Spreading the wealth-8: On living simply and with dignity

I knew an old couple that lived in Youngstown, Ohio. They had grown up in the Great Depression but later as teachers led comfortable middle class lives. But they never forgot their hard beginnings. I remember being their weekend house guest about thirty years ago and noticed that the bars of soap in the bathroom and kitchen rested on their narrow faces, not the usual broad one. When I asked them about it, they said that this way there was less waste of soap from seepage due to contact with the counter surface.
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Spreading the wealth-7: More on the opposition

In the previous post, I said that the arguments in favor of having a more progressive tax system are so obvious that it was an interesting exercise to see why even those who would directly benefit from it still oppose it. I suggested some reasons for this behavior and in this post want to explore some more.

Another group consists of those who are still living in the shadow of the Cold War and have been effectively brainwashed to think that any effort to raise the living standards of the less well-off is ‘socialism’. The label socialism has been demonized so much that for such people anything to which that label is attached is automatically a bad thing, even if they do not understand the term and are really poor and would benefit from the proposed plan. Witness how universal, single-payer health insurance is fought by the health insurance-pharmaceutical-physician complex by labeling it as socialism, though the only people who really benefit from not having it are the very wealthy and the health insurance-pharmaceutical-physician complex.

This group of people have completely bought the myth sold to them by the rich that we would all be better off if we let a very few people make and keep as much money as they can by whatever means. It is this group that the McCain-Palin rhetoric is aiming at.

The instinctive siding of such people with the ‘plight’ of someone who makes $250,000 or more even while they make a small fraction of that and have little or no chance of ever joining those ranks reveals the depth and extent of this brainwashing. They may be finding it hard to pay the rent or the mortgage, they may be fearful of losing their jobs, they may have little or no health care, they may be living in decaying neighborhoods that cannot provide basic services, but somehow they think the very rich and the giant corporations and Wall Street are on the same side as them and deserve to have even more money. Such people are simply not thinking things through.

Another possible reason is that many people share the illusion that some day they too will be rich, and when that happens they want to be able to enjoy the unfettered high life, even though they may be quite vague about how this could come to pass. For some the fantasy may be little more than thinking they will win the lottery. For others, it may be that they have some talent they are proud of and think that they may be ‘discovered’ by a talent scout and suddenly become a world famous singer or model or comedian or actor or writer or athlete. They do not want to spoil the imagined enjoyment of that future success by supporting policies now that might even slightly reduce the free-spending habits they hope to have when they strike it rich.

The media helps maintain this illusion by feeding this obsession about what rich and famous people are really like. Notice how the interviews with these famous people usually emphasize that they are just like you and me, except for being very wealthy. George Clooney eats corn flakes for breakfast, just like me! Scarlett Johannson likes to lounge around in sweat suits at home, just like me!

At the same time these same media features also indulge in what might be called wealthy-lifstyle-porn, talking about the massive houses, many cars, elaborate parties, and jet-setting lifestyles of the celebrities. The popularity of celebrity-lifestyle TV shows and magazines and the existence of a paparazzi industry to bring us snippets of personal information about these people (“Look! We have photos of Branjelina’s babies!”) testify to the dream world these audiences are creating for themselves.

All these reinforce the belief that the only thing that separates the very wealthy from you and me is a single stroke of luck. This might well be true. But to base your political decisions on the chance that lightning will strike, that you will hit the jackpot, is foolish. To think that your interests coincide with those few very wealthy people is to live in a dream world.

Tom Tomorrow wrote about this fantasy world that people inhabit and which is encouraged by the celebrity-obsessed media.

A few years back, I was on a road trip with my wife, and somehow, probably from some junk shop along the way, we ended up with the audiobook version of Valley of the Dolls, the classic trashy novel about the lives of the rich and unhappy. After the third or fourth lengthy description of wealthy people enjoying caviar and champagne, I commented that the book was not intended to be about the lives of the wealthy, but rather, about the lives of the wealthy as imagined by the trailer park set: they spend all their time drinking champagne! And eating caviar! (Which brings to mind something I was once told by a prominent contributor to Vanity Fair — that it’s not a magazine aimed at the upper class, it’s a magazine for the middle class to buy believing they are reading a magazine aimed at the upper class. But I digress.)

All these things are designed to give the middle class and the poor the sense of identification with the wealthy. It is quite an amazing thing to see. The reality is that any person with no inherited wealth and who depends on a regular paycheck to meet life’s needs has far more in common with the financial situation of a janitor than they have with Paris Hilton.

But as long as they fail to realize who their real allies are, they will continue to be exploited.

POST SCRIPT: Undecided voter=idiot?

