driving the protests.

Whether it is the removal of subsidies  [3]protecting the poor against inflation and price shocks in Egypt, or the enormous cost of hosting high profile sporting events  [4]in Brazil at the expense of social services, or government plans to commercialise  [5]a beloved public park in the heart of Istanbul, the headlong embrace of neoliberal economic policies by governments is likely to cause further dissatisfaction and unrest across the globe.

Neo-liberalism, using a dictionary definition, as a “modern politico-economic theory favouring free trade, privatisation, minimal government intervention, reduced public expenditure on social services etc.,” reduces the responsibility of the state while promoting privatisation to favour those with access to resources and influence. It is playing havoc with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.

Despite mainstream perceptions, the sad reality is that free markets don’t automatically regulate themselves nor do they naturally respect individual or community rights. In Indonesia [6], people are choking from fires set by agricultural companies to clear forests to allow mammoth palm oil plantations to flourish. In the United States [7], popular demands for effective gun control are being blocked by congressmen bankrolled by the arms industry. In Ethiopia [8], thousands have been displaced through forced villagisation programmes to make way for agricultural companies that want to make land more “productive.” In Spain  [9]and inGreece [10], public property such as hospitals and airports are being sold to private players to make the economy more “nimble.” In the UK [11], frustration is mounting about tax evasion by transnational corporations whose turnover exceeds the GDP of many countries, while the average citizen continues to dutifully pay their fair share of taxes.

Around the globe, people are getting increasingly frustrated by governments going out of their way to ensure an enabling environment for big business while making drastic cuts in public spending on social welfare. This is fuelling alienation among electorates, spurring protests. Of great concern, is that those seeking to expose the nexus between governments and big business are being subjected to various forms of persecution with state complicity.

In Cambodia [12], land rights activists opposing official plans to forcibly acquire land for big companies have been subjected to brutal attacks by security forces and lengthy prison terms. In Honduras [13], peasant farmers’ groups involved in land disputes with companies have been subjected to murderous attacks.  InIndia [14], peaceful activists ideologically opposed to the government’s economic policy have been charged under draconian laws of being members of outlawed terrorist organisations. In Canada [15], non-profit groups opposed to the conservative government’s policy of loosening environmental restrictions to enable extraction of oil and gas from ecologically sensitive zones have been subjected to surveillance and funding cuts, while being accused of being obstructive of the country’s economic development.

Widening income inequality

Worryingly, while the power of transnational corporations has expanded exponentially, income and wealth disparities are threatening to tear societies apart. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 annual survey of global risks identifies severe income disparity [16] as a key concern likely to manifest itself over the next decade. The International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director has admitted that the top 0.5 percent of the globe’s population holds 35 per cent of its wealth [17]. Civil society group, Oxfam estimated that in 2012, the world’s top 100 billionaires earned enough money to end poverty four times over [18]. CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance has argued in its annual report  [19]that the discourse on inequality is becoming commonplace with the 1 percent vs the 99 percent meme entering the mainstream.

But despite the grave warnings from civil society, governments and financial institutions continue to spin arguments about the need to privatise services when they should be focusing on how to make the public sector fit for purpose. Shockingly, during a global economic downturn, political leaders and captains of industry have together managed to subject ordinary people to double jeopardy: having to pay taxes to the state and then having to fork out profit-adjusted higher costs for privatised health, education, public transport, telecommunications, road works, electricity, water supply and so on. These services are indeed governments’ responsibility to provide as part of the social contract between citizens and the state.

In the past, the political and economic elite have erroneously sought to deride the occupy movements,indignados and anti-corruption protestors as fringe elements without clear vision or majority support. But with greater numbers of people taking to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction against corruption, environmental degradation and top down austerity policies, decision makers have a reality check staring them in the face. But will they right the ship on neo-liberal economic policies when they are privately profiting from it? Perhaps citizen action will help answer that.

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Links:
[1] http://english.aljazeera.net/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/mandeep-tiwana
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/egyptians-held-back-neoliberalism-not-religion
[4] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/06/2013619134555233454.html
[5] http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2013/07/20137112549633235.html
[6] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/press/releases/Palm-oil-companies-must-come-clean-on-Indonesian-fire-hotspots—Greenpeace/
[7] http://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickallen/2013/04/18/gun-control-a-congress-of-cowards/
[8] http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/01/16/ethiopia-forced-relocations-bring-hunger-hardship
[9] http://iberosphere.com/2013/06/spain-news-private-sector-moves-into-spains-public-hospitals/8701
[10] http://pathfinderbuzz.com/resilience-makes-greek-ports-attractive/
[11] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/nov/12/starbucks-tax-avoidance-controversy
[12] https://www.civicus.org/media-centre-129/61-press-releases/1030-cambodia-civicus-calls-for-unconditional-release-of-detained-activists
[13] http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR37/003/2013/en/4fabe3f5-648c-4192-9383-06ae42fa9922/amr370032013en.html
[14] http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/26/india-stop-misuse-counterterrorism-laws
[15] http://socs.civicus.org/?p=3825
[16] http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/
[17] http://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2013/051513.htm
[18] http://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressrelease/2013-01-19/annual-income-richest-100-people-enough-end-global-poverty-four-times
[19] http://socs.civicus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/2013StateofCivilSocietyReport_full.pdf
[20] http://www.alternet.org/tags/neoliberalism
[21] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Centralization and Sociopathology: Concentrated Power & Wealth Are Intrinsically Sociopathological

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2013 at 8:35 pm

http://www.tgdaily.com/sites/default/files/stock/article_images/misc/matrixsystemfailure.jpgOldspeak: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” -Jiddu Krishnamurti

“We live in a time of unprecedented inequality,  with extreme wealth & power concentration. Concurrently, our civilization is dominated by sociopathic organizations. The two most powerful, the transnational corporate network, and governments worldwide have combined to form an awesome and near omniscient control grid, a corptalitarian oligarchical collective that is manipulating most humans on this planet. This collective has infected most of humanity with its worldview and belief systems, spawning billions of secondary sociopaths who act as gatekeepers, maintaining & defending the sociopathic systems around which society is organized. We’ve reached a point where these systems, rapidly metastasizing via globalization, are in direct conflict with the only system that matters, the ecosystem. If the ecosystem loses this conflict, we all lose. Localization is the key to saving our ecosystem,  Which side are you on?

By C.D. @ Oftwominds:

Concentrated power and wealth are intrinsically sociopathological by their very nature.

