Class Warfare Blog

August 13, 2019

Have You Ever Heard of Unearned Income?

How do you describe “pure” socialism? For most people it is “the government” (aka “We The People” in the US) owns the “means of production.” So, the government owns all of the businesses, factories, etc. and we all work together to benefit one another. Unfortunately, this ideal too often became totalitarian socialism, in which a political elite took over the system and it served the elite much more than it served the people as a whole. In some modern countries, the idea of democratic socialism seems to be working better.

What brought this to mind is I was reading an interview of an author on the Naked Capitalism website and the interviewer, John Siman, stated and asked the following:

John Siman: You have got me thinking about what economics—political economy—was originally supposed to be: a liberation from feudalism, from greedy rentiers and so the freedom for the common man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor and for the enterprising man to undertake great business projects. We should tax only unearned income!—that’s what the classical economists taught, right? So my deep worry: Are our academic neoclassical economists really latter-day medieval theologians, using arcane learning to uphold the privileges—specifically, to protect the unearned income—of a corrupt elite? After two or three centuries is the Enlightenment over as we enter a new feudalism? (It seems to me that we are already in a new Gilded Age.)

To unpack this (there is a lot going on) you need to know a few things. For one “rentiers” are not “renters” or even landlords per se, they are “people living on income from property or investments.” A good example of such are shareholders in a corporation. They receive dividends or profit on sales from that stock and that money was, for a very long time, referred to as “unearned income,” money earned by means other than the “sweat of one’s brow.” And, “political economy” was the original name for the study of economics, politics referring to interactions of people and economy being “involving money.”

You probably learned about feudalism in school. This was a system whereby “royals” owned the land and, basically, the people who worked it (serfs). They didn’t claim absolute ownership, but serfs were not free to pack up and leave, they were “tied to the land.” And even if they did pack up and leave, there were no “jobs” to be had in nearby locations. It strikes me that feudalism was a form of socialism. “The government” absolutely owned the means of production (including the serfs). This was not benign socialism, this was totalitarian socialism. (Not that the “rulers” didn’t ever do anything for the “ruled.” There were limits to what the “rentiers” could extract. Abuse your serfs/slaves too much, e.g. starve them by confiscating too much of the crops they raised, and they wouldn’t be able to work. And, please, do not try to convince me that having a local “central committee,” as in modern socialism, is substantially different from having a local earl or duke, the “government” in feudal times. “Remote and autocratic” describes both.)

So, as feudalism broke down, capitalism was created. And so was “economics” whose first fruits, apparently, were to craft a “liberation from feudalism, from greedy rentiers and so the freedom for the common man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor and for the enterprising man to undertake great business projects.” (Merchants were the first members of the “middle class,” that is between rich and poor, and widely despised by the elites.) And one of their first ideas was that “We should tax only unearned income!”

This practice balances the playing field, economically, between the rentiers and people who worked for a living. Selling one’s labor is a fine idea, but there is a limit: you only have so much labor to sell. But rentiers are unlimited in the amount of property or investments they can accrue. The well-to-do can become wealthy, the wealthy can become rich, millionaires can become billionaires and I assume we will soon see billionaires become trillionaires. Since wealth can be converted into political power, the scales of politics are tilted heavily in favor of the wealthy. To balance the scales, the early “political economists” established the idea of only taxing that rentier income and not taxing honest labor.

I have written recently (at least I think it was recently) on the disappearance of the term “unearned income” from public economics discourses. (Economists may still use it privately; I don’t know.) The term has basically vanished. And, out of sight, out of mind. The term is obviously connected to the core idea of those early economists, to only tax unearned income, and it flies in the face of the narrative of the wealthy that “they built it,” that they earned everything they have. My favorite example of this thinking was Mitt Romney, who claimed to have earned everything he owns, while at the same time his rich and powerful father (George Romney: chairman and president of American Motors Corporation from 1954 to 1962, the 43rd Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, and the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1973, etc.) gave him two $2,000,000 “to get started” and access to his influential and wealthy colleagues. (I remember this figure because during my almost 40 years of work as a teacher, I earned about $2,000,000 (both numbers are uncorrected for inflation). If I had been given $2,000,000 to “get started” I would not have had the gall to make the claim Romney does.)

The disappearance of the term “unearned income” from public discourse was no accident. And, if you use the term now, most people will be confused by it. The elites have scammed the system so well, that they have managed to get earned income taxed at a higher rate than unearned income (through the capital gains tax and others)!

