The GOP's Death Wish: Why Republicans Can't Stop Pissing Off Hispanics, Women, and Young People
What are the three demographic groups whose electoral impact is growing fastest? Hispanics, women, and young people. Who are Republicans pissing off the most? Latinos, women, and young people.
It’s almost as if the GOP can’t help itself.
Start with Hispanic voters, whose electoral heft keeps growing as they comprise an ever-larger portion of the electorate. Hispanics now favor President Obama over Romney by more than two to one, according to a recent Pew poll.
The movement of Hispanics into the Democratic camp has been going on for decades. What are Republicans doing to woo them back? Replicating California Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s disastrous support almost twenty years ago for Proposition 187 – which would have screened out undocumented immigrants from public schools, health care, and other social services, and required law-enforcement officials to report any “suspected” illegals. (Wilson, you may remember, lost that year’s election, and California’s Republican Party has never recovered.)
The Arizona law now before the Supreme Court – sponsored by Republicans in the state and copied by Republican legislators and governors in several others – would authorize police to stop anyone looking Hispanic and demand proof of citizenship. It’s nativism disguised as law enforcement.
Romney is trying to distance himself from that law, but it’s not working. That may be because he dubbed it a “model law” during February’s Republican primary debate in Arizona, and because its author (former state senator Russell Pearce, who was ousted in a special election last November largely by angry Hispanic voters) says he’s working closely with Romney advisers.
Hispanics are also reacting to Romney’s attack just a few months ago on GOP rival Texas Governor Rick Perry for supporting in-state tuition at the University of Texas for children of undocumented immigrants. And to Romney’s advocacy of what he calls “self-deportation” – making life so difficult for undocumented immigrants and their families that they choose to leave.
As if all this weren’t enough, the GOP has been pushing voter ID laws all over America, whose obvious aim is to intimidate Hispanic voters so they won’t come to the polls. But they may have the opposite effect – emboldening the vast majority of ethnic Hispanics, who are American citizens, to vote in even greater numbers and lend even more support to Obama and other Democrats.
Or consider women – whose political and economic impact in America continues to grow (women are fast becoming better educated than men and the major breadwinners in American homes). The political gender gap is huge. According to recent polls, women prefer Obama to Romney by over 20 percent.
So what is the GOP doing to woo women back? Attacking them. Last February, House Republicans voted to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Last May, they unanimously passed the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” banning the District of Columbia from funding abortions for low-income women. (The original version removed all exceptions – rape, incest, and endangerment to a mother’s life – except “forcible” rape.)
Earlier this year Republican legislators in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Idaho, and Alabama pushed bills requiring women seeking abortions to undergo invasive vaginal ultrasound tests (Pennsylvania Republicans even wanted proof such had viewed the images).
Republican legislators in Georgia and Arizona passed bills banning most abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy. The Georgia bill would also require that any abortion after 20 weeks be done in a way to bring the fetus out alive. Republican legislators in Texas have voted to eliminate funding for any women’s healthcare clinic with an affiliation to an abortion provider – even if the affiliation is merely a shared name, employee, or board member.
All told, over 400 Republican bills are pending in state legislatures, attacking womens’ reproductive rights.
But even this doesn’t seem enough for the GOP. Republicans in Wisconsin just repealed a law designed to prevent employers from discriminating against women.
Or, finally, consider students – a significant and growing electoral force, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. What are Republicans doing to woo them back? Attack them, of course.
Republican Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s budget plan – approved by almost every House Republican and enthusiastically endorsed by Mitt Romney – allows rates on student loans to double on July 1 – from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That will add an average of $1,000 a year to student debt loads, which already exceed credit-card debt.
House Republicans say America can’t afford the $6 billion a year it would require to keep student loan rates down to where they are now. But that same Republican plan gives wealthy Americans trillions of dollars in tax cuts over the next decade. (Under mounting political pressure, House Republicans have come up with just enough money to keep the loan program going for another year – safely past Election Day – by raiding a fund established for preventive care in the new health-care act.)
