US CAPITALISM IS OUT OF CONTROL

ABSTRACT: Of all the developed countries, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth. 1928 and 2007 were the peak years for income and wealth inequality in the US. In the periods leading up to these two peaks, the wealthy invested and speculated in financial markets. Speculative bubbles were created. The middle class saw their incomes stagnate. This led to economic instability, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Great Recession of 2008.

So where should we look for an example of greater economic stability and equality? The answer is the United States after World War II from 1946 to 1978. So what do we need to do to return to greater economic stability and equality? We need to keep and encourage the creation of jobs that pay middle class wages and have benefits.

We need to change the rules of our economy so the gains of economic growth are more widely shared. Capitalism needs rules, otherwise it runs out of control. A well-functioning democracy can create and enforce appropriate rules (laws and regulations). But if the democratic process of electing officials and making laws and regulations is corrupted by money and lobbying from wealthy capitalists and their corporations, the appropriate rules won’t be in place and capitalism can run out of control.

Currently, the huge amounts of money being spent by wealthy capitalists and their corporations on elections and lobbying are determining the rules of our economy. Americans are losing faith in our democracy, which is our most precious gift and our most important legacy for future generations. What the powerful moneyed interests would like, is for us all to get so cynical about politics and government that we basically give up. But if we’re mobilized, if we’re energized, if we take citizenship to mean not simply voting, paying taxes, and showing up for jury duty, but actually participating actively and knowledgeably, we can make our democracy – and capitalism – work.

FULL POST: Of all the developed countries, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth. 1928 and 2007 were the peak years for income and wealth inequality in the US. [1] What happened a year after 1928? The Great Crash. And what happened a year after 2007? Another financial system crash. The parallels are breathtaking if you look at them carefully. [2]

In the periods leading up to these two peaks, the wealthy invested and speculated in financial markets. Both times, speculative bubbles were created. In both periods, the middle class saw their incomes stagnate, so they went deeper and deeper into debt to maintain their living standard, creating a debt bubble. These bubbles and the undermining of the middle class led to economic instability, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Today, many in the middle class are one crisis away from being poor. If they lose a job, have a health crisis, or have a serious accident, they can find themselves suddenly in need of public assistance, which may be unemployment benefits, food stamps or food pantries, or subsidized health insurance from Medicaid. They may find themselves deep in debt and at risk of losing their home.

We seem to be close to the point where the middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going and where the majority of people feel like the economic and political systems are rigged against them. There may be a tipping point, where the degree of inequality and economic insecurity actually threaten our economy, our society, and our democracy.

So where should we look for an example of greater economic stability and equality? The answer is the United States in the decades after World War II. From 1946 to 1978, the economy doubled in size, everybody’s income doubled, and inequality was low. Although the top income tax rate was as high as 91% and was never below 70%, we had greater annual economic growth than we’ve had since. With today’s top tax rate under 40%, anybody who says that we have to reduce taxes to foster economic growth, simply doesn’t know our own history.

So what do we need to do to return to greater economic stability and equality? We need to keep and encourage the creation of jobs that pay middle class wages and have benefits. We need to increase the minimum wage and we need to include labor standards in our trade treaties. We need to give workers and the middle class the voice and power to stand up to the wealthy and ensure that our economy works for all people, not just for the 1% at the top. We need to change the rules of our economy so the gains of economic growth are more widely shared. (For more detail see my post of 10/29/13 at http://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/10/29/lack-of-good-jobs-is-our-most-urgent-problem/. )

The rules of our economy are largely set by the federal government. Capitalism needs rules, otherwise it runs out of control, resulting in financial collapses; air and water that are harmful; cars that are unsafe; drugs and food are tainted; industrial accidents where oil wells blow out, chemical plants explode, and trains crash and burn; and so forth.

A well-functioning democracy can create and enforce appropriate rules (laws and regulations) that balance public safety (including environmental safety) and corporate profitability. But if the democratic process of electing officials and making laws and regulations is corrupted by money and lobbying from wealthy capitalists and their corporations, the appropriate rules won’t be in place and capitalism can run out of control.

Currently, the huge amounts of money being spent by wealthy capitalists and their corporations on elections and lobbying are determining the rules of our economy. They are using their economic power to gain political power. They are using this political power to entrench and enrich themselves economically and politically by obtaining laws and regulations that are tilted to benefit their self-interest. This is not a matter of partisan politics; both Democratic and Republican politicians and policy makers receive the money and do the bidding of these powerful economic elites.

Examples of laws and regulations that are tilted to favor capitalist interests include individual and corporate tax laws; bankruptcy laws; antitrust laws and enforcement; intellectual property laws on copyrights, patents, and trademarks; health and safety laws; campaign finance laws; laws and regulations for the financial industry; and priorities for government spending.

Americans are losing faith in our democracy, which is our most precious gift and our most important legacy for future generations. We are losing faith in equal opportunity and upward mobility as practical realities, and we’re feeling real anxiety over our lack of economic security.

Americans need to understand what’s at stake and push good people in government to do the right thing. If we don’t, eventually the moneyed interests will win because they are persistent and there won’t be anybody who can speak loudly enough to be heard over the bullhorn of their money.

What the powerful moneyed interests would like, is for us all to get so cynical about politics and government that we basically give up and say, “Okay, you want our democracy? Take it.” Then they win everything. But if we’re mobilized, if we’re energized, if we take citizenship to mean not simply voting, paying taxes, and showing up for jury duty, but actually participating actively and knowledgeably, we can make our democracy – and capitalism – work.

We can do it if we understand the nature of the problem. Time and again, in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s, for example, we have saved capitalism from its own excesses. We made sure that rules were in place to make capitalism work as it should: as an engine of prosperity for everyone and with a brake on the excesses of greed and power, as well as on the money that can otherwise corrupt our democratic process.

I encourage you to watch, listen to, or read the transcript of Bill Moyers’ show with Bob Reich (http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-inequality-for-all/). And I encourage you to go see Bob Reich’s movie, Inequality for All. It’s entertaining and informative. You can see the trailer for the movie, get lots more information, and find opportunities to take action at http://inequalityforall.com/.


[1]       The latest data appear to show that inequality was even greater in 2012 than 2007 as the great majority of the benefits of our weak economic recovery are going to the richest people. For more detail, see my post of 9/27/13 at http://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/09/27/whats-up-with-the-economic-recovery/.

[2]       Moyers, B., with Reich, R., 9/20/13, “Inequality for all,” http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-inequality-for-all/ (This post is a summary of this Bill Moyers show. You can view, listen to, or read the transcript of it at the link provided.)

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2 comments

  1. Hazzard, Jane · · Reply

    Teddy Roosevelt fought against and warned of this at the beginning of the century….it’s had 100 years to take over our country. To hell with the government being too powerful, tea party people, it’s the fat cats in commerce, banking and finance!

    1. Jane, Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more. Eisenhower also warned us about the military-industrial complex in the 50s. We really do have a corporatocracy / plutocracy today, instead of a democracy. And every day that we don’t push back, the harder it will be to turn the tide.

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