30 Years of Unleashed Greed

November 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Robert Scheer

It is class warfare. But it was begun not by the tear-gassed, rain-soaked protesters asserting their constitutionally guaranteed right of peaceful assembly but rather the financial overlords who control all of the major levers of power in what passes for our democracy. It is they who subverted the American ideal of a nation of stakeholders in control of their economic and political destiny.

Between 1979 and 2007, as the Congressional Budget Office reported this week, the average real income of the top 1 percent grew by an astounding 275 percent. And that is after payment of the taxes that the superrich and their Republican apologists find so onerous.

Those three decades of rampant upper-crust greed unleashed by the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s will be well marked by future historians recording the death of the American dream. In that decisive historical period the middle class began to evaporate and the nation’s income gap increased to alarming proportions. “As a result of that uneven growth,” the CBO explained, “the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979:

The share of income accruing to higher-income households increased, whereas the share accruing to other households declined. … The share of after-tax household income for the 1 percent of the population with the highest income more than doubled. …”

That was before the 2008 meltdown that ushered in the massive increase in unemployment and housing foreclosures that further eroded the standard of living of the vast majority of Americans while the superrich rewarded themselves with immense bonuses. To stress the role of the financial industry in this march to greater income inequality as the Occupy Wall Street movement has done is not a matter of ideology or rhetoric, but, as the CBO report details, a matter of discernible fact.

The CBO noted that in comparing top earners, “The [income] share of financial professionals almost doubled from 1979 to 2005” and that “employees in the financial and legal professions made up a larger share of the highest earners than people in those other groups.”

No wonder, since it was the bankers and the lawyers serving them who managed to end the sensible government regulations that contained their greed. The undermining of those regulations began during the Reagan presidency, and so it is not surprising that, as the CBO reports, “the compensation differential between the financial sector and the rest of the economy appears inexplicably large from 1990 onward.” Citing a major study on the subject, the CBO added, “The authors believe that deregulation and corporate finance activities linked to initial public offerings and credit risks are the primary causes of the higher compensation differential.”

So much for the claim that excessive government regulation has discouraged business activity. The CBO report also denies the charge that taxes on the wealthy have placed an undue burden on the economy, documenting that federal revenue sources have become more regressive and that the tax burden on the wealthy has declined since 1979.

In the face of the evidence that class inequality had been rising sharply in the United States even before the banking-induced recession, it would seem that the Occupy Wall Street protests are a quite measured and even timid response to the crisis.

Actually, the rallying cry of that movement was originally enunciated not by the protesters in the streets, but by one of the nation’s most respected economists. Last April, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote an article in Vanity Fair titled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” that should be required reading for those well-paid pundits who question the logic and motives of the Wall Street protesters.

“Americans have been watching protests [abroad] against repressive regimes that concentrate massive wealth in the hands of an elite few,” Stiglitz wrote. “Yet, in our democracy, 1% of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income—an inequality even the wealthy will come to regret.”

Maybe justice will prevail despite the suffering that the 1 percent has inflicted on the foreclosed and the jobless. But to date those who have seized 40 percent of the nation’s wealth still control the big guns in this war of classes.

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Gold, Silver Shine as US Falters

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Alix Steel

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Gold prices were soaring to record highs Wednesday as investors rushed to the safe haven after House Speaker John Boehner’s debt plan hit a brick wall.

Gold for August delivery was adding $9.20 to $1,626 an ounce at the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. The gold price has traded as high as $1,626.80 and as low as $1,617 while the spot gold price was rising $7.10 according to Kitco’s gold index. Silver prices were climbing steadily higher as well, up 70 cents to $41.40 an ounce. The U.S. dollar index was adding 0.18% at $73.65 while the euro was shedding 0.22% vs. the dollar.

The House of Representatives had been gearing up to vote on Speaker Boehner’s debt plan in which the debt ceiling would be raised in two tranches based on spending cuts, but the plan hit a snag. The Congressional Budget Office said that his plan to cut $1.2 trillion over 10 years fell almost $400 billion short. This puts the Senate Democrat plan front and center, which also must face Budget Office scrutiny.

Although most experts think that a high gold price does not reflect a U.S. default, uncertainty over an agreement is a green light for investors to buy gold.

