Tag Archives: income inequality

The hidden message in the jobs report: rising inequality now a structural feature of America.

Summary: Journalists often report news as a horse race. For example, did a Dem or GOP win the election?  This obscures important trends showing the changing nature of America. So it is with the December jobs report. Looking below the headlines shows that years of conservatives’ work has produced a new America, one with increasing and structural inequality. Unlike the post-WWII era, economic growth does not decrease income inequality (although it increases during recessions). Read the numbers and weep, or do something about it.

Economy

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The December jobs report show that years of well-funded, carefully planned effort by the 1% have produced a rich harvest for the 1%. Public policy has shifted from fostering growth to re-distribution — from the bottom 80% to the top 1%.  A few pictures tell the story, showing how economic growth no longer provides much benefit to workers. We get more jobs, often at low wages with few or no benefits — but little or no growth after inflation.  First, let’s look at the top line: job growth has increased slightly during the past few quarters.

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BLS: monthly job growth

Here’s another perspective, showing the growth rate. Since the population grows, the same number of new jobs is slowing percentage growth. The growth rate has accelerated, but only slightly.

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Connect the dots to see why wages aren’t growing for most Americans

Summary: America has become increasingly destabilized during the few decades, as the 1% grows stronger and seizes resources to grow still stronger. This post shows them at work shifting income from workers’ wages to corporate profits. Inequality doesn’t just happen; it results from people making decisions under a specific political and social conditions. In the past we reversed this process. This ended the Gilded Age, creating a broad middle class and the society we think of as America (quite unlike the nation of the previous century). We can do so again.

Innovation of new forms of society and technology. It is the key to our progress. It has allowed us to evolve from naked hunter-gatherers to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking hundreds or even thousands of years. But occasionally evolution leaps forward.

— A slight tweak of Professor Xavier’s words from the title sequence of the movie “X-Men” (2000)

Growing inequality: "Piketty Split", The Economist, 18 November 2014

From “Piketty Split“, The Economist, 18 November 2014

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Homeostasis (aka negative feedback) rules “normal” life, defeating the predictions of doomsters who extrapolate current trends to collapse. Instead countervailing forces, including intelligent collective action through political, business, and social organizations, find new ways to maintain stability and growth. But sometimes we get positive feedback, when a change produces conditions that continue and accelerate the trend — and the mechanisms break that should maintain balance.

Marx saw such a process at work in 19th century industrialization. He forecast revolution for western nations as the inevitable outcome of the Gilded Age, as the flow of national income shifted from workers to those who own the means of production. He was wrong then, as — after much conflict — we found ways to more equitably distribute income without civil war. Perhaps Marx was not wrong, just early. Again we face the same challenge, as the 1% works to reshape America into a plutocracy.

During the past few years many economists confidently have predicted an acceleration in wage growth. But wage growth for most Americans (below the top quintile) remains only slightly above inflation. We see the reason every day in the news, as the 1% uses their power to boost their profits at their workers’ expense. The process accelerates as they grow stronger — and seize more — while we grow weaker.

Here are nine of our stories, stories describing the birth of a New America. Connect the dots to see the explanation of why most of the gains in America’s national income since 1980 have gone to the 1%. If continued, this trend will create a New America.

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America enjoys a time of sunshine in Hell. Let’s use the time wisely.

Summary: I try in these pages to convey the extraordinary oddness of our time, when a great nation carelessly destroying its strength and prosperity. Examples are easily found around us. The disregard for science by both Left and Right. Our mad foreign policy, multiplying enemies while discouraging friends. Our high-risk macroeconomic policies. Our apathy to the rot of both our infrastructure and our political regime. The restructuring of our society to build a New America on the ruins of the old. It’s an exciting time, with great trends buried amidst the trivia of the news! Today we try a new perspective from which to see these things more clearly.

Sunshine in Hell

A powerful and evocative phrase about our time by Michael Hartnett (Chief Strategist at BofA). It’s used in a different context than here, borrowed from his report of 29 May 2014

Sunshine

America is powerful, our military supreme, our hegemony almost unchallenged.
We kill at will around the world.
We overthrow governments and occupy nations at our whim, careless of the consequences.
Our tech is the finest.
Our economy is the largest & among the strongest.
Yet increasing numbers of Americans fear we’re on the wrong path (see polls).

