3 Ways Elites Rig the System
A growing number of Americans suspect that the American economic system is rigged in favor of the rich and merely affluent. That growing number of Americans is right.
Here are three of the many ways that markets for compensation are rigged to benefit not only the top 1 percent but also the top 10 percent, a group that includes many well-paid professionals:
Financial sector compensation. By now the phrase “too big to fail” has become so familiar that it is known by its acronym: TBTF. What needs to be emphasized is that TBTF is the basis for the huge bonuses paid to elite American bankers who benefit from a government that socializes their losses while allowing them to keep their profits.
Here’s their business model: “We place highly leveraged bets, sometimes as much as 35 or 40 to 1. In return, the government implicitly agrees to bail out our banks, and if we’re fired, we’ve negotiated sweetheart deals with golden parachutes. If we bet right, then our banks keep the windfall profits and we get big bonuses. If we bet wrong, not to worry — the taxpayers will bail out our banks and the government will pay for the cost of the bailouts by cutting Social Security and Medicare. Suckers!”
While TBTF rigs pre-tax income for financial elites, American tax law rigs their after-tax income to their benefit. In the 1980s, capital gains tax rates were equal to income tax rates. But then in the 1990s Clinton and the Republican Congress lowered the capital gains rates. So billionaires who derive most of their money from their investments and savings pay taxes at a lower rate than the majority of Americans, who, like Warren Buffett’s proverbial secretary, rely on their labor income.
Andrew Mellon, who dominated American economic policymaking as treasury secretary in the 1920s during the administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, was denounced by the liberal reformers of his day as the embodiment of plutocracy. But here is what he had to say about taxing capital versus wages in his 1924 book, “Taxation: The People’s Business”:
The fairness of taxing more lightly income from wages, salaries or from investments is beyond question. In the first case, the income is uncertain and limited in duration; sickness or death destroys it and old age diminishes it; in the other, the source of income continues; the income may be disposed of during a man’s life and it descends to his heirs.
Surely we can afford to make a distinction between the people whose only capital is their mental and physical energy and the people whose income is derived from investments. Such a distinction would mean much to millions of American workers and would be an added inspiration to the man who must provide a competence during his few productive years to care for himself and his family when his earnings capacity is at an end.
To which today’s conservatives, no doubt, would reply: “Andrew Mellon was a liberal!”
CEO compensation. In the last generation, American CEOs have been much better paid than their European and Asian counterparts, without having done remarkably better jobs.
American CEO compensation is rigged with perfect legality by two practices. The first is allowing the compensation of CEOs to be determined by boards of directors, whose members are frequently cronies of the CEO. Well-paid cronies, in many cases. You can be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for attending a few board meetings and rubber-stamping whatever your friend the CEO wants. When the Sarbanes-Oxley Act sought to impose more responsibility on board members, this was denounced as an assault on the foundations of free enterprise. Freebie enterprise, is more like it.