Tax The Wealthy, They’re Asking For It

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Tax Wealth Like Work

It’s apparent that the income and wealth gap in the US (and the world) is large and only getting worse. Out of the last ten years of economic growth all of the increase in wealth has gone to the top 1%. These extremely wealth people have seen an 18 percent increase in their yearly income and currently the top 1% control 40% of the total wealth in America!! During those same ten years the rest of us have seen a decrease in our yearly incomes. (The concept of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is utterly false by the facts)

All those facts are explained in Joesph Stiglitz’s article pretty clearly. While I suspected that our tax system was skewed towards the wealthy (and we know all about the infamous “Bush tax cuts”), I was unaware of the actual numbers on earned income taxes versus capital gains and dividend income. Those of us that work for a living, most contributing to the betterment of society in some fashion or another, are taxed 35% of our income. Those that live off dividends and investments, many of which are inherited, are only taxes 15%.

A recent group of wealthy individuals have come out to recognize this disparity and campaign for a change. Responsible Wealth and United for a Fair Economy have launched the “Tax Wealth Like Work” campaign. The goal of the campaign is to:

“Focus attention on the discrepancies in the U.S. tax system that reward income from wealth over income from work. Income from capital gains and dividend income – a type of investment income from stocks, real estate, and other holdings – is taxed at a top marginal rate of only 15 percent. Income earned from work, on the other hand, has a top rate of 35 percent.”

Check out the campaign here. (Thanks to Gift Hub for showing me this)

Here’s some graphics for your consideration, too:

Effective Federal Tax Rates = Wealth Inequality

Attack of the Vampire Squid

The newest video from the new economics foundation (nef), titled “The Vampire Squid” takes the title from commentary on our banking system by Matt Taibbi, writing in Rolling Stone back in 2008, referring to Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid, wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Watch the video here:

Also, check out the campaign website and briefing (pdf).

Misgivings On Giving

Wednesday night I attended a nice little event for Yes! Magazine supporters and enjoyed many great conversations. One conversation in particular, with Jule Meyer Principal of Parkman Foundation Services, revolved around philanthropy and the great Giving Pledge campaign started by Bill and Melinda Gates. Now, I should preface what I’m going to talk about with this statement: I think the world’s wealthiest donating most of their wealth to noble causes is a wonderful idea. I just have a few misgivings around the intention and the implicit idea that the giving is a sacrifice for others.

The Gates’ number one ally in getting the campaign rolling, Warren Buffett attempted to start the giving by pledging that “more than 99% of [his] wealth will go to philanthropy during [his] lifetime or at death.” At face value this appears to be quite the statement: more than 99% of his wealth given away! However, it seems to me that Buffett’s pledge might be more for show and is slightly disingenuously when labeled as philanthropy. Here’s why…

The Richest of the Rich

Perhaps it is difficult for the majority of us to actually realize how much money the top 1% of the world have in their bank accounts. A simply way to think of it: the richest 1% of Americans possess more than all the combined wealth of the bottom 90%. In Warren Buffett’s case, he’s currently valued at around $47 Billion – with a B. That’s more zeros than can fit in most calculators – $47,000,000,000. He recently fell from the #1 richest person in the world to the #3 spot, poor guy.

I wonder if there is even a concept of “enough” with this class of richest of the rich. These top 1% wield an amazing amount of influence and power with their vast sums of monetary wealth. Do they really deserve this power? Is it right for them to have so much while most of the world has hardly enough?

Continue reading “Misgivings On Giving”

No-Growth Economics and You

Kevin Drum with Mother Jones has a great blog. However, I was surprised to read a recent response to a no-growth article – Kevin is apparently a growther, not willing to accept the fallacy that is continued economic expansion on a finite planet. What Kevin might not realize is that increasing the size of the macro-economy on a planet that doesn’t grow, with resources that remain constant (actually, since we’re in overshoot, our resource base is steadily decreasing), means increasing scarcity, not wealth.

There are, as with many of his posts, tons of comments. I have made a few and I invite you to comment there as well. Here are the first two of mine:

Kevin,

I’m seriously disappointed in you. I mean, truly disappointed on a massive scale. Of all people, I figured you would see the truth behind this argument and the ridiculousness of the idea you can continue economic expansion on a finite planet equitably.

You seemingly failed to do any other research around it and jumped to the conclusion (falsely) that a non-growth centered economy wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be pleasant. Actually, most of human history was a steady, non-growing economy and we did just fine. Why do we suddenly think the last hundred years is how the next thousand will go?

Read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. It’s a book, but also available as a shorter report or even as a summary if you really don’t have time. Or read Peter Victors book, mentioned in that article, where he actually shows how a future in a steady state economy is desirable over the continued expansion of the economy.

Basically we have two options:

(1) Focus on development (not expansion) of our society in a sustainable fashion, thus improving the lives of most of the population and actually confronting climate change, hunger, and poverty; or

(2) Keep betting on the horse that has been losing the game: growth. Meanwhile, as our economy expands and our biosphere REMAINS THE SAME SIZE, we will each of us have less and less – less water, less food, less fuel, less nature. Further growth = increased scarcity.

