The Great Capitalist Heist: How Paris Hilton's Dogs Ended Up Better Off Than You
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Government spending policies have also turned away from ordinary Americans. In 1996, under President Bill Clinton, a vital piece of the New Deal safety net was repealed with the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.” Abolishing the provisions of the Social Security Act that established the program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the 1996 law ended the national right to relief. Along with restrictions on unemployment insurance, the abolition of programs of public jobs for the unemployed and gradual reductions in the real value of Social Security benefits, this act was another blow for working people.
The New Deal showed us how to combine economic growth and lower levels of unemployment. But the widening gap between rich and poor since the 1970s has been associated with higher levels of unemployment and a slowing of economic growth. Had economic growth rates continued after 1978 at the same rate as during the decades before, average income would have been more than $14,000 higher than it actually was in 2008.
The slowdown in growth since the abandonment of egalitarian New Deal policies has cost Americans about 30 percent of their income. And the massive redistribution of income away from average Americans and toward the rich has destroyed the sense that America is a land of opportunity for all. Quality of life has plunged because the shredding of social protections has exposed average Americans to much higher levels of risk. The substitution of defined contribution pensions, such as Individual Retirement Accounts or 401K plans, for defined benefit pensions has reduced retirement security for individuals while reducing the risk borne by employers or other social institutions. Just as important as declining income for many Americans, the stress and anxiety associated with the risk shift has contributed to rising levels of depression and morbidity and a decline in life expectancy for Americans compared with residents of other countries.
Workers’ security has been abandoned. But the government has let financial markets run wild. In 1982, Congress deregulated the thrift industry, freeing thrifts to engage in reckless and fraudulent behavior. In 1994, it removed restrictions on interstate banking. In 1998 it allowed Citigroup to merge with Travelers’ Insurance to create the world’s largest financial services company. And in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, it repealed the remaining Glass-Steagall barriers between commercial and investment banking. Acting with the virtual consent of Congress and the president, in 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission established a system of voluntary regulation that in essence allowed investment banks to set their own capital and leverage standards.
By then our financial regulatory system had largely returned to the pre-New Deal situation in which we trusted financial institutions to self-police. Advocates of deregulation, like Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, were unconcerned because they expected banks and other financial firms to limit their risk for fear of failure. Either they misunderstood the incentives facing company managers, or they did not care. In practice, financiers are playing with other people’s money (ours). When they do well, their compensation is tied to profits and they can earn huge sums. But when their investments fail, they are protected because monetary authorities and the United States Treasury cannot allow "too big to fail" financial companies to go bust. So long as risky investments would have periods of high returns, the managers of deregulated financial firms have an incentive to increase their risk, profiting from success while passing the costs of failure to the public. We have all been suffering from the consequences of their failures since the financial crisis of 2007-'08.
The share of income going to the top 1 percent has doubled since the 1970s, returning to the levels of the 1920s. The greatest gains have gone to the very wealthiest and to executives and managers, especially of financial firms. From 1973 to 2008, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of American households fell even while the rich gained. The wealthiest 1 percent gained 144 percent or over $600,000 per household; and the richest 1 percent of the 1 percent, barely 30,000 people, gained over 455 percent or over $19,000,000.