The Top 0.1% Vs. Rest of Us Throughout the 20th Century

Following up on yesterday’s post about the Global Top Incomes Database, I thought I’d give an example.  Here’s what I created:

So what are we looking at?  The blue line shows almost a century of the average income of the bottom 90% of American earners (in constant, real 2008 dollars – scale on right side).  This represents the typical American worker and the fate of the working/middle classes.  Basically it shows nine different trends or periods.

  • From 1917 until 1929, there was no improvement at all (actually a dip in the 1920-21 depression).  Despite all the talk about “roaring twenties”, it wasn’t for the average American worker.
  • 1929-1933, incomes really drop precipitously as the nation falls into the Great Depression.
  • 1933-1937, incomes begin to recover based on the government spending programs of the New Deal and correction of the banking/financial crises of 1932-33.  But the progress stumbles in 1938 as Roosevelt and Congress switch course and try to balance the budget before we’re back to full employment (are you listening Obama?).
  • 1938-1943 incomes really grow dramatically as the nation regains full employment and unions gain power.  The driver of the recovery is the near unlimited willingness to spend to arm for World War II and the demand for food and other items by warring allies.
  • 1944-1949, incomes stagnate again, partly as a result of demobilization of the war effort.
  • 1949-1973 brings the Golden Age. Real economic growth in the U.S. is the strongest it’s ever been and thanks to Keynesian government policies, a productivity-sharing social contract between managements and unions, and strong world demand, the workers get their share of it.  This is the period of fastest U.S. growth.
  • 1973-1993 brings twenty years of declining real incomes for most workers.  Part of it is driven by slower growth brought on by two oil price supply shocks.  Part is inflation (although only until the mid-80’s). Part is driven by a major political shift towards conservative free market policies (“Reaganomics”).  And part is driven by a weakening of unions and union membership.  The economy, while it grows, doesn’t grow near as fast as it did in the Golden Age.
  • 1994-2000 shows a slight recovery in incomes during the Clinton administration.
  • 2001 starts another decline and it’s been pretty much downhill ever since.  Note that the graph ends in 2008 (last available data), but other more recent data indicates the time series has continued to decline significantly.

So what can we conclude from the typical worker incomes, the blue line of average incomes for the bottom 90%,?  Well, yes, as some conservatives and libertarians have been pointing out, today’s incomes are historically high – around $32,000 per worker.  And consumption by household is even higher.  But consumption has risen despite incomes stagnating recently. It’s because many, many more households now depend on two workers for incomes.  Yes today’s incomes are dramatically higher compared to 76 years ago – roughly 6 times higher. But all of the increase happened in the first 38 years after 1932.  Today’s incomes per worker are actually lower than they were in 1973 – 38 years ago.

Now let’s consider the red line.  This shows the percentage share of the national income earned received by the top 0.1%, the top one tenth of one percent.  These are the really, really rich.  There are really only three periods here.  The period before the Great Depression.  Observe that it really was a roaring twenties for the really rich.  In the decade of 1920-1929 their share of national income rose from around 3.5% to over 6.5% – all while the average American worker stagnated. The game was rigged.  As the U.S. economy grew in total GDP terms in the 20’s and as productivity soared, the benefits of that improved productivity went to the rich, not to workers.  The rich lost ground in the Great Depression because the stock market crashed and the banking system imploded.

From 1936 until 1979, the share of income taken by the top 0.1% declines rather steadily and significantly.  Why?  A dominant factor is that income tax rates were rather progressive with high rates on the very high top end.  Now this simply means that the share declined – they took a slightly smaller slice of the pie each year.  But the pie was growing very, very fast, so in dollar terms their incomes were still rising too.  Do not take away the idea that the rich suffered income declines during this period.  On contrary, they did well in absolute terms.  They just didn’t do well at the expense of others.

But in 1979 the rich strike back.  Their share of income starts rising steadily until it reaches the same very high levels today that are reminiscent of the late 1920’s.  What happened?  Well the same forces that hurt the working/middle classes during the last 30+ years worked to the rich’s advantage.  But another important shift was changes in income tax policies.  Initially Carter, but then Reagan and Bush all cut tax rates for the top end.  Reagan did even more.  He eliminated several top end brackets.  This resulted in people in the top 0.1% (multi-millionaires) now paying the same rates as people making $250,000 per year.  That didn’t happen in the Golden Age.  Back then there were special brackets for the very, very rich top end.

So what can we conclude overall?  Well, for one thing, we should definitely bury any idea of “trickle-down” tax cuts helping average workers.  When the economy grew the fastest and typical workers did best was when tax rates on the rich were high.  When tax rates on the rich are lower, the economy grows more slowly and average worker incomes stagnate.  We might also conclude that the OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) has a point.  The system isn’t fair and it isn’t working for average workers.  This isn’t a call for socialism, it’s a call for the vibrant capitalism we had in the mid-20th century. That Golden Age of the middle of the 20th century is the only time when we really didn’t have “class warfare”.  We had a social contract that called for sharing the gains from improved productivity. But a little over 30 years ago the really rich declared war on the rest.  It’s class warfare and the middle class has been losing. 

Awesome Resource – The World Top Incomes Database

Any student, researcher, or #OWS protestor interested in income distribution and income growth should definitely be aware of this resource:  The World’s Top Incomes Database.  (hat tip to Krugman, from whom I learned about it).  It’s a very powerful database combined with a very easy to use interface that allows you to extract exactly the data you want as a spreadsheet (see the Database tab) or to customize your own graphs.