Here again, Romney is trying to tiptoe away from the GOP position. He now says he supports keeping student loans where they were. Yet only a few months ago he argued that subsidized student loans were bad because they encouraged colleges to raise their tuition.
How can a political party be so dumb as to piss off Hispanics, women, and young people? Because the core of its base is middle-aged white men – and it doesn’t seem to know how to satisfy its base without at the same time turning off everyone who’s not white, male, and middle-aged.
Britain’s Office for National Statistics confirmed today (Wednesday) that in the first quarter of this year Britain’s economy shrank .2 percent, after having contracted .3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011. (Officially, two quarters of shrinkage make a recession). On Monday Spain officially fell into recession, for the second time in three years. Portugal, Italy, and Greece are already basket cases. It seems highly likely France and Germany are also contracting.
Why should we care? Because a recession in the world’s third-largest economy, combined with the current slowdown in the world’s second-largest (China), spells trouble for the world’s largest.
Remember – it’s a global economy. Money moves across borders at the speed of an electronic impulse. Wall Street banks are enmeshed into a global capital network extending from Frankfurt to Beijing. That means that notwithstanding their efforts to dress up balance sheets, the biggest U.S. banks are more fragile than they’ve been at any time since 2007.
Meanwhile, goods and services slosh across the globe. If there’s not enough demand for them coming from the second and third-largest economies in the world, demand in the U.S. can’t possibly make up the difference. That could mean higher unemployment here as well as elsewhere.
What’s the problem with Europe? Don’t blame it on the so-called “debt crisis.” There was no debt crisis in Britain, for example, which is now experiencing its first double-dip recession since the 1970s.
Blame it on austerity economics – the bizarre view that economic slowdowns are the products of excessive debt, so government should cut spending. Germany’s insistence on cutting public budgets has led Europe into a recession swamp.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the austerity charge, and other European policy makers who have followed her, have forgotten two critical lessons.
First, that the real issue isn’t debt per se but the ratio of the debt to the size of the economy.
In their haste to cut the public debt, Europeans have overlooked the denominator of the equation. By reducing public budgets they’ve removed a critical source of demand — at a time when consumers and the private sector are still in the gravitational pull of the Great Recession and can’t make up the difference. The obvious result is a massive slowdown that has worsened the ratio of Europe’s debt to its total GDP, and is plunging the continent into recession.
A large debt with faster growth is preferable to a smaller debt sitting atop no growth at all. And it’s infinitely better than a smaller debt on top of a contracting economy.
The second lesson Merkel and others have overlooked is that the social costs of austerity economics can be huge. It’s one thing to cut a government budget when unemployment is low and wages are rising. But if you cut spending during a time of high unemployment and stagnant or declining wages, you’re not only causing unemployment to rise even further. You’re also removing the public services and safety nets people depend on, especially when times are tough.
And with high social costs comes political upheaval. On Monday, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte was forced to resign. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is on the ropes. The upcoming election in France is now a tossup – incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy might well be unseated by Francois Hollande, a Socialist. European fringe parties on the left and the right are gaining ground. Across Europe, record numbers of young people are unemployed – including many recent college graduates – and their anger and frustration is adding to the upheaval.
Social and political instability is itself a drag on growth, generating even more uncertainty about the future.
What European policy makers should do is set a target for growth and unemployment — and continue to increase government spending until those targets are met. Only then should they adopt austerity.
What are the chances that Merkel et al will see the light before Europe plunges into an even deeper recession? Approximately zero.
The danger here for the United States is clear, but there’s also a clear lesson. Republicans have become the U.S. party of Angela Merkel, demanding and getting spending cuts at the worst possible time – and ignoring the economic and social consequences.
Even if the U.S. economy (as well as President Obama’s reelection campaign) survives the global slowdown, we’re heading for a big dose of austerity economics next January – when drastic spending cuts are scheduled to kick in, as well as tax increases on the middle class. But the U.S. economy isn’t nearly healthy enough to bear this burden.
