Whistling Past the Graveyard

Real median earnings for men have gone nowhere now for over 40 years. Over the same span of time real corporate earnings have risen roughly five-fold. – Jesse Felder in “Is This How The Winner-Take-All Era Comes To An End?”

Since the early 1960s, the share of our GDP going to labor (not unions, but labor, which means anyone who works for a living and earns a wage or salary) has been declining. Indeed, it’s plummeted since the turn of the century. Labor has been the loser; corporations and their owners (i.e., capital) have been the winners. If you doubt that, consider the fact the stock market is at an all-time high and is trading at multiples not seen since the days leading up to the Crash of 1929. And consider how little of GDP growth is going to labor versus capital. (The data are easy to find if you’re interested.)

As a result of these dynamics and public policies skewed in favor of the rich and capital, economic inequality in our country has reached levels not seen since the depth of the Great Depression. The top 20 percent is leaving the bottom 80 percent in their dust. And the top 1 percent, and even more so the top 0.1 percent — well, they’ve been reaping nearly all the economic rewards our economy has been generating in recent years.

Not long ago, corporate CEOs earned about 40 times what their workers earned. Today, they earn 350 times what the workers earn. According to noted money manager Jeremy Grantham:

The system has gone to hell. Keynes, Schumpeter–and Marx, not to mention–thought, by their nature, corporations and capitalism would overreach simply because they could. Corporations would use their advantages to get more power and more money. Their share of the pie would increase, and cause society to push back. Sooner or later there will be pushback.

Yet the president and Republican-controlled Congress are now proposing a massive tax cut for corporations and, by extension, their owners (which includes, of course, many foreigners, such as the Swiss National Bank, the owner of $88 billion of U.S. stocks and, therefore, one of the prime beneficiaries of the new tax bill). Indeed, many foreigners stand to benefit greatly from this tax bill.

Congress and the president intend to pay for this tax cut in several ways:

  • by eliminating or curtailing many deductions and credits (for instance, by eliminating or drastically reducing deductions for medical expenses, home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, student-loan interest, employer-paid tuition assistance, child adoption credit, and a myriad of other deductions and credits), which will have the effect of increasing taxes on certain individuals and institutions (~ 12 percent of taxpayers) and making education, health care, child care and home ownership more expensive for some;
  • by imposing new taxes (for instance, a new tax on certain private nonprofit colleges);
  • by cutting back on health care expenditures (e.g., not appropriating funds for children who need health care but whose parents cannot afford it); and
  • by running an even larger deficit (“deficit spending”), which will be funded by more borrowing on the part of the federal government (in other words, by making our children, grandchildren and their children pay for the tax cut for corporations and the wealthy). The nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio already sits at a post-WW II high. This bill will take it higher (est. $1.75 trillion more over 10 years).

Oh, by the way, the tax bill preserves the outrageous hedge-fund tax loophole candidate Trump vowed to kill. I’m shocked. Another win for the wealthy; another successful head-fake on the part of the president.

On its face, the bill is ridiculous. Yet it’s being treated as a serious proposal. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it (or something very close to it) becomes law. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the electorate support it. Of course, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it dies in the Senate (as it should).

A democratic society that tolerates a handful of very big winners while the vast majority of everyone else is denied their share of the wealth the economy generates is not sustainable. It will end badly. Civil strife. Social tensions unlike anything we’ve seen in at least 50 years. Violence. War. Radical populism (not the fake billionaire-led variety we’re presently experiencing). Or the whole kit and caboodle simply may unravel.

Mr. Trump and his lackeys on the Hill, as well as their corporate benefactors, may be feeling their oats these days. But they might be whistling past the graveyard. And by the time many of their supporters realize what’s happening, it may be too late.

P.S. Although the overall thrust of the tax bill is highly objectionable to me, there are some changes that I like. Such as limiting the home mortgage deduction. Stopping the practice of using tax-free municipal bonds (private purpose bonds) to build sports stadiums for billionaires. There are others. What I dislike the most is the unconscionable increase in our national debt that will result from these cuts, the huge benefits being conferred on foreign investors, the likely negative impact on individuals (higher interest rates, including mortgage rates) and the continuation of public policy favoring capital over labor (one of the sources of the gross economic inequity that grips the nation today). In short, it’s likely to make economic inequality worse, not better. Instead of addressing the deepening problem of the working class falling further and further behind, Congress and the president want to confer huge benefits on the wealthy. The wealthy are doing just fine. We need elected representatives who care about the working class. Despite their rhetoric, these jokers do not. 

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