You can pick from a growing list countries -over 25 already and more under development.  It’s particularly interesting because it’s not just the usual developed nation suspects.  There’s also data on developing countries and some less-developed nations.  Then you can pick your time series and variables.  It’s a tremendous variety:  share of national income by the top  x% (without or with capital gains).  In some case, data series are available on actual average real incomes by percentile groups.  What’s also nice is that they don’t just leave it at a split between the top 1% and the bottom 90%.  You can specify the top 1%, 5%, 10%, 0.1% or even the 0.01%.  Amazing.  You pick the time frame from early in the 20th century up to 2008.  Then you regenerate your graph or data table.  The best part is that by right clicking on the graph, you can download and save the graph.  Students: are you listening?  Understand the implications for research papers?  

Quickie – Some Graphs

I’ll be talking tomorrow to a bunch of students about income distribution, student loans, and other things of interest to the #OWS crowd.  These are some graphs I’ve collected from other sources that I’ll use.  No time to write much analysis today. It’s mostly just the graphs.

From Paul Krugman:

The true age of spectacular growth in the United States and other advanced economies was the generation after World War II, with post-Reagan growth nowhere near comparable. So why do these people imagine otherwise?

And the answer, once you think about it, is obvious: growth for whom? There’s only one way in which the post-deregulation boom was exceptional, and that’s in terms of the growth in incomes at the top of the scale.

Here’s a comparison of the postwar boom with the deregulation alleged boom, using real average family income from the Census and real average income for the top 1 percent from Piketty and Saez:

If you’re looking at the average, the last generation is a poor shadow of the postwar boom. But if you’re talking about the 1 percent, wonderful things have happened.

From CBO via Krugman again:

Inequality Trends In One Picture

Just an addendum on the role of the top 1 percent versus the college-noncollege differential. Here, from the CBO report, are the changes, in percentage points, of the shares of income going to three groups. The top quintile excluding the top 1 percent – which is basically the abode of the well-educated who aren’t among the very lucky few – has only kept pace with the overall growth in incomes. Just about all of the redistribution has taken place from the bottom 80 to the top 1 (and we know that most of that has actually gone to the top 0.1).

It’s a tiny minority, not a broad class of well-educated Americans, who have been winning here.

Again from CBO via Krugman:

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Lose

OK, I see that some people are doubling down on the claim that rising inequality is all about education — when what the CBO report drives home is that this is all wrong, the big increase has come from gains at the very top. I have to admit that I have a sneaking suspicion that this is in part driven by KDS (DS for derangement syndrome): some people will rush to take a position precisely because I have debunked it. But anyway, it’s really, really wrong.

Here’s the CBO result:

Notice that the 81-99 percentiles have seen only modest gains; it’s really the top 1 percent that drives the story.

For comparison, here’s some data on wages of men by education from EPI:

Again from CBO via Krugman:

Graduates Versus Oligarchs

Dean Baker raises an important point here: it’s really awfully late in the game to be saying that the important inequality issue is college graduates versus non-graduates. It’s not clear that this was ever true, and it certainly hasn’t been true for a while.

wrote about this years ago, using Ben Bernanke’s maiden testimony as Fed chair as an entry point. As I said then, Bernanke — like many others — had made

a fundamental misreading of what’s happening to American society. What we’re seeing isn’t the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.

I think of Mr. Bernanke’s position, which one hears all the time, as the 80-20 fallacy. It’s the notion that the winners in our increasingly unequal society are a fairly large group — that the 20 percent or so of American workers who have the skills to take advantage of new technology and globalization are pulling away from the 80 percent who don’t have these skills.

Why would someone as smart and well informed as Mr. Bernanke get the nature of growing inequality wrong? Because the fallacy he fell into tends to dominate polite discussion about income trends, not because it’s true, but because it’s comforting. The notion that it’s all about returns to education suggests that nobody is to blame for rising inequality, that it’s just a case of supply and demand at work. And it also suggests that the way to mitigate inequality is to improve our educational system — and better education is a value to which just about every politician in America pays at least lip service.

The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that’s the real story.

Let me illustrate this point with some CBO data. First, from the new report, here are the income shares of the top 1 percent and the rest of the top quintile:

There has been no rise in the share of the 81-99 group! It’s all about the top 1 percent.

Second, even within the top 1 percent the gains are going mainly to a small minority. An earlier CBO report, using slightly different methods, looked inside the top 1 percent up through 2005. Here’s some of that data:

The big gains have gone to the top 0.1 percent.

From Menzie Chinn:

CBO on Income Inequality, and Interpreting OWS

by Menzie Chinn

Tabulating Inequality Trends

The CBO released a report on income inequality earlier this week. This means that the “inequality deniers” are having a more difficult time arguing that widening spreads an wages, compensation, or overall income are merely statistical artifacts dreamt up by liberals (see e.g. here). What is of most interest is (i) real after-tax income of the top 1 percentile has risen about 275%, and (ii) the pre-transfers/pre-tax income share of the top 1% has increased most profoundly.

Summary Figure 1, Growth in Real After-Tax Income from 1979 to 2007, from “Trends in Income Distribution,” CBO Director’s Blog, 25 October 2011. SummaryFigure2.png
Summary Figure 2, Shares of Market Income, 1979 and 2007, from “Trends in Income Distribution,” CBO Director’s Blog, 25 October 2011.The CBO Director’s Blog observes:

The rapid growth in average real household market income for the 1 percent of the population with the highest income was a major factor contributing to the growing dispersion of income. Average real household market income for the highest income group tripled over the period, whereas such income increased by about 19 percent for a household at the midpoint of the income distribution. As a result, the share of total market income received by the top 1 percent of the population more than doubled between 1979 and 2007, growing from about 10 percent to more than 20 percent.

The foregoing is completely consistent with the views laid out in Lost Decades (by me and Jeffry Frieden), Add-Figure 6-1 highlighted in this post, as well as this post.