If nothing is done to reverse course in the interim, we’ll be following Europe into a double dip.
O’Reilly’s accusation is odd, to say the least. If we were living in the 1950s, amid Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts, the claim might have some bite and cause me injury. But these days it’s hard to find a full-throated communist anywhere in the world.
O’Reilly’s accusation isn’t even logical. How can he know if I secretly adore Karl Marx, if it’s a secret?
For the record, I’m not a communist and I don’t secretly adore Karl Marx.
Ordinarily I don’t bother repeating anything Bill O’Reilly says. But this particular whopper is significant because it represents what O’Reilly and Fox News, among others, are doing to the national dialogue.
They’re burying it in doo-doo.
O’Reilly based his claim on an interview I did last week with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, in which I argued that because America’s big corporations were now global we could no longer rely on them to make necessary investments in human capital or to lobby for public investments in education, infrastructure, and basic R&D. So, logically, government has to step in.
Since when does an argument for public investment in education, infrastructure, and basic R&D make someone a communist or a secret adorer of Karl Marx?
Obviously, O’Reilly has no interest in arguing anything. Ad hominem attacks are always the last refuges of intellectual boors lacking any logic or argument. (Whoops, I think I just stooped to name-calling. Sorry, Bill.)
Yet this is what’s happening to all debate all over America: It’s disappearing. All we’re left with is a nasty residue.
In Washington, Democrats and Republicans no longer even talk. They just vent charges and counter-charges.
The 2012 election doesn’t seem likely to clarify any issue. At this moment the candidates and their surrogates are debating the treatment of dogs.
Across the nation, conservatives right-wingers and liberal or progressive lefties have stopped debating their respective views, or even listening to anyone they disagree with. They just find broadcasters and bloggers who confirm their views.
We’re even sorting by belief according to where we live. Today your neighbors are more likely to agree with your politics than disagree. We’ve settled into like-minded enclaves where we don’t need to think because everyone we meet confirms what we assume we already know.
It’s not that the nation is more polarized than it’s been in the past. America has been through searing conflicts, some within the living memories of most of us. The communist witch-hunts of the 1950s were followed by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, battles over womens’ reproductive rights and gay marriage.
What makes America’s current polarization remarkable isn’t the severity of our disagreements but our utter lack of engagement debating them.
So many Americans are so angry and frustrated these days – vulnerable to loss of job and healthcare and home, without a shred of economic security – they’re easy prey for demagogues offering simple answers and ready scapegoats. Take, for example, Bill O’Reilly and his colleagues at Fox News.
But people can only learn from others who disagree with them — or at least from witnessing debates between people who respectfully and civilly disagree. Without respect and civility, it’s not a debate – it’s just name-calling.
A democracy depends on public deliberation and debate. Without it, the members of a society have no means of understanding what they believe or why. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were notable not because they solved anything but because they helped Americans clarify where they agreed and disagreed on the wrenching issue of slavery.
Hence the danger today – when deliberation has stopped.
This morning I left a message on Bill O’Reilly’s office phone asking him to invite me onto his show to debate whether public investments in education and infrastructure are needed.
Why "We're on the Right Track" Isn't Enough, and What Obama's Plan Should Be For Boosting the Economy
President Obama’s electoral strategy can best be summed up as: “We’re on the right track, my economic policies are working, we still have a long way to go but stick with me and you’ll be fine.”
That’s not good enough. This recovery is too anemic, and the chance of an economic stall between now and Election Day far too high.
Even now, Mitt Romney’s empty “I’ll to it better” refrain is attracting as many voters as Obama’s “we’re on the right track.” Each man is gathering 46 percent of voter support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. Only 33 percent of the public thinks the economy is improving while 40 percent say they’re still falling behind financially — an 11 point increase from 2008. Nearly two-thirds are concerned about paying for housing, and one in five with mortgages say they’re underwater.
