Plutocracies as Problem-Solvers (for the Privileged)

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

We all know how democracies are supposed to work: People come together, identify their common problems, then debate and decide solutions. But this elegant give-and-take can break down. What breaks it? Inequality. Democratic deliberations start going haywire whenever wealth starts furiously concentrating at a society’s summit.

In societies growing significantly more unequal, people simply share ever fewer common problems. And some people, thanks to their increasing wealth, have the political power to make their problems the problems their society addresses.

And what happens to the problems of people without grand private fortune? Their problems go ignored. Democracy becomes plutocracy.

In our contemporary United States, we see this plutocratic dynamic play out all the time. Oxfam, the activist global charity, has just offered up a particularly vivid example: the crisis around prescription drugs.

For Americans of modest means, prescription drugs have emerged as a top-tier problem on any number of fronts. Start with cost. The drugs doctors prescribe have become so expensive that millions of Americans can’t afford to buy all the pills their doctors want them to take.

Meanwhile, drug companies have become drug pushers, overselling the benefits and shortchanging the hazards of profitable painkilling medications, in the process creating an opioid epidemic that has devastated millions of American households — and communities.

Big Pharma’s relentless chase after profits drives and distorts medical research agendas, too. On cancer, for instance, drug companies will only conduct costly clinical trials on substances that can be patented and pay off in big earnings. Promising but unpatentable natural substances can’t deliver big profits. So they don’t get tested. They remain on the medical fringes, their curative potential untapped.

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The Tax-the-Rich Ideas Just Keep Coming

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Serious societal change typically only takes place when the pressure for change hits “critical mass.” At one level, we’ve had critical mass for years now on seriously taxing America’s rich. Polls regularly show broad public support for having our wealthiest pay quite a bit more at tax time.

But we haven’t had critical mass on taxing the rich within our political class. That finally may be changing. High-profile pols old and new have of late been one-upping each other with sober proposals for trimming the super rich down to a much more manageable democratic size.

The latest significant player to add to this growing political class critical mass: U.S. Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon. He’s just announced his intention to push a bold new tax on capital gains.

Most Americans know precious little about capital gains income because most Americans get precious little income from capital gains. On average, capital gains income — profits from the sale of stocks, bonds, and other assets — makes up just 6.1 percent of the dollars Americans report on their tax returns.

But this average wildly overstates how much income everyday households collect from capital gains. In 2016, the latest year with IRS stats, capital gains made up a miniscule 0.7 percent of the income for households earning less than $100,000. Households making over $10 million, by contrast, counted on capital gains for nearly half, 46.4 percent, of their income.

The richest of our rich, our top 0.001 percent, grab an even higher income share, 55.1 percent, from capital games.

These fabulously rich don’t just grab the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s capital gain dollars. Our tax code gives them and their capital gains preferential treatment. A dollar of income from salary and wages can currently face a tax rate of up to 37 percent. A dollar of capital gains income never faces a tax slice more than 23.8 percent.

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A ‘Buyback’ for Our Future?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

People who are trying to do good — with a Green New Deal, for instance, or Medicare for All — regularly find themselves confronting a simple and sometimes sneering gotcha question: So where’s the money coming from?

How about we start putting this same simple question to the top executives of Corporate America?

These execs are currently spending incredibly vast sums buying back their own companies’ shares of stock off the open market. In 2018, researchers at Dow Jones report, 444 of America’s top 500 firms spent dollars on stock buybacks. Lots of dollars: $806.4 billion in all, up 55 percent over the year before and up 37 percent over the previous all-time buyback annual record high.

These stock buybacks have no redeeming social value. Buybacks don’t make corporations more efficient or effective. They just make the rich richer. Buybacks reduce the volume of shares that trade, in the process upping earnings per share and share value. Who benefits from these upticks? Top corporate execs see an immediate boost. Over 80 percent of their pay comes from stock-based compensation.

The wealthy overall benefit, too. America’s top 1 percent, researchers at Goldman Sachs observed earlier this year, now own half of all the nation’s shares of stocks, with nearly 85 percent in the pockets of America’s wealthiest 10 percent.

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Putting Billionaires in Their Place

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

America’s billionaires have suddenly realized they just may be facing an existential crisis. A good chunk of the American people, they now understand, would rather billionaires not exist. Every billionaire, as a key aide of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has famously quipped on his popular Twitter feed, represents “a policy failure.” The nation needs, posits a recent New York Times op-ed, to “abolish billionaires.”

Our more pugnacious billionaires — and their devoted admirers — have greeted this new abolitionist thrust with predictable scorn. National Review columnist Kevin Williamson has tagged the case against billionaires as “irredeemably stupid.” Any attempt to tax billionaires out of existence, suggests three-comma investment banker Ken Moelis, would surely “crush the economy.”