Interpreting the OWS Protests

Against this backdrop, powerful forces have been deployed against raising tax rates at all on the top one percentile (and instead want to raise taxes on the lower quintiles).[1] [2]. The OWS protests can be interpreted in ths context. From TPM:

…Harvard Government Professor Jeffry Frieden said…

“Every debt crisis leads to major political conflicts over who will pay the price of dealing with the debt burden,” Frieden wrote. “One way or another, the accumulated debts will have to be addressed — either by writing some of them off, or by paying them off. Will the burden be borne by taxpayers? Government employees? Financial institutions? … I think that, in the context of our financial difficulties, OWS may reflect the fact that many Americans feel that too much sacrifice has been demanded of working people and the middle class, and too little of the financial community and the wealthy.”

Diane Lim Rogers, Chief Economist at the fiscally hawkish Concord Coalition, made similar points about the more reckless economic policies of the past decade: Much of the distaste with both Washington and Wall Street comes back to fact that DC is simply unwilling to change course.

“The difference is that during the Clinton years the rising tide was lifting all boats,” Lim Rogers said in an interview with TPM. “Low-income households were still doing better. Even then, the rich did really well, despite their taxes being raised.”

But what’s different now is that income inequality isn’t a political tenet of the left: it’s truly hurting people. Lim Rogers said the poverty rate is actually of more concern than the rich doing better given the circumstances.

“The outrage is not that the rich are richer,” she said. “It’s that the poor have gotten poorer — the inequality has become bipolar.”

Interestingly, Lost Decades, which makes many of these points, has been cited approvingly in at least one OWS document.

This is of course in contrast to views such as that of Econbrowser reader Brian who commented:

I honestly fail to see why some on the left are so concerned about how much money those at the top of the income distribution earn. Why not focus instead on why poor people are poor? And please, blaming that on the rich is a non-starter. People make bad choices in life. They get pregnant before they finish school and have a career started. They use drugs. They get tattoos and body piercings all over themselves and then wonder why no one will hire them for an entry-level job. They do not take school seriously. They have parents who never should have bred in the first place. I really, honestly and truly feel for the poor people and hope they can lift themselves out of poverty. But throwing more money at the problem, and taking it from the “rich”, is not the solution.

This worldview is apparently not rare; see this quote:

I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations (Occupy Together) are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration. Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! …

I think the defenders of the interests of the top income percentile will continue to harp on these arguments: The unemployed are deservedly unemployed; the poor are deservedly poor. This will help distract the electorate from the issue of whom will bear the burden of adjustment to the aftermath of the financial crisis(including stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio), and the response to secular trends in income inequality.See more on tax policyhere.



Brief History of Macroeconomics and The Origins of Freshwater vs. Saltwater Economics

I and others, particularly Paul Krugman, occasionally make reference to “freshwater” vs. “saltwater” economics.  Here’s a little background to explain the terms and, I hope, shed a little light on current disputes in macroeconomic theory.

First, let’s go back in time.  The stuff that economists study, namely the economy, economic behavior, and markets, really emerged as it’s own discipline in the 1700’s with Adam Smith.  It had always been a topic for philosophers to discuss. Even Aristotle writes about the topics.  But it didn’t really emerge from “moral philosophy” into it’s own field of study until Smith.  Originally Smith and the subsequent economists such as Ricardo focused on markets and what we now  call microeconomics with a nod towards questions of political economy (public policy and the whole economic system).  The industrial revolution was in full swing.  The economic system wasn’t really “capitalist” because nobody knew what that was yet.  It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that the word capitalism becomes commonly used.   Note:  Adam Smith was not a capitalist.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of “capitalist” comes in 1792 in France, well after Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations.  

Then in the years just after the Napoleonic wars, England suffered some very severe financial crises and depressions involving the collapse of canal-building businesses.  At the time, Smith’s famous treatise was now 40-55 years old.  The authors now called economists argued about it’s causes and the policies needed to right the economy and restore full-employment.  The center of the debate revolved around questions of “whether there could ever be such a thing as a general glut of commodities”.  In other words, was it possible that the now industrialized economy with it’s newly enlarged banking sector and wide circulation of paper money could be too efficient?  Would such an economy always produce willing buyers for all the goods that sellers wanted to supply?

Two views emerged. One of them, later called “Classical” becomes the dominant thinking in economic circles.  The Classical view denies that long-term high unemployment is even possible as long as the government balances it’s budget and follows a laissez-faire policy of not interfering in markets.  A very mechanistic view of the economy as being constructed of self-adjusting markets that always return to equilibrium evolves.  The Classical view supports a very liberal (old sense) and anti-regulation view of government policy.

Critics existed but they failed to dominate the debate.  Karl Marx in the mid-1800’s writes some scathing critiques of Classical economics focusing on how the mechanism of market equilibrium cannot and does not work as described in labor markets.  Yet despite the critique, the Classical economists continue to dominate policy making and academic circles.  The debate, however, becomes more polarized with the Classicals of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s pushing even more extreme anti-government, pro-market policy positions and models than their Classical predecessors advocated. Many of the critics of capitalism and Classical economics move to the opposite end of the spectrum and embrace socialist, communist, or fascist/syndical economics, in effect taking a position that market capitalism is so fatally flawed that it must be completely replaced by a system of planning by the government.

Despite the dominance of the Classicals, there were always some economists laboring, researching, and writing about the cycles of business and the workings of money and banks.  They just didn’t get much attention or have a comprehensive framework to distinquish themselves from either the Classicals or the planned economy types.

Then came Keynes and the Great Depression.  Classical economics denied The Great Depression could happen – much like University of Chicago economists in 2010 who claimed that today’s high unemployment is the result of workers suddenly choosing to voluntarily have leisure instead of a job.  Keynes writes a powerful book called The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Macroeconomics is born.