If the economy stalls, Romney’s empty promise will look even better. And I’d put the odds of a stall at 50-50. That puts the odds of a Romney presidency far too high for comfort. Need I remind you that Romney enthusiastically supports Paul Ryan’s wildly regressive budget, and as president would be able to make at least one or possibly two Supreme Court appointments, and control the EPA and every other federal agency and department?
The Obama White House should face it: “We’re on the right track” isn’t sufficient. The President has to offer the nation a clear, bold strategy for boosting the economy. It should be the economic mandate for his second term.
It should consist of four points:
First, Obama should demand that the nation’s banks modify mortgages of homeowners still struggling in the wake of Wall Street’s housing bubble — threatening that if the banks fail to do so he’ll fight to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and break up Wall Street’s biggest banks (as the Dallas Fed recently recommended).
Second, he should condemn oil speculators for keeping gas prices high — demanding that the oil companies allow the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation to set limits on such speculation and instructing the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute oil price manipulation.
Third, he should stand ready to make further job-creating investments in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and renew his call for an infastructure bank. And while he understands the need to reduce the nation’s long-term budget deficit, he won’t allow austerity economics to take precedence over job creation. He’ll veto budget cuts until unemployment is down to 5 percent.
Finally, he should make clear the underlying problem is widening inequality. With so much of the nation’s disposable income and wealth going to the top, the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power it needs to fire up the economy. That’s why the Buffett rule, setting a minimum tax rate for millionaires, is just a first step for ensuring that the gains from growth are widely shared.
The President can still say we’re on the right track. But he should also say he’s not content with the pace of the recovery and will do everything in his power to quicken it. And he should ask the American people for a mandate in his second term to make the economy work for everyone, not just those at the top.
Such a mandate can be put into effect only with a Congress that’s committed to better jobs and wages for all Americans. He should remind voters that congressional Republicans prevented him from doing all that was needed in the first term, and they must not be allowed to do so again.
The Significance of Citigroup's Shareholder Revolt
The shareholders of Wall Street giant Citigroup are out to prove that corporate democracy isn’t an oxymoron. They’ve said no to the exorbitant $15 million pay package of Citi’s CEO Vikram Pandit, as well as to the giant pay packages of Citi’s four other top executives.
The vote, at Citigroup’s annual meeting in Dallas Tuesday, isn’t binding on Citigroup. But it’s a warning shot across the bow of every corporate boardroom in America.
Shareholders aren’t happy about executive pay.
And why should they be? CEO pay at large publicly-held corporations is now typically 300 times the pay of the average American worker. It was 40 times average worker pay in the 1960s and has steadily crept upward since then as corporations have morphed into “winner-take-all” contraptions that reward their top executives with boundless beneficence and perks while slicing the jobs, wages, and benefits of almost everyone else.
Meanwhile, too many of these same corporations have failed to deliver for their shareholders. Citigroup, for example, has had the worst stock performance among all large banks for the last decade but ranked among the highest in executive pay.
The real news here is new-found activism among institutional investors – especially the managers of pension funds and mutual funds. They’re the ones who fired the warning shot Tuesday.
Institutional investors are catching on to a truth they should have understood years ago: When executive pay goes through the roof, there’s less money left for everyone else who owns shares of the company.
For too long, most fund managers played the game passively and obediently. Some have been too cozy with top corporate management, forgetting their fiduciary duty to their own investors. How else do you explain the abject failure of fund managers to police Wall Street as it careened toward the abyss in 2008? Or to adequately oversee executives, such as the Enron criminals, who were looting their companies in the years before 2002?
The new Dodd-Frank law, much of which is being eviscerated by Wall Street’s lawyers and lobbyists, at least requires that public companies give shareholders a say on pay. As a practical matter, this gives institutional investors the chance to speak clearly and openly about the scandal of unbridled executive compensation.
