Democracy v. the Greedy Rich

As the rich get richer, the poor poorer and the middle class smaller, America’s most prominent “populist” movement, the Tea Party, demands more tax breaks for the rich and less help for the rest. Kevin Zeese says only a true populist movement demanding a democratized economy can save the Republic.

 By Kevin Zeese

The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero said “Freedom is participation in power.” By that standard Americans are not free. We do not participate in power.

We do not have power over our own economic lives; our elected “representatives” ignore us and instead listen to the moneyed interests that are sending the United States in the wrong direction on issue after issue.

The American people know better. A large majority consistently supports raising taxes on the rich and corporations; ending the wars; cutting military spending; protecting Social Security; expanding Medicare; stopping corporate welfare for big business; shifting to a clean-energy economy; creating more jobs; and getting money out of politics.

But to achieve this agenda, the American people need to participate in power.

When you dispassionately review the reality of the U.S. economy, it is a depressing state of affairs that screams out for Americans to get up, stand up and shout: “we can do better than the political and economic elites.” One opportunity to stand up is here: October2011.org.

This article focuses on the domestic policies that are destroying the most powerful economy in history, although war spending, which makes up more than half of discretionary federal spending, is one of the root causes of the economic collapse. 

Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz writes: “Today, America is focused on unemployment and the deficit. Both threats to America’s future can, in no small measure, be traced to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He and Linda Bilmes calculated America’s war costs three years ago conservatively at $3 trillion to $5 trillion – these costs have escalated since then.

Domestically the brutal failure of government is evident in the way working Americans are treated. The high levels of unemployment are not the only story; four decades of stagnant incomes and decreasing share of the gross domestic product going to workers are long-term trends; the fragility of peoples’ personal finances, record foreclosure, high student debt and the lack of control over our economic lives all show the need for an economic transformation to a new, democratized economy.

Unemployment is persistently high. Roughly 31 percent of U.S. workers experienced unemployment or underemployment at some point in 2009.  President Barack Obama has never put forth a real jobs program instead preferring to tinker with corporate tax breaks – a proven non-solution now resulting in zero job growth

The official unemployment rate greatly underestimates unemployment because it has been used as a political tool and has been changed over the years, e.g. in 1994 the government stopped counting discouraged workers who have given up looking for employment.

At a time when an all-time high number of Americans are “not in the labor force” this manipulation of data has a dramatic impact. An apolitical analysis of unemployment, that counts the total number of people in need of employment, results in a current unemployment rate of 22.5 percent, an all-time record total of 34 million people are currently in need of work. [See Shadow Stats.]

There are many examples of high unemployment, underemployment and people dropping out of the labor market, but one that got my attention most recently was a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reporting that an astounding 51 percent of youth are unemployed:

“In July, the employment-population ratio for youth — the proportion of the 16- to 24-year old civilian noninstitutional population that was employed — was 48.8 percent, a record low for the series… (The month of July typically is the summertime peak in youth employment.)”

Fifty-one percent of youth unemployed – and even more underemployed – is a very dangerous situation for the future workforce as it comes at a time when students are leaving school in greater debt than ever before.

A recent report by Moody’s Analytics found record borrowing by college students who are graduating without jobs. In an economy where people had power we would see free college education rather than cuts in Pell Grants and rapid tuition increases at state colleges.

In a Labor Day report, the Economic Policy Institute demonstrates that unemployment leaves long-term scars on families and communities. The pain caused by persistently high unemployment is not limited to workers who are currently unemployed but extends to the broader workforce and the country in general through lost wages, income and wealth, as well as higher poverty.

As one example of many, in California one in four families had trouble feeding their children, indeed 68.6 percent of students in schools in Fresno County and 65.6 percent in Los Angeles County were eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals in 2010.

Nationwide, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that concluded 52,765,000 Americans, 17.3 percent of the population, lived in poverty in 2009. And, for children, census data shows a total of 15.5 million American children lived in poverty in 2009 – 20 percent of all children.

According to a 2011 report from the Children’s Defense Fund, “every day in America 2,573 babies are born into poverty.” All of these levels of poverty have worsened in the last two years since the Census Report, so they are underestimates.