So, capitalism was created to protect us from “feudal socialism.” What now can we get to protect us from capitalism and its captive economists? (Economists aren’t evil people, but their field has been captured by the rich. Oppose the rich strongly enough and you will no longer have either a reputation or a college professorship. Economists do know which side of the bread the butter is on.)

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July 2, 2019

The Absurdity of Maximizing Shareholder Value as a Business Goal

I have written about this before, but this post over at Naked Capitalism drives the nails home into the coffin of this very, very bad idea. (Being a Zombie idea will make this turkey very hard to kill.)

Rebel Economist Breaks Through to Washington on How Shareholder Value Theory Rewards the Undeserving

 

June 3, 2019

Why Are There So Many Signs of Distress in a Supposedly Robust Economy?

Over at the Naked Capitalism website there is a post focused on the St. Louis area but I think has application all over this country—St. Louis Fed Study Shows Rising Level of Financial Desperation Among the Poor, Hidden by Aggregates by Yves Smith.

I have blogged recently on economic indicators, basically claiming that if you use indicators of economic health that basically measure the fact the “the rich are getting richer,” you aren’t looking at the right indicators. For example, using the health of the stock market as an indicator of how ell the economy is doing is ludicrous at best.

This post by the wonderful Yves Smith addresses a ZIP code by ZIP code analysis of economic measures of economic distress and wealth accumulation or the lack of it, etc. The basic point is using “aggregate” economic measures (aka averages) masks the real situation.

Also, the “traditional” (aka what has always been recommended) strategy to “get ahead” no longer works. As a youth I was told that if I worked hard, saved some money, and was careful I could achieve the American dream. Because of wage suppression, run away health care costs, and near zero interest rates on savings, this strategy is broke, busted, and we are disgusted.

People work hard, often with more than one job, but sky high rents and health care costs, suck up the majority of what is made and no savings accrue. Actually debt is increasing in the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

My first full time job made me the grand sum of $9000 per year. Today, health insurance for a family of four is around $16,000 per year. Granted that there has been a considerable amount of inflation since then, but. . . . As another comparison, if one were to work a job, full-time: 8-hours per day, 5 days per week, with 11 unpaid holidays and no vacation, you would gross around $14,400. That’s gross, not net, so taxes (little in the form of income taxes, but payroll taxes) and whatnot have to be taken out to get at the actual amount of income this job would provide. If a household had two such jobs, the total net income might reach $26,000 or about $2170 per month. If this family is four in number (kind of an average) there will be no health insurance in that budget. Even subsidized health insurance would eat up quite a bit of that. In many areas of this country, that would barely cover rent and food, with transportation in the form of a family car (insurance, gas, maintenance) being out of the question.

It seems that the majority in this country now lives pay check to paycheck (I do) and that had been the case for most of the history of this country, but we were starting to get away from that after WW2. Now we are backsliding, with the skids being greased by the greedy rich who have bought Congress and much of the judiciary.

This is an interesting post and I recommend it to any interested in our current economic system.

Postscript Any politician who runs around claiming that the economy is robust or strong and beats their chest about it will be crushed at the polls in the next election. People are hurting and having smug elites tell them they are wrong to hurt will just increase the disaffection with the status quo that got us first Barack Obama and then Donald Trump. The GOP is likely to put up Donald Trump again and if the Dems decide on an avatar of the status quo (like Joe Biden) expect the repercussions to be severe.

 

 

May 25, 2019

Now I Understand!

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 11:59 am
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In a recent post (What, The Huge Trump Tax Cut Didn’t Prevent This?) I pointed out that the Ford Motor Company has been laying off employees and will be laying off even more in an effort to save money. I though this is what the huge tax cut given to corporations like Ford was supposed to solve.

Then I stumbled on this NYT graphic of the corporations in 2018 which paid no federal tax (some even receiving rebates!):

Stunningly FoMoCo was not on this list, which means they have been paying corporate income taxes! (Apparently three out the past ten years!)

No wonder they are having financial problems! Fools!

May 19, 2019

We Are Using the Wrong Economic Indicators

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:08 pm
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Currently our “news media” (whatever the heck that is now) are trumpeting things like the US GDP (Gross Domestic Product), unemployment statistics, average wages, and Dow Jones stock index levels as indicators of the “health” of the economy. And, boy is the economy strong!

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

These indicators were chosen by the elites to serve the elites.

Consider the Gross Domestic Product, a measure of how much we produce in goods and services. How does that reflect on the welfare of the nation’s citizens? It doesn’t. It indicates how “productive” the economy was . . . but in service to whom? If all of the nation’s output was shipped overseas, the GDP wouldn’t change, but the indicator would indicate how well we were serving overseas customers, not Americans. Shouldn’t economic indicators indicate how well our economy is serving our citizens? (We the people, etc.)

