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The 6 Economic Facts of Life in America That Allow the Rich to Run off with Our Wealth

Do you ever wonder why it takes the average family 47 years to make as much as a hedge fund honcho makes in one hour?
 
 
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Do you ever wonder why it takes the average family 47 years to make as much as a hedge fund honcho makes in one HOUR?

Does it bother you that in 2010, after the crash, the top 25 hedge fund chiefs made as much as 685,000 teachers who educate 13 million children?

Are you worried that cutting government debt means raising your social security eligibility age and cost of living adjustment, so that you have to work longer and receive lower retirement benefits?

Have no fear. The super-rich are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to sell you their economic fabrications. Why so much inequality? They say because the rich have the most important skills and you don't. Why so much unemployment? They say it's because our skimpy unemployment insurance keeps people from looking for work. Why so much government debt? They say it's because you have too many "entitlements." Why the Wall Street crash? They blame poor people for buying homes they couldn't afford.

In short, the super-rich want us to believe that any effort to tax them a bit more or control Wall Street will only kill more jobs and harm our economic well-being. And most of all they don't want us to know the six economics facts of life that explain how the super-rich are running away with our nation's wealth.

1. The super-rich are stealing our fair share of productivity. The U.S. economy is enormously productive. Since 1947, the amount of goods and services we produce per hour of labor has risen by nearly 300 percent. That's because as a nation, we blend together a potent mix of effort, skills, technology and organizational capacities. Our enormous productivity is why we are the richest nation on earth.

Yet, why don't we feel that rich? Why are we told we must tighten our belts?

Until the mid-1970s, the more productivity increased, the higher the real wages of the average working person (after taking out the impact of inflation). As a result, our standard of living doubled in 25 years. But, as you can see from the chart below, after the mid-1970s, productivity (the red line) continued to boom, but the average wage stalled.

It wasn't an accident, or market forces, or an act of God. It was a result of human polices designed by and for the rich. Tax cuts for the rich, financial deregulation, support for moving jobs overseas and union-busting combined to give the super-rich more and more of our economy's productivity gains. In 1970, the top 100 average corporate executive earned $45 for every $1 earned by the average worker. By 2006 it had jumped to a whopping $1,723 to $1. That's the very definition of greed run wild.

Think about this: If the average wage had continued to rise along with productivity as it did after WWII, your real wage today (after inflation) would be twice as high!

We've been had.

2. Americans really want a wealth distribution more like Sweden's.Here's a nightmare fact of life the super-rich don't want you to know. Two researchers recently tried to find out just how much economic inequality Americans were comfortable with. Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University conducted a nationwide poll with more than 5,000 respondents to see how Americans saw our current level of equality, and what level they wanted to see. (“Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time”)

The results were startling. First, virtually all Americans greatly underestimated the degree of inequality in our economy today. They had no idea how extreme the U.S. wealth distribution really is -- which goes to show you what a good job the super-rich have done in mis-educating us.

Second, when asked to construct an ideal distribution of income, 92 percent of Americans preferred radically more equality – on a par with the social democratic state of Sweden! What’s more, it didn’t matter whether the respondent was a Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, black or white, male or female. Everyone wanted more economic fairness.

Imagine that! Americans, even Republicans who voted for Romney and Ryan, would rather live with the Scandinavian distribution of wealth. Little wonder that the super-rich and their minions do all they can to belittle so-called "Euro-socialism." They don't want us to know that maybe we are hard-wired for fairness instead of the staggering inequality that helps no one but the super-elites.

3. Everything we hear about government debt is wrong.Right now, the biggest target of public mis-education is the government debt debate. And the biggest spender on the mis-education of the American public is billionaire Pete Peterson (who personally has added to the government's debt by dodging hundreds of million in taxes through the 15 percent "carried interest" loophole that blessed his private equity fund). Having no sense of shame, he and other super-elites want to convince us that government spending and debt will ruin us all. Unfortunately, very little of what they claim is true:

  • China owns our all our debt? Wrong! There's a chilling ad put out by a Peterson front group that features a Chinese lecturer in the year 2030 addressing (with English subtitles) a packed audience of Chinese students about the rise and decline of the U.S. The confident, smirking teacher describes how the U.S. abandoned its principles as it "tried to spend and tax its way out of a great recession" and then crumbled beneath its "crushing debt." He then provides the kicker: "Of course we owned most of their debt...ha ha ha, and now they work us," he says to the raucous laughter of the students. The ad is a complete Peterson lie. China owns only 8 percent of our debt. Most of our debt is actually owned by our own quasi governmental agencies like the Federal Reserve and Social Security.

  • Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are bankrupting the country? Wrong! The current deficits are the result of two unfunded wars, the Bust tax cuts for the super-rich and the Wall Street crash of the economy that killed 8 million jobs, and led directly to the ensuing bailouts, lost tax revenues and increases in unemployment insurance payments.

  • We will become like Greece if we don't balance our budget? Wrong! Greece can't print money to pay back its debt because it no longer has its own currency (and neither does Mississippi). The United States does. Also, our economy is more than 50 times larger that Greece's. The chances of the US ending up in a Greek debt crisis are about the same as finding a Martian in your bathtub.