Two key questions for the future: Will institutional investors keep the pressure on? And will CEOs and boards of directors get the message?
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote in 1904, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”
But the wealthiest Americans, who haven’t raked in as much of America’s income and wealth since the 1920s, are today paying a lower tax rate than they have in over thirty years. Even though America faces a mammoth federal budget deficit. Even though public services at all levels of government continue to be slashed. Even though the median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation. Even though the typical American is paying more of his or her earnings in taxes – including payroll taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes – than ever before.
I’m not a class warrior. I’m a class worrier. And my worries go to why all this has happened.
I worry about the political power that comes with great wealth – such as the power of the wealthy to reduce their taxes, cut the public services most other Americans depend on, while at the same time garnering special subsidies and tax breaks for their businesses – big oil, big pharma, big agriculture, military contractors, big insurance, Wall Street.
I worry about the well-financed big lies that the very rich are the nation’s “job creators,” that the benefits from tax cuts on the rich “trickle down” to everyone else, that American corporations will create more jobs if only their taxes are lowered and if regulations protecting health, safety, and the environment were jettisoned.
I worry about the increasing dominance of Wall Street over our economy and democracy, and the near political impossibilities of closing the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity and hedge-fund managers to treat their income as capital gains subject to only 15% tax; of resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment from commercial banking, and of breaking up the big banks to protect against another financial crash and bailout of the Street.
You and I have every right to be class worriers – and to be outraged at what has occurred. But we have to get beyond worry and outrage, and do everything in our power to take back our economy and reclaim our democracy.
It was another justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, who wrote in 1897, “we may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
Why a Fair Economy is Not Incompatible with Growth but Essential to It
One of the most pernicious falsehoods you’ll hear during the next seven months of political campaigning is there’s a necessary tradeoff between fairness and economic growth. By this view, if we raise taxes on the wealthy the economy can’t grow as fast.
Wrong. Taxes were far higher on top incomes in the three decades after World War II than they’ve been since. And the distribution of income was far more equal. Yet the American economy grew faster in those years than it’s grown since tax rates on the top were slashed in 1981.
This wasn’t a post-war aberration. Bill Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy in the 1990s, and the economy produced faster job growth and higher wages than it did after George W. Bush slashed taxes on the rich in his first term.
If you need more evidence, consider modern Germany, where taxes on the wealthy are much higher than they are here and the distribution of income is far more equal. But Germany’s average annual growth has been faster than that in the United States.
You see, higher taxes on the wealthy can finance more investments in infrastructure, education, and health care – which are vital to a productive workforce and to the economic prospects of the middle class.
Higher taxes on the wealthy also allow for lower taxes on the middle – potentially restoring enough middle-class purchasing power to keep the economy growing. As we’ve seen in recent years, when disposable income is concentrated at the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough money to boost the economy.
Finally, concentrated wealth can lead to speculative bubbles as the rich in the same limited class of assets – whether gold, dotcoms, or real estate. And when these bubbles pop the entire economy suffers.
What we should have learned over the last half century is that growth doesn’t trickle down from the top. It percolates upward from working people who are adequately educated, healthy, sufficiently rewarded, and who feel they have a fair chance to make it in America.
Fairness isn’t incompatible with growth. It’s necessary for it.
Next Monday most Americans will be filing their income taxes for tax year 2011. This year, though, tax day has special significance. If there’s one clear policy contrast between Democrats and Republicans in the 2012 election, it’s whether America’s richest citizens should be paying more.
Senate Democrats have scheduled a vote Monday on a minimum 30 percent overall federal tax rate for everyone earning more than $1 million a year. It’s nicknamed the “Buffett Rule” in honor of billionaire Warren Buffett who has publicly complained that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.