Keynesian macro focuses on a total systems approach to the economy instead of just assuming that whatever works in a micro perspective in each market will make the total system work.  Keynes attempts to avoid the fallacy of composition. Keynes’s analysis shows that an industrialized, capitalist market economy with a financial/banking sector is inherently unstable.  It tends to have cycles – business cycles.  It’s beyond the intent of this post to explain the reasons, but the bottom-line was that Keynes identified a role for active government and central bank policy to maintain full employment  and stable prices.  Keynes rapidly gained converts in economics and soon the field was split into microeconomics and macroeconomics.

The success of Keynesian economists and Keynesian policies in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s led to dominance of Keynesian viewpoints.  But there were two subversive trends underway that would eventually reverse the Keynesian dominance and return the Classical viewpoint to dominance.  One was an attempt to build a comprehensive mathematics framework for all economics built on the math of Newton’s physics.  This effort, called the neo-classical synthesis, originally focused on microeconomics.  But eventually it turned it’s attention to putting Keynes’s ideas into the same optimizing-behavior mathematics.  Unfortunately, Keynes himself was long dead by now and unable to clarify what he “meant”.  Some ideas are forced onto him that weren’t necessarily there in the original (such as insisting on static equilibrium).  The second trend was a small group of economists who never agreed.  They were in effect Classicals in exile.  Led by Milton Friedman at University of Chicago and Friedrich Hayek, they launched a two-prong attack.  Hayek’s attack led to what we call Austrian economics today and is often embraced by extreme libertarians.  I won’t get into that here, there’s not enough time.

Friedman’s initial attack focused on re-writing our understand of The Great Depression.  Friedman works to show that monetary policy by the central bank was at fault for the Depression, implying that a laissez-faire government fiscal policy would be best.  Friedman’s disciples at Chicago and elsewhere expanded the attack by insisting on “micro-foundations” in all macro-economic theories and models.  By micro-foundations, they mean that the only acceptable basis for a macroeconomic model is one that is based only on the micro ideas of perfectly rational individuals acting on perfect information with perfectly rational expectations about the future and the nature of the economy.  By the mid-1970’s the Friedman posse was clearly winning the academic wars, in part because their position lent itself easily to using neo-classical synthesis  mathematics and because it was consistent with “micro-foundations”.

Friedman originally took a modified Classical position.  Classicals denied that either fiscal or monetary policy could affect or correct the performance of the whole economy.  Friedman pushed the idea that fiscal policy wouldn’t work but that monetary policy would.  Eventually the next generation of Friedman students and disciples went further and returned to the Classical position that neither fiscal nor monetary policy would work.

As it turns out, these newly re-ascendant Classicals, now being called New Classicals, inspired by Friedman, often taught at universities located inland near some kind of “freshwater”.  The remaining supporters of Keynesian viewpoints, now under severe attack, taught at schools nearer the ocean.  Then in 1976 R.E. Hall pens a paper called Notes on the Current State of Empirical Macroeconomics and identifies this split and associates freshwater and saltwater with the split.

As I see it, the major distinguishing feature of macroeconomics is its concern with fluctuations in real output and unemployment. The two burning questions of macroeconomics are: Why does the economy undergo recessions and booms? What effect does conscious government policy have in offsetting these fluctuations? These questions define the issues considered here. I will further restrict my attention to structural approaches, and will avoid discussion of the reduced-form approach, including its recent sophisticated manifestation (7).

As a gross oversimplification, current thought can be divided into two schools. The fresh water view holds that fluctuations are largely attributable to supply shifts and that the government is essentially incapable of affecting the level of economic activity. The salt water view holds shifts in demand responsible for fluctuations and thinks government policies (at least monetary policy) is capable of affecting demand. Needless to say, individual contributors vary across a spectrum of salinity). The old division between monetarists and Keynesians is no longer relevant, as an important element of fresh-water doctrine is the proposition that monetary policy has no real effect. What used to be the standard monetarist view is now middle-of-the-road, and is widely represented, for example, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1To take a few examples, Sargent corresponds to distilled water, Lucas to Lake Michigan, Feldstein to the Charles River above the dam, Modigliani to the Charles below the dam, and Okun to the Salton Sea.


The Economy Has Caused Riots Before – In the Great Depression

Washington’s Blog reminds us that things got ugly during the last prolonged depression in the United States.  This interesting historical footage from the Great Depression shows what happens when large numbers of people are unemployed for years at a time, get desperate, and perceive that the game is rigged to the benefit of Wall Street.

This depression isn’t as deep or severe as the Great Depression – the bank bailouts and the 2009 Obama stimulus spending/tax cut bill (ARRA) made sure of that.  But as this week’s GDP numbers show, we simply aren’t growing enough to fully recover.  For workers, the nightmare is real.  With the #OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) growing stronger, spreading, and continuing now for well over 6 weeks, perhaps the Wall Street banks are having nightmares of their own about such scenarios as what happened in the video.  Could that be why JP Morgan Chase bank is making such large payoffs donations to the New York City Police department?  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism fills us in:

Is JP Morgan Getting a Good Return on $4.6 Million “Gift” to NYC Police? (Like Special Protection from OccupyWallStreet?)

No matter how you look at this development, it does not smell right. From JP Morgan’s website, hat tip Lisa Epstein:

JPMorgan Chase recently donated an unprecedented $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation. The gift was the largest in the history of the foundation and will enable the New York City Police Department to strengthen security in the Big Apple. The money will pay for 1,000 new patrol car laptops, as well as security monitoring software in the NYPD’s main data center.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon a note expressing “profound gratitude” for the company’s donation.