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Here’s one story about America today. Scores more, equally disturbing, can be just as easily told.

The vast majority of economists expect the US economy soon to resume “normal” growth, as they have since the crash. That’s quite astonishing since GDP has been slowing, not accelerating, from its post-crash sluggish trend of 2.2% — despite the third and largest round of quantitative easing. In 2012 GDP rose 2.8%; in 2013 +1.9%; and now economists estimate growth in 2014 to be slower than 2013 (the IMF expects +1.7%, assuming the second half speeds up to 3%+). It’s our slowest recovery ever by most metrics, one in which median real wages have not increased since before the recession began in 2007.

However anemic, the recovery has kept the public quiet while a New America is built around us. But we’re not all participating equally.

For example, consider our passive acceptance to the great looting of American business. First Private Equity firms perfected a new mode of capitalism: parasitism. Acquire businesses — hollow them out by throttling back capex and R&D (see this NYT article, the numbers look worse as % profits) — leverage them up — extract the cash — then sell them off. Now senior corporate executives have learned to do the same with public companies. Cut capex and R&D — leverage the company up — then  extract the cash via the Triangle Trade of executive stock options to stock to buybacks. The result is a rapid increase of inequality, a host of executives in the 1%, and an America incapable of rapid growth.

It’s one of the great engines of inequality in our society, along with the increasingly dysfunctional education system and the flat tax system. For more information see the end of this post.

Looking at the 99%

We see the effects of growing inequality all around us, if we care to look. Not just in the conspicuous spending of the nouveau riche, but in the plight of the 99%. As in these stories from today’s news:

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How the 1% runs America. Runs us. The answer points to 2 futures for us.

Summary:  How does the 1% influence the daily running of America? Not the high level politics and business, but the broad influence on our social institutions which is almost as significant. The answer says much about America, the New America quickly rising around us, and how to save what we have before it’s lost.

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Darth Vader

As the distribution of power changes in America, the shape of our society must change as well. So after 40 years of income and wealth concentrating, CounterPunch asks “Is the American social contract breaking?” Listen; you can hear the answer in the wind.

“I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”
— Darth Vader, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

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America is changing. On the 4th of July 2006 I wrote about the death of the Constitution. And in the following years I wrote about the rise of the New America on the ruins of the Second Republic. Scores of posts discuss ways to reform America. This political evolution results from the rise of the 1%, as they  gather into their hands more of America’s wealth and income.

Taking this from the abstract to the specific was the July 2013 post described how I have seen the New America in my experience working with local social service charities. The power of the 1% exerts an invisible but overwhelming power over people. They rearrange a community like a magnetic field reorients everything metal in a room.

But how does this happen? How does the 1% exercise control in their community (beyond their direct commercial and political power)?

This is America. They don’t send the police (or their legions of private security) to lean on those who argue with them in the boardrooms of the local United Way or Girl Scouts. Except in cases of great importance, they don’t threaten reprisals. For those with real power, they seldom need use force.

They can reward cooperation. But the rich are famously stingy. Peons should be subservient, without the bother of rewarding them. Besides, it’s better style. So they routinely rely on another lever.

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The 1% won a counter-revolution while we played. We forgot that we are the crew of America, not passengers.

Summary: Now inequality has become too extreme to ignore. Now that the 1% has crushed all opposition, we begin to see the results of their successful counter-revolution. But we do not yet see the battle. Until we understand our past others will build our future. Here’s a first cut doing so.

The Universe was 5 miles long, and 2,000 feet across. Men scoffed at the legends of such things as stars, or the demented idea that the Ship was moving… for the Ship was the Universe, and there could be nothing outside. Then one man found his way into a forgotten room, and saw the stars – and they moved….

— Summary of Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein (1951; based on two 1941 short stories), one of the early stories about a generation ship

Phoenix

Somewhere in our future lies the Third Republic

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(1)  A recap of the plot so far

During the long halcyon days of the post-WW2 summer America forgot about economic classes — and their cousin, social mobility. The reforms of the New Deal, the post-WW2 social programs (especially the GI bill, the ample funding to education (from primary to graduate-level), the civil rights legislation, and sustained growth of GDP and wages — all these fertilized the rise of a middle class and modest degree of social mobility. We came to consider that our due as Americans. We came to consider that as America.