Maybe a Gross Consumption Index would be a better measure. No matter how much we are producing, Americans won’t buy things when they are feeling economically insecure. So, it is more important how much Americans are consuming than they are producing. Is there such an index? If so, you couldn’t tell from the news organizations.

And don’t get me started about unemployment statistics. The number of full-time jobs with benefits is still shrinking, only to be replaced by part-time jobs with no benefits and shit wages. But unemployment is at a record low! Oh, and we don’t count people who have officially stopped looking for a job.

Average wages? Give me a break! Median wages, the wage at the exact middle of the wage spectrum has been decreasing! This means that there are more people making less and just a few making much, much more than that number.

The whole purpose of these misleading “economic indicators” is to convince us that the politicians are doing their jobs. Unfortunately, they are doing it for only the wealthiest among us.

May 8, 2019

The Bullshit Scam that Are FICO Scores

We have all been told that FICO credit assessment scores are important. There are even services that will help you improve your FICO score, so you will have more credit opportunities.

It is all bullshit and a scam on the public.

I am a responsible person (IMHO of course). I pay my bills on time with rare exceptions, usually based upon forgetfulness. In any case, I have run up quite a bit of credit card debt, not unlike many Americans. But I was paying them down assiduously. I paid off one card and closed the account, a sign of a good faith borrower, I thought . . . and then my FICO score went . . . down. WTF? I still have plenty of accounts, but if I close one I am less credit worthy? WTF? How does that make sense?

I then paid off a car loan! Woo hoo, I paid off my car and I owned it free and clear . . . and my FICO score went . . . down! Again, WTF?

All of the signs of being an honorable borrower cause my credit score to be decreased?! So, I kept my head down and just paid down what I owed. I paid more than the minimum payment on my credit cards every month, and my FICO score climbed up to 700 and beyond! I was so proud!

But, I wasn’t making enough progress on reducing my credit card dept, so I applied to my Savings and Loan for a signature loan (that had a lower interest rate than my credit cards) and paid off my all of my credit cards (Balance = $0)! Note that I replaced my CC debt with an unsecured loan debt of the exact same amount in this process, so my indebtedness did not change even $1. So what happened?

My FICO score soared from ca. 700 to ca. 800! I was now much more credit worthy than I was before, even though my indebtedness was exactly the same! Also, I did not prove my ability to pay off loaned funds at all! But, now I was an “excellent” credit risk where before I was only a “good” credit risk.

Ironically, my S&L checked my FICO score to assess whether I was worthy of the signature loan (aka no collateral loan) when they processed my loan application.

So, what do I conclude from all of this?

I conclude we have been conned. FICO scores (created by a private credit scoring concern . . . I wonder what their corporate values are?) are part of an institutional effort to make sure we are indebted to the system to the max. They are designed to make sure that we can borrow much more than we are prepared to repay in any one year or even one decade. They are a tool of the lending institutions and the financial elites who are now running the whole fucking show!

That Donald Trump is one of their minions doesn’t help one fucking bit. I feel I want to go around the world apologizing to people in all of the countries of the planet for electing the abomination who is Donald Trump and for supporting an American system that oppresses so many people, including our own.

 

April 11, 2019

Is Capitalism Given Too Much Credit?

Filed under: Economics,History — Steve Ruis @ 8:27 am
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Over at Ian Welsh’s website, Mr. Welsh has posted yet another brilliant takedown of our common knowledge/wisdom, aka “everybody knows.” he points out that many of the benefits claimed for capitalism were actually a result of industrialization, something that allowed the nascent Soviet Union to outgrow most other countries for quite some time.

Don’t Confuse Capitalism with Industrialization

Here’s a taste:

“We need to stop being nodes in a shitty resource allocation algorithm, and we need to start actually making sane decisions based on group autonomy and welfare.

“And capitalism, capitalism doesn’t do that.”

A very important perspective.

This is typical of what people do. If they like something they attribute positive properties to it whether or not they are possessed by that thing. I recall a teaching colleague who regularly received high marks for her sense of humor in her mathematics classroom. She points this out because she used no humor whatsoever in her teaching. But she was a very good teacher and was also kind and understanding as the teacher of a topic some find quite difficult, so she received high marks for everything surveyed.

Have we done the same for capitalism? I believe so. In addition to this normal tendency, there are people who have much to gain who propagandize the topic. These people often claim that “capitalism is the greatest economic system ever invented,” but if you query them on their knowledge of other economic systems, they are woefully ignorant. How can one claim A is better than B when they have no real idea what B is?

