Posts from Sam Pizzigati

An Invitation to Sunny Miami. What Could Be Bad?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

If a billionaire “invites” you somewhere, you’d better go. Or be prepared to suffer the consequences. This past May, hedge fund kingpin Carl Icahn announced in a letter to his New York-based staff of about 50 that he would be moving his business operations to Florida. But the 83-year-old Icahn assured his staffers they had no reason to worry: “My employees have always been very important to the company, so I’d like to invite you all to join me in Miami.” Those who go south, his letter added, would get a $50,000 relocation benefit “once you have established your permanent residence in Florida.” Those who stay put, the letter continued, can file for state unemployment benefits, a $450 weekly maximum that “you can receive for a total of 26 weeks.” What about severance from Icahn Enterprises? The New York Post reported last week that the two dozen employees who have chosen not to uproot their families and follow Icahn to Florida “will be let go without any severance” when the billionaire shutters his New York offices this coming March. Bloomberg currently puts Carl Icahn’s net worth at $20.5 billion.

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Wealth That Concentrates Kills

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The weight of the wealth that sits at the top of America’s economic order isn’t just squeezing dollars out of the wallets of average Americans. That concentrated wealth is shearing years off of American lives.

The latest evidence for that squeeze on American wallets comes from the Census Bureau. Researchers there have just released results from their latest annual sampling of U.S. incomes. In 2018, the new Census stats show, incomes for typical American households saw a “marked slowdown.”

In effect, average Americans have spent this entire century on a treadmill getting nowhere fast. The nation’s median — most typical — households pocketed 2.3 percent fewer real dollars in 2018 than they earned in 2000.

The “vast majority” of American households, note Economic Policy Institute analysts Elise Gould and Julia Wolfe, “have still not fully recovered from the deep losses suffered in the Great Recession.”

America’s most affluent households have been having no such problem. Average top 5 percent incomes have increased 13 percent overall since 2000, to $416,520. The new Census Bureau figures, based on a sampling of U.S. households, tell us that top 5 percenters are now collecting 23.1 percent of the nation’s household income.

But these Census Bureau figures significantly understate just how much income America’s richest are annually grabbing, mainly because Census researchers “top code” high incomes to keep the identity of sampled deep pockets confidential. All incomes above fixed top-code levels get recorded at the top code. These levels have changed over the years, but the Census Bureau’s continuing reliance on top coding leaves us with figures that fudge the real extent of our inequality.

Analyses based on other data sources — like IRS tax return records — show that top 1 percenters alone are pulling down over 20 percent of America’s household income, essentially triple the top 1 percent income share of a half-century ago.

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Opioid CEOs Are Our Nation’s Real Druglords

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Last week didn’t go so well for the Mexican druglord Joaquín Guzmán Loera. A federal district court sentenced the notorious “El Chapo” to life in prison. The 62-year-old will almost certainly, notes the New York Times, be “spending the rest of his life behind bars.”

El Chapo certainly deserves his fate. The drug cartel he ruled, a jury determined this past February, dumped “hundreds of tons of drugs to the United States” and “caused the deaths of dozens of people to protect himself and his smuggling routes.”

John Hammergren dumped far more deathly damage. Over the years from 2006 through 2012 alone, we learned last week from the release of a previously secret federal drug database, the corporation that Hammergren ran as CEO inundated local communities in the United States with over 14.1 billion highly addictive opioid pills, nearly a fifth of the opioids distributed in those years.

No other corporation distributed more opioids in those years than Hammergren’s McKesson, the Washington Post reports. Overall, America’s corporate health care giants dropped 76 billion opioid pills on American localities in the time period the new stats cover, enough to supply 36 pills to every man, woman, and child in the United States.

Some 2,000 American cities, towns, and counties are now suing McKesson and the rest of the corporate drug distribution complex. They’re charging that these corporations “conspired to flood the nation with opioids.” The companies, the charge continues, didn’t just fail to report suspicious orders. They “filled those orders to maximize profits.”

The new stats the Washington Post has highlighted will undoubtedly heighten the pressure on McKesson and its fellow partners in crime to settle. But John Hammergren personally has little reason to worry. Unlike El Chapo, Hammergren knew when to fade way. He retired this past April, ending a CEO career that began in 2001. Over his first 16 years as CEO, notes Bloomberg, Hammergren pocketed $781 million. His final months in the McKesson chief executive suite brought that total near $800 million. Upon his retirement, he walked away with a pension package worth $138.6 million.