The economic collapse resulted in the average U.S. household wealth declining by 28 percent. This represents a loss of $27,000 per household – in households that make less money today than they did back in 1971.

Currently, at least 62 million Americans, 20 percent of U.S. households, have zero or negative net worth. Indeed, a majority, or 64 percent, of Americans don’t have enough cash on hand to handle a $1,000 emergency expense, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.  

An August 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project concludes jobs created since the recession officially ended are reducing worker income: 73 percent of the jobs created since the supposed recovery began have been low-wage jobs, where workers make between $7.51 (the national minimum wage) and $13.52 an hour ($15,621 to $28,122 a year for full-time).

In contrast, 60 percent of the layoffs were in mid-wage jobs that made between $28,142 and $42,973 per year.

An important reflection on Labor Day is: are we seeing the death of the middle class? Are we in what Marx described as the self-destruction of finance-dominated advanced Capitalism? 

Labor’s share of the gross domestic product has shrunk while the profits for capital have risen. The investor class knows their wealth comes from reducing the cost of labor. 

JPMorgan recently told its investors: “US labor compensation is now at a 50-year low relative to both company sales and US GDP . . . reductions in wages and benefits explain the majority of the net improvement in margins.” Indeed, according to JPMorgan, 75 percent of the increase in profit margins directly correlates with the reduction in workers’ wages.

The desire for excessive short profits is creating an irreversible economic decline because labor can no longer consume enough or borrow enough to keep the economy afloat with its cash and credit-based consumption. As David Cay Johnston puts it “A weak foundation cannot properly support a massive superstructure.”

Further evidence of this advanced stage of finance-capital is on the other side of the equation, the concentration of wealth. The richest 400 people in the U.S. have as much wealth as 154 million Americans or 50 percent of the population.

The wealthiest 1 percent of the U.S. population now has a record 40 percent of all wealthmore wealth than 90 percent of the population. According to an extensive study by auditing and financial advisory firm Deloitte, U.S. millionaire households now have $38.6 trillion in wealth in addition to an estimated $6.3 trillion hidden in offshore accounts.

Only 74 Americans are in this elite top bracket, people with annual income is $50 million or more. The average income within this category was $91.2 million in 2008. As astonishing as that is, in 2009 they averaged $518.8 million each, or about $10 million per week.

This means, in the depths of the economic collapse, the richest 74 Americans increased their income by more than five times in one year. These 74 people made more money than 19 million workers combined.

Indeed, during the recession the rich are getting richer while the rest of us are getting poorer. In 2009 alone, the pay of America’s highest earners quintupled, while more Americans found themselves on food stamps than ever before.

CEOs got a 23 percent raise last year and corporate profits are at record highs while the minimum wage has less buying power now than in 1956.

If we stay on the present course, the wealth amassed by millionaire households is set to increase by more than 100 percent over the next 9 years. From a total of $92 trillion held by the world’s richest in 2011, by 2020 the world’s millionaire households will possess $202 trillion, or roughly four times current global GDP.

If you think the wealth divide is bad now, unless significant changes are made, it is going to get much worse.

The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is disappearing, not because the wealthy are smarter or work harder, but because of corrupt crony capitalism. The wealthy have worked to dominate government since the early 1970s. 

President Obama’s $1 billion re-election campaign exemplifies this. He is holding fundraisers where he charges $35,800 for admission – that is more than the median income of American workers. 

The 12 members appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction got nearly $64.5 million in donations from special interest groups over the past decade, with legal firms donating about $31.5 million and Wall Street firms donating about $11.2 million.

And since they were appointed to the commission, they have been seeking contributions from Wall Street.

As a result of this bribery disguised as campaign donations, policies are skewed for the wealthiest, some examples among many:

1,470 Americans earned over $1 million in 2009 and didn’t pay any taxes.

–Historically the U.S. had an excess profits tax on the super-rich in tough economic times, now politicians talk about lowering the rate on top tax brackets.

–The tax burden on the super-rich is unfairly low. IRS statistics released this May reflect that in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the tax rate is 18.1 percent on the wealthiest 400 Americans, while someone who has net taxable income of $60,000 after deductions and exemptions pays 25 percent.