 
I have long spoken of the dangers inherent to centralization of power and the extreme concentrations of wealth centralization inevitably creates.
Longtime contributor C.D. recently highlighted another danger of centralization:sociopaths/psychopaths excel in organizations that centralize power, and their ability to flatter, browbeat and manipulate others greases their climb to the top.
In effect, centralization is tailor-made for sociopaths gaining power. Sociopaths seek power over others, and centralization gives them the perfect avenue to control over millions or even entire nations.
Even worse (from the view of non-sociopaths), their perverse abilities are tailor-made for excelling in office and national politics via ruthless elimination of rivals and enemies and grandiose appeals to national greatness, ideological purity, etc.
As C.D. points out, the ultimate protection against sociopathology is to minimize the power held in any one agency, organization or institution:

After you watch these films on psychopaths, I think you’ll have an even greater understanding of why your premise of centralization is a key problem of our society. The first film points out that psychopaths generally thrive in the corporate/government top-down organization (I have seen it happen in my agency, unfortunately) and that when they come to power, their values (or lack thereof) tend to pervade the organization to varying degrees. In some cases, they end up creating secondary psychopaths which is kind of like a spiritual/moral disease that infects people.

If we are to believe the premise in the film that there are always psychopaths among us in small numbers, it follows then that we must limit the power of any one institution, whether it’s private or public, so that the damage created by psychopaths is limited.

It is very difficult for many people to fathom that there are people in our society that are that evil, for lack of a better term, and it is even harder for many people in society to accept that people in the higher strata of our society can exhibit these dangerous traits.

The same goes for criminal behavior. From my studies, it’s pretty clear that criminality is fairly constant throughout the different levels of our society and yet, it is the lower classes that are subjected to more scrutiny by law enforcement. The disparity between blue collar and white collar crime is pretty evident when one looks at arrests and sentencing. The total lack of effective enforcement against politically connected banks over the last few years is astounding to me and it sets a dangerous precedent. Corruption and psychopathy go hand in hand.

A less dark reason for avoiding over centralization is that we have to be aware of normal human fallibility. Nobody possesses enough information, experience, ability, lack of bias, etc. to always make the right decisions.

Defense Against the Psychopath (video, 37 minutes; the many photos of political, religious and secular leaders will likely offend many/most; if you look past these outrages, there is useful information here)
The Sociopath Next Door (video, 37 minutes)
As C.D. observes, once sociopaths rule an organization or nation, they create a zombie army of secondary sociopaths beneath them as those who resist are undermined, banished, fired or exterminated. If there is any lesson to be drawn from Iraq, it is how a single sociopath can completely undermine and destroy civil society by empowering secondary sociopaths and eliminating or marginalizing anyone who dares to cling to their humanity, conscience and independence.
“Going along to get along” breeds passive acceptance of sociopathology as “the new normal” and mimicry of the values and techniques of sociopathology as the ambitious and fearful (i.e. almost everyone) scramble to emulate the “successful” leadership.
Organizations can be perverted into institutionalizing sociopathology via sociopathological goals and rules of conduct. Make the metric of success in war a body count of dead “enemy combatants” and you’ll soon have dead civilians stacked like cordwood as proof of every units’ outstanding success.
Make lowering unemployment the acme of policy success and soon every agency will be gaming and manipulating data to reach that metric of success. Make higher grades the metric of academic success and soon every kid is getting a gold star and an A or B.
Centralization has another dark side: those ensconced in highly concentrated centers of power (for example, The White House) are in another world, and they find it increasingly easy to become isolated from the larger context and to slip into reliance on sycophants, toadies (i.e. budding secondary sociopaths) and “experts” (i.e. apparatchiks and factotums) who are equally influenced by the intense “high” of concentrated power/wealth.
Increasingly out of touch with those outside the circle of power, those within the circle slide into a belief in the superiority of their knowledge, skills and awareness–the very definition of sociopathology.
Even worse (if that is possible), the incestuous nature of the tight circle of power breeds a uniformity of opinion and ideology that creates a feedback loop that marginalizes dissenters and those with open minds. Dissenters are soon dismissed–”not a team player”– or trotted out for PR purposes, i.e. as evidence the administration maintains ties to the outside world.
Those few dissenters who resist the siren song of power soon face a choice: either quietly quit “to pursue other opportunities” (the easy way out) or quit in a blast of public refutation of the administration’s policies.
Public dissenters are quickly crucified by those in power, and knowing this fate awaits any dissenter places a powerful disincentive on “going public” about the sociopathology of the inner circle of power.
On rare occasions, an insider has the courage and talent to secure documentation that details the sociopathology of a policy, agency or administration (for example, Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers).
Nothing infuriates a sociopath or a sociopathological organization more than the exposure of their sociopathology, and so those in power will stop at nothing to silence, discredit, criminalize or eliminate the heroic whistleblower.
In these ways, centralized power is itself is a sociopathologizing force. We cannot understand the present devolution of our civil society, economy and ethics unless we understand that concentrated power and wealth are intrinsically sociopathological by their very nature.
 
The solution: a culture of decentralization, transparency and open competition, what I call the DATA model (Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable) in my book Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It.

Austerity Measures, U.S. Style, Exposed

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Quarter.We have abandoned the common good. We have been stripped of our rights and voice. Corporations write our laws and determine how we structure our society. We have all become victims. There are no politicians or institutions, no political parties or courts, that are independent enough or strong enough to resist the corporate onslaught. Greater and greater numbers of human beings will be consumed. The poor, the vulnerable, the undocumented, the weak, the elderly, the sick, the children will go first. And those of us watching helplessly outside the gates will go next.” -Chris Hedges. When you understand the key purposes for Austerity Measures, referred to euphemistically in the U.S. as “Sequestration”,  “Deficit Reduction”, “Entitlement Reform”, “Fiscal Responsibility” and “Increasing payroll tax “, are to “(1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts (from the creditors/creators of the crisis), onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint (privatization/monetization) of the government, and (3) reduce creditors(/crisis creators)‘ concerns about rising US debt levels.Richard Wolff, you begin to see that this urgent and well reported “debate” over Sequestration is just the latest installment of U.S. Government Kabuki Theater.  The White House and Congress twice agreed to go into sequestration in 2011.  Both sides are not talking, they are preparing for the list of cuts and positioning for the public relations disaster afterwards. There is a high probability that these cuts will go into effect. Even in the face of mountains of evidence from past and present day Europe that austerity does not enable economic growth, but does increase the potential for violence and social unrest. Austerity functions primarily as means by which the international banking cartels and the transnational corporate network ensures attractive returns on their investments/looting/fraud/market manipulation. It enriches those in the 1% at the expense of the poor, elderly, & disenfranchised. It fails to address one essential factor that accompanies the current depression. Inequality. Inequality and wealth concentration has equaled and exceeded levels reached in the last Great Depression. Raising the minimum wage a paltry $1.75 will have no significant effect on inequality or quality of life  among the nearly 1 in 2 Americans living in or near poverty.  There is no addressing of the hidden tax of  rising food prices created by the creditors/creators of the crisis’ unregulated and dangerous speculation on commodities markets. Austerity measures will actually make life significantly worse for the poor and less fortunate, creating more sick people, less housing, more hunger, less safety. This is the first in a series of  points of danger for our economy, enshrined in a series of laws which are the result of every accommodation the president has made over the last year and a half. Over the next 10 weeks, we will lurch from crisis to crisis, and the economic decision-making apparatus will remain in chaos through his deference. The “least” among us are being sacrificed. Who will be next?”

