Tag Archives: wealth inequality

the richest man in town…

I realize that it’s likely the height of sacrilege to be writing a political post on Christmas Eve.  But I’ve just had an unexpectedly unsettling reaction to that most wholesome and uplifting all-American yuletide film, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.

You see, when I watched it as a young child, I understood the whole I-wish-I-was-never-born conceit, and how it was foolish to wish that, and how we all touch innumerable peoples’ lives in ways we can never possibly know. But, being a young child, I never quite got why George Bailey was all suicidal in the first place (it might also be because I’ve only ever watched it on Christmas Eve, in bits and pieces, amidst the madness of Christmas-present-wrapping, and Christmas-treat-baking, and so on…).

At any rate, I began to see a whole new side of the film tonight — one that had probably registered before, but never with such disturbing clarity.

We all know that George is the hero, and Mr. Potter the villain.  This is because George lives a life of quiet dignity, silently sacrificing his dwindling hopes and dreams for a life outside of Bedford Falls in order to fulfill the duties and responsibilities life has placed on him.  While, by contrast, Mr. Potter enjoys a life of great, though presumably miserable, wealth, putting business, profit, and greed above all else.

What I realized tonight, and what I found so unsettling, is that this movie could never be made today.  No, the Mr. Potter’s of our time are the heroes — revered as “job creators,” their immense wealth protected from progressive taxation by politicians who decry all taxes as “legalized robbery.”  The rest of us, the residents of Bailey Park, are lazy, entitled, socialist-commies just looking for a hand-out.

Now, the reason the film is so uplifting, of course, is that despite Potter’s incredibly criminal act of holding onto the Savings & Loan money Uncle Billy was to have deposited, George’s friends come through with more than enough cash and credit to make up for it.  Lesson learned:  if you’re a good person, and treat everyone with kindness and generosity, you will be taken care of in your time of need.  All of us in Bailey Park, we’re like family.  And we look after our family.

That’s all well and good.  But what about justice?

Left inexplicably unresolved at the end of the film is the fact that Potter is still holding onto the eight thousand dollars that rightfully belongs to the Bailey Savings & Loan.  As far as we know, that fact never even comes to light.  We’re simply left basking in the glow of family and friends singing “Auld Lang Syne”.  Good, decent, hard-working people, who’ve got each others’ backs, pooling their resources to help a friend in trouble is beautiful and inspiring, sure.  But, to be perfectly Frank (Capra… get it?), it’s ultimately a distraction from the fact that Mr. Potter has committed a serious crime (the very kind of fraud he was all set to accuse George Bailey of!) and, to our knowledge, is never held to account.

Okay, I promise I’m not getting this worked up over a work of fiction.  I’m getting this worked up because this story is, in many ways, our reality.  The vast majority of us have paid for this recession — in jobs lost, homes foreclosed, and opportunities diminished.  But we have yet to see a single major figure from the world of finance brought to justice for the gross mishandling of mortgages that led directly to this situation in the first place.  At the very least, chief executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are facing serious charges from the SEC.  But that bit of news just makes me think of that old joke about a lawyer at the bottom of the ocean — it’s a good start.

I guess, ultimately, I just want our story to be one where we can happily sing Christmas hymns and still throw Mr. Potter in jail.  Something along the lines of what Saturday Night Live so insightfully suggested here —

http://www.hulu.com/embed/Sw1TLtPVU6mgQT5aI1fIKQ

Joy to the world, with liberty and justice for all.

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occupying wall street…

I’ve been watching the growing Occupy Wall Street movement with a growing feeling of excitement.  Finally — FINALLY! — as Paul Krugman put it, a significant number of Americans is expressing anger “at the right people.”

Granted, at the moment, the voice of the Occupiers remains muddled, chaotically varied, and at times even contradictory.  Nevertheless, I have my own views that I’d like to put out into the cosmos.

I can’t possibly speak for an entire movement.  Certainly not a movement as organic and evolving as Occupy Wall Street.  But what I can do is explain why I support it, and why I hope it succeeds.

For me, the source of the anger is very simple to undersatnd:  three years ago, we spent seven-hundred billion dollars in the first of many rescue packages that were put forward to save the financial industry and allow them to return to normal function.  And those efforts have been wildly successful.  Banks report record profits.  TARP funds have been repaid, with interest.  At the same time, no similar effort has been made on behalf of individual Americans.  Nothing done to help them return to normal economic function, save for a half-assed mortgage assistance program that has been, at best, an abysmal failure.

If the Occupiers are after anything — to the extent I can accurately generalize — it’s a similar commitment on the part of our government to help individuals recover from the recession.  Saving the financial sector didn’t help.  The president’s first stimulus bill — because it was too small, and because it relied more on tax cuts than direct hiring programs — didn’t help.  Solutions — the kind of innovative, imaginative, out-of-the-box ideas that would have freed the American public to fuel the economy — have been wholly, conspicuously, and painfully absent.

What might some of these solutions be?