Growth has failed to increase our happiness (after a certain point of basic needs, further growth adds little or nothing to our happiness).

Growth has failed to end poverty: it has, in fact, increase it.

A non-growing economy would not be stagnant. A dynamic steady state economy is the result of focusing our energies on improving our society instead of making it bigger. We actually have a chance of accomplishing the things that the growth economy has failed at: eliminating poverty, improving equality, tackling climate change.

The last one is without a doubt, absolutely impossible in a growing economy – for the very same reason why we cannot improve our technology fast enough to make up for growth (also known as decoupling, which is a myth).

Lastly, we our ultimately bound by the physical laws of the universe – the laws of thermodynamics will eventually make any further improvement in efficiency, and therefore growth, impossible.

Please read up on this topic before you go spinning the dogma of growth. Economic growth is the largest threat to human society.

Cheers,
Joshua Nelson
steadystaterevolution.org

And, in response to a comment about decreasing work hours and increasing leisure time:

Actually, total work hours were decreasing steadily because of increasing productivity from the beginning of the industrial era until the 70s/80s. Then came the worse president in our nation’s history: Ronald Reagan. History will remember him as the president who eliminated publicly funded college, threw a bunch of mentally ill out on the street to fend for themselves and pioneered the vision of growth-at-all-costs, greed-focused economics.

What happened in that era was a reversal of that decreasing work hours trend. Prior to this shift increases in productivity would partially decrease work hours and partially increase production (grow the economy). Today, all productivity and efficiency increases go directly to expansion of the economy, because work hours remain the same (or increase), dumping it all into growth.

A good book on this topic is Juliet Schor’s Plenitude: The Economics of True Wealth, or you check out her lecture at a Seattle City Hall event.

We could eliminate our staggering unemployment by cutting back the average work week. We could do away with economic expansion by, in part, placing all productivity gains into producing the same amount in less time – working less, put still producing. This is where the more leisure time comes from: less work, similar pay.

They’ve partly been doing this in many European countries (where they continued on the path we gave up in the 70s/80s). The French work 35 hours a week and Germans have a flexible work week. Most Europeans also get around 8 weeks of vacation a year (not like our measly 2 weeks in the US) and in some countries (Sweden) there is 3 months of paid maternal and paternal leave after a birth. [Update: Sweden specifically has 16 months paid leave as it turns out]

Any wonder why these countries consistently rate higher on happiness and well-being metrics?

We should be focusing on prosperity and improving human well-being, not making more stuff and destroying our planet. The results are in on the economic expansion: it only works to a certain point, after which is actually undermines our happiness. Besides, why are people so opposed to working less and having more free time? I’d love to have more time with my son, focusing on my writing, reading, or actually getting to the gym. I find it so strange that there is an uproar against having more free time.

Perhaps the view of a better world is too must of a fright because it shows clearly the flaws of the current world?

Cheers,
Joshua Nelson
steadystaterevolution.org
postgrowth.org

Check out Kevin’s blog (outside of the growth post, generally a great blog) and comment here.

Taxing The Bads

Taxation is an interesting facet of our society. Economists view taxes as a disincentive in a free market, and rightly so. Taxes increase the price of a product or service, making it less desirable. Yet, when you think about what we tax in this country, it’s mostly things we desire more of – income, profits, sales, et cetera. This odd behavior should be questioned, even more so today when every budget (state, city, federal) seems to be facing seriously tenuous times.

I took the train down to Oregon this last weekend to see my sister graduate from college. While there I stayed with Rob Dietz, Executive Director of CASSE and a good friend of mine. He handed me a very modest looking magazine called Sockeye. I am sure I will be drawing material from this one issue for some time (check it out, amazing articles). For now I want to talk about tax shifting, as mentioned in the article by Alan Durning and Amy Chan, “Making Prices Tell The Truth: Shifting Taxes from Bads to Goods.” (pdf)

The Imbalance of the Free Market

Taxes have the power of acting as a means of balancing what are called “market inefficiencies,” things in the free market system that generate negative externalities. These are unwanted side effects that are not taken into account in a product, service or activity. A great example of this is any fossil fuel, let’s take Coal for instance.

Let’s imagine a coal power plant starts leeching mercury into a watershed and a city water planet down river takes it in (coal accounts for most of the mercury in our waterways). The coal power plant is not paying to filter this mercury out, nor is it paying for all the damage that could occur from the toxin leeching into the ecosystems. Because the producer does not pay for the negative externalities it is left out of the decision to pursue coal power.

If these externalities were eliminated by charging or compensating for them, then they could be factored into the decision making process. This is especially important as all too often these become costs placed upon the society instead of the producer (e.g. the city water plant in the above example has to filter out the mercury from its water source). If these prices were added into coal’s price they would eventually make coal production to costly to be worthwhile.

One of the best ways to internalize these negatives into our free market is to increase their expense with taxes to help offset costs like oil spill clean ups, health care or water treatment.