More sober defenders of the billionaires in our midst take care to acknowledge the widening — and troubling — gap between the fabulously wealthy and everyone else, but then urge us, all the same, to “think twice before seeking to flatten every tycoon.”

“It may seem counterintuitive,” adds Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, “but billionaires can be good for democracy, and a bulwark against tyranny.”

Bill Gates, the holder of the world’s second-largest fortune, agrees: “The idea that there shouldn’t be billionaires — I’m afraid if you really implemented something like that, that the amount you would gain would be much less than the amount you would lose.”

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When Dorms Mimic Mansions

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

At Princeton, they like to do things in style. One of the newer dorms on the university’s New Jersey campus has triple-glazed windows framed in mahogany.

Princeton — and the rest of America’s elite private universities — can easily afford such exquisite touches. These institutions of higher education are sitting on mountainous caches of cash, as the just-released new annual numbers on collegiate charitable contributions make abundantly clear.

Three elite schools — Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia — each received over $1 billion in new donations last year. The 20 universities with the year’s highest charitable hauls took in 28 percent of the contributions America’s colleges and universities pocketed in 2018. These 20 schools enroll just 1.6 percent of the nation’s college students.

Princeton, according to the latest public figures, holds an endowment worth $23.4 billion, the equivalent of over $2.8 million per student.

Should any of this concern you? Should those mahogany windows particularly bother you in any way? Probably should. You, after all, are helping pay for that mahogany.

Billionaires like former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, the patron of Princeton’s triple-glazed-window dorm, get to deduct off their taxable income the millions they contribute to their elite alma maters. Before last year, Americans with deep pockets could use charitable donations to write off up to 50 percent of their annual income. Today, thanks to the Trump tax cut enacted in 2017, our wealthiest can use those donations to write off up to 60 percent of that income.

In other words, average taxpayers are subsidizing billionaire contributions to “Grand Old Ivy.” For every $1 million billionaires make in contributions, they currently save in federal income taxes — and the federal treasury loses in revenue — $370,000. State governments lose dollars, too.

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Have the Rich Always Laughed at Stiff Taxes?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The guardians of our conventional wisdom on taxing the rich have messed up — and they know it. They slacked off. They started believing their own tripe. Average Americans, they assumed, would never ever smile on proposals to raise tax rates on the richest among us. After all, the conventional wisdom maintains, those average folks figure that someday they’ll be rich, too.

But now, with tax-the-rich proposals proliferating and polling spectacularly well, the keepers of our bless-the-rich faith are panicking. Their old rhetorical zingers no longer zing.

Higher taxes on the rich as a “penalty on success”? Average Americans today don’t see “success” when they gaze up at America’s top 0.1 percent and see a 343 percent increase in earnings, after inflation, over the past four decades. They see monopoly and outsourcing and insider trading.

Some fans of grand fortune see an opportunity amid this cynicism. They’re realizing that riffing off this cynicism may be the only way to keep taxes on rich people low. Raising tax rates on the wealthy may seem reasonable, their argument goes, but high tax rates on the rich can never actually work out as intended. The rich and their paid help — their accountants and lobbyists — can always end run them.

So disregard those high tax rates on the rich in effect back in the middle of the 20th century, the argument continues. Those top rates — 91 percent in the 1950s and into the 1960s, then 70 percent through the 1970s — never made much of a difference on how much the wealthy had in their wallets.

“The overall trend is unmistakable,” pronounced John Carlson, the cofounder of the right-wing Washington Policy Center, earlier this month. “When rates were much higher, the wealthy sheltered their money and paid a smaller share of the nation’s tax bill.”

In other words, seriously taxing the rich will always be impossible. So why bother even trying?

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Have the Rich Always Laughed Stiff Tax Rates Away?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The guardians of our conventional wisdom on taxing the rich have messed up — and they know it. They slacked off. They started believing their own tripe. Average Americans, they assumed, would never ever smile on proposals to raise tax rates on the richest among us. After all, the conventional wisdom maintains, those average folks figure that someday they’ll be rich, too.

But now, with tax-the-rich proposals proliferating and polling spectacularly well, the keepers of our bless-the-rich faith are panicking. Their old rhetorical zingers no longer zing.

Higher taxes on the rich as a “penalty on success”? Average Americans today don’t see “success” when they gaze up at America’s top 0.1 percent and see a 343 percent increase in earnings, after inflation, over the past four decades. They see monopoly and outsourcing and insider trading.

Some fans of grand fortune see an opportunity amid this cynicism. They’re realizing that riffing off this cynicism may be the only way to keep taxes on rich people low. Raising tax rates on the wealthy may seem reasonable, their argument goes, but high tax rates on the rich can never actually work out as intended. The rich and their paid help — their accountants and lobbyists — can always end run them.

