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“That makes me smart”

from David Ruccio

Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman begin their new book, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, with the moment in 2016 during the first presidential election debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton when the former Secretary of State challenged the reality-show celebrity about how little he had paid in federal income taxes over the years. Trump proudly admitted it: “That makes me smart.” And Clinton, for all her carefully crafted technocratic proposals to fix the tax code, failed to effectively respond to Trump.

Jump ahead three years, and the issue of wealth inequality in America has risen to the top of the political agenda. Clinton lost the election, Trump is probably not worth what he has claimed, but the nation’s wealth is even more unequally distributed today—much worse even than the obscene inequalities in the distribution of income.

net worth

In fact, according to the Federal Reserve’s Distributional Financial Accounts, the share of total net worth of the top 1 percent of American households (32.4 percent) now exceeds that of the so-called middle-class, households in the 50-90-percent bracket (28.7 percent).

assets-composition

Moreover, we know that the lion’s share of the assets owned by the top 1 percent ($35.4 trillion) stems from business ($20.8 trillion)—as against the real estate holdings, consumer durables, pensions, and other assets that make up the bulk of the wealth owned by others, especially those in the bottom 90 percent.**

warrenmugbillionairetears_111419warrencampaign

It should come as no surprise then that major presidential candidates in the Democratic Party, especially Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have proposed taxing the large concentrations of wealth at the top. Nor should we be astonished that billionaires have shed public tears over the proposed taxes or that the New York Times highlighted a fundamentally flawed Wharton School study showing that taxes on wealth would reduce economic growth by nearly 0.2 percent a year, over the course of a decade.**

wealth taxes

Just to illustrate the severe concentration at the top of the wealth pyramid in the United States, as well as the enormous benefit to the rest of society of using that wealth for other purposes, consider the following two-tier tax formula: a 10-percent tax on wealth over $50 million and 100 percent on wealth over $500 million. Utilizing the Wealth Tax Explorer devised by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, such a tax scheme would affect only 0.05 percentage of U.S. households (a total of 62,598 taxpayers) and yet it would generate in any given year a flow of revenues equal to total federal tax revenues in the United States! (And, yes, as a side benefit, it would also represent a wealth cap of $500 million.)

But that’s only one side of the story, which has been the sole focus of billionaires, mainstream economists, and political pundits. The other, perhaps even more important, side is the enormous gap between the wealth owned by the tiny group at the top and that of households who find themselves at the bottom.

wealth gap

Since 1990, the net wealth of the top 1 percent has soared to $35 trillion while the bottom 50 percent of Americans have been left with only $2 trillion. For those in the top 1 percent, what this means is they’ve managed to capture a large share of the surplus, which they’ve used to accumulate enormous assets (with relatively few liabilities), which in turn can be used to continue to get a cut of the surplus generated by workers in the United States and around the world (in addition to financing politicians and setting the rules of the game). And the bottom 50 percent? They get wages and salaries that allow them to continue to work but prevent them from accumulating much wealth (which consists, as we can see in the second chart above, mostly of real estate, and even then is largely offset by mortgages and other liabilities). Without wealth of their own, workers in the bottom 50 percent are thus forced to have the freedom to continue to sell their ability to work to employers in order to subsist.

So, yes, the small group of owners of American wealth might in fact be smart—because they sit on top of a system that generates enormous wealth, most of which they own, and which does not trickle down to those at the bottom, who continue to have to work for a living and aren’t even allowed to benefit from programs financed by taxes on the concentrated wealth at the top.

But all the smarts in the world can’t hide the essential injustice and unfairness of the grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States. The discussion to change the system may begin with taxes but it won’t end there. It has to be aimed at both the economic institutions that are the root cause of that inequality and the ideas that serve to justify the obscene degree of inequality in the United States and to undermine any and all attempts to reform it.

Any candidate who makes that clear will be one worth voting for.