No one in Washington believes the Buffett Rule has any hope of passage this year. It’s largely symbolic. The vote will mark a sharp contrast with Republican Paul Ryan’s plan (enthusiastically endorsed by Mitt Romney) to cut the tax rate on the super rich from 35 percent to 25 percent – rewarding millionaires with a tax cut of at least $150,000 a year. The vote will also serve to highlight that Romney himself paid less than 14 percent on a 2010 income of $21.7 million because so much of his income was in capital gains, taxed at 15 percent.
Hopefully in the weeks and months ahead the White House and the Democrats will emphasize three key realities:
1. The richest 1 percent of Americans are now taking in over 20 percent of total national income, and so far have raked in almost all the gains from this recovery. Thirty years ago, the richest 1 percent got 9 percent of total income. Income and wealth are now more concentrated at the top than they’ve been since the 1920s.
2. The richest 1 percent are paying a lower tax rate than they’ve paid since 1980. For three decades after World War II, their tax rate never dropped below 70 percent. Even considering all deductions and tax credits, they paid close to 55 percent. Under Eisenhower, the top rate was 91 percent and the effective rate was 58 percent.
3. Right now the nation faces two yawning deficits – an investment deficit and a federal budget deficit. The investment deficit includes deferred maintenance on America’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, public transit, water and sewer systems that are all crumbling – and an educational system that’s being starved for resources (the federal government pays for 8 percent of K-12 education and about 5 percent of public higher education, but could do much more). The federal budget deficit is projected to mushroom to $6.4 trillion over the next ten years, mostly because of aging boomers and soaring healthcare costs.
Any serious person looking at these three realities would conclude that the rich should be paying far more. It’s not just a matter of fairness; it’s also a matter of patriotism.
In fact, given these realities, the Buffett Rule sets the bar too low. For most Americans, wages and benefits are declining (adjusted for inflation), net worth has been plummeting (their only asset is their homes), and the public services they rely on have been disappearing. For the top, it’s just the opposite: Their incomes are rising, their stock-market portfolios have been growing, and a growing portion of their earnings has been subject to a capital-gains tax of just 15 percent.
The Buffett Rule would generate only about $47 billion in extra revenues over the next decade, according to congressional estimates. Why not restore top rates to what they were before 1980, and match the capital-gains rate to the income-tax rate?
The economy added only 120,000 jobs in March – down from the rate of more than 200,000 in each of the preceding three months. The rate of unemployment dropped from 8.3 to 8.2 percent mainly because fewer people were searching for jobs – and that rate depends on how many people are actively looking.
It’s way too early to conclude the jobs recovery is stalling, but there’s reason for concern.
Remember: Consumer spending is 70 percent of the economy. Employers won’t hire without enough sales to justify the additional hires. It’s up to consumers to make it worth their while.
But real spending (adjusted to remove price changes) this year hasn’t been going anywhere. It increased just .5 percent in February after an anemic .2 percent increase in January.
The reason consumers aren’t spending more is they don’t have the money. Personal income was up just .2 percent in February – barely enough to keep up with inflation. As a result, personal saving as a percent of disposable income tumbled to 3.7 percent in February from 4.3 percent in January.
Personal saving is now at its lowest level since March 2009.
American consumers, in short, are hitting a wall. They don’t dare save much less because their jobs are still insecure. They can’t borrow much more. Their home values are still dropping, and many are underwater – owing more on their homes than the homes are worth.
The economy has been growing but almost all the gains have gone to the very top. As I’ve noted, this is the most lopsided recovery on record.
You will hear other theories about the hiring slowdown, but they don’t wash.
It’s not due to “uncertainty” about the economy. That’s a tautology – the economy’s future is always uncertain, especially when consumers don’t have the dough to keep it going.
It’s not because of fears about a European recession. Europe has been in the skids for some time now. Besides, the American economy doesn’t really depend on exports to Europe.
And it’s not about gas prices or the rise in healthcare insurance premiums. Both are up, but they’ve been trending up for many months.
It’s because consumers’ pockets are almost empty.
We’ll avoid a double-dip, but the most likely scenario in coming months is a continuation of the same – an anemic jobs recovery.
