Nomi Prins

How infrastructure could be the great economic equalizer in America

During the Trump years, the phrase "Infrastructure Week" rang out as a sort of Groundhog Day-style punchline. What began in June 2017 as a failed effort by The Donald's White House and a Republican Senate to focus on the desperately needed rebuilding of American infrastructure morphed into a meme and a running joke in Washington.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Despite the focus in recent years on President Trump's failure to do anything for the country's crumbling infrastructure, here's a sad reality: considered over a longer period of time, Washington's political failure to fund the repairing, modernizing, or in some cases simply the building of that national infrastructure has proven a remarkably bipartisan "effort." After all, the same grand unfulfilled ambitions for infrastructure were part and parcel of the Obama White House from 2009 on and could well typify the Biden years, if Congress doesn't get its act together (or the filibuster doesn't go down in flames). The disastrous electric grid power outages that occurred during the recent deep freeze in Texas are but the latest example of the pressing need for infrastructure upgrades and investments of every sort. If nothing is done, more people will suffer, more jobs will be lost, and the economy will face drastic consequences.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when most of this country's modern infrastructure systems were first established, the population has doubled. Not only are American roads, airports, electric grids, waterways, railways and more distinctly outdated, but today's crucial telecommunications sector hasn't ever been subjected to a comprehensive broadband strategy.

Worse yet, what's known as America's "infrastructure gap" only continues to widen. The cost of what we need but haven't done to modernize our infrastructure has expanded to $5.6 trillion over the last 20 years ($3 trillion in the last decade alone), according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Some estimates now even run as high as $7 trillion.

In other words, as old infrastructure deteriorates and new infrastructure and technology are needed, the cost of addressing this ongoing problem only escalates. Currently, there is a $1-trillion backlog of (yet unapproved) deferred-maintenance funding floating around Capitol Hill. Without action in the reasonable future, certain kinds of American infrastructure could, like that Texas energy grid, soon be deemed unsafe.

Now, it's true that the U.S. continues to battle Covid-19 with more than half a million lives already lost and significant parts of the economy struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, however, America's failing infrastructure system was already costing the average household nearly $3,300 a year.

According to ASCE, "The nation's economy could see the loss of $10 trillion in GDP [gross domestic product] and a decline of more than $23 trillion in business productivity cumulatively over the next two decades if current investment trends continue." Whatever a post-pandemic economy looks like, our country is already starved for policies that offer safe, reliable, efficient, and sustainable future infrastructure systems. Such a down payment on our future is crucial not just for us, but for generations to come.

As early as 2016, ASCE researchers found that the overall number of dams with potential high-hazard status had already climbed to nearly 15,500. At the time, the organization also discovered that nearly four out of every 10 bridges in America were 50 years old or more and identified 56,007 of them as already structurally deficient. Those numbers would obviously be even higher today.

And yet, in 2021, what Americans face is hardly just a transportation crisis. The country's energy system largely predates the twenty-first century. The majority of American electric transmission and distribution systems were established in the 1950s and 1960s with only a 50-year life cycle. ASCE reports that, "More than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states' power grids are at full capacity." That means our systems weren't and aren't equipped to handle excess needs — especially in emergencies.

The country is critically overdue for infrastructure development in which the government and the private sector would collaborate with intention and urgency. Infrastructure could be the great equalizer in our economy, if only the Biden administration and a now-dogmatically partisan Congress had the fortitude and foresight to make it happen.

American History Offers a Roadmap for Infrastructure Success

It wasn't always like this. Over the course of American history, building infrastructure has not only had a powerful economic impact, but regularly garnered bipartisan political support for the public good.

In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. That landmark bill provided federal support to an already ongoing private effort to build the first transcontinental railroad. Though at the time all its ramifications weren't positive — notably escalating conflicts between Native Americans and settlers pushing westward — the effort did connect the country's coastal markets, provided jobs for thousands, and helped jumpstart commerce in the West. Believe it or not, most of that transcontinental railroad line is still in use today.

In December 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill authorizing the construction of a dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River in the American Southwest, a region that had faced unpredictable flooding and lacked reliable electricity. Despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression, by early 1931, the private sector, with government support, had begun constructing a structure of unprecedented magnitude, known today as the Hoover Dam. As an infrastructure project, it would eventually pay for itself through the sale of the electricity that it generated. Today, that dam still provides electricity and water to tens of millions of people.