David Banister, chief investment strategist at ActiveTradingPartners.com, thinks that gold will hit $1,730 in a few weeks and maybe even soar to $1,800 an ounce. Banister doesn’t think the U.S. will default, however, but that global fiscal issues and negative real interest rates — the interest rate minus inflation — will continue to support high gold prices.

“Any reaction to the downside on gold will be temporary,” argues Banister. “Traders might be unwilling to make a commitment until they see the short term reaction,” explaining why gold hasn’t skyrocketed, “but I would say any short term pullback in gold on successful debt talks I would be a buyer.”

Stan Dash, vice president of applied technical analysis at TradeStation, also sees prices at $1,730. Dash, in measuring rallies since gold’s low in October of 2008, says that gold can typically move 20% in a leg of a bull market. A move to the $1,730 level would be a 17% rise from the May support level of $1,480 an ounce. “You can’t argue with price,” says Dash. “It’s making new highs. It’s still a bull market”

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Running in the Red: How the U.S., on the Road to Surplus, Detoured to Massive Debt

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Lori Montgomery

The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis.

In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed.

Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds. “In the end, the floodgates opened,” said former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chaired the Senate Budget Committee when the first tax-cut bill hit Capitol Hill in early 2001.

Now, instead of tending a nest egg of more than $2 trillion, the federal government expects to owe more than $10 trillion to outside investors by the end of this year. The national debt is larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any time in U.S. history except for the period shortly after World War II.

Polls show that a large majority of Americans blame wasteful or unnecessary federal programs for the nation’s budget problems. But routine increases in defense and domestic spending account for only about 15 percent of the financial deterioration, according to a new analysis of CBO data.

The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former president George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That’s nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt. Federal tax collections now stand at their lowest level as a percentage of the economy in 60 years.

Big-ticket spending initiated by the Bush administration accounts for 12 percent of the shift. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have added $1.3 trillion in new borrowing. A new prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients contributed another $272 billion. The Troubled Assets Relief Program bank bailout, which infuriated voters and led to the defeat of several legislators in 2010, added just $16 billion — and TARP may eventually cost nothing as financial institutions repay the Treasury.

Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, a favorite target of Republicans who blame Democrats for the mounting debt, has added $719 billion — 6 percent of the total shift, according to the new analysis of CBO data by the nonprofit Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative. All told, Obama-era choices account for about $1.7 trillion in new debt, according to a separate Washington Post analysis of CBO data over the past decade. Bush-era policies, meanwhile, account for more than $7 trillion and are a major contributor to the trillion-dollar annual budget deficits that are dominating the political debate.

As Congress prepares this week to launch a high-stakes battle over whether to raise the legal limit on borrowing, the analyses offer a clearer view of the drivers of the debt — and of the difficulty of re-balancing the budget without new tax revenue.

Most Republicans reject raising taxes as part of the solution; House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) has called it a “non-starter.” But Democrats won’t go for a proposal based solely on spending cuts. The“Gang of Six,” a bipartisan Senate group dedicated to debt reduction, is expected to unveil a strategy as soon as this week that couples sharp spending cuts with a rewrite of the tax code that would raise additional revenue.

(The debt ceiling, set at $14.3 trillion, covers all federal debt, including money the Treasury owes other federal entities, such as the Social Security trust fund. The CBO data focus on the portion of the debt borrowed from outside investors. The debt is the accumulation of annual deficits; if annual budgets are in surplus, the nation can pay down the debt.)

The annual surpluses that set the nation on this course emerged in the final years of the Clinton administration. In the typical American household, a surplus comes as welcome news. But the White House is not a typical household. When Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin saw the budget shift into the black in 1998, he immediately warned President Bill Clinton that, politically, it was a mixed blessing.

Rubin wanted to use the surplus to start repaying the debt, which was then just more than $3 trillion. The White House billed it as “saving Social Security first,” viewing the surplus as an opportunity to shore up the nation’s finances before huge numbers of the baby boom generation began claiming federal retirement benefits. “The problem was a whole other part of the political spectrum wanted to use the surplus for tax cuts,” Rubin said in an interview. “They said they wanted to give the people back their money. Of course, it was also the people’s debt.”