“These officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe,” Dimon said. “We’re incredibly proud to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard work.”

But what, pray tell, is this about? The JPM money is going directly from the foundation to the NYPD proper, not to, say, cops injured in the course of duty or police widows and orphans…

And look at the magnitude of the JP Morgan “gift”. The Foundation has been in existence for 40 years. If you assume that the $100 million it has received over that time is likely to mean “not much over $100 million” this contribution could easily be 3-4% of the total the Foundation have ever received.

Now readers can point out that this gift is bupkis relative to the budget of the police department, which is close to $4 billion. But looking at it on a mathematical basis likely misses the incentives at work. Dimon is one of the most powerful and connected corporate leaders in Gotham City. If he thinks the police donation was worthwhile, he might encourage other bank and big company CEOs to make large donations.

And what sort of benefits might JPM get? It is unlikely that there would be anything as crass as an explicit quid pro quo. But it certainly is useful to be confident that the police are on your side, say if an executive or worse an entire desk is caught in a sex or drugs scandal. Recall that Charles Ferguson in Inside Job alleged that the use of hookers is pervasive on Wall Street (duh) and is invoiced to the banks.

Or the police might be extra protective of your interests. Today, [Oct 5] OccupyWallStreet decided to march across the Brooklyn Bridge (a proud New York tradition) to Chase Manhattan Plaza in Brooklyn. Reports in the media indicate that the police at first seemed to be encouraging the protestors not only to cross the bridge, but were walking in front of the crowd, seemingly escorting them across…

The wee problem is that the police are in the street, and part of the crowd is also on the street (others are on a pedestrian walkway that is above street level). That puts them in violation of NYC rules that against interfering with traffic. Note the protest were aware fo the rules; they were careful to stay on the sidewalk on the way to the bridge.

…some (many?) the protestors who used the walkway and got across the bridge were also corralled and not permitted to proceed to the Chase plaza. Greg Basta, deputy director of the New York Communities for Change, told me by phone, based on multiple reports from people who participated in the march, that as soon as protestors got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, they were kettled. Greg was under the impression that there were construction barricades at the foot of the bridge which made it impossible for the marchers not to walk on the street. Because the focus has been on the what happened on the bridge, the coverage of what happened to the rest of crowd is sparse.

Some confirmation in passing comes from MsExPat at Corrente (apparently some of the very first off the bridge were permitted to proceed):

My friends and I made it to the Brooklyn side okay–we ended up with about 350 other marchers in Cadman Plaza, a lovely 19th century park. What I didn’t find out until later is that several hundred people behind me also got kettled and barred from going all the way to Brooklyn. So I was among the lucky marchers in the middle.

But notice even then that the procession to Chase Manhattan Plaza [correction, Cadman Plaza} was effectively barred. [Note JPM may have operations nearby, Bear Stearns had much of its back office there, and if the leases were cheap, JPM may have kept the space].

We simply don’t know whether the police would have behaved one iota differently in the absence of the JP Morgan donation. But it raises the troubling perspective that they might have. …

So far, the JP Morgan donation is an isolated example. But the high odds of continuing deep budget cuts at the state and local level open up the opportunity for corporate funding of preferred services, and with it, much greater private sector influence on the apparatus of government. This is a worrisome enough possibility to warrant a high degree of vigilance by all of us.

Some Other Interesting Perspectives on OccupyWallStreet

I’ve already mentioned my initial thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement (#OWS).  Here’s some snippets from a couple of others with some interesting insights.  First, historian William Hogeland writes at his blog Hysteriography.  He notes how the #OWS movement is a deeply American movement.  It has roots in the American revolutionary period as much as any Tea Party. He also reminds us that the Revolution wasn’t simply Americans vs. the tyrannical English. It was just as much about pure economic equality and fairness.   It was also about elitist rich Americans vs. populist American farmers and workers oppressed by taxes, foreclosures, and debts.

… I write about the deep, founding roots of rowdy, American populist protest and insurrection, often visionary and even utopian, yet informed and practical too, specifically over money, credit, and the purpose and nature of public and private finance. …most people still don’t connect the American founding period with a rugged drive on the part of ordinary people for equal access to the tools of economic development and against the hegemony of the high-finance, inside-government elites who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution and made us a nation.

Sometimes people even ascribe democratic ideas to the famous upscale American Revolutionaries, who to a man actually hated democracy and popular finance. Paine, the exception, was ultimately rebuked and scorned by all of the others. [UPDATE: Anyway, Paine wasn’t one of them; I threw him in defensively because consensus-history types like to “include him in” on the basis of “Common Sense,” while including his social/economic radicalism out.]

The difficulty in dealing with our founding battle for democratic economics arises in part because the movement was not against England but against the very American banking and trading elites who dominated the resistance to England. That complicates our founding myth, possibly unpleasantly. Also, it was a generally losing battle. With ratification of the Constitution, Hamiltonian finance triumphed, and people looking to Jefferson and Madison for finance and economic alternatives to Hamilton are barking up the wrong tree, since what those men knew, or even really cared, about finance could be written on a dime. (Anyway, in pushing for creating a  nation, Madison supported Hamiltonian finance down the line. Their differences came later.) When Occupy Wall Street protesters say “It’s We the People!”  they’re actually referring to a preamble, intending no hint of economic democracy, to a document that was framed specifically to push down democratic finance and concentrate American wealth for national purposes. Not very edifying, but there it is.

…Amid horrible depressions and foreclosure crises, from the 1750′s through the 1790′s, ordinary people closed debt courts, rescued debt prisoners, waylaid process servers, boycotted foreclosure actions, etc. (More on that here and here.) They were legally barred from voting and holding office, since they didn’t have enough property, so they used their power of intimidation to pressure their legislatures for debt relief and popular monetary policies. Their few leaders in legit politics included the visionary preacher Herman Husband, the weaver William Findley, and the farmer Robert Whitehill.