Having grasped the power of the German system of autobahns while a general in World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would, under the guise of "national security," launch the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, with bipartisan support, creating the interstate highway system. In its time, that system would be considered one of the "greatest public works projects in history."

In the end, that act would lead to the creation of more than 47,000 miles of roads across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It would have a powerful effect on commercial business activity, national defense planning, and personal travel, helping to launch whole new sectors of the economy, ranging from roadside fast-food restaurants to theme parks. According to estimates, it would return more than six dollars in economic productivity for every dollar it cost to build and support, a result any investor would be happy with.

Equivalent efforts today would undoubtedly prove to be similar economic drivers. Domestically, such investments in infrastructure have always proven beneficial. New efforts to create sustainable green energy businesses, reconfigure energy grids, and rebuild crippled transit systems for a new age would help guarantee U.S global economic competitiveness deep into the twenty-first century.

Infrastructure as an International Race for Influence

In an interview with CNBC in February 2021, after being confirmed as the first female treasury secretary, Janet Yellen stressed the crucial need not just for a Covid-19 stimulus relief but for a sustainable infrastructure one as well.

As part of what the Biden administration has labeled its "Build Back Better" agenda, she underscored the "long-term structural problems in the U.S. economy that have resulted in inequality [and] slow productivity growth." She also highlighted how a major new focus on clean-energy investments could make the economy more competitive globally.

When it comes to infrastructure and sustainable development efforts, the U.S. is being left in the dust by its primary economic rivals. Following his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Biden noted to a group of senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee that, "if we don't get moving, they are going to eat our lunch." He went on to say, "They're investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment, and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up."

As this country, deep in partisan gridlock, stalls on infrastructure measures of any sort, its global competitors are proceeding full speed ahead. Having helped to jumpstart its economy with projects like high-speed railways and massive new bridges, China is now accelerating its efforts to further develop its technological infrastructure. As Bloomberg reported, the Chinese are focused on supporting the build-up of "everything from wireless networks to artificial intelligence. In the master plan backed by President Jinping himself, China will invest an estimated $1.4 trillion over six years" in such projects.

And it's not just that Asian giant leaving the U.S. behind. Major trading partners like Australia, India, and Japan are projected to significantly out-invest the United States. The World Economic Forum's 2019 Global Competitiveness Report typically listed this country in 13th place among the world's nations when it came to its infrastructure quality. (It had been ranked 5th in 2002.) In 2020, that organization ranked the U.S. 32nd out of 115 countries on its Energy Transition Index.

Despite the multiple stimulus packages that Congress has passed in the Covid-19 era, no funding — not a cent — has been designated for capital-building projects. In contrast, China, Japan, and the European Union have all crafted stimulus programs in which infrastructure spending was a core component.

Infrastructure Development as a Political Equalizer

Infrastructure could be the engine for the most advantageous kinds of growth in this country. An optimal combination of federal and private funds, strategic partnerships, targeted infrastructure bonds, and even the creation of an infrastructure bank could help jumpstart a range of sustainable and ultimately revenue-generating businesses.

Such investment is a matter of economics, of cost versus benefit. These days, however, such calculations are both obstructed and obfuscated by politics. In the end, however, political economics comes down to getting creative about sources of funding and how to allocate them. To launch a meaningful infrastructure program would mean deciding who will produce it, who will consume it, and what kinds of transfer of wealth would be involved in the short and long run. Though the private sector certainly would help drive such a new set of programs, government funding would, as in the past, be crucial, whether under the rubric of national security, competitive innovation, sustainable clean energy, or creating a carbon-neutral future America. Any effort, no matter the label, would undoubtedly generate sustainable public and private jobs for the future.

On both the domestic and international fronts, infrastructure is big business. Wall Street, as well as the energy and construction sectors, are all eager to learn more about Biden's Build Back Better infrastructure plan, which he is expected to take up in his already delayed first joint address to Congress. Actions, not just words, are needed.

Expectations are running high about what might prove to be a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure initiative. Such anticipation has already elevated the stock prices of construction companies, as well as shares in the sustainable energy sector.

There are concerns, to be sure. A big infrastructure package might never make it through an evenly split Senate, where partisanship is the name of the game. Some economists also fear that it could bring on inflation. There is, of course, debate over the role of the private sector in any such plan, as well as horse-trading about what kinds of projects should get priority. But the reality is that this country desperately needs infrastructure that, in turn, can secure a sustainable and green future. Someday this will have to be done, and the longer the delay, the more those costs are likely to rise. The future revenues and economic benefits from a solid infrastructure package should be key drivers in any post-pandemic economy.