 

  1. November 19, 2019 at 5:58 pm

    Worse, if that .1% cohort sees a large change in liquidity preference (as is occurring now), and moves their enormous wealth into cash and short duration treasuries, this alone can disrupt money markets and require massive injections of liquidity by the Fed. In other words; a liquidity crisis.
    http://folk.ntnu.no/tronda/econ/andresen-phd-finished.pdf

  2. lobdillj
    November 19, 2019 at 11:10 pm

    The discussion to change the system may begin with taxes but it won’t end there. It has to be aimed at both the economic institutions that are the root cause of that inequality and the ideas that serve to justify the obscene degree of inequality in the United States and to undermine any and all attempts to reform it.

    Any candidate who makes that clear will be one worth voting for.

    Amen to that!

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    November 24, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    If we want to understand why all this inequality and societal ruin finds no traction with mainstream economists, we need to look at what economists over the last 250 years were attempting to create and explain. That will help us understand why this situation is considered by economists not only fair, but necessary for the welfare of society.

    Let’s begin at the beginning with the man who is often credited with starting the journey of modern Western economics as a discipline, Adam Smith (1723–1790). As a moral philosopher concerned with human motives, Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 as a series of lectures on public policy. Approaching the subject as a natural scientist his goal was to discover the workings of the vast machine called the economy. His book presents the division of labor as a vehicle of progress, dealing with the role of money, taxes, wages, profits, trade, and the health of the national economy. He built a logical structure, founded finally on a theory of value, leading to strong arguments against the intervention of the state in economic affairs.

    The major problem faced by early economists was finding some measure of value that did not make recourse to religion. To build an empirical science, they had to find some way to define “good” in a secular way, without reference to scripture or divine judgment. This was the focus of Adam Smith’s earlier book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Economic philosophers needed a benchmark not dependent on God, because they wanted to create rational science rather than theology. Therefore, Smith’s argument about value is crucial enough to trace in detail. In The Wealth of Nations, he begins by asserting that value cannot be measured by money, because at times money is artificially scarce (a shortage of coins was a common problem in his times). Also, value is not the same as utility or usefulness, as is shown by the comparison of water (useful, low value) and diamonds (useless, high value). So, since all labor is of equal value to the worker, labor is the best measure of value. The real or natural value of a good is the amount of labor it takes to produce it. In primitive societies this relationship is direct. Labor is the only factor of production, and all resources are equally available.

    In contrast, in “civilized” society, says Smith, values are determined by exchange, not by production. So concludes Smith, value is thus determined by the amount of supply (though not by the demand) and by disutility, or the amount of work a person can save by trading for something instead of making it. Rents and profits become part of the value of things because they represent the cost of land, tools, and property necessary for production. Smith never reconciles these two theories of value, one rooted in the individual (labor) and one in society (exchange). But he makes a clear statement of priority by identifying the value of an individual’s labor as “natural.”

    Using his “natural” theory of value, Smith attempts to reason out answers to pressing social and political problems and issues of the day through logic and empirical observation. The goal he set himself was to comprehend how the economy can work to make prices reflect natural values so that workers are justly compensated for their labors. And then to show how this can lead to the creation of wealth, in the form of productive resources, property, factories, and the like, that will build a powerful nation. His answer is the institution of the market, which acts like an “invisible hand” to bring prices and values together and to provide at the same time the rents and profits that make the accumulation of wealth possible.

    People participate in this institution because of their own self-interested desire to get the best return for their labor by selling at the highest price. But people also exchange because of an inherent human tendency to “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” (1999, illustrated, 14) They do not stop exchanging when they have satisfied their basic needs (e.g., food, clothing). People also seek to accumulate riches because of their vanity and desire to be admired (to “share in the positive sympathetic feelings of others”) and because they “naturally” love order, harmony, and design. They seek wealth because it satisfies their love of system, the beauty of order, of art and contrivance. Smith’s human is selfish because of largely positive natural impulses to make order in the world. These desires need to be cultivated through education and civilization and are hindered and restrained by politics, corruption, guilds, corporations, and organized religion, to the detriment of society (McGraw 1992).