They had high hopes for American independence. In the 1770′s, their “out-of-doors” collaboration with the famous elites was critical to enabling the Declaration of Independence — even though none of their names appears there (well, Benjamin Rush’s does, but by then he’d become unradicalized). Their democratic, egalitarian hopes dashed, in the 1780′s, in western Massachusetts, they marched on the state’s armory in Springfield to reverse regressive finance policies that had again plunged ordinary people into debt peonage and foreclosure while bailing out rich creditors (elites called that populist action, reductively, Shays’s Rebellion). In the 1790′s, with the Constitution in force, and Hamilton’s economics the law of a powerful new nation (partly in direct reaction to the Shays action), populists took over the militia and debt-court system throughout western Pennsylvania and western counties of neighboring states, flew their own flag, and tried to secede from the United States and form an economically egalitarian country. Hamilton dubbed that action, again in a successful effort to reduce it, the Whiskey Rebellion, and he and President Washington responded, naturally enough, by occupying western Pennsylvania with federal troops.

It is my possibly vain hope that reading up on such historical matters might inspire efforts like Occupy Wall Street to greater cogency and a deeper, more solid foundation in longstanding (if embattled and problematic) American values than they now seem to possess. You don’t have to look as late as the 19th-century Populists and the 1930′s labor movement, for example, to find an American left deeply immersed in both economic issues and an ambitious vision of a better country. Those things were present at the creation.

Hogeland also recommends an “Occupy Wall Street” Reading List.

Next up is John Quiggin at Crooked Timber.  He first observes that much of the eventual outcome of the #OWS movement depends on the “19%” – the folks that are in the top quintile, the top 20%, but aren’t part of the top 1%.  As we know powerfully from a graph I posted a few days ago:

First, economix at the New York Times reported on the basic income distribution data recently:

The graph below shows how much income is earned by a household at any given percentile in the income distribution, based on these new numbers for 2011:

DESCRIPTIONTax Policy Center

Incomes grow much, much faster at the top end of the income distribution than in the middle or at the bottom end. That is, the disparity in income between one percentile and a consecutive percentile is bigger among the very rich.

The top quintile, the top 20% may be rich compared to the rest, but not very much.  It’s really the top 1% and the top 0.1% where the income scale is truly distorted and outrageous.  Quiggin makes the point that the 19% is politically influential and powerful.  Perhaps not as powerful as the 1%, but clearly politically influential.  To keep the redistribution of income to the top game going, the top 1% has to keep the 19% on their side.  Without them, there’s clearly no legitimacy.  [bold emphases mine]

The top quintile as a whole commands the great majority of US income, and virtually all financial wealth – few households outside this group own much beyond their homes and perhaps some money in a pension fund….

The 19 per cent also have a disproportionate political weight, since they are much more likely than Americans in general to register, vote and engage in political activity. So, it makes a big difference whether, as as implied by ‘We are the 99 per cent’ their interests are aligned with the mass of the population or with the top 1 per cent…

The top quintile as a whole has done very well over the past few decades, and (despite some silly claims to the contrary), high-income earners have mostly voted Republican, in line with their economic interests. Certainly there are plenty who don’t vote their interests, but that is also true of many people in the top 1 per cent, not to mention bona fide billionaires like Buffett and Soros. [but]… a closer look at income growth figures suggests that, while the 19 per cent have enjoyed rising incomes, they’ve only barely maintained their share of national income. The redistribution of the past three decades has gone from the bottom 80 per cent to the top 1 per cent.

That suggests the possibility of a policy response in which the main redistributive thrust would be to reverse this process.  This would almost certainly involve higher tax payments, but this would be offset by the restoration of public services, which are in economic terms a ‘superior good’, valued more as income rises. The top 1 per cent can buy their own services, and are largely unaffected by public sector cutbacks, but that’s not true of the 19 per cent.

Another important factor is the growth of economic insecurity. The myth of the US as a land of opportunity for upward mobility has been replaced by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling (another good source on this is High Wire by Peter Gosselin). Even if people in the top 19 per cent are doing well, they are less secure than at any time since the 1930s, and their children face even more uncertain prospects.

Finally, there is the alliance of the 1 per cent with the forces of rightwing cultural tribalism. The 1 per cent can only rule by persuading lots of people to vote against their interests, and that requires a reactionary and anti-intellectual agenda on social, cultural and scientific issues. As a result, educated voters have increasingly turned against the Republican Party.

I don’t want to make too much of this last point. As Allan Grayson said during his memorable takedown of PJ O’Rourke recently, the 1 per cent own the Republican Party outright, but they also own much of the Democratic Party, and can rule satisfactorily through either. Also, having a college degree isn’t the same as being educated – Tea Party supporters are more likely than the average American to have a degree, and college-graduate Republicans are even more prone to various delusional beliefs on issues such as climate change.

Nevertheless, taking account of all the factors listed above, even the most comfortably affluent members of the professional class, looking at the alliance of plutocrats and theocrats arrayed to defend Wall Street could reasonably conclude that it was in their own interests to support the 99 per cent and not the 1 per cent.

We are therefore (surprisingly to me) suddenly back in a situation where a progressive movement can reasonably claim to act in the interests of a group that is:..
(a) the overwhelming majority of the population
(b) responsible for nearly all the productive activity (as against the 1 per cent’s incomes drawn from a parasitic financial sector)
(c) economically desperate or at risk of becoming so.

Can all of this be sustained? I don’t know, any more than anyone else. But #OWS has already achieved things that most people would have regarded as impossible a month ago, and for the moment at least, the momentum is still growing.