The biggest asset managers in the country are already seeing more money flowing into their infrastructure and sustainable-energy funds. Financing for such deals in the private sector is also increasing. Any significant funding on the public side will only spur and augment that financing. Such projects could drive the economy for years to come. They would run the gamut from establishing smart grids and expanding broadband reach to building electric transmission systems that run off more sustainable energy sources, while manufacturing cleaner vehicles and ways to use them. Going big with futuristic transit projects like Virgin's Hyperloop, a high-speed variant of a vacuum train, or Elon Musk's initiative for the development of carbon-capture technology, could even be included in a joint drive to create the necessary clean-energy infrastructure and economy of the future.

Polling also shows that such infrastructure spending has broad public support, even if, in Congress, much-needed bipartisan backing for such a program remains distinctly in question. Still, in February, the ranking Republican senator on the environment and public works committee, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, said that "transportation infrastructure is the platform that can drive economic growth — all-American jobs, right there, right on the ground — now and in the future, and improve the quality of life for everyone on the safety aspects." Meanwhile, the committee's chairman, Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, stressed that "the burdens of poor road conditions are disproportionately shouldered by marginalized communities." He pointed out that "low-income families and peoples of color are frequently left behind or left out by our investments in infrastructure, blocking their access to jobs and education opportunities."

Sadly, given the way leadership in Washington wasted endless months dithering over the merits of supporting American workers during a pandemic, it may be too much to hope that a transformative bipartisan infrastructure deal will materialize.

Infrastructure as the Great Economic Equalizer

Here's a simple reality: a strong American economy is dependent on infrastructure. That means more than just a "big umbrella" effort focused on transportation and electricity. Yes, airports, railroads, electrical grids, and roadways are all-important economic drivers, but in the twenty-first-century world, high-capacity communications systems are also essential to economic prosperity, as are distribution channels of various sorts. At the moment, there's a water main break every two minutes in the U.S. Nearly six billion gallons of treated water are lost daily thanks to such breaks. Situations like the one in Flint, Michigan, in which economic pressure and bankruptcy eventually led a city to expose thousands of its children to poisonous drinking water, will become increasingly unavoidable in a country with an ever-deteriorating infrastructure.

The great economic equalizer is this: the more efficient our infrastructure systems become, the less they cost, and the more they can be readily used by those across the income spectrum. What American history shows since the time of Abraham Lincoln is that, in periods of economic turmoil, major infrastructure building or rebuilding will not only pay for itself but support the economy for generations to come.

For the next generation, it's already clear that clean and sustainable energy will be crucial to achieving a more equal, economically prosperous, and less climate-challenged future. A renewables-based rebuilding of the economy and the creation of the jobs to go with it would be anything but some niche set of activities in the usual infrastructure spectrum. It would be the future. High-paying jobs within the sustainable energy sector are already booming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that among the occupations projected to have the fastest employment growth from 2016 to 2026 will be those in "green" work.

Wall Street and big tech companies are also paying attention. Amazon, Google, and Facebook have become the world's biggest corporate purchasers of clean energy and are now planning for some of the world's most transformational climate targets. That will mean smaller companies will also be able to enter that workspace as innovation and infrastructure drive economic incentives.

The Next Generation

It may be ambitious to expect that we've left the Groundhog Day vortex of "infrastructure week" behind us, but the critical demand for a new Infrastructure Age confronts us now. From Main Street to Wall Street, the need and the growing market for a sustainable, efficient, and clean future couldn't be more real. An abundance of avenues to finance such a future are available and it makes logical business sense to pursue them.

It's obvious enough what should be done. The only question, given American politics in 2021, is: Can it be done?

The economy of tomorrow will be built upon the infrastructure measures of today. You can't see the value of stocks from space, nor can you see the physical value of what you've left to the next generation from stat sheets. But from the International Space Station you can see the Hoover Dam and even San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. What will future generations see that we've left behind? If the answer is nothing, that will be a tragedy of our age.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2021 Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins, a former Wall Street executive, is a TomDispatch regular. Her latest book is Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World. She is currently working on her new book, Permanent Distortion. She is also the author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power and five other books. Special thanks go to researcher Craig Wilson for his superb assistance.