By Richard D. Wolff @ Truthout:

Austerity policies include various combinations primarily of government spending cuts and secondarily of general tax increases. Republicans and Democrats have endorsed austerity since 2010. Austerity was the result of their deal on taxes last December 31: increasing the payroll tax on wages and salaries from 4.2 to 6.2 percent. Austerity is what they are negotiating now in regard to federal spending cuts.

After 2010, with “recovery” underway for them following bailouts for them, large private capitalist interests focused on three key interests. First, they wanted to ensure that the bailouts’ costs were not paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the rich. By stressing government spending cuts and broad-based tax increases, austerity policies serve that interest. Second, they worried about crisis-heightened government economic intervention and power and wanted to reduce them back to pre-crisis levels. Austerity’s focus on reduced government spending lessens the government’s economic footprint. Third, because big banks and other large capitalists are among the major creditors of the US government, they wanted signs that their crisis-increased holdings of US debt were safe investments for them. Austerity policies provide just those signs, as we shall show.

Austerity in the US, unlike in Europe, is renamed and packaged for the public as “deficit reduction programs” or “fiscal responsibility.” Distractions such as “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” focus public attention on mere secondary details of austerity. Politicians, media and academics use such distractions to wrangle over whose taxes will go up how much and which recipients of government spending will suffer what size cuts. They do not debate austerity itself; that is, they do not debate very idea of raising mass taxes and cutting spending in a deep and long economic downturn. They do not explore the interests served and undermined by any austerity policy. So we will.

Austerity promoters repeatedly insist that the dominant economic problem today is government budget deficits. They ignore why those deficits occurred (the crisis plus bailouts). They demand that both parties and the media endorse austerity because cuts in government spending and increased taxes will reduce deficits. They hype austerity as the solution all must embrace. Otherwise, they fear, a different and dangerous logic might win popular support. In that logic, since capitalism regularly causes crises that cause deficits, another solution for deficits would be changing from capitalism to another economic system not beset by regular crises.

Austerity policies, we are told, will reduce deficits and thereby meet what “the credit market” demands. In other words, those who have lent to the US government (by buying its debt securities) want guarantees of interest and repayment. By cutting government spending and raising taxes, austerity policies redirect government funds to the government’s creditors, thereby reassuring them.

Distracting references to an anonymous “market” avoid identifying the government’s creditors. However, major creditors holding US public debt are easy to list: large banks, insurance companies, large corporations, wealthy individuals and central banks around the world. Austerity justified as satisfying “the market” in fact serves those US creditors first and foremost.

Austerity is thus the policy preferred by the private capitalist interests that (1) brought on the crisis, (2) secured the government bailouts almost exclusively for themselves, and (3) are that government’s chief creditors. Led by major banks, those interests now threaten the government (that just bailed them out) with higher interest rates or no more credit unless it imposes higher taxes (mostly on others) and reduced spending (mostly on others) to lower its deficits. Distracting struggles over “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” serve nicely to disguise the reality that both parties’ austerity policies represent and illustrate gross government subservience to large capitalists.

Austerity, US style, has its Keynesian economist critics. They point out that the United States has been able to borrow trillions at historically low interest rates through this crisis. US deficits have not worried “the market” at all. Policies should therefore not be driven by deficits. Keynesians insist that raising mass taxes and cutting spending during an economic downturn will reduce outlays on goods and services by taxpayers and government, thereby worsening unemployment. They thus ridicule the argument that austerity, by cutting deficits, will stimulate investment by capitalists.

For Keynesians, austerity is thus unneeded and counterproductive. They prefer to exit the crisis by more stimulus (lower taxes and higher government spending) funded by higher deficits. The resulting economic growth, they believe, will automatically lower government budgetary imbalance. The government can then later, if and when needed, impose tax increases and reduce government spending to shrink deficits. In a growing economy, austerity policies avoid the devastating effects they have in depressed economies (as shown by the recent histories of Greece, Portugal, the UK and others).

Setting aside the question of the validity of Keynesian arguments, they miss key purposes of austerity policies. Those policies do not primarily seek to overcome crisis or resume economic growth. Rather, as argued above, they aim chiefly to (1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint of the government, and (3) reduce creditors’ concerns about rising US debt levels. If austerity policies achieve these objectives, their failure to end the crisis quickly is a price that corporations and the rich are more than happy to pay (or rather, have others pay).

That Republicans and Democrats concur on austerity and differ only on its secondary details testifies to what they share. Both depend financially on capitalist corporations and their top executives. Both serve and never question capitalism. For all the victims of capitalism today – the unemployed, those foreclosed out of their homes, those with reduced job benefits and job security, students with unsustainable schooling debts and poor job prospects, millions without medical insurance, and so on – supporting those parties perpetuates their victimization.

 

The “Looming Fiscal Cliff” Is a Hoax: Tax Reform As Wealth Privatization Scam & The Phony Crisis Industry

In Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Oldspeak:”Nothing’s “looming.” Nothing. There’s just some language in a law Congress passed last year. If they don’t want it to happen they can un-pass that law. It’s a simple as that. And do you want to know something? They don’t want it to happen. It’s a part of a long-range plan to scam the public into transferring even more of its wealth to the wealthiest among us: first by giving them lower tax rates, and then by cutting a program the public has already paid into. That way there’ll be less pressure to increases taxes on the wealthy later on. (They may also want to raid Social Security’s trust fund to pay for the deficits caused) -Richard Eskow. While the President meets with senior banking corprocrats to discuss how to avoid the latest manufactured crisis, corprocrat controlled media outlets avoid discussing the obvious and easy means to avoid austerity cuts. Probably because both parties have agreed that austerity is necessary.  Especially on public programs that are not contributing to deficit like Social Security. How long will Demopublicans engage in their latest  farcical dance masquerading as “negotiations” before they decide to sell their country to the highest bidders?  “Ignorance Is Strength”

By Richard Eskow @ The Campaign For America’s Future:

They’re dashing through the corridors of power in Washington with appropriately grim expressions this week. Congressional leaders are talking about the upcoming ‘fiscal cliff,’ which journalists are dutifully describing as a “looming crisis.”

In fact, if you do a Google News search for articles containing the words “fiscal cliff” and “looming” you’ll get 72,000 hits (as of Wednesday evening). We know because we tried it.

72,000 hits.

But nothing’s “looming.” Nothing. There’s just some language in a law Congress passed last year. If they don’t want it to happen they can un-pass that law. It’s a simple as that.

And do you want to know something? They don’t want it to happen.

Nobody Move

This phony crisis is a lot like this scene in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, where Cleavon Little as The Sheriff pretends to take himself hostage to escape an angry crowd. You may remember the gag line, which included a word we won’t use: “Nobody move or the $^((*&^(* gets it.”