Opioids helped fuel all these rewards — and Hammergren had to know it. In 2007, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration accused McKesson of shipping “millions of doses” of the opioid hydrocodone to shady operators.

“By failing to report suspicious orders for controlled substances that it received from rogue Internet pharmacies,” the DEA charged at the time, “the McKesson Corporation fueled the explosive prescription drug abuse problem we have in this country.”

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He Gets the Bucks, We Get All the Deadly Bangs

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre has had better weeks. First came the horrific early August slaughters in California, Texas, and Ohio that left dozens dead, murders that elevated public pressure on the NRA’s hardline against even the mildest of moves against gun violence. Then came revelations that LaPierre — whose labors on behalf of the nonprofit NRA have made him a millionaire many times over — last year planned to have his gun lobby group bankroll a 10,000-square-foot luxury manse near Dallas for his personal use. In response, LaPierre had his flacks charge that the NRA’s former ad agency had done the scheming to buy the mansion. The ad agency called that assertion “patently false” and related that LaPierre had sought the agency’s involvement in the scheme, a request the agency rejected. The mansion scandal, notes the Washington Post, comes as the NRA is already “contending with the fallout from allegations of lavish spending by top executives.”

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Out of Ottawa, Some Deflating New Stats on Life in the World’s Richest Nation

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

South of the border, here in the United States, we Americans tend not to pay much attention to our northern neighbors. Entire election cycles can come and go without anyone running for national office saying anything significant about Canada.

But that all has changed of late. Canada now looms large in our politics, mainly because many more of us have realized that Canadians enjoy a health care system far superior to our own, by every meaningful yardstick of fairness and efficiency. Canada’s single-payer approach to health care has become — for progressives in the United States — a guiding inspiration. We want what the Canadians have. We need what the Canadians have.

And we need what Canadians have, an innovative new study suggests, on more than just health care. Average Canadians, this research relates, now enjoy higher incomes than their counterparts in the United States.

The new report — Household Incomes in Canada and the United States: Who is Better Off? — comes out of the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards and essentially challenges the conventional wisdom on economic well-being. That wisdom, report author Simon Lapointe notes, typically defines well-being as GDP per capita.

To calculate this GDP yardstick, economists take the sum total of the goods and services a nation produces, divide that total by the nation’s population, and tell us that the resulting number measures how well a nation’s people are doing economically.

By this standard measure, Americans are doing much better than Canadians. In 2016, the latest year with comparable stats available, GDP per capita in the United States ran over 20 percent higher than GDP in Canada, $57,798 to $47,294, in U.S. dollars adjusted for what economists call “purchasing power parity.”

But GDP per capita can obscure reality as most households live it, especially in a deeply unequal society like the United States. Lapointe acknowledges in his new Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards report that American households certainly do rate as richer than Canadian on average. But “much greater incomes at the top of the income distribution” in the United States, he points out, are driving the difference in the Canadian and U.S. averages.

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Can the Wealthy Hardwire Inequality into Our DNA?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Remember the college admissions scandal? Earlier this year we learned that awesomely affluent parents have been spending small fortunes on scams to get their undeserving teenage offspring into America’s most elite colleges and universities.

This admissions scandal crept back into the news cycle earlier this week when Vanity Fair reported that the wealthy parents of one California teen had plotted with a top admissions “consultant” to get their white — and distinctly non-athletic — daughter accepted by elite schools as a black tennis champ.

In this case, the rich parents overreached. Their scam failed. But plenty of other sports-related scams, we now know, worked quite well. Rich families paid to have their kids’ faces photoshopped onto the bodies of real high school athletes. They conspired with college tennis, soccer, and water polo coaches to get their kids admitted under false pretenses into schools like Yale and Georgetown.

All these kids had no outstanding athletic talent. But what if wealthy parents had the ability to give their kids that athletic talent? What if our nation’s rich could use emerging 21st-century “gene-enhancement technology” to make their kids physically bigger, stronger, or faster? What if they could even use that same technology to make their kids smarter? Would they?

The answer the college admissions scandal makes plain: Many of the richest among us will stop at nothing to perpetuate their privilege. Spend a fortune to make their kids genetically superior? Of course they would.

Should we be aghast at this prospect? Of course we should.

What used to be pure science fiction — the ability to edit our DNA — has now become science reality. A generation ago our hippest young programming hotshots were working in computer code. Now the high-tech hip are busy working to reprogram our genes.