The Daily Show tries to understand how people could still be undecided at this stage of the election.

Spreading the wealth-6: Understanding the opposition

Recently, Joe Biden said it would be patriotic of rich Americans to pay more taxes and Sarah Palin chided him for it, saying that no one should pay more taxes and that everyone should want to pay less. This is the mantra of the right-wing ideologues. While I disagree with Biden’s choice of the word ‘patriotic’ (a word that has long since ceased to have any operational meaning but instead is just used as a political weapon), I cannot understand the logic of people who think that paying less taxes is always better. Even the ever-conventional New York Times columnist Tom Friedman took issue with Palin on this fetishization of lower taxes for everybody. (Thanks to Norm for the link.)

Recall that what is being proposed is to make the income tax structure more progressive by raising the rates on the highest slabs of income and reducing it for the lower tax slabs. This seems so eminently reasonable, even downright common sense, that we should try to understand the sources of the opposition to it.

One group consists of rich and greedy and callous people. Such people simply do not care about the poor. They have made (or inherited) a lot of money and it gives them a weird sense of entitlement, that this somehow makes them superior to those who have less. They seem to take pleasure in ostentation. Such people enjoy being much richer than others and think that creating a more a more progressive tax scale is somehow unfair to them.

There are also those ideologues that think that the best system is one in which there is no government at all and that all taxation should be abolished and a pure unadulterated free market should reign supreme. Of course these people are nuts. Such a system has never existed except perhaps in small isolated communities back in hunter-gatherer times. Modern societies are far too large and complex to function without significant government involvement and the only meaningful debate is about the proper balance between the private sector and government.

In fact it is the presence of government that has enabled people to be highly productive by specializing in one or two areas of activity and excelling at it, rather than having to take care of all their needs themselves.

Then there are others, who while not rich themselves, subscribe to the economic theory that says that having a few people make enormous amounts of money is good for all of us because this gives them the incentive to work, hard create new inventions, make new discoveries, and use the wealth generated by the fruits of their labors to invest in more businesses that will create more jobs and so we all benefit in the long run. This is the theory of trickle-down economics.

But does this happen? Do people who make enormous amounts of money use the excess after meeting their living needs to invest in new businesses that create well paying jobs? Or do they largely use it for ostentatious living that results in the creation of mainly low-paying service sector jobs (waiters, valet-parkers, maids) to support that lifestyle?

In other words, is trickle-down economics a good theory? That is a question that one should be able to answer empirically and I will leave it to the economists to provide a definitive answer. But there is clear evidence that the rapid rise in income inequality that started around 1980, with huge gains for the very rich has not produced a commensurate rise in the general well being.

Look at figure 2 in this paper that analyzes the rising inequality in incomes from 1980 (which is the year that the stock market started to rise like a rocket) and 2000. Notice that while the lowest four quintiles of family income have stagnated and even decreased slightly over that period, the share of the national income earned by the top 1% rose steeply, doubling its value. So we know who actually benefited from the so-called boom years of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II.

In fact, as we see from the graph below taken from this paper, the share of the total income of the top 1% of households rose from about 8% in 1980 to 20% in 2006.


As Table 1 in the same paper shows, from 2002 to 2006, when George Bush and the Republican congress gave massive tax cuts for the rich, the income of the bottom 90% of households rose by only $1,446 (4.6%) while the incomes of the top 0.1% rose by a whopping $1,809,824 (57.6%).

Note that the only time in the past when the wealthy had this large a share of the national income was in 1928, just before the Great Depression. That is not a good indicator of what lies ahead. The idea that allowing a few to amass great wealth is good for all of us is an argument that is hard sustain.

POST SCRIPT: The people in your neighborhood

Stephen Colbert looks at the new middle class loved by McCain and Palin, which consist of those people who are identified solely by their first names and occupations, like the famous Joe the plumber and Tito the builder.

Spreading the wealth-5: Class warfare against the poor

Why do so many have a reflexive aversion to paying taxes and think that any adjustments in the tax system to shift the burden away from the poorer and towards the richer is somehow unfair? This is because class warfare has been consistently waged against the poor for so long by both parties that we have come to think of it as the norm. But when attempts are made to redress this balance, the rich are quick to shout ‘class warfare!’ to distract attention from the fact that they are the masters of it.
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Spreading the wealth-4: Who is in the middle class?

The problem with discussing the distribution of wealth and income in the US is that politicians of both parties have for years been pandering to the ‘middle class’ and courting their votes by promising to improve their condition.

