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Fear and Looting in America: Are We Really Out of Money?

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"Well, we are out of money now..." President Obama, May 25, 2009

Depends on the definition of "we".

We got into this crisis because Wall Street invented and pedaled fantasy financial instruments that turned out to be junk. While their party lasted, those complex derivatives were a gold mine for the largest financial institutions. According to the New York Times, the profits from the nine largest commercial banks "from early 2004 until the middle of 2007 were a combined $305 billion. But since 2007, those banks have marked down their valuations on loans and other assets by just over that amount." In other words, the profits weren't real.

When the fantasy finance bubble burst and all the fictional profits disappeared, the banks headed straight for mass bankruptcy. Had the government not intervened, many, if not all of them would have gone under, taking the world economy with them. To prevent a total meltdown, we've forked over several trillion dollars in bail outs, loan guarantees and stimulus funds.

But let's back up a bit. What happened to the $305 billion of 2004 through 2007 bank profits that have since vanished from the banks' balance sheets? About half were paid out in compensation to executives, managers and traders. Yes, amazing as it may seem, when you work for a large financial institution you can be paid massive sums even if your work ends up producing nothing -- not even just nothing, but a negative result. All those autoworkers who are being blamed for the miseries of GM and Chrysler? They actually did make cars that are still transporting people. But the Wall Street players, who took home billions for supposedly making valuable financial instruments, were actually making economic weapons of mass destruction. And you can bet that much of their billions are safely parked in off-shore accounts and other low/no tax investments. In a sane and fair world, we would be thinking about how to get it back to help pay for the costs of cleaning up the toxic financial mess.

In a more general way, the bubble boom produced by those fantasy financial instruments helped create a slew of billionaires. As Obama likes to point out, "This is America. We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anyone for achieving success." But is there some limit beyond which success spills into obscene accumulation? At the very least we should be careful not to lose sight of how much money billionaires possess. In researching The Looting of America we tracked the wealth of the super-rich.

In 1982, the top 400 individuals held an average net worth of $604 million each (in 2008 dollars). By 1995, their average wealth jumped to $1.7 billion. And in 2008, the 400 top winners averaged $3.9 billion each.... The total for the 400 high rollers adds up to a cool $1.56 trillion. That's equal to about 10 percent of the entire gross domestic product of the US...

We certainly could have a heated argument about how much of this wealth derived from the derivative-driven boom that just went bust. A case could be made that much of this money is ill-gotten since it came from artificial financial instruments that were rated improperly, or came from artificially leveraged transactions that now have crashed the system as a whole. An even more contentious fight would break out if we discussed whether there is any justification for allowing that such sums to accumulate in the hands of the few, no matter how worthy any of these individuals may be. And we could have us a row asking whether or not a democracy can really survive with so much wealth in the hands of so few people. But surely we can all agree that those top 400 are sitting on a huge pile of money, while our country is going deeply into debt to fix a financial system that has contributed mightily to their enrichment.

Here's a dangerous thought. What if we had a very steeply progressive wealth/income tax that reduced the net worth of the super-rich to "only" about $100 million each? You wouldn't be suffering if you had $100 million kicking around. Now do the math: The 400 richest x $100 million each would equal $40 billion. That would leave about $1.52 trillion to help pay back the country for the Wall Street meltdown that we, our children and their children will be subsidizing.

Maybe we're not so out of money after all.

Les Leopold is the 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 Publishing, June 2009)