President Obama will claim the economy is improving – and, technically, it is. Growth this year will most likely average around 2 percent. The problem is, most Americans aren’t feeling it in their paychecks.
Mitt Romney will claim the economy is in terrible shape – and there will be enough evidence to justify his “cup-half-empty” rhetoric.
But when it comes to explaining what’s really wrong with the economy, Romney is the perfect foil for Obama because Romney represents the richest of the rich – a man who raked in more than $20 million last year, and paid a tax rate of just 13.9 percent (lower than much of the middle class).
He made that money by buying up “under-performing” companies – that is, companies that employed more people than they needed to, and carried less debt than was necessary to show big profits (interest on debt is deductible from company income). Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, made him and his colleagues fortunes by firing workers and loading companies up with debt.
And there’s America’s economic problem in a nutshell.
Romney and his ilk are doing wonderfully well, but the rest of the nation is still in deep trouble. Yet the U.S. economy can’t fully recover on the spending of millionaires.
The President has already announced that this election is about America’s surge toward ever-greater inequality. He’s right. And this painful recovery shows it.
It would be sadly ironic if Obama lost the election because the economy responded to widening inequality exactly as expected.
Imagine a country in which the very richest people get all the economic gains. They eventually accumulate so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed. Most of the middle class’s wages keep falling and their major asset – their home – keeps shrinking in value.
Imagine that the richest people in this country use some of their vast wealth to routinely bribe politicians. They get the politicians to cut their taxes so low there’s no money to finance important public investments that the middle class depends on – such as schools and roads, or safety nets such as health care for the elderly and poor.
Imagine further that among the richest of these rich are financiers. These financiers have so much power over the rest of the economy they get average taxpayers to bail them out when their bets in the casino called the stock market go bad. They have so much power they even shred regulations intended to limit their power.
These financiers have so much power they force businesses to lay off millions of workers and to reduce the wages and benefits of millions of others, in order to maximize profits and raise share prices – all of which make the financiers even richer, because they own so many of shares of stock and run the casino.
Now, imagine that among the richest of these financiers are people called private-equity managers who buy up companies in order to squeeze even more money out of them by loading them up with debt and firing even more of their employees, and then selling the companies for a fat profit.
Although these private-equity managers don’t even risk their own money – they round up investors to buy the target companies – they nonetheless pocket 20 percent of those fat profits.
And because of a loophole in the tax laws, which they created with their political bribes, these private equity managers are allowed to treat their whopping earnings as capital gains, taxed at only 15 percent – even though they themselves made no investment and didn’t risk a dime.
Finally, imagine there is a presidential election. One party, called the Republican Party, nominates as its candidate a private-equity manager who has raked in more than $20 million a year and paid only 13.9 percent in taxes – a lower tax rate than many in the middle class.
Yes, I know it sounds far-fetched. But bear with me because the fable gets even wilder. Imagine this candidate and his party come up with a plan to cut the taxes of the rich even more – so millionaires save another $150,000 a year. And their plan cuts everything else the middle class and the poor depend on – Medicare, Medicaid, education, job-training, food stamps, Pell grants, child nutrition, even law enforcement.
What happens next?
There are two endings to this fable. You have to decide which it’s to be.
In one ending the private-equity manager candidate gets all his friends and everyone in the Wall Street casino and everyone in every executive suite of big corporations to contribute the largest wad of campaign money ever assembled – beyond your imagination.
The candidate uses the money to run continuous advertisements telling the same big lies over and over, such as “don’t tax the wealthy because they create the jobs” and “don’t tax corporations or they’ll go abroad” and “government is your enemy” and “the other party wants to turn America into a socialist state.”
And because big lies told repeatedly start sounding like the truth, the citizens of the country begin to believe them, and they elect the private equity manager president. Then he and his friends turn the country into a plutocracy (which it was starting to become anyway).