    From these foundations, Smith builds an argument that the individual’s self-interest generates the society’s best interests. The more competition, the more production, exchange, and accumulation. Each person’s struggle to get the most value balances everyone else’s. Competition keeps prices down, regulates costs of production, profits, and interest rates, and it controls the abuses of monopolies. When governments, guilds, and other organizations intervene to regulate and control prices, trade, and markets, they impede the working of the market and retard the greater good. The key element of Smith’s argument is that human individual self-interest, working through market arrangements, produces the greatest possible good for the entire nation. For Smith, then, there is no essential or inherent natural conflict between the individual’s and society’s best interests, so long as free individuals are educated and enlightened to act in rational ways.

    By these efforts Smith moves moral issues (What is fair? How should government promote common welfare?) into the realm of logic, rationality, education, and science. Beginning with a rational individual motivated by positive natural impulses, he undertakes a series of dramatic political attacks on monopolists, corrupt governments, tariffs promoted by strong business lobbyists, guilds, colonialists, and “the capricious ambition of kings and ministers” (1999, 461). Though based on self-interest, a well-working economy should not cater to the egocentric interests of a small class or group. Instead, it furthers the wealth of the nation as a whole—and it is not a far step from here to the idea of democracy, of rule “of, by, and for” the people of the nation.

    In Smith’s economics, the central problem is the relationship of the individual to society. His theory was suited to a time when there was a vast growth in trade, a long series of wars over trade routes and the sources of raw materials, and an active debate about the role of the government in people’s lives. Smith likely opposed government intervention in the economy due to the broad and catastrophic intervention practiced during his lifetime by European governments. In France, for example, a huge and corrupt bureaucracy set prices for almost all goods, charged multiple tolls and tariffs on even short journeys, and required a license or concession (and usually a bribe) for every industry, from those that made pins to people hunting truffles. Smith’s decision might have been different, however, had he lived into the 19th and 20th centuries to see the mass suffering and poverty industrial capitalism and colonialism inflicted on millions of people in factories and fields. First in Europe and North America and later in all parts of the world. All justified in terms of the “free market.”

    Smith’s fame might have declined but the public issues and problems he addressed are still with us, and the debates that he opened are still going on. The linkage between self-interested human nature and the conduct of public economic life is still the basis of the discipline of economics, even as Smith’s successors have drawn the discipline further away from issues of morality, following his lead, in their efforts to create a “logic of fact.” But despite their best efforts, economists have been unable to banish from economics the same issues of morality and human motivations considered by Smith. However, it is long past time for economists and policy makers, and particularly the public to reconsider Smith’s conclusions. It’s my view the explanations and recommendations he offered come from another time and place. They no longer fit in today’s world. Have not fit for the past 100 or more years. And moreover, in their application create a lot of suffering and misdirected policy.

    • Craig
      November 24, 2019 at 6:01 pm

      All economic theories are based on a paradigm of scarcity. With the new paradigm of Gifting, monetary abundance for all agents implemented by a sufficient universal dividend and a 50% discount/rebate monetary policy at the point of retail sale inverts the current paradigm’s “reality”.

      We have tremendous productive capabilities. We just don’t have the general awareness of how to effectively implement monetary abundance as per above so that every agent can partake of that abundant production, the system is greatly stabilized, its current most thorny problems are resolved our ecological problems can also be adequately addressed.

      Like all paradigm changes it’s as simple and yet pattern changing as that.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 24, 2019 at 11:48 pm

        Craig, one of Smith’s conclusions with which I agree is that money is not value. It is also not scarcity. In Smith’s time and even today scarcity of resources (e.g., food, shelter) does occur. Sometimes with negative consequences. How does your proposal deal with such situations? For example, the current national housing shortage in the US. After all, people can’t eat dollar bills or live in cabins made of them.

      • Craig
        November 25, 2019 at 12:51 am

        Money has value when the government says it has it, and when the money system enables abundance for all agents individual and commercial, domestic and international….it will continually have value….because the purpose of profit making economic systems is to produce in order to profit.

        Money as in individual income and business revenue is scarce in ratio to our tremendous productive capabilities, and that scarcity is enforced by the monopoly paradigm of Debt Only by the illegitimate economic business model of private for profit finance.

        A national non-profit publicly administered and directly distributive money system with the policies and regulations I’ve advocated here many times would eliminate that monetary scarcity, increase our productivity (very few of our resources are actually scarce and those that are can be either increased or replaced by better, more innovative and more rational alternatives) and finally get off the dime of actions toward ecological survival by a bottom up monetary subsidizing of green consumer products at the point of retail sale and additionally at the point of note signing.

