CRONY CAPITALISM AND WINNER TAKE ALL POLITICS

Here’s issue #21 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 2/29/12. This issue will begin to link the issues of corporate power, great inequality of income and wealth, and campaign finance. It is a bit long, as it is a summary of the first three shows of Bill Moyers’ return to public TV.

In case you haven’t heard, Bill Moyers is back on public television. (In theBostonarea, he’s on Sunday at 4:00 on channel 2. Or you can do what I do, download the podcasts from billmoyers.com or other sources.)

His first show back on (Jan. 13) was on Winner Take All Politics, the title of a recent book by Hacker and Pierson, whom Moyers interviews. The book and show document that the huge income disparity in the US (see issue #4 of my newsletter) is, in large part, the result of government policies over the last 30 years. Although globalization, technological change, and other changes in our economy have been factors, the real culprit is our public policies and how they have responded to these challenges. Other countries face these same challenges but have not experienced the dramatic increase in inequality that has occurred in theUS.

Over the last 30 years, the top income tax rate has been reduced from 70% to 35% (see issue #7 of my newsletter) with even lower rates for unearned (i.e., investment) income. As we’ve heard recently, multi-millionaires like Presidential candidate Romney are paying less than 15% of their income in taxes. If you were making around $20 million a year as he is, every one percentage point reduction in your tax rate puts $200,000 in your pocket. And with your tax rate cut in half, you are saving $3 million or more a year, or over $90 million over the last 30 years. Specifically, the Bush tax cuts of the early 2000s have given $50 to $100 million to each of the 400 richest Americans over the last 10 years.

This sets up a reinforcing cycle as some of these riches are funneled back into our political system through campaign contributions and Super PACs, further increasing the influence of the well-off and getting them favorable treatment. In addition, the lobbying capacity of the corporations and very rich has grown, while that of the middle class, particularly unions, has shrunk, further expanding the gap in political power and influence.

Hacker and Pierson note that politicians have learned that they can get re-elected despite ignoring or only giving symbolic support to the middle class, while moving the agenda of the corporations and very rich forward.

On Moyers’ second show (Jan. 20), David Stockman, President Reagan’s budget chief, was a guest. Stockman is writing a book entitled The Triumph of Crony Capitalism. He defines crony capitalism: using political power such as campaign contributions and lobbying to get returns that can’t be gotten in the market. He states that in theUS we do not have free market capitalism or democracy, but crony capitalism.

Stockman believes that we need to re-institute and strengthen the separation of the investment business and its risks from the banking system, as was in place prior to 1999 under a law called Glass-Steagall. Otherwise, he predicts that we will have recurring economic crashes. He says that financial institutions that are too big to fail are too big to exist and he advocates for banning corporate money from our political system and capping all campaign contributions at $100.

Moyers’ third show (Jan. 27) was with John Reed, who retired as CEO of Citigroup in 2000 after presiding over the merger of Citibank with Travelers Insurance. This merger led to and actually required the repeal of the Glass-Steagall law. The mantra at the time was that the new, enhanced financial system could handle the increased risk better than before and therefore repealing the separation of banking from the investment business wouldn’t be a problem. There was an extensive public relations and lobbying campaign to deliver this message, which ultimately skewed almost everyone’s thinking about this deregulation.

Reed, in retrospect, says that it’s amazing that everyone was so wrong and that the system as a whole went so far off the tracks that it caused the great recession we are now experiencing. He states that this was the result of crony capitalism between Wall Street executives andWashington politicians.

In other countries, including Canada, the crisis in the financial institutions wasn’t nearly as bad as here in the US. Our financial deregulation allowed financial institutions (including banks) to take great risks and to provide huge rewards to their people, an important part of our income and wealth inequality. And ultimately, these institutions and individuals did not bear the risk when things went wrong; the government and the public bailed them out.

Reed calls for re-regulation of the financial system, noting that regulations are need so that appropriate risks can be taken. He makes the analogy that cars have brakes (regulation) so that we can drive fast (take risks), but control our speed as needed. If cars did not have brakes, we’d all drive only very slowly. He is amazed that those lobbying against re-regulation and strengthening of oversight of financial institutions have any credibility given the crash they caused with deregulation. He notes that when corporations and the wealthy can buy the rules (or lack thereof), the situation is unstable.

One person who loudly warned of the dangers and, as Glass-Steagall was being repealed in 1999, predicted that in 10 years we would all come to realize that a big mistake was being made, was Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He noted that the deregulation was designed by those with a self-interest and that the complex securities, i.e. “derivatives,” that have been created are casino gambling with trillions and trillions of dollars. He states that the Dodd-Frank re-regulation law, which is being heavily lobbied against by Wall Street, is too weak to prevent the next collapse.

Another Moyers guest was Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times who has written a book entitled Reckless Endangerment. She noted that there have been no meaningful penalties for the individuals or institutions that caused the collapse of the financial system and no one has gone to jail. Furthermore, the same people who drove the ship into the iceberg are still in leadership roles on Wall Street and in the federal government.

Moyers closes by calling the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited spending by corporations in our political campaigns, “grotesque,” stating that it corrupts our political system and means that those with no (or little) money have no speech. He calls Winner Take All Politics immoral and notes that we have experienced a deep undermining our democratic institutions.

He cites a sign he saw at Occupy Wall Streetas telling it like it is: “The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed.

I encourage you to listen to the podcasts of these three shows. They are 52 minutes each and will provide you the richness and depth that I can’t in this summary.

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