So disregard those high tax rates on the rich in effect back in the middle of the 20th century, the argument continues. Those top rates — 91 percent in the 1950s and into the 1960s, then 70 percent through the 1970s — never made much of a difference on how much the wealthy had in their wallets.

“The overall trend is unmistakable,” pronounced John Carlson, the cofounder of the right-wing Washington Policy Center, earlier this month. “When rates were much higher, the wealthy sheltered their money and paid a smaller share of the nation’s tax bill.”

In other words, seriously taxing the rich will always be impossible. So why bother even trying?

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Egalitarians Gain Ground in Washington

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

If you worry about inequality, and if you want an end to grand — and dangerous — concentrations of income and wealth, pinch yourself. We have entered a new political moment. Egalitarians have suddenly seized the policy momentum. They have forced onto the nation’s political center stage initiatives for shearing the ultra rich down to democratic size that no major elected leader in America would have dared propose only a year ago. Maybe even a few months ago.

This stunning shift began early in January when Rep. Alexandria Olivia-Cortez from New York proposed a new 70 percent tax rate on income over $10 million.

Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, in quick order, then put on the table a “wealth tax” on the grand fortunes of America’s richest 75,000 households. Warren, an announced prime-time candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination, called for a 2 percent federal levy on personal assets over $50 million and a 3 percent wealth tax rate on fortune over $1 billion.

This week, just before month’s end, still another stunning proposal: Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, another likely — and leading — 2020 presidential candidate, urged a 77 percent tax on the value of estates left behind at death over $1 billion.

These three new proposals, each one far bolder than the conventional political wisdom has deemed acceptable over recent decades, did attract some assorted jeers and ridicule. But, more significantly, the three proposals drew widespread public — and even pundit — support.

How much support?

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Seriously Taxing the Rich Will Take ‘Guts’ — and More

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Jan Schakowsky doesn’t need to apologize for anything. This veteran member of Congress from Illinois has a record second to none on issues that matter to working people. Over the course of her 20 years on Capitol Hill, Schakowsky has introduced much more than her share of innovative legislation, bills like her Patriot Corporations of America Act, a measure designed to give companies that pay their top execs only modestly more than their workers a better shot at winning government contracts.

But today, in a special Congressional Progressive Caucus Capitol Hill briefing on taxes, Schakowsky did some apologizing of sorts. Her previous attempts at making the U.S. tax code more progressive, she acknowledged, had called for a tax rate on America’s highest income bracket at no more than 49 percent.

Schakowsky called that 49 percent — a figure close to the top rate during most of the Reagan years and a dozen points over the current top rate — the highest rate she “had the guts” to propose. But then, she added, along came Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her call last month for a 70 percent top rate “for the richest among us.”

“And lo and behold,” smiled Schakowsky, referencing the favorable polling on that 70 percent proposal, “the American people think that’s a good idea.”

Schakowsky went on to pledge that she’ll be working with Ocasio-Cortez, her Congressional Progressive Caucus co-host for today’s tax briefing, to draft legislation that enshrines a new, considerably higher top rate in America’s tax code.

In a sense, the bold Ocasio-Cortez move to propose a 70 percent top rate — a rate totally unimaginable in polite political circles just weeks ago — has liberated Schakowsky to go as bold on taxing the rich as she has always wanted to go, and that couldn’t be better news. Today, at a time of intense income and wealth concentration, we need to be bold — on multiple tax fronts.

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What LA Teachers Tell Us About Rising Inequality

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Back during the 1960s and 1970s, in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the United States, teacher strikes made headlines on a fairly regular basis. Teachers in those years had a variety of reasons for walking out. They struck for the right to bargain. They struck for decent pay and benefits. They struck for professional dignity.

The teachers’ strike in Los Angeles, America’s second-largest school district, was the latest high-profile walkout in a new surge of teacher activism that began last year. L.A. teachers went on strike to demand the same dignity and decency teachers sought in the mid-20th century. But the L.A. struggle, many observers believe, amounts to much more than a battle over how school officials treat teachers.

Teachers in L.A. went on strike, in a most fundamental way, against how unequal America has become. They’re speaking out against our billionaire class.

In Los Angeles, our billionaires have been up to no good. They’ve essentially staged an unfriendly takeover of the L.A. board of education, shoveling mega millions into the campaigns of school board candidates pledged to advancing an agenda that funnels public tax dollars to “charter schools” that have next to no accountability to the public.

The newly elected billionaire-friendly board majority then proceeded to hire as superintendent a billionaire investment banker with no background in education. That billionaire proceeded to go about making L.A. a model for privatizing big-city school districts the nation over. Teachers in Los Angles are striking to stop him.

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