The #OWS movement appears to be spreading and  growing in a way the Tea Party never did.  It’s clearly, as Hogeland points out, deep in the tradition of American politics.  And as Quiggin points out, the 19%, the top quintile folks  have had income gains in recent years but they’ve also had a dramatic increase in economic insecurity, diminished prospects for their children, and a reduction in the public services they value such as top-notch public universities and infrastructure.  It’s interesting times, especially since no presidential candidate from either party appears to align with the interests of the #OWS movement.

The Fraudulent Flat Tax Pitch – A Rich and Powerful Tactic

Power and riches go together. But nowadays, they need political spin. Throughout history the very rich have usually also been the very powerful.  And usually the very rich use that power to both protect themselves from the less well-off and to figure out ways to further enrich themselves.  Often the enrichment comes at the expense of the less well-off.  When you’re powerful, redistribution of income away from the poor towards yourself is often a lot easier and more lucrative than trying to be productive and creative.  It’s been this way largely since the start of history.  But getting the poor and middle classes to go along it can be a challenge.  Of course blatant power, threats, and coercion were the means of choice for centuries.  The pure power dynamic gave way over the centuries to class, the idea that somehow the rich were different people, better people. The poor and middling classes were taught that it was the natural way of things.

Then the American and French revolutions brought out that dangerous idea: people really are fundamentally the same and they should have the same political rights.  It was a very dangerous idea for the rich and powerful classes. It leads to questioning why the rich are rich and the poor aren’t.  More importantly, this equality idea gave rise to a democratic governments.  Democracy is a challenge for the rich and powerful.  As historian William Hogeland has powerfully explained, the U.S. Constitution was actually created as a reaction by the rich and powerful against democratic finance well after the American Revolution.

So how do the rich and powerful today attempt to overcome democratic impulses and further enrich themselves at the expense of the others?  In other words, how do the rich and powerful get the poor and middle classes to go along with proposals that ultimately are only in the interest of the rich and powerful? 

One tactic is to simultaneously promote the idea that anybody can get rich and that success is purely a function of individual merit and effort.  One blatant example of this is Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s statements that “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”   The unstated, but necessary assumptions behind such a statement are that sufficient opportunities exist instead of an economy where there is only 1 job opening for every 4+ job seekers.  It also assumes that all power is benign and that the rules are truly fair and balanced.  There’s a pernicious micro-economic theory called marginal resource productivity pricing (the MRP=MRC idea) that falsely provides a patina of cover for such ideas.  I won’t deal with that here but I hope to in a future post.

A second tactic is political spin.  Proposals that are really attempts to use the government to further entrench the rich and powerful at the expense of the 99% are dressed up in language that is carefully chosen to sound like it’s fair and populist.  But it’s a faux populism.  It’s an attempt to fool voters. Flat tax proposals are just such attempts to fool voters into supporting proposals that will hurt them. Let’s look at how and why flat tax proposals are neither “fair” nor beneficial to the majority of voters, workers, or taxpayers.

Inevitably, all flat tax proposals represent an attempt to raise taxes on the poor and middle classes while reducing taxes on the extreme rich, the top 1%. I’ve already analyzed and explained just how much Herman Cain’s “flat tax” proposal, the “9-9-9” plan would raise taxes on at least the 80% while providing a huge tax cut for the top 1% and even more for the top 0.1%.  If there were truth in political advertising, Cain’s plan should be described as the “9+9+9=27% tax plan”.

Why are all flat tax proposals some kind of tax increase on the poor & middle class while providing tax cuts for the rich?  It’s because we already have a mildly progressive tax system.  Progressive means that the higher your income is, the higher your tax rate is.  In other words, under a progressive system, the rich pay higher rates and the poor lower rates.  Under a regressive system, the poor pay higher rates than the rich.  In the U.S., the federal income tax system is moderately progressive, although it’s been flattened a lot in the last the 33 years.  The progressiveness of the federal income tax system is offset partially by the regressive nature of a lot of other taxes like Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, state and local sales taxes, and some property taxes.  The net effect is a mildly progressive tax system.  I quote from a post I made about this topic last spring:

 the folks at  Citizens for Tax Justice  used 2008 data for all federal, state and local taxes combined to do the analysis.  Here’s their analysis (via New York Times – warning paywall):

It found that the average effective tax rate is 29.8 percent, and that including state and local taxes makes the tax curve look much  less steep:

Source: Citizens for Tax Justice Horizontal axis shows the income group. Vertical axis shows the percentage of income that the average member of that group pays in taxes. Taxes include all federal, state and local taxes (personal and corporate income, payroll, property, sales, excise, estate, etc.). Incomes include cash income, employer-paid FICA taxes and corporate profits net of taxable dividends.

So what do we learn from this?  It shows us that if we look at the overall tax system in the U.S., the complex patchwork system of federal-state-local income taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, etc., we are pretty close to having a flat tax system.  The poorest, lowest income folks pay 18.7% of income as some type of tax while the the richest 5% do pay more, but they only pay 32.2%.

What is really stunning is how the top 1%, the really-really rich multi-millionaires actually pay less average tax rate than the those who are only rich enough to make the top 5%.  It must really be nice to be so rich that Congress tweaks the tax code just for you.

So the system is very, very mildly progressive.

Flat tax advocates don’t make this “tax increase on the poor/middle class with tax cut for rich” aspect clear.  They try to hide it and obfuscate it.  They use terms like “flat” and “fair”.  They are really trying to tap into our collective memories of childhood when the idea of everybody getting the same percentage of the birthday cake seemed like an obvious “fair” solution.  They don’t want us to pay attention to the actual numbers.

