What If the Greedy Rich Paid Their Share? 8 Things to Know About Wealth and Poverty in the US
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America is loaded. We are not a struggling nation ready to go under. We are not facing an enormous debt crisis despite what the politicians and pundits proclaim. We are not the next Greece.
Rather, we have an enormous concentration-of-wealth problem -- one that must be solved for the good of our commonwealth. We are a very rich nation but it doesn’t seem that way because our wealth is so concentrated in the hands of a few. This is America’s disaster.
But wait. Doesn’t the wealth belong to the super-rich? Didn’t they earn it fair and square? Isn’t that the way it’s always been?
Not by a long shot. The amount of wealth that flows to the super-rich is determined by our public policies. It’s all about how we choose to share our nation’s productivity.
Productivity and the Wealth of Nations
Our country is rich because we are enormously productive as measured by output per hour worked. The greater our collective output per hour, the more our economy produces and the wealthier we are…or should be. It’s not a perfect measure since it doesn’t adequately take into account our environment, our health or our overall well-being. But it is a good gauge of our collective level of effort, skill, knowledge, level of organization, and productive capacity. As the top line on the productivity chart below shows, we’ve been able to produce more and more per hour year after year since WWII. It’s a remarkable achievement.
From 1947 until the mid-1970s, the fruits of our bountiful productivity were shared reasonably fairly with working people. As productivity rose so did workers’ real wages (See the bottom line in the chart below. It represents the average weekly wage of non-supervisory workers who make up about 80 percent of the entire workforce.) This wasn’t socialism. There were still plenty of rich people who earned a significant slice of the productivity harvest. But much of that wealth was plowed back into the economy through taxation rates that between 1947 and 1980 hovered between 70 to 91 percent on incomes over $3 million (in today’s dollars). Much of that money was used to build our physical and knowledge infrastructures, and to fight the Cold War. Unions were supported by public policy and workers' real wages rose steadily after accounting for inflation. Wall Street was tightly controlled and the middle-class grew like never before.
Then something happened.
It wasn’t an act of God, or the blind forces of technological change, or the mysterious movements of markets. Nor did the super-rich become enormously smarter than before. Instead, flesh-and-blood policy makers decided that deregulation and tax cuts should become the order of the day starting in the mid-1970s. The idea was that if we cut taxes on the super-rich and deregulated the economy (and especially Wall Street), investment would dramatically increase and all boats would rise. But as we can see from the chart below, the average worker's wage in real terms stalled and even declined after the mid-'70s. The fruits of productivity no longer were shared equitably. The enormous gap between the two lines (trillions of dollars per year) went almost entirely to the super-rich. The wealth of the wealthy skyrocketed, not by accident, but by policy design. "Greed is good" replaced the middle-class American dream.
What Is Wealth and Who Has It?
Wealth or net worth is the total value of what you own (your assets) minus the total value of your debts (your liabilities.) Our collective net worth is really huge. We’re talking big, big numbers. As of the end of 2011, U.S. households had $30 trillion in private assets and $13.6 trillion in liabilities for a total net worth of $16.4 trillion (PDF). How much is that? It comes to an average of $141,000 per household – free and clear of any debts.
But averages are extremely misleading, because wealth is so highly concentrated at the top. Here are some eye-popping numbers.
1. The number of households with a million dollars or more of net worth grew by 202 percent between 1983 and 2007.
2. The number of households with a net worth of $5 million or more grew by 494 percent.
3. The number of $10 million or more households grew by a whopping 598 percent!
4. There are now more than 464,000 households worth $10 million or more. (PDF)
5. But the bottom 40 percent of American households has a net worth of nearly zero (.2 percent).
6. If you take out the value of our homes, the bottom 40 percent has a negative net worth of minus 1 percent – meaning they owe more than their assets are worth.
7. Meanwhile the top one percent holds 34.6 percent of our total net worth and 42.7 percent of all financial assets (excluding homes).
8. That means that the top one percent has a positive net worth valued at approximately $5,700,000,000,000 (that’s $5.7 trillion).
Why We Need a Financial Transaction Tax
Most Americans live on earned income which is taxed instantly through substantial payroll taxes. You can’t collect a paycheck without paying taxes. The super-rich, however, receive most of their income through financial investments that are taxed at lower capital gains rates and which can be offset through a myriad of deductions and loopholes. In effect, the super-rich live by one tax code and the rest of us use another. This is why the wealthiest Americans pay lower effective tax rates than their servants. It’s also why our government appears to be starved for income. If we want a vibrant economy and good investments in our public infrastructures, the wealthy must pay a great deal more, just like they did during the early post-WWII period.
For starters we need a financial transaction tax which is a small sales tax on each and every financial trade – from stocks and bonds to futures and other derivatives. Since the super-rich hold so many financial assets, this kind of tax would directly target their excessive trading and enormous holdings. Not only would this sales tax produce upwards of $150 billion a year in federal revenue, but also, it may help eliminate much of the financial gambling that took down the economy in 2007. Considerate it a tax on financial toxic waste.
A Wealth Tax to Improve our Commonwealth
Finland, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland have small net wealth taxes, and England has had a financial transaction tax for three centuries. We should join them. A 1 to 3 percent wealth tax with a million-dollar deduction would only hit the top 1 percent and would provide the nation with from $50 to $150 billion per year in income. Spare change for the super-rich.
The beauty of a wealth tax is that there are no loopholes. Your assets (which include both foreign and domestic) and your liabilities are easily calculated. It’s easier to spot the cheaters. It’s easier to press for information from other countries that may be tempted to launder money for our super-rich. There’s nowhere to run unless the super-rich want to give up their citizenship.
Even Ronald McKinnon, a conservative economist writing in the Wall Street Journal (“The Conservative Case for a Wealth Tax”) is advocating a wealth tax on the super-rich:
In order to have a fairer tax system, we should implement a new federal wealth tax in addition to the federal income tax. Unlike the current income tax, the wealth tax would not rely on how income is defined. Rather, it would require that households list all their domestic and foreign assets on, say, Dec. 31 in the relevant tax year. With a large exemption of $3 million that effectively excludes more than 95% of the population, a moderate flat tax—say 3%, on wealth so defined—could then be imposed.
Combined with the financial transaction tax, we would have more than $200 to $300 billion per year which could rebuild our crumbing infrastructure, provide higher education for our children, eliminate much of the student loan burden, and hire millions of laid-off teachers. Unemployment would fall dramatically and deficit hysteria would vanish into its own hot air.
We can cry about the distribution of income all we want. We can moan and groan about the top 1 percent and how they have captured political power. We can proclaim our membership in the 99 percent for all to hear. But none of that matters much unless we build a mass movement that reclaims our fair share of the fruits of productivity.
The 1 percent didn’t get there just because they were great entrepreneurs or because they were smarter than the rest of us. They got there because they pressed for tax cuts for the super-rich and the deregulation of Wall Street. Those twin policies poured the money into their coffers and stalled our middle-class dead in its tracks. Those policies also crashed the economy and destroyed the jobs of millions of Americans.
A financial transaction tax combined with a wealth tax will bring us closer to the time when the middle-class again was growing year by year. It would put Americans back to work and place our foot right back on Wall Street’s neck – where it needs to be for the good of us all.
But you know it won’t come easy. The super-rich feel entitled to all they can grab. Which means we’ll have to organize like never before and fight like hell. Let’s hope the 99 percent are ready, able and willing.
Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).