Brooks crafts his throwaway lines pretty carefully, too. Look for the earnest man who says “I think he means it,” or the woman in the crowd who says “Won’t somebody help that poor man?”

Here’s how the “fiscal cliff” scam’s being played: Congressional Republicans are holding the guns to their own heads. Democrats are the town leaders, dutifully laying their weapons down.

And the American media are the gullible townfolk, carefully writing in their notebooks about the “looming” threat to their sheriff.

Johnny Law

Viewers of MSNBC know that progressives like Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell are dutifully trying to remove the word “cliff” from the nomenclature, since the effects of this law would be gradual — more like a “slope,” as they said the other night. They’re right about the “slope” part.

But it’s a tactical mistake to even engage in this kind of discussion, because there’s really no “slope” either. There’s just a law.

John Boehner’s law.

Sure, the President agreed to that law as part of a deal to settle deficit talks last year. At the time the Republicans were about to shut down the entire government. The GOP forced this law into existence.

That means the “fiscal cliff” is theirs. They own it.

Anyone who opposes disastrous, European-style austerity measures needs to stop talking about this in urgent terms. And nobody should characterize it as anything but what it really is: A deed performed by Republicans in Congress, which the same Congress can easily reverse.

That’s not just more accurate. It also places the responsibility for this pseudo-crisis exactly where it belongs.

A Gun to the Head

The motives for the hoax are easy to understand. As a Campaign for America’s Future/Democracy Corps poll reaffirmed after the election, the public overwhelmingly opposes any of the fiscal measures being negotiated as the result of this fictitious “crisis.”  A majority of voters, cutting across party lines, opposes virtually all of the ideas being discussed – including cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, and reductions in anti-poverty programs.

Voters strongly support some steps that aren’t being debated because of this phony “crisis,” like increased investment in jobs and economic growth. These negotiations are likely have the opposite effect instead, leading to more cuts in these programs. In fact, of the many “debt deal” provisions being debated today, only tax increases for the wealthiest Americans have the majority’s approval.

No wonder Congressional Republicans are holding a gun to their own heads.

Unfortunately it’s pointed at our heads too. If Republicans get their way the entire country will be hit with austerity cuts that increase the poverty rates, hurt most people’s standard of living, and create even more unemployment.

This phony crisis is the GOP’s way of saying “Nobody move or the country gets it.” And if the public doesn’t make its voice heard, it will.

Manhattan Transfer

Here’s more proof that both the “fiscal cliff” and the “emergency” deficit talks surrounding it are a fraud: They include two issues that don’t belong in a deficit discussion at all.  One’s Social Security, which is forbidden by law from contributing to the national deficit.

The other is the scam known as tax “reform” and “tax code simplification” – which, in plain English, means a lowering of top tax rates for millionaires and billionaires – supposedly in return for reduced “tax expenditures” and increased “tax revenues” to be named at a later date.

Why would deficit talks include two ideas that won’t reduce the national debt, especially when “tax simplification” will undoubtedly increase that debt substantially? That’s an easy one: Because this phony “crisis” has nothing to do with deficits.

It’s a;; part of a long-range plan to scam the public into transferring even more of its wealth to the wealthiest among us: first by giving them lower tax rates, and then by cutting a program the public has already paid into. That way there’ll be less pressure to increases taxes on the wealthy later on. (They may also want to raid Social Security’s trust fund to pay for the deficits caused by their tax breaks.)

These “deficit” moves would transfer even more of our national treasure to the extremely rich – including those on Wall Street who created our economic crisis in the first place. That, and not a “fiscal cliff,” is what’s “looming.”

The Phony-Crisis Industry

In the past the President has sometimes seemed willing, even eager, to press for a larger “Grand Bargain.” He’s taking a tougher line today, especially about taxes on the wealthy, and should be applauded for that. He should also be urged to take an equally strong position on Medicare and Social Security, which he hasn’t done yet.

Everyone involved needs to understand that, thanks to some new fiscal and electoral math, the anti-austerity team is holding the winning hand now.

It’s true that a tougher Presidential stand would disappoint some people, especially the highly-paid professional “deficit hawks” from both parties. That includes people like former Clinton White House functionary Erskine Bowles, who ghoulishly described this artificial crisis as a “magic moment” to impose austerity measures on the American people.

Bowles is a Director of bailed-out investment bank Morgan Stanley. That means that, unlike most Americans, he would do very well under the lower tax rates proposed in these “deficit” discussions.

A repudiation of this pseudo-crisis would also embarrass professional scaremongers like Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who warned of “big financial market repercussions” if the nation goes over the “cliff.” But we haven’t seen any repercussions before.

The word for talk like that is “nonsense.” (Well, that’s one word for it.) Nobody’s going over any “cliff,” least of all the Republicans.

Dare Ya

Let’s be clear: It would be a bad thing if the provisions in this bill took effect for any length of time. But it’s time to call Boehner’s bluff. Good Democrats can’t let themselves be railroaded into austerity by this phony crisis, while the other kind – the Erskine Bowles Democrats – shouldn’t be allowed to use it as cover.

Boehner knows he’s in a weak position, which is why Republicans have quietly been looking for ways to delay the “cliff.”  Democrats should take note of that and recognize the motives behind it.

The President should go on television and say to Congress: If you won’t accept the will of the people, undo your reckless law. Democrats on the Hill should insist on up-or-down votes for provisions that the public wants. This charade won’t stop until the GOP’s bluff is called.

Boehner insists that Congressional Republicans, along with everybody else, are standing on a “cliff.” It’s time somebody dared them to jump.

The Hideous Inequality Exposed By Hurricane Sandy In New York

In Uncategorized on November 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Oldspeak:”Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents…who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not. Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.” -David Rohde The vast inequality generated by rigidly hierarchical, competition based, profit driven, casino capitalist system is on full display in times like these. Employment and acquiring money trump safety and security – for the poor. The rich have the option to choose the opposite.  The poor continue to serve while the rich plan which hotels to stay in or what other means to use to avoid danger. Corporate owned-news outlets focus almost exclusively on the devastation visited on exclusive beachfront properties of those with means, largely ignoring poor communities… And America’s caste system continues on, unquestioned. While compassion and consideration are not extended to the most vulnerable members of our society.

Related Story:

Without Power and Aid, Low-Income Residents of NYC’s Lower East Side Struggle in Storm’s Aftermath

By David Rohde @ The Atlantic:

A hotel bellman said he was worried about his mother uptown. A maid said she had been calling her family in Queens. A garage attendant said he hadn’t been able to contact his only relative – a sister in New Jersey – since the storm hit. Asked where he weathered the hurricane, his answer was simple.

“I slept in my car,” he said.

Sandy humbled every one of the 19 million people in the New York City metropolitan area. But it humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city.

Hours before the storm arrived on Monday night, restaurants, corner grocery stores and hotels were open in the Union Square area of Manhattan. (My wife and I moved to a hotel there after being ordered to evacuate our apartment in lower Manhattan.) Instead of heading home to their families as the winds picked up, the city’s army of cashiers, waiters and other service workers remained in place.

Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.

Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.

New census data shows that the city is the most economically divided it has been in a decade, according to the New York Times. As has occurred across the country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Twenty-one percent of the city is in poverty, and the median household income decreased by $821 annually. Per the Times:Median income for the lowest fifth was $8,844, down $463 from 2010. For the highest, it was $223,285, up $1,919.”

Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681.

All told, Manhattan’s richest fifth made 40 times more money than its poorest fifth, up from 38 times in 2010. Only a handful of developing countries – such as Namibia and Sierra Leone – have higher inequality rates.

In the Union Square area, New York’s privileged – including myself – could have dinner, order a food delivery and pick up supplies an hour or two before Sandy made landfall. The cooks, cashiers and hotel workers who stayed at work instead of rushing home made that possible.

They were a diverse group. Some were young people in their twenties. Others were middle-aged Americans who had never landed white-collar jobs. Most were immigrants.

On the other end of the wealth spectrum, New York’s age-old excesses emerged. Some families brought their nannies to the hotel to help care for their children through the hurricane. Others panicked when the power went off. All the while, waiters, maids and doormen continued to help them.

The storm affected the affluent as well. Tourists and business people from Boston, California, Britain and Japan were stranded in our hotel. They found themselves without power, water or transportation, and completely at the mercy of strangers.

But the city’s heroes were the tens of thousands of policemen, firefighters, utility workers and paramedics who labored all night for $40,000 to $90,000 a year. And the local politicians who focused on performance, not partisanship, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Corey Booker.

Twenty-four hours after the disaster, ugly political lines were already being drawn. Democrats pounced on a statement by Mitt Romney in a Republican primary debate last year that disaster response should be shifted to the states and, where possible, privatized. Michael Brown, the much criticized director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under George W. Bush, argued that the Obama administration had responded more quickly to Hurricane Sandy than it did to the terrorist attack in Benghazi.

“One thing he’s gonna be asked is, why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in … Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas?” Brown was quoted as saying to a Denver alternative newspaper. “This is like the inverse of Benghazi.”

Over the next few days, Obama’s and Romney’s reactions to the storm will be parsed. The role of the federal government in covering the costs of the disaster will be praised and assailed. Politicians, as always, will jockey for advantage.

The storm showed many things about New York. It exposed the city’s vulnerabilities. It also displayed its strengths. And to me, it showed New York’s growing economic divide. I’m sure that many of the people who remained at work yesterday chose to do so voluntarily. But I fear that many of them did not.

Oligarchy In The U.S.A.- How The Wealth Defense Industry Protects The Ultra-Rich: The .0001%

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Oldspeak:A small fraction of wealthy Americans constitute a powerful donor class that provides the vast majority of candidates’ funds. Long before ordinary citizens get to vote, they say, their choices are reduced to politicians deemed acceptable by the richest Americans via a “wealth primary,” in which candidates straying from a narrow economic agenda are shut out of campaign funding.“For all their influence at the polls, guys like Joe the Plumber aren’t typically campaign contributors,” explains Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “You’re more likely to see John the Bond Trader bankrolling these campaigns.” And she’s right: Of the roughly 1.4 million individual contributions of $200 or more during the 2008 elections, three-fourths of the money came from a mere one-fifth of the donors, who in turn comprised one-tenth of 1 percent of American adults.”-Jeffery A. Winters Today in America, being ‘merely-rich’ is not enough to live ‘comfortably’ and be represented by government. Apparently living comfortably involves avoiding taxation by paying untold sums and devoting whole industries of lawyers, accountants, and wealth management agents to defrauding the government. A government by virtue of their extreme wealth and inherent political power resources, 400 men run. Democracy’s gone, Oligarchical Capitalism reigns.

By Jeffery A. Winters @ In These Times:

In 2005, Citigroup offered its high net-worth clients in the United States a concise statement of the threats they and their money faced.

The report told them they were the leaders of a “plutonomy,” an economy driven by the spending of its ultra-rich citizens. “At the heart of plutonomy is income inequality,” which is made possible by “capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes.”

The danger, according to Citigroup’s analysts, is that “personal taxation rates could rise – dividends, capital gains, and inheritance taxes would hurt the plutonomy.”

But the ultra-rich already knew that. In fact, even as America’s income distribution has skewed to favor the upper classes, the very richest have successfully managed to reduce their overall tax burden. Look no further than Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who in 2010 paid 13.9 percent of his $21.6 million income in taxes that year, the same tax rate as an individual who earned a mere $8,500 to $34,500.

How is that possible? How can a country make so much progress toward equality on other fronts – race, gender, sexual orientation and disability – but run the opposite way in its policy on taxing the rich?

In 2004, the American Political Science Association (APSA) tried to answer that very question. The explanation they came up with viewed the problem as a classic case of democratic participation: While the poor have overwhelming numbers, the wealthy have higher rates of political participation, more advanced skills and greater access to resources and information. In short, APSA said, the wealthy use their social capital to offset their minority status at the ballot box.

But this explanation has one major flaw. Regardless of the Occupy movement’s rhetoric, most of the growth in the wealth gap has actually gone to a tiny sliver of the 1% – one-tenth of it, or even one-one-hundredth.

Even more shockingly, that 1 percent of the 1% has shifted its tax burden not to the middle class or poor, but to rich households in the 85th to 99th percentile range. In 2007, the effective income tax rate for the richest 400 Americans was below 17 percent, while the “mass affluent” 1% paid nearly 24 percent. Disparities in Social Security taxes were even greater, with the merely rich paying 12.4 percent of their income, while the super-rich paid only one-one-thousandth of a percent.

It’s one thing for the poor to lose the democratic participation game, but APSA has no explanation for why the majority of the upper class – which has no shortage of government-influencing social capital – should fall so far behind the very top earners. (Of course, relative to middle- and lower-class earners, they’ve done just fine.)

For a better explanation, we need to look more closely at the relationship between wealth and political power. I propose an updated theory of “oligarchy,” the same lens developed by Plato and Aristotle when they studied the same problem in their own times.

Who are the oligarchs?

How much wealth does it take to make someone an oligarch in the United States?

Not just any rich person is an oligarch. Oligarchs are those rich enough to buy the professional firepower of the WDI to defend their wealth. Pulitzer Prize-winning economics reporter David Cay Johnston says that “this can sometimes be an outlay of $10 million to avoid $30 million in taxes, and other times spending only $1 million to save the same amount.”

For some perspective, look at the income chart above, which breaks down the extent of material inequality in the United States. Pay special attention to the last column, the Material Power Index (MPI), which defines each income level as a multiple of the average income among the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers.

Even at more than 30 times the average income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans, an average annual income of $1 million for those in the top one-half of one percent is still too modest to make them oligarchs. These citizens are certainly rich. But they don’t have enough material power to hire anything beyond the cheapest foot soldiers of the WDI.