The rich have exploited this by giving small income tax benefits to the middle class while giving themselves huge tax benefits, and then claiming that the entire middle class has benefited. David Cay Johnson in his book Perfectly Legal: The covert system to rig our tax system to benefit the super rich – and cheat everybody else (2003) describes how this spreading the wealth in favor of the rich is done. The title of his book says it all. Then the rich (and the middle class dupes who have been taken in by this scam) get outraged and scream ‘socialism!’ when someone comes along to try and spread the wealth in the opposite direction.

They have been getting away with this because the phrase ‘middle class’ has been bandied around a lot without being defined by politicians and the media. As a result, we have the curious phenomenon that almost everyone, from the quite poor to the quite rich, thinks of themselves as middle class. Thus someone who is earning $30,000 a year feels they are in the same class as, and feel a sense of class solidarity to, someone earning $250,000 a year. Hence they react with a sense of grievance when someone with much higher income than them doesn’t come out ahead because of any change in fiscal policies.

The word class has become perceived as based not only on income but also as a proxy for family background, the nature of one’s job, the social circle one moves in, and lifestyle practices. This vagueness has enabled almost everyone to think of themselves as middle class because in at least one area of their life they may overlap with those much better off than them. So someone who has a good formal education but now works at minimum wage job may still consider himself middle class because he reads newspapers and books, listens to classical music, and is involved in arts and community activities.

But if we narrow the definition of class to purely income and leave those other unquantifiable elements out, we can get a better idea what the terms ‘poor’, middle class’ and ‘rich’ might mean.

To see how income is distributed in the US, take a look at this table published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of the Census. It gives the range of income in 2005 for each quintile of households. Note that this is for households, not individuals, and thus includes the income of all the wage earners in a household.

20% of households earn less than $19,178
20% of households earn between $19,178 and $36,000
20% of households earn between $36,000 and $57,568
20% of households earn between $57,568 and $91,705
20% of households earn over $91,705

Only 5% of households earn over $166,000.

It is reasonable to think of the middle three quintiles as defining the middle class, so it consists of those households with incomes roughly between $20,000 and $90,000, where I have rounded each figure to the nearest $10,000. If one wants to, one can split those three middle quintiles into lower-middle class, the ‘true’ middle class, and upper-middle class.

Those earning below $20,000 can be called poor and those earning over $90,000 can technically be described as rich. But there is something jarring about the notion that those earning around $90,000 are actually rich. That level of income does not really allow for the kind of lifestyle that one associates with really rich people. It may be more accurate to label that group as simply ‘well-to-do’.

But if we split the well-to-do group into finer-grained slices, we can perhaps get a better understanding of who is really rich. Footnote 1 of this paper provides a link that downloads a spreadsheet that breaks down the income ranges for the highest income groups (excluding realized capital gains) in 2006. (See Worksheet Table 0)

It shows that:

10% of households earn between $100,349 and $138.254
5% of households earn between $138,254 and $329,070
1% of households earn between $329,070 and $482,129
0.5% of households earn between $482,129 and $1,401,635
0.1% of households earn between $1,401,635 and $6,473,710
0.01% of households earn over $6,473,710

Using this table, one can subdivide the top quintile of the well-to-do category into the ‘rich’ (the roughly 5% of households earning between $140,000 and $330,000), the ‘very rich’ (the 1% earning between $330,000 and $480,000), and the ‘super rich’ (the 0.6% earning over $480,000), where again I have rounded each figure to the nearest $10,000. These labels agree more with out intuitive notions.

So Joe the Plumber, who says he hopes to earn over $250,000, rather than being the middle class everyman he has been portrayed to be, belongs to a very tiny and select group, definitely rich and approaching the very rich. He is in the top 2-3% of income earners.

So why is he is whining about his marginal income tax rate for the amount over $250,000 being increased from 35% to 39%, which is hardly going to have any impact on his ability to meet the needs of him or his family? And why do so many people, who will never ever get close to earning that kind of money in their entire lives, identify with him and are sympathetic to his complaint?

More on this later.

POST SCRIPT: McCain supports ‘spreading the wealth’

Listen to what John McCain says at the end of this clip at a town hall meeting in 2000:

Transcript of last portion:

Audience member: “Why is it that someone like my father who goes to school for 13 years gets penalized in a huge tax bracket because he’s a doctor.”

McCain: “I think it’s to some degree because we feel obviously that wealthy people can afford more.”

Audience member: “Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism?”

McCain: “Here’s what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.”

Stewart: “That, of course, is the late socialist leader John McCain. I believe he passed away during the Republican primaries. He will be missed.”

Looks like McCain was for spreading the wealth before he was against it.

Spreading the wealth-3: Meeting a hierarchy of needs

My view is that one should formulate tax policy based on the extent to which one meets a hierarchy of needs.