      • Craig
        November 25, 2019 at 1:22 am

        In the first paragraph insert “it’s a monetary economy not a barter one, money is an excellent tool and” after the word because.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 25, 2019 at 10:22 am

        Craig, stop thinking in terms of economics for a moment and instead think in terms of people and the problems they face. A great many of these can’t be solved with any sort of re-distribution of money. US cities now face a shortage of affordable housing. Government could simply give those who can’t afford housing more money so they could then afford the housing. But this only makes owners of rental housing richer, and still richer without helping society. Take the situation in Portland, OR for example. First, Portland is addressing the problem as a community, not as economists. Housing construction in Portland slowed to a crawl during the Great Recession just as the region’s population growth took off, with rent prices spiking as a result. The housing affordability crisis grew huge. Even with the rental market now cooling off, housing costs are still way higher than a decade ago, and nearly two-thirds of Oregon’s low-income renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. The double-digit rent increases of the last decade are still with us, and Portlanders continue to feel the pinch. One lesson here is that the private market — even when behaving at its best — doesn’t produce housing that’s affordable for all Portlanders. For people living on disability payments, unemployment insurance, or Social Security checks, even bottom-rung housing has become too expensive in the private market, so the public sector is being asked to step in. Equally so for minimum wage workers, of which thousands live in Portland. Portland and the State of Oregon are building more publicly subsidized affordable housing units than ever. The city’s production of affordable housing units reached an all-time high in 2018 — and thanks to bond measures approved by voters in 2016 and 2018, that trend is likely to continue. But there’s one hitch. Affordable housing isn’t affordable for everyone. We’ve learned that the definition of “affordable housing” is somewhat loose. For example, a two-bedroom apartment that costs $1,450 per month can qualify as “affordable housing” under the city’s matrix, even though most low-income families couldn’t afford it. One problem, housing bureaus focus a lot of their money on making apartments affordable for families earning $35-40k a year (or about 50 percent of median family income), even though the biggest need is among families making $25,000 or less a year. But this could be changing. The affordable housing bond that passed in 2018 requires nearly half of all funds to be used for housing for Portland’s poorest residents. That’s expected to make 1,600 new units available for families earning less than $25k per year.

        But why is all this work necessary? The homelessness crisis is bigger than you might think. About 1,700 people in Portland are sleeping on the streets or in their cars each night. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. On any given night, another 2,500 people sleep in emergency shelters or transitional housing, and thousands more are couch-surfing and “doubling up” with their friends or family. The problem also isn’t static. About 32,000 Portlanders currently spend more than half their income on rent, putting them one bad month away from slipping into homelessness — and because bad months happen, many people do. It’s not fair to blame migration. Nearly 600 people move to Portland every week, and a very small number of them are homeless when they get here. But that’s not what’s driving the crisis. According to the 2017 “Point In Time” count, most people experiencing homelessness in Portland either grew up here or became homeless after arriving, and most of the inbound migration that does occur comes from Portland’s suburbs and other parts of Oregon. The bigger problem is housing costs. The cities with the highest rates of homelessness all have one thing in common — sky-high housing prices. From Portland to Seattle to San Francisco, the lack of affordable housing has put the squeeze on renters and increased the odds that one missed paycheck or medical emergency could lead to eviction. In 2017, Multnomah County became the first West Coast community to reduce veteran homelessness to “functional zero,” meaning that more vets are exiting homelessness than entering it and newly homeless vets are being moved off the streets within 90 days. The county placed 1,200 homeless vets into housing during that two-year period — so it’s not like the problem is insoluble. Public officials know a lot about what works, but they can’t fix the problem alone. So, lots of people are chipping in. Maybe someday the federal government will give cities the funding they need to make universal housing a reality, but until then, it’s going to take a team effort — and lots of Portlanders are already stepping up.

        Thanks to the Oregonian newspaper and the blog Bridgeliner for all this information.

