The ranks of the working-age poor in the United States climbed to the highest level since the 1960s as the recession threw millions of people out of work last year, leaving one in seven Americans in poverty. The overall poverty rate climbed to 14.3 per cent, or 43.6 million people, the Census Bureau said yesterday in its annual report on the economic well-being of US households. Gulfnews.com
While 43.6 million Americans live in poverty, the richest men of finance sure are getting pissy. First Steve Schwartzman, head of the Blackrock private equity company, compares the Obama administration's effort to close billionaires' tax loopholes to "the Nazi invasion of Poland." Then hedge fund mogul David Loeb announces that he's abandoning the Democrats because they're violating "this country's core founding principles" -- including "non-punitive taxation, Constitutionally-guaranteed protections against persecution of the minority, and an inexorable right of self-determination." Instead of showing their outrage about the spread of poverty in the richest nation on Earth, the super-rich want us to pity them?
Why are Wall Street's billionaires so whiny? Is it really possible to make $900,000 an hour (not a typo -- that's what the top ten hedge fund managers take in), and still feel aggrieved about the way government is treating you? After you've been bailed out by the federal government to the tune of $10 trillion (also not a typo) in loans, asset swaps, liquidity and other guarantees, can you really still feel like an oppressed minority?
You'd think the Wall Street moguls would be thankful. Not just thankful -- down on their knees kissing the ground taxpayers walk on and hollering hallelujah at the top of their lungs! These guys profited from puffing up the housing bubble, then got bailed out when the going got tough. (Please see The Looting of America for all the gory details.) Without taxpayer largess, these hedge fund honchos would be flat broke. Instead, they're back to hauling in obscene profits.
These billionaires don't even have to worry about serious financial reforms. The paltry legislation that squeaked through Congress did nothing to end too big and too interconnected to fail. In fact, the biggest firms got even bigger as they gobbled up troubled banks, with the generous support of the federal government. No bank or hedge fund was broken up. Nobody was forced to pay a financial transaction tax. None of the big boys had a cap placed on their astronomical wealth. No one's paying reparations for wrecking the US economy. The big bankers are still free to create and trade the very derivatives that catapulted us into this global crisis. You'd think the billionaires would be praying on the altar of government and erecting statues on Capital Hill in honor of St. Bailout.
Instead, standing before us are these troubled souls, haunted by visions of persecution. Why?
The world changed. Before the bubble burst, these people walked on water. Their billions proved that they were the best and the brightest -- not just captains of the financial universe, but global elites who had earned a place in history. They donated serious money to worthy causes -- and political campaigns. No one wanted to mess with them.
But then came the crash. And the things changed for the big guys -- not so much financially as spiritually. Plebeians, including me, are asking pointed questions and sometimes even being heard, both on the Internet and in the mainstream media. For the first time in a generation, the public wants to know more about these emperors and their new clothes. For instance:
• What do these guys actually do that earns them such wealth?
• Is what they do productive and useful for society? Is there any connection between what they earn and what they produce for society?
• Did they help cause the crash?
• Did these billionaires benefit from the bailouts? If so, how much?
• Are they exacerbating the current unemployment and poverty crisis with their shenanigans?
• Why shouldn't we eliminate their tax loopholes (like carried interest)?
• Should their sky-high incomes be taxed at the same levels as during the Eisenhower years?
• Can we create the millions of jobs we need if the billionaires continue to skim off so much of our nation's wealth??
• Should we curb their wealth and political influence?
How dare we ask such questions! How dare we consider targeting them for special taxes? How dare we even think about redistributing THEIR incomes... even if at the moment much of their money comes directly from our bailouts and tax breaks?
It's true that the billionaires live in a hermetically sealed world. But that doesn't mean they don't notice the riffraff nipping at their heels. And they don't like it much. So they've gotten busy doing what billionaires do best: using their money to shield themselves. They're digging into their bottomless war chests, tapping their vast connections and using their considerable influence to shift the debate away from them and towards the rest of us.
We borrowed too much, not them. We get too much health care, not them. We retire too soon, not them. We need to tighten our belts while they pull in another $900,000 an hour. And if we want to cure poverty, we need to get the government to leave Wall Street alone. Sadly, their counter-offensive is starting to take hold.
How can this happen? Many Americans want to relate to billionaires. They believe that all of us are entitled to make as much as we can, pretty much by any means necessary. After all, maybe someday you or I will strike it rich. And when we do, we sure don't want government regulators or the taxman coming around!
Billionaires are symbols of American individual prowess and virility. And if we try to hold them back or slow them down, we're on the road to tyranny. Okay, the game is rigged in their favor. Okay, they got bailed out while the rest of us didn't -- especially the 29 million people who are jobless or forced into part-time work. But what matters most is that in America, nothing can interfere with individual money-making. That only a few of us actually make it into the big-time isn't a bad thing: It's what makes being rich so special. So beware: If we enact even the mildest of measures to rein in Wall Street billionaires, we're on the path to becoming North Korea.
Unfortunately, if we don't adjust our attitudes, we can expect continued high levels of unemployment and more people pushed below the poverty line. It's not clear that our economy will ever recover as long as the Wall Street billionaires keep siphoning off so much of our wealth. How can we create jobs for the many while the few are walking off with $900,000 an hour with almost no new jobs to show for it? In the old days, even robber barons built industries that employed people -- steel, oil, railroads. Now the robber barons build palaces out of fantasy finance. We can keep coddling our financial billionaires and let our economy spiral down, or we can make them pay their fair share so we can create real jobs. These guys crashed the economy, they killed billions of jobs, and now they're cashing in on our bailout. They owe us. They owe the unemployed. They owe the poor.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was no radical, but he accepted the reality: If America was going to prosper -- and pay for its costly Cold War -- the super-rich would have to pony up. It was common knowledge that when the rich grew too wealthy, they used their excess incomes to speculate. In the 1950s, memories of the Great Depression loomed large, and people knew that a skewed distribution of income only fueled speculative booms and disastrous busts. On Ike's watch, the effective marginal tax rate for those earning over $3 million (in today's dollars) was over 70 percent. The super-rich paid. As a nation we respected that other important American value: advancing the common good.
For the last thirty years we've been told that making as much as you can is just another way of advancing the common good. But the Great Recession erased that equation: The Wall Streeters who made as much as they could undermined the common good. It's time to balance the scales. This isn't just redistribution of income in pursuit of some egalitarian utopia. It's a way to use public policy to reattach billionaires to the common good.
It's time to take Eisenhower's cue and redeploy the excessive wealth Wall Street's high rollers have accumulated. If we leave it in their hands, they'll keep using it to construct speculative financial casinos. Instead, we could use that money to build a stronger, more prosperous nation. We could provide our people with free higher education at all our public colleges and universities -- just like we did for WWII vets under the GI Bill of Rights (a program that returned seven dollars in GDP for every dollar invested). We could fund a green energy Manhattan Project to wean us from fossil fuels. An added bonus: If we siphon some of the money off Wall Street, some of our brightest college graduates might even be attracted not to high finance but to jobs in science, education and healthcare, where we need them.
Of course, this pursuit of the common good won't be easy for the billionaires (and those who indentify with them.). But there's just no alternative for this oppressed minority: They're going to have to learn to live on less than $900,000 an hour.
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.