For starters, and most importantly:  across-the-board debt relief.  We gave the banking industry billions of dollars so that they could wipe bad assets from their balance sheets.  Nothing even remotely similar has been offered to the American people.  Only the most rigidly right-wing thinkers still deny that the path forward is made the most clear by increasing aggregate demand.  But that increase will never come as long as Americans are using this time of economic contraction to spend their diminishing dollars paying down mountains of debt.

For a moment, let’s leave aside arguments regarding the responsibility, or lack thereof, of having taken on the debt in the first place.   Because that argument is just disingenuous.  Irresponsibility abounded in the decades leading up to the 2007/8 crisis.  But the financial industry has been largely absolved of their sins, while average Americans continue to labor under the weight of decisions they — rightly or wrongly — made before the recession.

The question, then, is this:  why is right and just to use taxpayer money to relieve the burdens of the industry that contributed so significantly to our current crisis, but not of the individual Americans still suffering from that crisis’s fallout?

That is a question no conservative — certainly no Tea Partier — has, to my knowledge, been able to answer in any sort of acceptable way.

It is my great and sincere hope that this movement manages to grow, and mature, and develop into an effective machinery to effect real political action.  In the meantime, it has my sympathy and my support.

We are the 99%.

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storming the barricades…

Around the middle of the fourteenth century, French peasants, angered by the corruption and all-around uselessness of their country’s ruling class, erupted in violent revolt.  In one especially infamous incident, an angry mob roasted a knight on a spit, in full view of his wife and children, then proceeded to force-feed them the flesh of their husband and father, respectively.  After which, of course, a dozen or so of the mob’s men took turns raping the new widow then submitted her and her children to their own torturous deaths.

Now that’s class warfare.

Clearly, Congressional Republicans set the bar much lower, at least judging by the repeated accusations flung at the president in response to his plan to get Americans back to work and the federal budget back to black.  From their alarmed protests, one could almost be led to believe that President Obama went forth from the Rose Garden Monday leading a charge on the Hamptons, pitchfork in hand.

But when cooler minds take a look at the president’s plan, what they find instead of raw, red-meat populism is a reasoned, rational, comprehensive approach to righting the country’s fiscal course.  Indeed, what the president has managed to deliver is what economists across the political spectrum have been calling for all summer:  short-term stimulus (in this case, the American Jobs Act) coupled with a long-term deficit-reduction strategy.

You can almost hear the screaming hordes, lustily demanding agricultural subsidy reform and radio spectrum auctions.

But of course, sensible minor reforms like these aren’t the holdup in the plan.  What really has Republicans stoked – and their wealthy supporters along with them – is that the president’s vision of tax reform actually includes making them pay a little more.  It is truly shameful, they claim, to correct the federal budget’s imbalance by asking a greater sacrifice from the one segment of our society that has sailed through the Great Recession practically unharmed.

At best, one could possibly argue that, by proposing to increase taxes on the wealthy, the president is merely stoking class resentment in a desperate attempt to improve his reelection chances.  But arguing this ignores two facts.

First, the president didn’t create this resentment.  But he is – at last – acknowledging it.  Americans aren’t stupid, and they’ve known for a long time that their incomes have stagnated, if not altogether disappeared, while the rich have continued to get richer.  And they don’t approve.

In a study by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely conducted in 2005, and published earlier this year, it was shown that while Americans assume wealth distribution to be more equal than it really is, their ideal distribution is even more equal still.  In fact, the study’s participants preferred evil, socialist Sweden to the US in a blind side-by-side comparison.

But second, and more relevant to the petty politics of the moment, is the fact that accusing the president of waging class warfare would be a rather (amusing-if-it-weren’t-so-tragically) hypocritical charge on the part of Republicans.

They are the party, after all, who held the middle-class hostage last December in their battle to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the richest among us – and the entire country hostage this summer, repeatedly walking out of debt-ceiling negotiations over any mention of raising taxes at the top.

And it was during those very negotiations that Senator Cornyn declared on the floor of the Senate that 51 percent of American households didn’t pay any income tax in 2009, saying “to show how out of whack things have gotten, 30 percent of American households actually made money from the tax system by way of refundable tax credits.”

Now that’s injustice.

Right?

The fact is, those of us in the bottom ninety-percent have already paid dearly for this recession – in jobs and wages lost; in tax dollars bailing out a financial industry that is now turning record profits; and in facing down a future that is less secure, and less promising, than before.  If the top ten want to complain about raising their marginal rates and taking away their estate tax protections, let them.  Then raise their taxes anyway.

And to Senator Cornyn:  I was one of those Americans who paid no income tax for 2009.  The reason being my adjusted gross income was just over $3000.  In fact, I received a small refund due to the Making Work Pay and Earned Income Credits – money you can be sure I put right back into the local economy.

If, however, you feel that some of those hard-earned dollars should have gone to the government rather than stayed in my pocket, feel free to suggest a ballpark figure.  I’ll be happy to write a check.

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