      • November 25, 2019 at 2:26 pm

        Craig, listen to Ken telling you to “stop thinking in terms of economics for a moment”, think of his social problems, but get real too about the environmental crisis.

        You claim “We have tremendous productive capabilities. We just don’t have the general awareness of how to effectively implement monetary abundance as per above so that every agent can partake of that abundant production, the system is greatly stabilized, its current most thorny problems are resolved. Our ecological problems can also be adequately addressed [with] ecological survival by a bottom up monetary subsidizing of green consumer products”.

        However, even green production uses resources and poisons the environment. Ecological survival requires us to not only reduce production and pollution but to regenerate resources and clean up the existing pollution, i.e. plant trees much faster than we are destroying them. But today’s “scary” scientific news is that carbon dioxide is going up fast just when we were hoping (with all our solar panels and electric cars) it might be going down a little. The major worry is that the Greenland ice cap may soon melt, causing sea levels to rise around 7 metres, drowning major cities like London and Calcutta. What we can see are forest fires creating carbon dioxide on an alarming scale, and a warming atmosphere generating wild wet weather.

      • Craig
        November 25, 2019 at 4:55 pm

        Ken, the genius of doubling everyone’s purchasing power is that the discount would cut housing prices in half…which is a lot more immediate and effective than any other policy I’ve seen advocated here. Part of the model in my book of course also utilizes taxation for one of its few legitimate purposes, that is to punish greedy and destabilizing price rises by taxing them at a rate of 100%. I have stated here before that I thought Henry George was ahead of his times in some respects and a land tax might also be a part of the new paradigm program. My suggested Department of Competition, Innovation and The Bully Pulpit would exhort rental enterprises to keep their prices low, point the public finger at them if they didn’t, tax them, take away their discount/rebate privileges if they chronically raised their prices without having actual additional costs and finally the national publicly administered non-profit banking system would be happy to fund their competitors and/or innovative and socially sensitive start ups in the rental sector.

        Some MMT economists, being stupidly ideological instead of wisely integrative have dissed the idea of a universal dividend and pushed the idea of a jobs guarantee. I suggest that we have both. That way the homeless could have $1000/mo. of purchasing power with the dividend and if they had a 30 hour/wk job paying $10/hr. they’d have an additional $1200/mo. and with the 50% discount/rebate policy that’s $2200/mo. x 2 or $4400/mo. or $52,800/yr.

        Have you heard of a better, more beneficial and problem resolving system than that?

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 26, 2019 at 2:13 am

        Craig, I frankly don’t know if what you propose is better, more beneficial and problem resolving that other possibilities. As I’ve said before, only practical applications can answer those questions, if not completely, at least in part, hopefully. Try it out.

      • Craig
        November 25, 2019 at 5:02 pm

        Dave, while I’ll agree with you that the sky IS falling…if you can come up with a better solution than creating a directly distributive and gracious monetary and financial system that creates a bottom up consumer jump start to green consumer products and enables virtually unlimited fiscal resources to fund the mega projects needed do all of the other things you suggested….then I’m all ears.

      • Craig
        November 25, 2019 at 11:46 pm

        Do any of you here think the glaring contradiction of allowing the virtual monopoly creation of our money and in an equally monopolisitic form and paradigm of Debt Only is a good thing?

        How much more flexible and broad are our options if we had a publicly administered financial and monetary system instead, and allowed for monetary gifting to be thoroughly integrated into the system along with debt?

      • Craig
        November 26, 2019 at 1:06 am

        My 50% discount/rebate policy at retail sale, non-profit publicly administered financial and monetary systems and other related policies and regulations integrate and synergize the goals and capabilities of Keen’s financial de-stabilization hypothesis, MMT’s fiscal expansionism, Ellen Brown’s Public Banking movement, QE for the People advocates and is perfectly in line with all of the theoretical critiques of heterodox economists on this blog.

        It’s astounding to me that you guys aren’t all over this and getting on the bandwagon with me here.

        ????????????????????????

      • Craig
        November 26, 2019 at 4:48 am

        Oh come on. Is the homeless person in Portland better off with the nothing he or she has or the nearly $53k/yr. with a dividend, a job guarantee and a 100% increase in purchasing power of every dollar he or she makes with the 50% discount to everything they buy including a rental apt?