What to do with the surplus became a central issue of the 2000 presidential campaign, with Vice President Al Gore arguing that much of it should be put in a “lockbox” to protect Social Security and Medicare. Bush pushed for a broad tax cut, arguing that taxpayers at all income levels were owed a refund. “Some say that the growing federal surplus means Washington has more money to spend, but they’ve got it backwards,” Bush said as he accepted the GOP nomination in August 2000. “The surplus is not the government’s money. The surplus is the people’s money.”

As soon as he took office, Bush pushed Congress to make good on his tax pledge. Less than a week after his inauguration, he got a boost from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who testified before the Senate Budget Committee that “tax reduction appears required” to prevent the federal government from accumulating too much cash. Greenspan feared that large surpluses would turn the government into the nation’s largest investor, creating distortions in the markets.

A chorus of skeptics warned against spending the surplus. Some stressed the inherent uncertainty of the CBO projections. Others said a big tax cut would unleash pent-up desire in both parties to pursue expensive priorities without the pay-as-you-go restraints that had helped produce the surplus.

Congress approved a $1.35 trillion tax cut in record time. A second package, worth $350 billion, followed in 2003. Together, they constituted one of the largest tax cuts since World War II, according to the conservative Tax Foundation.

Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, resigned after the White House decided to pursue the 2003 measure. “I believed we needed the money to facilitate fundamental tax reform and begin working on unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare,” O’Neill said in an interview. But the White House, he said, was focused on improving economic growth for the fourth quarter of 2004. “They wanted to make sure economic conditions were great going into the president’s reelection.”

Proponents of tax cuts argue that the legislation merely returned tax collections to their appropriate levels. They note that the CBO’s 2001 forecast assumed that tax collections would stay above 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (defined as the total of all economic output) — well above the historic average of 18 percent of GDP.

“It’s not obvious that America was ready to have taxes at a level this high persistently,” said Donald Marron, a former CBO director who now heads the nonprofit Tax Policy Center. “Some degree of tax cutting was inevitable.”

But some key advocates of the tax cuts now say such a large reduction was probably ill-advised.

“Nobody would have thought that all these things would have happened after you cut taxes,” Domenici said. “That you’d have two wars and not pay for them. That you’d have another recession. A huge extravaganza of expenditures” for the military and homeland security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “You would pause before you did it, if you knew.”

Bill Thomas, the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman who helped shepherd the tax cuts through Congress, defended the 2003 package as “fuel for the economy.” But he said in an interview that the 2001 measure was larded with “stuff that I was not all that wild about,” including bipartisan priorities such as a big increase in the child tax credit and a break for married couples — provisions Thomas believes did little to promote economic growth and amounted to “throwing money out the window.”

“I couldn’t do anything about it,” said Thomas, a California Republican who retired in 2006. “You’re the candy man when you advocate those kinds of tax cuts.”

In the end, Bush cut taxes and spent more money. Good times masked the impact, as surging tax revenues reduced the size of year-to-year deficits during the first three years of his second term. But after the economy collapsed during Bush’s final year in office, deficits — and therefore the debt — began to explode as Obama sought to revive economic activity with more tax cuts and federal spending.

Today, the CBO forecasts are unrelievedly gloomy, showing huge deficits essentially forever. As policymakers grapple with the legacy of the past decade, a demographic wave of senior citizens is crashing at their doorstep, driving up the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

William Hoagland, who was for years a top budget aide to Domenici and other GOP Senate leaders, said it is simplistic to think today’s fiscal problems began just 10 years ago. In 1976, as a young CBO analyst, Hoagland produced a long-term simulation that showed entitlement costs gradually overwhelming the rest of the federal budget.

“This situation really goes back to long before [the Bush administration], which is to say to old dead men that have long left the Congress,” he said.

Still, Hoagland said, the abandonment of fiscal discipline in the wake of the surpluses clearly didn’t help. “Nobody pushed for paying for this stuff,” he said. Not even after “it became very clear in the middle of 2003 that the line had turned on us. And the surpluses as far as the eye could see were no longer there.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/running-in-the-red-how-the-us-on-the-road-to-surplus-detoured-to-massive-debt/2011/04/28/AFFU7rNF_story.html?nl_headlines 

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THE WASHINGTON POST
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