Read the piece, highly recommended . . . and it is short!

April 2, 2019

And Forgive Us Our Debts

Michael Hudson is writing a series of books on the topic of debt forgiveness as a necessary component for capitalism to work. This topic evoked in me a memory of a conversation I had with my mother when I was a lad. She commented in church that the original version of the Lord’s Prayer included the phrase “… and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” but this was not approved of by the wealthy so it was transformed into “… and forgive us our trespasses as we also have forgiven our trespassers.” (By sixteenth century Anglicans?) There are a number of variations of these “translations,” but whatever was come up with (trespasses, sins, etc.), it was to get debt forgiveness (part of Mosaic law) out of that prayer.

A bit of this history is to be had at Naked Capitalism in the form of:

The Delphic Oracle Was Their Davos: A Four-Part Interview With Michael Hudson About His Forthcoming Book The Collapse of Antiquity (Part 1)

Highly recommended.

Some Enticing Teasers:
• “Rome was turned into an oligarchy, an autocracy of the senatorial families. Their “liberty” was an early example of Orwellian Doublethink. It was to destroy everybody else’s liberty so they could grab whatever they could, enslave the debtors and create the polarized society that Rome became.”
• “That’s why you don’t have any history of economic thought taught anymore in the United States. Because then you’d see that Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the “Ricardian socialists” and indeed most of the 19th century had a completely opposite idea of what constituted a free market … (o)pposite from the neoliberal idea that freedom means freedom for the wealthy to indebt and destroy the economy. Opposite from the liberty of Brutus to overthrow the Roman kings and establish an autocratic oligarchy.”

January 10, 2019

They Want It Both Ways

A common trope among the vocal rich is that handing out money to the “poor” will make them lazy. “Handing out” and “handouts” refer to welfare, food stamps, a higher minimum wage, you name it. On the flip side, they also claim that “redistributing” money from the rich to other where through higher progressive taxation will remove all of the incentive to invest and innovate.

So, at one end of the spectrum, allowing the poor to keep more of what they make or bumping their wages up to a bare subsistence level will result in them opting out of their jobs (more money = laziness) but allowing the rich to keep more of their income will encourage them to work harder, innovate more (more money = initiative).

Obviously this is merely a reflection of the class disdain the rich have for the poor. The poor are poor because of character flaws, moral weakness, lack of intelligence. The rich are rich because of their sterling character, moral strength, and brilliance. (Donald Trump … uh, is the exception that proves the rule?)

Also, is there any indication either of these “narratives” has any merit?

There is a well known phenomenon in business that as businesses grow and become larger, they tend to grow stagnant. They innovate less and their managers become more interested in milking the cow they have rather than finding new cows. In the recent tax giveaway to businesses, were the billions saved in taxes used to innovate, used to upgrade production, used to compensate workers, any of the things it was claimed it would do? Apparently, the funds were mostly used to buy back stock, which drives up the price of the stock, enriching shareholders and executives with stock options (you do get what you pay for).

Another economic “natural experiment” was the 1950’s and 1960’s economies. Marginal tax rates were sky high from the necessity to acquire funds to pursue World War 2. President Eisenhower refused to lower them, even in the peacetime following. Unions were empowered and laws were passed to provide some leveling of the playing field between labor and capital. So, were people enjoying the good times on welfare? Was there any laziness to be observed? Was innovation stifled because the rich were starved of the funds they needed to fuel the innovations? I think you know the answers to all of these (no, no, no).

So, what is with these narratives?

They aren’t new, they have been around for a century or more. They are, like religious apologies, arguments that sound reasonable but have no basis in reality. They have become memes among the rich folks, repeated often enough to be transferred from generation to generation. They are even sold to ordinary working people because they do sound reasonable and are repeated over and over. The rich are the job creators! Bah, customers create demand, demand creates jobs, and demand in our economy is mostly domestic demand which is stifled due to wage suppression activities on behalf of the rich.

The code word in use is “redistribution,” by which they mean that the rich are taxed and that money is “given” to the poor. The fact that much of the wealth the rich have accumulated is due to “redistribution” through other means is never mentioned. (Look up the history of the oil depletion allowance to see where the majority of the oil barons in this country came from.) The rich are in the business of bribing their politicians (not ours, we can’t afford them) to pass laws that benefit them. Our “representatives” do favors for the rich and nothing for the poor. For example, President Trump’s lackeys rolled back Obama-era regulations that prohibited coal companies from dumping toxic waste into the streams and rivers we draw our drinking water from, redistributing the consequences from the coal company executives to ordinary people. (1. Don’t get sick. 2. Die quickly.)