        Every one of the policies I advocate are imminently practical. They apply directly to the economy and to directly to people AND THEY DO SOLVE THE SPECIFIC ECONOMIC PROBLEMS EVERY HETERODOX ECONOMIST HERE HAS IDENTIFIED. Systemic austerity. Check. Chronic individual income scarcity. Check. Price and asset inflation. Check. Fiscal austerity. Check. Going no where fast on climate change and the need for renewable energy sources. Check. The effective dealing with commercial decision makers temptations to inflate prices due to chronic systemic scarce individual income by doubling the potential revenue actually available, and with hard and fast taxation and loss of rebate privileges if they continue to inflate. Check.

        They’re all hands on, imminently practical and applicable. It’s the abstractions and theoretical talking points that, while I completely agree with them, DON’T GET US ANYWHERE.

        No, what I advocate is BOTH philosophically AND practical policy-wise…COMPLETELY RELEVANT AND FAR ADVANCED over any other musings presented here.

        Look at it. Get real.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 26, 2019 at 2:38 pm

        Oh come on, Craig. What you propose helps no one until it is implemented. And even then may not help. I’ve been charged with implementing lots of projects that were all described with the words you use. Out of 50 or so projects never had one that went through smoothly or ended up looking like the diagrams on the computer screen. And I’ve had only two that did not draw opposition. I hope yours is the exception. Try it out. We’ll see.

      • Craig
        November 26, 2019 at 6:07 pm

        Oh come on, Ken. You “rebut” with an irrelevant sophomoric reply that no one would or could disagree with….and in the mean time fail/refuse to ACTUALLY look at the immediate mathematical, empirical temporal universe realities that the policies and regulations I advocate would effect.

        No proposal you’ve ever overseen has been slam dunk beneficial and win-win TO BOTH SIDES of the table as my policies are for all economic agents…..otherwise they wouldn’t be there. They’d be out pressuring the system for the changes.

        Paradigm changes are UNIVERSALLY BENEFICIAL changes. Did we ever go back to nomadic wandering across the land as the major lifestyle after agriculture was discovered? Do we still think the earth is the center of the universe? Did we go back to the Catholic church being a monopoly on the sacraments? Will people and enterprise ever go back to being debt slaves and serfs to private finance’s paradigm of Debt Only after they see the obvious, immediate and freeing benefits of Monetary Gifting intelligently integrated into the economy?

        Start thinking on the level of paradigm change where you think in terms of solutions instead of problems, pattern progress instead of nit picking and obsessive potential roadblocks.

        Recognize that new paradigms are new singular concepts for entire patterns, and study historical paradigm changes to decipher their universal signatures that I have posted here before numerous times.

        I know its hard to shift one’s perspective from problems, but just keep looking at the solutions Monetary Gifting effects…until you actually see them.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 27, 2019 at 12:05 pm

        Such examples may be sophomoric to you. But they’re not to those who have to make them work.

        Just two quick questions to test your resolve, you might say. How do you plan to respond when you receive a court judgement saying what you propose can’t be implemented because it violates laws …..? And how do want to respond when the Koch network shoves in 100 million dollars to defeat your proposal? You’ll need lots of help from attorneys and politicians. Can you get it?

      • Craig
        November 27, 2019 at 5:32 pm

        As I said you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know….and have decided is irrelevant because what else is new, aspects of the discount/rebate policy and the rest of the program are already lawfully in use (just not the insight of where, when and how much to make it a paradigm change), people may be dumb but they’re not stuuuupid and traditionally opposed constituencies will be able and willing to see the universally beneficial nature of a genuine paradigm change.

        It’s the revolt of BOTH the masses AND the bourgeoisie. Not for dumbsh!t ideological old paradigm capitalism or equally dumb and ideological old paradigm socialism, but for their integration/synthesis AKA direct and reciprocal monetary
        distributism.

        Yes, thirdness greater oneness is BOTH the mental process of wisdom AND a signature of historical paradigm changes.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 28, 2019 at 10:35 am

        Craig, if you know what you’re heading into, all I can say is good luck.

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