But even a “flat” tax rate isn’t really fair. There’s a phenomenon that’s described in economics as the “diminishing marginal utility of money”.  In plainer English, it simply means that the richer you are, the more income you have, the less valuable any particular increase in income is to you.  The reverse is also true, when you’re poor and don’t have much money, the value or utility of money is very, very high.  An obvious example is to consider two extremes and look at the value or utility of having an additional dollar bill.  To an unemployed person with no assets and no money, a dollar bill is very, very valuable.  It may well represent eating vs. not-eating today. Life is dependent upon it.  Now contrast that to a hedge-fund manager who has a tens of millions of dollars in income each year and even more cash in the bank.  A single additional dollar doesn’t mean much.  If a strong wind blows the dollar out of the hand of the unemployed, they will no doubt chase it.  If it blows it out of the hand the hedge-fund manager, they’re much less likely to chase it.

But some critics may point out that my example is using dollar amounts not percentages.  Surely percentages would be the same.  Not really.  This time let’s consider someone working full-time at minimum wage.  They earn $296 per week – gross. But after payroll taxes they’re closer to $275.  That’s close to $1100 per month. One percent of that is $11.  That one percent could easily represent the difference between bus fare or gasoline and not having it.  In other words, that 1% represents the very ability to get to work and earn their income.  It’s extremely valuable.  It can be the difference between making it and not making it.  For many seniors on social security, 1% is the difference between life-maintaining prescriptions and not. But let’s look at that hedge-fund manager again.  The one with the $16 million dollar a year income.  The monthly income is $1.33 million.Now yes, 1% for our hedge fund manager is $13,333 each month. It seems like a huge amount of money to us (I’m assuming not many of the 1% read my blog), is how big of a sacrifice will it mean to the hedge fund manager?  Would paying an additional $13,333 per month really change the hedge fund manager’s life much?  Not likely.  It’s not likely to change the choice of first or second house.  I’ll grant it might affect the choice of whether to have a third home or how big it would be. The point is that the sacrifice represented by 1% of income is greatly different depending upon your income.  A flat tax does not represent equal sacrifice.  

The flat tax advocates also make much of the idea that a flat tax would simplify the tax code. Again the reason for claiming simplification is to get middle class voters to support  something that isn’t  It won’t.  First, while some flat tax proposals start out as recommending the elimination of all deductions, exemptions, and tax credits, they rarely do in practice.  Even Herman Cain has backtracked from his original proposal of eliminating all exemptions.  It’s the personal exemption that gives the current federal income tax system much of it’s progressiveness.  When push comes to shove, the political pressures and special interests that pushed for the deductions and credits originally rise up and force some kind of inclusion in the new proposal.  Herman Cain, I understand has now already backtracked and decided to add back personal exemptions.  That ends the “flatness” of his flat tax.  Now it’s just a tax cut for the rich proposal. In the real world of politics and special interests, no flat tax proposal will stay that way.  There are too many legitimate reasons why we don’t have a flat system now and they will inevitably reassert themselves.  Charitable deductions (think churches and universities, not homeless shelters) and home mortgage deductions have powerful interests behind them. Besides, much of the complexity in tax forms comes from simply trying to determine what’s income and what isn’t.  That won’t change.  Simplicity is just false promise to make flat tax proposals attractive to the middle class.

Flat tax advocates also claim it would treat all taxpayers the same.  But the current system already does that. As Robert Reich points out:

The truth is the current tax code treats everyone the same. It’s organized around tax brackets. Everyone whose income reaches the same bracket is treated the same as everyone else whose income reaches that bracket (apart from various deductions, exemptions, and credits, of course).

For example, no one pays any income taxes on the first $20,000 or so of their income (the exact amount depends on whether the person is married and eligible for tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit of the Family Tax Credit.)

People in higher brackets pay a higher rate only on the portion of their income that hits that bracket — not on their entire incomes.

So when Barack Obama calls for ending the Bush tax cut on incomes over $250,000, he’s only talking about the portion peoples’ incomes that exceed $250,000. He’s not proposing to tax their entire incomes at the higher rate that prevailed under Bill Clinton.

Republicans have tried to sow confusion about this. They want Americans to believe, for example, that if the Bush tax cut ended, small business owners with incomes of $251,000 a year would suddenly have to pay 39 percent of their entire incomes in taxes rather than 35 percent. Wrong. They’d only have to pay the 39 percent rate on $1,000 – the portion of their incomes over $250,000.

Get it? We already have a flat tax – flat within each bracket.

Flat tax advocates also deceive by only focusing on federal income taxes.  Payroll taxes, the Social Security and Medicare taxes, are regressive.  People with incomes over $104,000 don’t pay any tax on the income above that threshold.  People whose income comes from capital gains and not wages don’t pay any Social Security or Medicare taxes.  Yet they are eligible for Medicare.  State sales taxes are highly regressive.  Flat tax advocates don’t want to change those systems because the real objective is to shift taxes to the poor and middle class and give tax cuts to the top 1%.

Finally, the biggest deception in most flat tax proposals is that capital gains, dividend income, and hedge fund management fees (called “carried interest”) are usually still provided special treatment.  Herman Cain does this.  He claims to want all income taxed at 9%, but in reality he proposes that capital gains and dividend income be totally exempt from taxes.  In other words, the way that the top 1% generally earns most of their money would be tax free.  How fair is that?  It’s the current loopholes about taxing capital gains, hedge fund managers, and dividends at lower rates that results in the top 1% paying less than anyone else in the top 10% (see graph at top).

Flat tax proposals aren’t about flattening tax rates. They’re about flattening the majority of taxpayers.  But that doesn’t sell politically so they have to be wrapped in political spin to be something they aren’t.