Continue reading “Taxing The Bads”

Ethical Banking Systems

Banks should protect our money, not fleece us for their profit

Our money is loaned into existence and then must be paid back, plus interest. This interest can only come by earning (taking) money from other loans in the system, thereby installing inherit competition and scarcity in our society. Could you imagine a society in which we didn’t have to compete for a scarce amount of funds? How could this alter our communities or the way we treat each other?

An ethical banking system is one that upholds the value of the people who use it. Instead of a institution that values only profit, an ethical bank would value the people that support it. This really shouldn’t be too crazy of an idea, but our banks today do everything in their power to leverage greater profits. The recent economic crash being a prime example. We should support and create banks that support our societal and economic well being, not their CEO bonus checks.

The Reason We Need It

It seems like second nature to me that systems we create as a society should function with the ethics we value, but there is obvious room for improvement. When a lot of our organizations and industries started the room for growth seemed limitless, so it was much easier to gain advantage in the market and grow without sacrificing ethics. Like many things in this era, we’ve run out of that room and the only way to make a higher market share this year and next year is to start finding ethically gray (or black areas) for expansion (e.g. derivatives).

Paper exchanging for paper is now 20 times greater than exchanges of paper for real commodities. This distortion of value from real wealth to phantom wealth encourages a financially dependent system, driving up debt and down real value. Eventually those claims on wealth will be exchanged for actual wealth – even if there are no longer enough. An ethical banking system supports a more realistic approach to real wealth and the money that represents it – as well as environmental concerns with investment and social justice.

An Ethical Banking System is one that encourages stable and equal amounts of material wealth. If you haven’t clued into it yet, our current banking organizations do not function in an ethical way. Our banking system encourages debt, competition, scarcity, and unequal distributions of wealth. What if we created a bank in line with our values? One that supported the people, community, and real wealth?

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Nothing Grows Forever

Mother Jones is asking some fierce questions

The most recent issue of Mother Jones, a magazine that credits itself for “smart, fearless journalism,” tackles some serious issues. The cover get’s started with the question “Who’s to blame for the population crisis? (A) The Vatican, (B) Washington, or (C) You?” Inside you’ll find some even more interesting stuff, including a 6 page article about “no-growth economics” entitled “Nothing Grows Forever: Why do we keep pretending the economy will?”

The article’s author, Clive Thompson, compiles a pretty good introduction to steady state thought. He starts by discussing how Peter Victor (author of Managing Without Growth and professor at York University) came to realize that the Earth really does have limits – limits that impose themselves on our growing economy.

After a brief history of the field and the economists that founded the ideas, Thompson inevitably arrives at  Herman Daly, “being the most prominent… of the key thinkers in the no-growth theory.” The first topic Thompson has Daly counter is the neoclassical economist’s idea that our economy will eventually decouple from environmental impact and resource use as it continues to grow.

In the past Daly has the idea of decoupling the economy from resource consumption a chimera. Daly’s view on this topic drives home the point that developed economies are still using more resources as they grow, they just outsource their resource use to developing countries. This, in turn, creates “blood-diamond-style conflicts” for the often exotic materials needed to supply continued economic growth. Thompson notes that “the growth of greenhouse gas emissions likewise demonstrates that the free market alone cannot deal with planet-threatening pollution.”

Continue reading “Nothing Grows Forever”

Thoughts on Money, Wealth and Value

I might be amongst a rare few who believe that the real worth of a person is based outside of material possessions and economic status. Perhaps our society is right to place value in material wealth and pull away from centuries of teachings valuing integrity, ethics, and community (see valuing what matters). There is strong argument that this skewed approach to valuing material wealth is, in part, why our generation is suffering from a rising “social recession.” What we value, how we value, and where we place the concept of wealth are drastically important parts of our lives and our society.

The chemist turned rogue economist Frederick Soddy was one of the first to lay out the difference of real wealth and, what he termed, “virtual wealth.” Today, “real wealth” is a term being used by the planners of the coming “new economy” to represent physical wealth in the real world. “Phantom wealth” (or Soddy’s “virtual wealth”) is the monetary representation, or store, of real wealth. It is being described as phantom because we have inflated our system to allow money to make more money – money out of thin air is virtual, phantom wealth. But isn’t that money is a store for real, physical value?!

So if we create new money, either by printing it, loaning it into existence, speculative trading, or some other devilish creation of the private banking system, do we also create correlating real wealth? No. This means as we allow money to earn more money, without ever being traded for a real, valuable good or service, we are devaluing those real goods. Banks are essentially stealing real wealth by creating more phantom wealth for themselves. (All the more reason for a Robin Hood Tax)

I just picked up one of Soddy’s books that outlines these concepts: Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt. Soddy set a lot of the ground work for today’s ecological economists and his work was greatly expanded upon by Herman Daly, Richard Douthwaite and Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen. I am excited to read some of Soddy’s work and in researching his (spot-on) views of money, debt, and the banking system I found more great quotes on the subject I wanted to share.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Money, Wealth and Value”