But there’s another ending. In this one, the candidacy of the private equity manager (and all the money he and his friends use to try to sell their lies) has the opposite effect. It awakens the citizens of the country to what is happening to their economy and their democracy. It ignites a movement among the citizens to take it all back.
The citizens repudiate the private equity manager and everything he stands for, and the party that nominated him. And they begin to recreate an economy that works for everyone and a democracy that’s responsive to everyone.
Just a fable, of course. But the ending is up to you.
The Choice in 2012: Social Darwinism or a Decent Society
The returns aren’t all in yet on today’s Republican primaries but President Obama didn’t wait. He kicked off his 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney with a hard-hitting speech centered on the House Republicans’ budget plan – which Romney has enthusiastically endorsed.
That plan, by the way, is the most radical reverse-Robin Hood proposal propounded by any political party in modern America. It would save millionaires at least $150,000 a year in taxes while gutting Medicaid, Medicare, Food Stamps, transportation, child nutrition, college aid, and almost everything else average and lower-income Americans depend on.
Here’s what the President had to say about it:
Disguised as a deficit reduction… it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.
We are likely to hear a lot more about social Darwinism in the months ahead. It was the conservative creed during the late 19th century – legitimizing a politics in which the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of money on legislators’ desks, and justifying an economy in which sweat shops were common, urban slums festered, and a significant portion of America was impoverished.
Social Darwinism encapsulated the idea of survival of the fittest (a phrase Charles Darwin never actually used) as applied to societies as a whole. Its chief apostle in America was Yale Professor William Graham Sumner.
Here’s what Sumner had to say in his social-Darwinian classic “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” (1883):
Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: Liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.
Could there be a better summary of what today’s regressive Republicans believe?
Anyone who says you can get rich through gambling is a fool or a knave. Multiply the size of the prize by your chance of winning it and you’ll always get a number far lower than what you put into the pot. The only sure winners are the organizers – casino owners, state lotteries, and con artists of all kinds.
Organized gambling is a scam. And it particularly preys upon people with lower incomes – who assume they can’t make it big any other way, who often find it hardest to assess the odds, and whose families can least afford to lose the money.
Yet America is now opening the floodgates.
In December, the Department of Justice announced it was reversing its position that all Internet gambling was illegal. That decision is about to create a boom in online gambling. Expect high-stakes poker to be available on every work desk and mobile phone.
Meanwhile, states are increasingly dependent on revenues from casinos, lotteries, and the “Mega Millions” game (in which 42 states pool their grand prize) to partly refill state coffers.
Given who plays, this is one of the most regressive taxes in the nation. In the most recent Mega Millions game – whose winning tickets were drawn last week and whose jackpot rose to $640 million – lottery ticket buyers shelled out some $1.5 billion, most of which went to state governments.
And then there’s the “Jumpstart Our Business Startups” or “JOBS” Act, which President Obama is expected to sign into law Thursday. It allows so-called “crowd funding” by which people whose net worth is less than $100,000 can gamble away (invest) up to 5 percent of their annual incomes in any get-rich-quick scam (start-up) that any huckster (entrepreneur) may sell them.
Forget the usual investor disclosures or other protections. In the interest of “streamlining,” Congress has streamlined the way to fraud. Although start-ups will have to market themselves through third-party portals approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission, this is like limiting Bernie Madoff to making pitches over the radio. The SEC can barely keep track of Wall Street let alone thousands of Internet portals. Small wonder SEC Chair Mary Schapiro has been one of most outspoken critics of bill.
The bill was sold to Congress as a way to promote jobs (note the acronym) on the supposition that small start-ups create huge numbers of them. Wrong. That assumption comes from research by the Kauffman Foundation, which counted as a “start-up job” every laid-off worker who morphed into an independent contractor.
I’m all in favor of more entrepreneurship, and it’s good to give investors another way to participate in emerging companies. But this bill doesn’t do nearly enough to protect the vulnerable.
America’s capital market was already a giant casino. Why now turn the rest of America into one?