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Have the Super Wealthy Already Seceded from the United States?

Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it.

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Steven Schwarzman, the hedge fund billionaire CEO of the Blackstone Group who hired Rod Stewart for his $5 million birthday party,  believes it is the rabble who are socially irresponsible. Speaking about low-income citizens who pay no income tax, he says: "You have to have skin in the game. I'm not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system." But millions of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes pay federal payroll taxes. These taxes are regressive and the dirty little secret is that over the last several decades they have made up a greater and greater share of federal revenues. In 1950, payroll and other federal retirement contributions  constituted 10.9 percent of all federal revenues; by 2007, the last "normal" economic year before federal revenues began falling, they made up 33.9 percent. By contrast, corporate income taxes were 26.4 percent of federal revenues in 1950; by 2007, they had fallen to 14.4 percent. Who has skin in the game now?

As is well known by now, Schwarzman benefits from the "Buffett Rule": financial sharks typically take their compensation in the form of capital gains rather than salaries, thus knocking down their income tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. But that's not the only way Mr. Skin-in-the-Game benefits: the 6.2-percent Social Security tax and the 1.45-percent Medicare tax apply only to wages and salaries, not capital gains distributions. Accordingly, Schwarzman is stiffing the system in two ways: not only is his income tax rate less than half the top marginal rate, he is shorting the Social Security system that others of his billionaire colleagues like  Pete Peterson say is unsustainable and needs to be cut.

This lack of skin in the game may explain why Willard Mitt Romney is so coy about releasing his income tax returns. It would also make sense for someone with $264 million in net worth to joke that he is "unemployed," as if he were some jobless sheet metal worker in Youngstown, when he is really saying in code that his income stream is not a salary subject to payroll deduction. The chances are good that his effective rate for both federal income and payroll taxes is lower than that of many a wage slave.

The real joke is on the rest of us. After the biggest financial meltdown in 80 years - a meltdown caused by the type of rogue financial manipulation that Romney embodies - and a consequent long, steep  drop in the American standard of living, who is the putative front-runner for one of the only two parties allowed to be competitive in American politics? None other than Romney, the man who says corporations are people. Opposing him, or someone like him, will be the incumbent President Barack Obama, who will raise up to a billion dollars to compete in the campaign. Much of that loot will come from the same corporations, hedge fund managers, merger and acquisition specialists and leveraged buyout artists the president will denounce in pro forma fashion during the campaign.

The super-rich have seceded from America even as their grip on its control mechanisms has tightened.

 

 

MIKE LOFGREN retired in June 2011 after 28 years as a Congressional staffer. He served 16 years as a professional staff member on the Republican staff of the House and Senate Budget Committees.

 
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