The first level of needs is to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care for oneself and one’s family. That undoubtedly takes priority over everything else. People who are struggling financially just to get by even if they live frugally, would tangibly benefit from paying less taxes and should pay less. In fact, there is no reason why such people should pay any taxes at all. Tax cuts or policies that result in higher incomes meet that level of need very well.

But once those needs are met, the next level of needs consist of safe neighborhoods, well-lit and well-maintained streets and sidewalks, parks and recreational areas for children and adults to enjoy, well-stocked libraries, and good schools. Those are very real and tangible needs that I would directly and personally benefit from but it beats me how giving me a tax cut is going to help me attain any of them. This level of needs cannot be met by tax cuts or even higher income, unless the increased income is so large that I can live in a gated communities, send my children to private schools, hire private security services, and otherwise pretty much cut myself off from most of humanity. [Read more…]

Spreading the wealth-2: Why this benefits all

What is interesting about the flap over Obama telling Joe the plumber about the benefits of spreading the wealth around, is that if you listen to the exchange between Joe and Obama, what Obama is saying not only makes absolute sense, its truth should be blindingly obvious to anyone.

What Obama said was that while he was happy for Joe’s success, he also cared about the waitress and the teacher and the store clerk and the policeman and all the others in that community who do not earn anything close to $250,000 per year and were currently struggling and who needed a break. He pointed out that if they were able to do better in life, then they were more likely to be able to afford the services of a plumber like Joe and he would do better too.

That is exactly right. I myself hate plumbing chores. Even though I do not earn anywhere near the $250,000 that Joe is hoping to earn, fortunately I still can afford it so that when something goes wrong in our home I call Nate the handyman and he comes along and promptly takes care of it, while shooting the breeze with me, exchanging information about our families. It is all very pleasant.

As a result, my plumbing problems get solved by an expert professional, Nate gets my business and some income, and this frees up my time and energy to do the things that I enjoy, such as reading and writing. We are both better off.

If I could not afford Nate’s services, I would have to learn to do the plumbing work myself and spend a lot of my spare time on it and would probably end up doing a lousy job if not actually flooding the house. And if that fails, I would have to ask friends who know more about plumbing to help me out. A lot of poor people do exactly that. They sacrifice their own time and energy to do such things, bartering their own skills and services for those of others. That is perfectly fine, but it does not help the neighborhood plumber’s business.

This example can be multiplied over and over. I pay people to work on my car, to repair the roof, to trim the tress in my yard, to plow my driveway in winter, and so on, because I can afford to. And we all benefit from that in different ways.

But if most people are impoverished and barely making ends meet, and the more concentrated wealth becomes, the less likely it is that small businesses will succeed since fewer people will be able to afford their services. It is far better for a plumber to have a hundred middle class people in his neighborhood than one multimillionaire and a hundred poor people, since a single rich person will not have a hundred times the plumbing needs of a hundred homeowners.

Henry Ford discovered this many years ago when he realized that if he and other employers like him did not pay their employees good wages, there would not be a large enough market of consumers who would be able to afford to buy the cars he made. So while higher wages reduced his profits in the short run, it increased the viability of his business in the long run.

But this basic truth has to be obscured in order that the rich can benefit by impoverishing others, The rich have always depended upon duping the poor to support their lifestyles. As Voltaire said, “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.” But they also have to persuade the less well-off that that this exploitation is good for them. They do this by using their wealth and power to make the political structure serve their needs, then suggest that the resulting structure that redistributes wealth to benefit the rich is ‘natural’ and that reversing that change to benefit the majority is somehow unfair. What is amazing is that so many poor and middle class people actually believe that argument.

This English nursery rhyme (c. 1764) captures the idea of how the laws have always favored the wealthy. (Thanks to blog reader RCarla.)

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common.
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own.
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

‘Spreading the wealth’ means taking the commons back from those who have taken it for their private benefit. It has so many benefits for so many people that one has to wonder why there is so much fierce opposition to the idea from the very people who would benefit.

In the next post, this question will be explored further.

POST SCRIPT: The other Palin for president

Spreading the wealth-1: Introducing Comrade Bush

By now, practically everyone must be sick of hearing about Joe the Plumber. But bear with me for a minute as he provides me with a peg on which to hang a point I wish to make. I thought his interaction with Obama was quite interesting and was planning to comment on it even before Joe became John McCain’s BFF.

What I found most amusing is how the right wing has seized upon Obama’s comment to Joe about the need to ‘spread the wealth around’ and has thrown one of their by now patented manufactured outrage hissy fits, screaming “There, I told you! Obama is a socialist!” and warning that if he is elected president he is immediately going to take all our money and give it to winos and panhandlers and make us wear grey tunics and work on collective farms.
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