  • We have to solve the "debt crisis" right now or the economy will crash? Wrong! We have an unemployment crisis, not a debt crisis. Interest rates are at all-time lows because the world wants to park its money here in dollars. In fact, this is the time to borrow more to put our people back to work by rebuilding our crumbling, fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure and educating our children. If our people go back to work, the economy grows, unemployment costs go down, tax revenues rise, and the debt ratio shrinks without paying back one penny of it.

Why so many lies? Because financial elites like Peterson don't want to pay their fair share of taxes. They don't believe in funding a safety net for all Americans. They don't want to the government to help put Americans back to work. Instead, they want an economy by and for the elites.

4. We are under-taxed, not over-taxed.The super-rich want us to believe that taxes are too high and that those taxes are harming job creation and economic growth. It's a fabrication. First of all, taxes for most Americans have declined, according to a recent New York Times analysis:

..... most Americans in 2010 paid far less in total taxes — federal, state and local — than they would have paid 30 years ago. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the combination of all income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes took a smaller share of their income than it took from households with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980.

Second, we have much lower tax rates that our chief European competitors. For example, Germany, an economic powerhouse, has an average tax rate of 40.6 percent while the U.S. rate is only 26.9 percent. Germany uses that money to rebuild its infrastructure, invest in education and find creative ways to nearly eliminate unemployment.

Third, the super-rich use a sleight of hand to make middle-class taxpayers believe that lower-income people are moochers. Like Mitt Romney, they are found of saying that 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes and that the rich pay most of those taxes. But income taxes are but a small portion of the tax bite on lower-income people who pay through payroll tax deductions, sales taxes and property taxes.

Finally, because our taxes are declining, it means that our public services are decaying as well. This creates a downward spiral the super-rich want to encourage: the more services decline, the less we want to pay in taxes, the more services decline. If you're really wealthy you don't care about public services since your life is entombed in private services -- private schools, private airports, private planes, private gated villas and so on.

5. Government jobs are just as good as private sector jobs.Another major con job concerns the attack on public employees. The greedy rich are trying to pit public and private sector workers against each other in large part because public employees still seem to have benefits the rest of us have lost (and they have unions and vote mostly Democratic). Corporate greed demands that we snuff out those benefits so workers won't demand them in the private sector. To further denigrate government, elites want us to believe that a private sector job is somehow more righteous that a public one -- that public employment is sort of like being on the dole because government workers are immune to the rough and tumble of competitive pressures that drives the private sector.

It's another hoax.

The truth is that some jobs are better done by government on behalf of the public. We learned almost 200 years ago that it didn't make sense to have competing fire and police departments. We also learned that if we wanted the average person to go to school, we needed public school systems, and not just private ones. Most countries (but not ours) have learned that much of the healthcare system runs better when it's publicly financed and controlled -- that for-profit hospitals and clinics do not provide the best care. In short, every modern economy is a combination of private and public sector jobs that are valuable to our society.

6. Wall Street needs to be shrunk (until we can drown it in a bathtub).The function of finance is simple: moving our savings into productive investments. By doing so, money supposedly moves to where it will do the most good for our economy. This function is considered so simple that most economics textbooks ignore Wall Street entirely.

However, when Wall Street is left to its own devices, it tends to create vast casinos that dramatically increase financial profits at the expense of the real economy. Worse still, as the speculative casinos grow and grow, the economy as a whole is endangered. Wall Street's grew rapidly just before the great crash of 1929 and just before the Great Recession of 2008-'09. It was stock manipulation during the 1920s and it was the housing casino over the last two decades. But in both cases it happened because Wall Street was deregulated and got too damn big. As the chart below shows, Wall Street is gobbling up more and more of our country's profits.

We learned after 1929 that economic stability required severe financial regulation. We sat on Wall Street for nearly 50 years and it worked beautifully, especially between WWII and the 1970s. There were virtually no financial crashes anywhere in the world. But once we deregulated finance again, all hell broke loose as the world suffered through more than 150 smaller financial crashes. Finance grew and grew until it took down the entire U.S. economy. Along the way, Wall Street offered the easiest path to great riches for the few.

The simplest solution is the one hated by the super-rich: a small sales tax on each and every financial transaction involving stocks, bonds and every kind of derivative. By taxing the casino, we shrink its size and make it less dangerous to the rest of the economy. We also create new revenues for our economy, nearly all of it coming from the top fraction of the top 1 percent. No wonder they don't want us to know that.

Is Knowledge Power?

It's not enough for the greedy rich to buy politicians. They also need to buy our minds. That's why they pay for all this misleading economic education. But if we master the basic economic facts of life, we won't get conned. And we will have a much better chance at building a more just and healthy economy.

Les Leopold is the director of the Labor Institute. His most recent book is "How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning of America's Wealth (Wiley, 2013)." His next book project will focus on why the richest country on earth is so poor.

 
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