Warren Buffett describes paying only 17.4 percent income tax because of policies that coddle the rich, “If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.”

–Many major corporations pay no taxes, indeed many receive huge tax refunds, despite record earnings.

Corporate taxes have dropped consistently since the 1950s, with more and more burden falling on small businesses.

–The Securities and Exchange Commission has been covering up the crimes of Wall Street by destroying evidence.

–The Federal Reserve loaned banks and other companies as much as $1.2 trillion of public money at very low interest rates.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The 1 percent wealthiest should not have more political power than 300 million people. The people have the answers – if the views of Americans were followed the country would be on the right track on many critical issues.

We can democratize the economy and give people more control over their own lives and influence over the economy. But, it is the responsibility of the people to demand politicians listen to them. 

The traditional tools of elections and lobbying no longer work. Americans need to build an independent movement and independent media along with independent politics to challenge the deep corruption in American government caused by corporatism.

That starts on Oct. 6, 2011, when Americans come to Washington, DC and occupy Freedom Plaza to call for an end to corporatism and militarism.

The destruction of the economy for 98 percent of Americans has been a long-term trend that the people can turn around – you can be sure the government will not do so. It is up to us.

As we pass Labor Day, Americans need to look honestly and deeply into the corruption of government by economic and political elites and demand that we participate in power.

Kevin Zeese co-directs Its Our Economy and is on the steering committee of October2011.org.

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6 comments on “Democracy v. the Greedy Rich

  1. That’s why we need a third party. Call it tea party, or whatever. vote the ins out.

    • No, don’t call it the Tea Party because they are obviously the tool of the wealthy/enemy. We need a progressive party made up of plumbers, teachers, office workers, etc. No more professional politicians who can tear down their house and rebuild a new one for 14 million like Mitt Romney.

  2. The Tea Party is a joke. Also people like to throw around the word democracy but it never entered into the lexicon of the founding fathers , at least not in the sense we use the word. If you have time there is an interesting article on that here http://www.theruggedgent.com/2011/08/01/democracy-and-the-bad-samaritians/ . And another one here http://www.theruggedgent.com/2011/03/18/state-of-the-union/

  3. Excellent article by Mr Zeese – - – great accounting of the numerous and INCREASING economic disparaties/distribution-of-wealth in this country.

    I only wish there were a relatively rational/humanitarian way to resolve this! If low/middle-income people could read the numerous articles like this, think about it, and decide “Hey, I’m not going to vote for these Neo-cons — I’m screwing myself & my family when I do! And what do I get in return? More guns, more military involvement in countries on the other side of the world, more BS about gays & abortion & ‘illegals’& taxes & drug-wars…I’m through with those assholes!” But instead way too many of them SUPPORT these Neo-cons. Some admittedly out of ignorance (the media has long slipped into a hard-right slant, so it’s hard to hear decent info from the MSM), but many are now willfully ignorant and just pinning their hopes on vague, ridiculous Republican promises (as here in Wisconsin, for instance). I sadly believe that it’s going to take a CONTINUED Recession (Depression?) — much like it did after the ‘Roaring 20s’ — before people feel enough economic/political pain to vote accordingly at the polls. There’s nothing like a significant showing (10, 20, even 30%) by a third party (coming at the expense of the 2 major parties) to shake things up…

  4. I think it is time to look at an alternative way of commerce and business. In other words hit the wealthy where it hurts and that is plain and simple MONEY. I have recently read about the Venus Project. It is a resource based economy. Rather than me explain, I suggest looking it up and doing research. It’s not socialism but even if it was so what. If things continue to get worse it will all go to a socialist type system anyway just to keep people fed, clothed and housed. What we call capitalism in this country isn’t what we think it is. Capitalism by definition only works for a handful of people. I laugh when I hear people say, “If you work hard enough you can be a millionaire”. No you can’t because it’s an exclusive club and about 95% of us are not invited. By switching to a different form of trade and existence we could one day tell the powerful, sorry but all of your money isn’t worth anything any longer, we don’t have to do your bidding and we are now in charge. The trick then is to keep them from getting back into power.