Billionaires, markets, and the ugly essence of the United States in 2021

Sometimes things only make sense when seen through a magnifying lens. As it happens, I'm thinking about reality, the very American and global reality clearly repeating itself as 2021 begins.

We all know, of course, that we're living through a once-in-a-century-style pandemic; that millions of people have lost their jobs, a portion of which will never return; that the poorest among us, who can withstand such acute economic hardship the least, have been slammed the hardest; and that the global economy has been kneecapped, thanks to a battery of lockdowns, shutdowns, restrictions of various sorts, and health-related concerns. More sobering than all of this: more than 360,000 Americans (and counting) have already lost their lives as a result of Covid-19 with, according to public health experts, far more to come.

And yet, as if in some galaxy far, far away, there also turns out to be another, so much more upbeat side to this equation. As Covid-19 grew ever worse while 2020 ended, the stock market reached heights that hadn't been seen before. Ever.

Meanwhile, again in the thoroughly cheery news column, banks in 2021 will be able to resume their march toward billions of dollars in share buybacks, courtesy of the Federal Reserve opting to support such a bank-and-stock-market stimulus. The Fed's green light for this activity on December 18th will allow mega-banks to return to those share buybacks (which constitute 70% of the capital payout that they provide shareholders). In June 2020, the Fed had banned the practice ostensibly to help them better navigate risks caused by the pandemic.

Those very financial institutions can now pour money into purchasing their own stocks again rather than, say, into loans to struggling small businesses endangered by pandemic-instigated economic disaster. As soon as Wall Street got the good news from the Fed as 2020 ended, JPMorgan Chase, the nation's biggest bank, wasted no time in announcing its intent to buy a staggering $30 billion of its own shares in the new year. And as if by magic, those shares leapt 5% that very day. Other mega-banks followed suit, as did their share prices.

Now, for reasons you'll soon understand, take a little trip back in history with me to the eve of Halloween, 1938, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre dramatized his adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi-meets-dystopia-meets-imperialism novel, The War of the Worlds, on the radio. As Martians "invaded" New Jersey (it had been London in the novel) with mayhem in mind, panic evidently ensued among some radio listeners who thought they were hearing perfectly real reports about an alien invasion of Planet Earth. Later accounts suggest that the media blew that reaction out of proportion ("fake news," 1938-style?), yet people who tuned in late and missed the set-up about the fictitious nature of the program did indeed panic.

And it's not hard to understand why they might have done so at that moment. There had already been surprises galore. The world, after all, had barely recovered from the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed. It was also still reeling from the fiery Hindenburg disaster of 1937 in which a German airship blew up in New Jersey, as well as from the escalation of tensions and hostilities in both Asia and Europe that would lead to World War II. Perhaps people already equated or conflated the Martian invasion on the radio with fantasies about a potential German invasion of this country. In some papers, after all, reports on the reaction to Welles's performance were set right next to news of war clouds brewing in Europe and Asia. With or without Welles, people were on edge.

Whatever the case, fear has been both a great motivator and an anxiety provoker when it comes to the media, whether in 1938 or today. At the moment, the focus is on economic and health-related fears in all-too-ample supply. It is also on the disconnect that exists between the real economic world that most of us live in and turbo-boosted stock markets. These distorted markets are the result of wealth inequality that once would have been unimaginable in this country. In a way, economically speaking, you might say that today we're suffering the equivalent of an invasion from Mars.

From the Financial Crisis to the Pandemic

It's not hard these days to imagine the chaos people would feel if their lives or livelihoods were threatened by an external, uncontrollable force like those Martians. After all, we're in a pandemic age in which the gaps between the rich, the poor, and the middle class are being reinforced in endlessly stunning ways, a world in which some people have the means to remain remarkably safe, secure, and alive, while others have no means at all.

Covid-19 is not, of course, from Mars or sent by aliens, but in terms of its impact, it's as if it were. And the pandemic is, in the end, only exacerbating, sometimes in radical ways, problems that already were bad enough, particularly economic inequality.