Starting with the next threshold, however — the top one-tenth of 1 percent of incomes — the MPI suddenly quadruples from 32 to 124, and then leaps another six-fold to 819 for those with incomes in the top one-one-hundredth of one percent. In 2007, about 150,000 Americans had average annual incomes of $4 million and above. This is the threshold at which oligarchs begin to dominate the landscape.

A quick review

First, let’s review what we think we know about power in America.

We begin with a theory of “democratic pluralism,” which posits that democracy is basically a tug-of-war with different interest groups trying to pull government policy toward an outcome. In this framework, the rich are just one group among many competing “special interests.”

Of course, it’s hard not to notice that some groups can tug better than others. So in the 1950s, social scientists, like C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, developed another theory of “elites” – those who wield more pull thanks to factors like education, social networks and ethnicity. In this view, wealth is just one of many factors that might help someone become the leader of a major business or gain a government position, thereby joining the elite.

But neither theory explains how the super-rich are turning public policy to their benefit even at the expense of the moderately rich. The mass affluent vastly outnumber the super-rich, and the super-rich aren’t necessarily better-educated, more skilled or more able to participate in politics; nor do the super-rich dominate the top posts of American government – our representatives tend to be among the slightly lower rungs of the upper class who are losing the tax battle.

Also, neither theory takes into account the unique power that comes with enormous wealth – the kind found in that one-tenth of the 1%. Whether or not the super-rich hold any official position in business or government, they remain powerful.

Only when we separate wealth from all other kinds of power can we begin to understand why our tax system looks the way it does – and, by extension, how the top one-tenth of 1% of the income distribution has distorted American democracy.

Enormous wealth is the heart of oligarchy.

So what’s an oligarchy?

Across all political spectrums, oligarchs are people (never corporations or other organizations) who command massive concentrations of material resources (that is, wealth) that can be deployed to defend or enhance their own property and interests, even if they don’t own those resources personally. Without this massive concentration of wealth, there are no oligarchs.

In any society, of course, an extremely unequal wealth distribution provokes conflict. Oligarchy is the politics of the defense of this wealth, propagated by the richest members of society.

Wealth defense can take many forms. In ancient Greece and Rome, the wealthiest citizens cooperated to run institutionalized states that defended their property rights. In Suharto’s Indonesia, a single oligarch led a despotic regime that mostly used state power to support other oligarchs. In medieval Europe, the rich built castles and raised private armies to defend themselves against each other and deter peasants tempted by their masters’ vaults. In all of these cases oligarchs are directly engaged in rule. They literally embody the law and play an active role in coercion as part of their wealth defense strategy.

Contemporary America (along with other capitalist states) instead houses a kind of “civil oligarchy.” The big difference is that property rights are now guaranteed by the impersonal laws of an armed state. Even oligarchs, who can be disarmed for the first time in history and no longer need to rule directly, must submit to the rule of law for this modern “civil” arrangement to work. When oligarchs do enter government, it is more for vanity than to rule as or for oligarchs. Good examples are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former presidential candidate Ross Perot and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Another feature of American oligarchy is that it allows oligarchs to hire skilled professionals, middle- and upper-class worker bees, to labor year-round as salaried, full-time political advocates and defenders of the oligarchy. Unlike those backing ordinary politicians, the oligarchs’ professional forces require no ideological invigoration to keep going. In other words, they function as a very well-paid mercenary army.

Whatever views and interests may divide the very rich, they are united in being materially focused and materially empowered. The social and political tensions associated with extreme wealth bond oligarchs together even if they never meet, and sets in motion the complex dynamics of wealth defense. Oligarchs do overlap with each other in certain social circles that theorists of the elite worked hard to map. But such networks are not vital to their power and effectiveness. Oligarchic theory requires no conspiracies or backroom deals. It is the minions oligarchs hire who provide structure and continuity to America’s civil oligarchy.

The U.S. Wealth Defense Industry

The threats to wealth that oligarchs face, and want to overcome, create the enormous profit-making opportunities that motivate the wealth defense industry, or WDI. In American oligarchy, it consists of two components.

The first is the mercenary army of professionals – lawyers, accountants, wealth management agencies – who use highly specialized knowledge to navigate 72,000 pages of tax code and generate a range of tax “products” and advice, enabling oligarchs to collectively save scores of billions of dollars, every year, that would otherwise have to be surrendered to the state. While most of us are what I call “TurboTaxpayers,” buying cheap tax software to navigate our returns and make routine deductions, oligarchs purchase complex “tax opinion letters” from professional firms. These letters are drafted to justify enormous nonpayments of taxes if the IRS ever questions how certain transactions produce losses, or how other accounting gymnastics make it appear that no gains or compensation occurred. The letters can cost up to $3 million each, but can save an oligarch tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a given year.

Written by some of the most high-powered attorneys and firms in the industry, tax letters serve to intimidate the legal department of the IRS even before a prosecution is contemplated.

The Senate is aware of these letters – noting in a 2003 report on the “tax shelter industry” that “respected professional firms are spending substantial resources … to design, market, and implement hundreds of complex tax shelters, some of which are illegal and improperly deny the U.S. Treasury of billions of dollars in tax revenues” – but getting specific information about them is extremely difficult, since the IRS rarely prosecutes oligarchs. When it does, most cases are sealed, and oligarchs who work with tax attorneys can invoke attorney-client privilege. But in 2003, there was a breach of this fortress of secrecy when the Senate published detailed reports about illegal tax shelters created by the accounting firm KPMG.

According to the Senate, the KPMG tax shelters created “phony paper losses for taxpayers, using a series of complex, orchestrated transactions involving shell corporations, structured finance, purported multi-million dollar loans, and deliberately obscure investments” for 350 clients between 1997 and 2001. The fake losses totaled about $8.4 billion, or $24 million per client; applied against their incomes, these losses reduced the taxes of each oligarch by an average of $8.3 million, or $2.9 billion for the group.

One of the reasons this case was exposed is that it was all rather down-market, using cheap cookie-cutter tax opinion letters priced at a mere $350,000 each.

Not only did all the firms and banks conspiring on behalf of these 350 oligarchs – and the oligarchs themselves – know that the investments “had no reasonable potential for profit,” but KPMG calculated that even if it was fined for failing to disclose the shelters, it would still earn far more in fees than it would pay in fines. The firm was fined $456 million. Even more incredibly, more than a dozen KPMG clients sued the firm for the taxes and penalties incurred after being discovered – the suits claim that KPMG bungled its job of creating shelters for tax evasion with zero legal risks for oligarchs. It’s tantamount to suing your hit man for a sloppy murder.

The second component of the WDI is the nitty-gritty legwork that keeps the tax system sufficiently porous, complex and uncertain enough to be manipulated. Some oligarchs do this work themselves, speed dialing public officials to directly complain about laws and regulations, but most do not. Instead, WDI professionals, motivated to earn a share of annual oligarchic gains, constitute a highly coherent and aggressive network for political pressure. These lobbyists fight to insert favorable material into the tax code, cut sections that cause problems, and block threats on the horizon.