December 25, 2018

Plutocrats! You Have to be Really Dense to Not Understand This!

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:35 pm
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Happy holidays, y’all! This is my gift to you on this Christmas day!

I have lauded Sam Pizzagati’s book “The Rich Don’t Always Win” already and have a fuller comment to make based upon things found in that book (highly recommended by me!).

Basically, what needs to be done is rather simple, but the plutocrats don’t see it this way. Here are a couple of quotes to get the ball rolling: “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and income.”

I am sure the plutocrats would label this speaker as a communist if not a socialist. I am willing to bet that all of the plutocrats think that capitalism is the best economic system known/available/possible and are committed to it 100%. I also believe that almost all of these people believe in a “pay as you go” society. People should work, earn money, and pay for all that they need or want that way. Period.

Given those two beliefs allow me to state my second quote “Let us suppose that 1 percent of the population were to receive 95% of our entire national income, with the remaining 5 percent spread among the rest of us. Could our system—any system—work on that basis? One percent of the people couldn’t possible consume 95 percent of all of the goods and services which the rest of us could produce.” And failing to consume all of that output “they would have no reason to use their savings to produce more and more goods that they couldn’t consume either.” In such an unequal, unbalanced economy we would never see enough jobs for people to pay as they go, a consequence that “demonstrates the nonsense of the contention that the way our national income is divided among us has nothing to do with how much we produce or how many of us have jobs.”

Not to keep you on pins and needles, the first quote is from John Maynard Keynes, a mainstream economist … in 1936 … and the second was from Chester Bowles, a wealthy business man … in 1946.

Now, the plutocrats will counter argue that people paid “too much” according to their lights will become shiftless and lazy. Let’s see if that happened. After World War II, the American middle class burgeoned. More people had more disposable income than ever before. More owned houses, etc. Did you notice anyone buying hammocks for the long haul? Was there a run on foot stools for people to put their feet up? I was alive then and I didn’t see any of that. It always shocks me that plutocrats assume that when “ordinary people” get enough to live on they will become lazy and stop working. Of course, this is coming from a class of people who thought when they made their first million dollars, “How am I going to make the second?” This disdain for the motivations of ordinary people is larded throughout their positions.

Plutocrats also argue against equal distribution of wealth and income, saying that do not have enough wealth to make everyone rich. This is being willfully obtuse. The word “equal” should only be used with opportunity. In the 1950’s did you see people rioting or striking because they were not getting “equal” incomes to those of rich people? The idea is ludicrous. What is wanted is a fair distribution of the wealth created. Nobody is advocating equal distribution of wealth or income, so this is a straw dog argument.

The so-called “Great Compression” occurred after WW2 due to high marginal tax rates on the most wealthy and union power, and governmental power improving the lot of those at the bottom (hence the compression—economic forces applied downward from on top, upward from the bottom). This was fought tooth and nail by the rich and, after WW1, the plutocrats managed to reverse all of the “similar corrections” made to the system during that war. But after WW2 the plutocrats didn’t succeed in rolling back all of the New Deal and other wealth redistribution mechanisms (they do, however and after all of these years, still speak scornfully of the New Deal as a marker of their social class). Why was that? Simply put, the plutocrats were scared stiff with regards to the communistic “workers’ revolts” in Russia and elsewhere. If keeping an underclass under their thumbs could lead to that kind of revolt, well…. So, they were inclined to live with high marginal income tax rates and with unions. (But not the U.S. Socialist and Communist political parties. After WW1 they were decimated over and over and then obliterated after WW2 by using Red Scare tactics.)

That was then, this is now. The problem is endemic as we are back where we started  at the beginning of the twentieth century (Thanks capitalism!) and we may have to find another way to deal with plutocrats. They get Donald Trump in the White House and the biggest item on their agenda is a huge tax cut, that they claimed would help ordinary people but by and large went into the pockets of the plutocrats. (I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! Have I mentioned that their tax cuts are permanent and our, much smaller, ones are temporary?)

This is so incredibly stupid that I am flabbergasted. These people are making so much money that they are giving it away or promising to give it away when they die. So, why do they so desperately need it while they are alive? They can’t spend but a fraction of it on themselves or their families. Were they to increase the wages of the workers they employ they would reap many benefits, help create a world they feel is the best (a “pay as you go” capitalistic society), and be appreciated far more than they are now. Why do they continuously rig the rules of the game to favor themselves and make sure that the bulk of new wealth flows into their pockets? The only answer that comes to mind involves dogs and mangers.

 

 

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