Remember that, long before Covid-19 hit, the financial crisis of 2008 was met by a multi-trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout. At the same time, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to zero, while purchasing U.S. Treasury and mortgage bonds from the very banks that had sparked the disaster. Its own assets then rose from $870 billion to $4.5 trillion between August 2007 and August 2015. On the other hand, the U.S. economy never quite reached a growth level of, on average, more than 2% annually in the years after that near collapse, even as the stock market regained all its losses and so much more. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, aided by an ultra-loose monetary policy, steadily rose from a financial-crisis low of 6,926 on March 5, 2009 to 27,090 by March 4, 2020, which was when Covid-19 briefly trashed its rally.

However, within a month of the market dip that followed widespread shutdowns, its climb was refortified by similar but larger maneuvers, as Federal Reserve policy was once again deployed to save the rich under the auspices of saving the economy. Rally 2.0 took the Dow to a new record of 30,606.48 as 2020 closed.

On the other side of reality, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that, according to recent Federal Reserve reports, the U.S. wealth gap continued to widen dramatically as economic inequality increased yet again in 2020 thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. That's because the health and economic devastation it inflicted affected low-wage service workers, low-income earners, and people of color so much more than the upper-middle class and elite upper class.

Meanwhile, as 2020 ended, the richest 10% of Americans owned more than 88% of the outstanding shares of companies and mutual funds in the U.S. The top 1% also controlled more than 88 times the wealth of the bottom 50% of Americans. Simply put, the less you had, the less you could afford to lose any of it. Indeed, the combined net worth of the top 1% of Americans was $34.2 trillion (about one-third of all U.S. household wealth), while the total for the bottom half was $2.1 trillion (or 1.9% of that wealth).

And yet, American billionaires scored monumentally during the pandemic, due particularly to their lofty position in the stock market. The planet's 2,200 or so billionaires got wealthier by $1.9 trillion in 2020 alone and were worth about $11.4 trillion in mid-December 2020 (up from $9.5 trillion a year earlier). Twenty-first-century tycoons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos raked it in specifically because of all the money pouring into shares of their stock. Even bipartisan congressional stimulus measures meant for necessary relief turned into a chance to elevate fortunes at the highest echelons of society.

If you want to grasp inequality in the pandemic moment, consider this: while the market soared, more than 25.5 million Americans were the recipients of federal unemployment benefits. The S&P 500 stock market index added a total of $14 trillion in market value in 2020. In essentially another universe, the number of people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and didn't regain them was about 10 million. And that figure doesn't even count people who can't go to work because they have to take care of others, their workplace is restricted, or they're home-schooling their kids.

The Martians and the Inequality Gap

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells evokes a species — humanity — rendered helpless in the face of a force greater than itself and beyond its control. His depiction of the grim relationship between the Martians and the humans they were suppressing (meant to remind readers of the relationship between British imperialists and those they suppressed in distant lands) cast an eerie light on the power and wealth gap in Great Britain and around the world at the turn of the twentieth century.

The book was written in the Gilded Age, when rapid economic growth, particularly in the United States, bred a new class of "robber barons." Like the twenty-first-century version of such beings, they, too, made money from their money, while the economic status of workers slipped ever lower. It was an early version of a zero-sum game in which the spoils of the system were increasingly beyond the reach of so many. Those at the top ferociously accumulated wealth, while the majority of the rest of the population barely got by or drowned.

A crisis of inequality had been sparked by the Industrial Revolution itself, which started in England and then crossed the Atlantic. By the late nineteenth century, America's "robber barons" were insanely wealthy. As economist Thomas Piketty wrote, there was a steeper increase in wealth inequality during the Gilded Age than ever before in American history. In 1810, the top 1% of Americans held 25% of the country's total wealth; between 1870 and 1910 that share leapt to 45%.

Today, the top 1% of Americans possess more wealth than the whole of the middle class, a phenomenon first true in 2010 and still the reality of our moment. By 2018, about 75% of the $113 trillion in aggregate U.S. household assets were financial ones; that is, tied up in stocks, ETF's, 401Ks, IRAs, mutual funds, and similar investments. The majority of nonfinancial assets in that mix was in real estate.

Its ultra-loose policies made it cheaper to borrow money, but not as attractive to invest it in low-interest-rate, less risky securities like Treasury bonds. As a result, the Fed incentivized those with extra money to grow it through quicker, often riskier investments in the stock market or real estate. By 2020, there were bidding wars for suburban houses by urbanites seeking refuge from coronavirus-stricken cities with all-cash offers, something beyond the reach of most traditional buyers.Even before the pandemic, only the richest 20% of American households had recovered fully (or, in the case of the truly wealthy, more than fully) from the financial crisis. That's mostly because since that crisis, fewer households had participated in the stock market or owned real estate and so had no chance to capitalize on increases in the values of either.

