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Why Do People Who Work in Finance Earn So Much More Than the Rest of Us?

Most Americans rightly sense that our middle-class dominated economy has devolved into a system of financial socialism by and for elites.
 
 
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More than 70 percent of Americans say big bonuses should be banned this year at Wall Street firms that took taxpayer bailouts, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. An additional one in six favors slapping a 50 percent tax on bonuses exceeding $400,000. Just 7 percent of U.S. adults say bonuses are an appropriate incentive reflecting Wall Street's return to financial health. A large majority also want to tax Wall Street profits to reduce the federal budget deficit. A levy on financial services firms is the top choice among more than a dozen deficit-cutting options presented to respondents. -- Bloomberg

As bonus season arrives, the gap between the American people and Wall Street couldn't be wider. And where is Washington in this great divide? Don't ask.

At a moment when Americans desperately want jobs on Main Street and expect Wall Street to pay its fair share, Washington officials are hard at work -- seeking jobs for themselves on Wall Street. (Congratulations, Peter Orszag, on parlaying your position as Obama's OMB director into a top job at CitiGroup, the bank that received hundreds of billions in taxpayer bailouts and guarantees on your watch!)

Most Americans rightly sense that our mixed free-enterprise economy, which once built a broad middle class, has devolved into a system of financial socialism by and for elites. The public wants and deserves answers to these basic questions:

1. Why do people in the financial sector make so much more money than the rest of us? Mainstream economists claim that your income reflects the economic value you produce -- at least in free and open markets. But are proprietary traders, for example, really 100 times more valuable than neurosurgeons? In the UK, some economists say no: The British New Economics Foundation calculates that "While collecting salaries of between £500,000 and £10 million, leading City bankers destroy £7 of social value for every pound in value they generate."

Let's try a back-of-the envelope calculation of Wall Street's net social value. Compare their bonuses and profits for roughly the last five years (about $500 billion) with the economic losses produced in the financial crisis the bankers caused (about $4 trillion in value destroyed, not counting the ongoing travails of the 22 million people who haven't yet been able to find a full-time job). For every dollar "earned" on Wall Street, about 8 dollars were destroyed. (In case you're suffering from financial amnesia and forgot how the financial sector single-handedly caused the economic crisis, please see The Looting of America. Chapter One can be found gratis on AlterNet.)

There's plenty of room for argument about this kind of calculation. But even Wall Street wizards would have trouble defending the billions they've acquired by profiting from a bubble that blew up the economy. What's the real value of junk CDOs that were rated AAA and then sold for enormous profits before they blew up? We could make a strong case that those who profited from such bubble investments - like the people who sold synthetic CDOs to Wisconsin school districts -- should pay back their fraudulent profits. (In fact, the school districts have filed a lawsuit toward that end.)

2. Do current profits of financial firms come from tax-payer bailouts?
The old free-market mantra was that you could make as much as you wanted, so long as you were willing to accept all the risks that went with it. Joseph Schumpeter, a great defender of capitalism during the 1940s when much of the world was turning towards socialism, called the process of winning and losing "creative destruction." In his vision of capitalism, the best and the brightest staked everything in their quest for success, and only the true innovators survived. Inefficient enterprises would be left by the wayside.

 
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