Apologists for havens

Discussions about money in politics often begin with campaign finance reform. Advocates argue that a small fraction of wealthy Americans constitute a powerful donor class that provides the vast majority of candidates’ funds. Long before ordinary citizens get to vote, they say, their choices are reduced to politicians deemed acceptable by the richest Americans via a “wealth primary,” in which candidates straying from a narrow economic agenda are shut out of campaign funding.

“For all their influence at the polls, guys like Joe the Plumber aren’t typically campaign contributors,” explains Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “You’re more likely to see John the Bond Trader bankrolling these campaigns.” And she’s right: Of the roughly 1.4 million individual contributions of $200 or more during the 2008 elections, three-fourths of the money came from a mere one-fifth of the donors, who in turn comprised one-tenth of 1 percent of American adults.

But while this fraction does coincide with our approximation of the size of the American oligarchy, campaign donations are not oligarchs’ primary or even most effective strategy for political influence. Academics Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro explain this in their 2005 book, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth.

“Campaign contributions, soft money, spending limits for political candidates and the like have become controversial issues,” they admit, “but they mattered little in the estate tax fight.” The battle was between smaller oligarchs and the biggest players at the top. Believing it unlikely that the elimination of the estate tax could be extended indefinitely, a significant number of wealthy Americans with a net worth between $5 and $15 million wanted the threshold moved up to exempt their estate tax. In exchange, they supported a higher estate tax rate on everyone above the threshold. Big oligarchs took the opposite position. They wanted no estate tax at all. But if Congress was going to bring it back, the ultra-rich supported a lower exemption in exchange for a lower overall rate.

The big oligarchs won again – but not because of campaign finance. “Money mattered more fundamentally in shifting the tectonic plates underlying American tax debates,” Graetz and Shapiro suggest. And this is precisely where oligarchs deploy their resources in the WDI.

Oligarchs’ “three decades of investments in activist, conservative think tanks” has blazed an ideological path that drones in the WDI follow. Activists at institutions like the Heritage Foundation supply “ideological ammunition to the lobbyists and interest groups … who work relentlessly … to keep up the tax-cutting pressure on the Hill.”

This pressure was hard at work in President Obama’s feeble attempt to curtail offshore tax havens in 2009. In the middle of massive public bailouts to the financial system and large bonuses on Wall Street, the president proposed stronger measures to fight against who he called “tax cheats,” the individuals using offshore tax havens to deny the government nearly $70 billion a year – a level equal to about seven cents on every dollar of taxes paid honestly.

But Obama’s proposals were less aggressive than his rhetoric. The president urged Congress to support efforts to sanction nations that maintained secrecy on bank accounts and corporate entities, and sought to hire 800 additional IRS agents “to detect and pursue American tax evaders abroad”; these measures were projected to save a mere $8.7 billion over 10 years – about one percent of the losses from offshore accounts. Despite the timidity, the proposals received only a lukewarm response from Democrats and outright hostility from Republicans, who argued that they would cripple American corporations’ ability to compete globally.

Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow (i.e. mercenary) at the Cato Institute (a think tank financed by American oligarchs), defended tax havens as “outposts of freedom.” If Americans are concerned that “individuals are moving their money to countries with better tax law, that should be a lesson to us that we should fix our tax law.”

In other words: Let’s decrease taxes on the super-rich.

The WDI, arising naturally from the opportunities and risks created by enormous wealth, has spawned its own pile of these opinion-makers, free to spread their ideas through a compliant corporate media while oligarchs themselves are free to look on.

Oligarchy, or Democracy?

To argue that the United States is a thriving oligarchy does not imply that our democracy is a sham: There are many policies about which oligarchs have no shared interests. Their influence in these areas is either small or mutually canceling.

Though it may strike at the heart of elitism, greater democratic participation is not an antidote to oligarchic power. It is merely a potential threat. Only when participation challenges material inequality – when extreme wealth is redistributed – do oligarchy and democracy finally clash.

The answer to the question of inequality, then, is troubling. Wars and revolutions have destroyed oligarchies by forcibly dispersing their wealth, but a democracy never has.

Democracy and the rule of law can, however, tame oligarchs.

A campaign to tame oligarchs is a struggle unlikely to fire the spirits of those outraged by the profound injustices between rich and poor. However, to those enduring the economic and political burdens of living among wild oligarchs, it is an achievement that can improve the absolute welfare of average citizens, even if the relative gap between them and oligarchs widens rather than narrows.

A graduate student in one of my seminars – resisting my terminology – once declared that the “U.S. has rich people, not oligarchs.” More than anything else, that statement claims that somehow American democracy has managed to do something no other political system in history ever has: strip the holders of extreme wealth of their inherent power resources and the political interests linked to protecting those fortunes.

Of course, this hasn’t happened.

But it is endlessly fascinating that we’re now in a moment when Americans are once again asking fundamental questions about how the oligarchic power of wealth distorts and outflanks the democratic power of participation.

Jeffrey A. Winters is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. For a more extensive explanation of his theory of oligarchy, read Oligarchy (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

 

A Failed Social Model: Providing Basic Goods Via Crushing Consumer Debt

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Oldspeak:” Something to think about days before the annual hedonistic consumption orgy that is “Black Friday” when crushing consumer debt will likely increase. “We have been living in a society where debts, rather than rights, have been the major means for accessing basic social goods like housing, education, and health care. That social model was built around the assumption that while real incomes stagnated and the state did not directly provide many basic goods through universal entitlements, cheap credit would do the trick instead. High finance was inextricably intertwined with the privileges of citizenship.” -Alex Gourevitch When High finance is linked to a system, you can pretty much guarantee it will be accompanied by exploitation, corruption, fraud, greed and disenfranchisement. We are beginning to see the devastating effects of attaching debt commitments to basic needs combined with decades long wage stagnation for most workers and concentration of wealth among owners. A collapsed housing market and unprecedented rates of foreclosure. 1 in 5 Americans on food stamps. 1 in 3 children living in poverty. Widespread medical bankruptcies and less and less access to preventative health care.  Exploding student loan debt and creation of artificially constricted choice of profession and shortages of manpower in vital and low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs. All while the banksters have grown richer and more brazen in their casino capitalistic practices. Providing basic social goods for all has very few negative consequences. However it doesn’t adhere to basic corporcratic ethos “Internalize profits, externalize costs”, thus universal rights and freedoms will continue to be at worst denied, and at best a monetarily  based privilege. “Profit Is Paramount”

By Alex Gourevitch @ New Deal 2.0:

Some things — education, health, housing — should be rights, not financed through taking on more and more debt.