Much of the appreciation in stock market and real-estate values has been directly or indirectly related to the Fed's actions. By the end of December 2020, its balance sheet had increased by $3.164 trillion, reaching a total of $7.35 trillion, 63% more than its book at the height of the decade following the 2008 disaster.

Though Congress passed two much-needed Covid-related stimulus packages that extended unemployment benefits, while offering two one-off payments and a Paycheck Protection Program support for smaller businesses, the impact of those acts paled in comparison to the tax breaks and power of investment the stock market provided the well-off and corporate kingpins.

While markets leapt to record highs, poverty in the United States also rose last year from 9.3% in June to 11.7% in November 2020. That added nearly eight million Americans to the ranks of the poor, even as America's 659 billionaires held double the wealth of the 165 million poorest Americans.

The Martians Are Here

The gap between incoming and outgoing federal funds rose, too. The U.S. deficit increased by $3.3 trillion during 2020. The size of the public debt issued by the Treasury Department reached $27.5 trillion. Total federal revenue was $3.45 trillion, while the corporate tax part of that was just $221 billion, or a paltry 6.4%. What that means is that in an ever more unequal America, 93.6% of the money flowing into the government's till comes from individuals, not corporations.

And though many larger and mid-size corporations filed for bankruptcy protection due to coronavirus related shutdowns, the brunt of absolute closures hit smaller local businesses — from restaurants to hair salons to health-and-wellness shops — much harder, only exacerbating economic disparity at the community level.

In other words, the real problem when it comes to inequality isn't the total amount of taxes received versus money spent in a time of crisis, but the composition of federal revenue that's wildly out of whack (something the pandemic has only made worse). Take the defense sector, for example. The U.S. government doled out $738 billion to the Pentagon for fiscal year 2020. The contracts to defense-related private companies in the last year for which data was available, fiscal year 2018, totaled roughly 62% of a full defense budget of $579 billion, or $358 billion. Now imagine this: that amount alone dwarfed the total of all corporate taxes flowing into the U.S. Treasury in 2019.

Inequality is about the disparity between people and countries with respect to income, wealth, or power. The more that corporations keep relative to their bottom line when compared with ordinary citizens, the more the stock market rises relative to the real economy. The more that individuals, rather than corporations, shoulder the burden of tax revenues, the greater the inherent inequality in society. The more that financial assets appreciate on money seeking to multiply itself in the quickest way possible (think of it as like a virus), the greater the distortion created.

The Fed can focus on its inflation-versus-full-employment dual-mandate all it wants, while pushing policies that distort the value of the real economy compared to financial assets. But the reality is that the more those Fed-inflated assets grow relative to real ones, the greater the inequality gap. That's plain math and it's the ugly essence of the United States of America as 2021 begins.

The market doesn't care about politics. It's a creature that acts in accordance with the goals of its largest participants. The real economy, on the other hand, requires far more effort — planning, prioritizing, and executing programs and projects that can produce tangible profits. We're a long way from a world that puts investment in the real economy ahead of those soaring financial markets. That gap, in fact, might as well be like the distance between Earth and Mars. In the midst of a pandemic, as billionaires only grow richer and the markets soar, can there be any question that we're experiencing a Martian invasion?

Copyright 2020 Nomi Prins

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nomi Prins, a former Wall Street executive, is a TomDispatch regular. Her latest book is Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World (Bold Type Books). She is currently working on her new book, Permanent Distortion (Public Affairs). She is also the author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power and five other books. Special thanks to Craig Wilson for his superb research on this piece.

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Here we are in the middle of the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency and if there’s one thing we know by now, it’s that the leader of the free world can create an instant reality-TV show on geopolitical steroids at will. True, he’s not polished in his demeanor, but he has an unerring way of instilling the most uncertainty in any situation in the least amount of time.

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Imperial President or Emperor With No Clothes? How Donald Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression

In the rush of Trumped-up events, history -- of the last month, week, hour -- repeatedly gets plowed (or tweeted) under. Who can remember what happened so long ago? Perhaps it’s not surprising then that, in the wave of abuse from the president and his men (including economic adviser Larry Kudlow and trade hardliner Peter Navarro) against Canada and its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, one of the president's earliest insults has already been washed down the memory hole into oblivion.

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