All this culminated with the long boom (the debt-fueled expansion from 1982 – 2000, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the late 1990’s tech boom. America was exceptional, a new moment in history. Marx became a comic figure. “The only Marxists live in Berkeley and Albania.”

We forgot the century-long struggle that laid the political foundations for the middle class, a slow low-violence revolution.  That meant we forgot that this was an unnatural state requiring work to maintain. We forgot we were the officers and crew of America, not passengers on the Love Boat.

But not everybody was happy with summer, and the core New Deal and civil rights reforms with made it possible.  They planned a counter-revolution. They had patience, long-vision, and vast resources.

(a)  Starting with Goldwater, the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” slowly returned the antebellum ideologies of racial separatism, States Rights, etc — to break the New Deal coalition, forging an instrument to wage the counter-revolution. There was no plan, just a “run to daylight” strategy of exploiting the internal contradictions and discontents that triumphant liberals had allowed to develop in their coalition.

(b) The Powell Memorandum: Sent by Lewis F. Powell, Jr. on 23 August 1971 (2 months before his nomination to Supreme Court) to Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman of the Education Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Titled Attack On American Free Enterprise System, it outlined a strategy for large corporations to rollback much of the New Deal reforms on business and crush the unions (perhaps the key brick in the New Deal coalition and the middle class structure).

(c) The article creating the mythology of tax-cuts as the magic elixir: “Taxes and a Two-Santa Theory“, Jude Wanniski, National Observer, 6 March 1976

(d) In his 14 July 1978 testimony to Congress (9 years before becoming Fed Chairman), Alan Greenspan first described the “starve the beast” strategy: “Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.”

The great New Deal coalition built a new America. But the flower children of the boomer generation forgot that they were in a vessel. They thought they were frolicking in a meadow. Their political activism was limited to groups working to benefit themselves — such as ending the draft, opening the work world to women, rights for gays. Issues the 1%, as a class, don’t care about. Nobody bothered with the boring work of staffing the engine and control rooms, and running the ship.

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Tom Perkins tells us about the 1%’s vision of a New America

Summary: Every day the New America grows on the ruins of the America-that-once-was. Every day our apathy weakens the Republic. Every day powerful people — each wielding wealth greater than millions or tens of millions of other Americans — add new brinks to the new plutocracy that will govern our children and their children. They’re doing so openly. To minimize our fear and guilt we laugh at them. They smile at our folly; the Founders cry silently.

The oligarchy club

Content

  1. Telling us about the coming New America
  2. Tax rates on the wealthy at post-1930s lows. They’re not grateful…
  3. America’s exceptional inequality
  4. For More Information

(1)  Telling us about the New America

Tom Perkins’ big idea: The rich should get more votes“, CNN, 14 February 2014 — Tom Perkins speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Everybody has words to live by, that justify their actions. Perkins shared his with us. He’s not joking, and their increasing power brings his vision closer to fruition every day, as the 1%’s command of all levels, all parts of the governing mechanism means that our votes have less effect than his dollars.

Listen, and be afraid. Unless we develop backbones and cohesion, Perkins vision will come true.  One way or another.

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(2)  Tax rates on the wealthy are at post-1930s lows. They’re ungrateful…

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The state of the American middle class: are we thriving or sinking?

Summary: One function the FM website performs for readers is assembling data into pictures that show how our world works. Today we look at three factors of American households: income, spending, and debt — and how they relate to one another. It’s not a pretty picture, but one we can change if we work together.

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One powerful measure of America’s recovery from the crash is real disposable personal income (aka after-tax income). Let’s look at it in pure form, after adjusting for population growth and inflation: Real Disposable Income per capita. It has risen a pitiful 0.7% per year over the five years from the start of the recession. Slow movement in the right direction.

Real Disposable Income per Capita

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But that’s an aggregate number, and such numbers hide as much as they reveal. How has this tiny income gain been shared? Have all classes gained income? Note inflation (CPI) was 1.5% in 2010, so gains less than that are negative in real terms.

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