Occupiers have joined anti-foreclosure advocates to occupy home auctions and abandoned buildings and block foreclosures. A few state attorneys general have begun resisting the Obama administration’s awful mortgage fraud settlement and started investigating banks and servicers. Even shareholders are in revolt, filing class action suits against their companies. By one measure, student loans are one of the biggest concerns amongst supporters of Occupy Wall Street. There is now an OccupyStudentDebt. A petition to forgive student loans has gathered 300,000 signatures and was included as part of a general debt forgiveness bill on the floor of the House of Representatives. Congress has even begun to touch on medical debt issues.

Taken together, we can say that these and other actions are the sign of growing resistance to key aspects of the social model of the past 30 to 40 years. We have been living in a society where debts, rather than rights, have been the major means for accessing basic social goods like housing, education, and health care. That social model was built around the assumption that while real incomes stagnated and the state did not directly provide many basic goods through universal entitlements, cheap credit would do the trick instead. High finance was inextricably intertwined with the privileges of citizenship. This was not a very good social model. With any luck, and a serious amount of political action, current resistance could lead to alternative ways of thinking about how we make these goods available to all.

After all, while the previous decade has been represented as a debt-financed spending binge when consumers lived well beyond their means, it turns a complex story into a morality play. A major part of the credit ‘binge’ was about necessities, not luxuries. Sub-prime mortgages (especially with the decline of affordable housing) were the only way for many to become homeowners. Similarly, student loans were the only way for many to gain access to higher education and thus participate as equals in the radically unequal distribution of opportunity in the United States. The total value of student loans has surpassed total credit card debt, and is projected to top $1 trillion later this year. Mike Konczal posted the following graph at Rortybomb showing the dramatic rise of student debt. In a decade, student loans have gone from a third of consumer loans to far more than half.

alex1

We find a similar story in health care. Two major national studies of medical indebtedness by a group of scholars, including Elizabeth Warren, have shown that illness and medical costs are a major cause of household bankruptcy. They noted that by 2001 “illness or medical bills contributed to about half of bankruptcies.” Notably, in their 2001 study, they found that 75.7 percent of medical debtorshad insurance at the onset of illness. Underinsurance, as much as lack of insurance, was a major financial burden. So too was loss of income due to illness (by their estimate, income loss is 40 percent of medical-related indebtedness). Worse yet, their follow up 2007 study of medical indebtedness notes that the “number of un- and underinsured Americans has grown; health costs have increased; and Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws.” That has led to a 50 percent increase in the proportion of bankruptcies attributable to medical problems. These bankruptcies, moreover, occurred in families only marginally worse than the median income and occupational class of American citizens. Once again, indebtedness is the product of the 99% trying to meet the costs of a basic good — health care.

If there is a reasonable expectation that debtors can meet their interest payments then in theory debt is not a particularly bad way to finance access to certain goods. It is on the individual borrower to make a judgment about what constitutes a reasonable debt burden.

There are, however, two problems with this theoretical view. First, there might be very good social reasons to not want to yoke access to certain social goods to debt. Education is a prime example. Taking on debt means accepting a kind of discipline. One must make all future calculations about, say, educational and career choices with the need to meet future interest payments in mind. In conscious and unconscious ways this narrows horizons and produces a more instrumental relationship to education. In college I saw concerns about debt shape decisions about which classes to take and what to major in. I also saw many of my college classmates make more conservative professional choices (corporate law, consulting, finance, medical specialist) than they might otherwise have made (public service, teaching, science, public interest law) in order to ensure their ability to pay back loans. This appears to have been a pattern. A study of educational and career choices in the early 2000s by Princeton economists has found that “debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs.”

It is frequently observed that the growth of finance sucked up the math and physics geniuses, who might have contributed something lasting to society, into hedge funds and investment banks to ruinous effect. But the alteration of professional choices is much wider than that. The number crunchers at the top were, one suspects, lured away by lucrative pay. The much more widespread, and difficult to measure, shift in career choices due to the discipline of debt burdens is probably the more important, and still ongoing, consequence of high student loans.

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If access to higher education were on the order of something like a right — a publicly financed good, provided at little or no cost, to ensure real equality of opportunity — then one can imagine a much different set of results. While conservatives like to talk about ‘freedom,’ this is a place where the left ought to have the upper hand in connecting economic practices to real freedoms. Providing necessary social goods, especially education, as a right rather than through debt not only reduces the disciplining effects of the latter. It also is a way of publicly recognizing and democratically defending the real freedoms of all citizens.

To be clear, this is not a moralistic criticism of debt as evil or irresponsible. But there are very good reasons why society would not want to impose certain kinds of discipline on (most of) its citizens. Firstly, from a social point of view, people’s talents might be much more productively used in some other area than those that promise the most immediate monetary returns. There is no shortage of aspiring bankers and traders, but there is a primary care doctor shortage. Primary care doctors can graduate medical school with as much as $200,000 in debt.

A second reason is that practice does not resemble theory. Again, the theory is that so long as each individual makes a reasonable calculation about his or her ability to meet debt payments, there is nothing wrong with financing access to basic social goods through credit. Putting systematic fraud aside (but remembering it is unlikely that credit can sink that far into housing and educational markets without it), there is a deep historical reason for thinking that practice was the opposite of theory. The rise of debt-financed household consumption generally was the product of stagnating wages. Consider, for instance, this research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco comparing the growth of debt, wealth, and income:

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Or compare the above growth of household debt with the stagnation of wages and benefits during that same period (from State of Working America):

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Debt-financed consumption was, in other words, a response to the declining ability of most households to afford existing rates of consumption, not an increasing ability or trust in future ability to pay back that debt.

The entire social model, then, was built on a lie. The separation of consumption (financed by future promises to pay) from production (based on limiting present ability to earn) was a mirage. The problem has been that the underlying right to maintain a certain standard of living, or even to access to certain basic social goods like housing, health, and education, was just that: implicit. Every so often, of course, it was made somewhat public — for instance when Clinton or Bush would say something about providing housing to the poor and minorities who could not otherwise afford it (mainly by changing market incentives and promoting sub-prime borrowing, as it turned out). But this promise was always implicit and had to stay that way because it was mediated through the credit system. Access to these basic social goods was never a fully publicclaim each individual had against society. Instead, access to these social goods was a matter of a complex series of private, individualized claims against other private institutions like banks and employers, with the public role submerged in the form of altered market incentives. That is the difference between debt and right, and it is clear that the debt-based social model has failed.

There are certainly some situations where debt-financed consumption is a perfectly good option. For instance, the current call for more fiscal austerity at the federal level is ideological claptrap. Moreover, any economy always has to take a bet on the future if it is going to innovate, especially since innovation always comes with the risk of failure. But there are certain kinds of basic goods that are better provided as a matter of universal right, both for the sake of the freedom of the persons who need those goods and as a matter of economic efficiency and productivity. We can have risk-averse graduates and a chronically ill workforce chained to underwater mortgages, or we can have healthy, well-educated citizens with enough security, and thus freedom, to take real risks in their lives.

Alex Gourevitch a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. He also runs a blog calledThe Current Moment.

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