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A Cheerleader for Capitalism Growing a Bit Testy

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Hedge fund investor Leon Cooperman is getting angry again. He seems to do that early on in every presidential election cycle. Back in 2015 Cooperman objected to the attacks on hedge fund tax breaks he was hearing in the Democratic primary race. Blasted back Cooperman in a CNN interview: “I don’t need anybody crapping all over what I do for a living.” Late last month, in a CNBC interview, the 76-year-old attacked the calls for taxing America’s rich he’s hearing from candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Pronounced Cooperman: “All in all, I’m not in favor of raising taxes. Taxes are high enough. I think it’s counterproductive to look to the wealthy people across the board.” Adds the former Goldman Sachs exec: “We have the best economy in the world. Capitalism works.” Our economic order certainly works for Cooperman. His current net worth: $3 billion.

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New York Points A New Way Forward For The Nation

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

What happens at America’s state level can sometimes reverse the political momentum of the entire nation. We experienced just such a reversal in 1978, when California conservatives pushed our country to the right. We may be poised to take a new direction, thanks to important victories in New York State for progressives.

Back then, on a calm June day, conservatives engineered a California earthquake. They won nearly two-to-one voter support for a ballot initiative that wrote a cap on local property taxes into the state constitution. This “Prop 13” initiative would in short order crater funding for California’s world-class public services.

For business interests, meanwhile, Prop 13 would prove to be a gift that keeps on giving. Before 1978, corporate property owners footed two-thirds of the state’s property tax bill, homeowners one-third. After 1978, that ratio flipped, leaving the homeowner share at two-thirds.

But Prop 13’s most lasting impact would be political. Prop 13 gave America’s cheerleaders for grand private fortune a simple winning formula for electoral success: Make elections about cutting taxes. Always.

Conservative pols would follow that formula. In the immediate wake of Prop 13, over a dozen other states enacted similar tax caps. In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan would then ride this tax-cut wave into the White House. Once in office, his administration quickly set about rewriting America’s economic rules — to privilege the rich and the corporations that make them richer.

Today, four decades later, we’re still living amid the extreme inequality Prop 13 did so much to create. But now, in a state a continent away from California, the surprise outcome of another titanic political battle may well signal the dawning of a new and far more egalitarian epoch.

New York has just enacted — over fierce billionaire opposition — legislation that takes a giant step toward defining decent, secure housing as a basic human right.

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Taxes, Grand Fortune, and Gloria Vanderbilt

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Hundreds of advocates for a more equitable economy will be gathering in Washington, D.C. this coming Tuesday for an all-day conference on “Taxing the (Very) Rich.” Hundreds more will be streaming online and watching as conference speakers explore a variety of bold new proposals, everything from an annual tax on wealth to tax penalties on corporations that pay their top execs unconscionably more than their workers.

Many of these same proposals will then soon likely surface again almost immediately, at next week’s first set of national debates for the Democratic Party’s White House hopefuls. Most of the 20 debaters figure to endorse one — or more — of the ideas that get Tuesday’s “Taxing the (Very) Rich” spotlight.

In other words, we’re shaping up to have a really good week for tax justice. We haven’t had a political climate this open to new initiatives for taxing the super rich since FDR sat in the White House.

All this political momentum, not surprisingly, has America’s flacks for grand fortune more than a little bit worried. They thought they had us convinced that upping taxes on the rich would wreck the economy and penalize “success.” But Americans aren’t buying what the flacks are selling. Our richest owe their “success,” many more of us now understand, to an economy they’ve spent the last four decades rigging.

Serenades to the “successful” are clearly not winning over a deeply skeptical — and cynical — American public. So the flacks are switching gears. They’re doubling down on the cynicism all around us. They’re arguing that taxing the super rich will always be a fool’s errand — because the rich and their armies of lawyers and accountants will always be able to stay a step ahead of Uncle Sam.

So why bother trying to tax the rich, the argument goes, when these deepest of pockets can simply evade whatever taxes Congress imposes? Just accept reality, the flacks implore us. The rich will always stay rich.

That happens not to be true. History shows we can make real progress against grand concentrations of private wealth. We did just that in the mid-20th century, a time when Americans making more than $400,000 a year faced top income tax rates over 90 percent and heirs to grand fortunes had to watch estate tax rates as high as 77 percent carve multiple millions off their inheritances.

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This Deep Pocket Lets His Millions Do His Talking

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Ask hedge fund mogul Bernard Selz why he’s bankrolling the anti-vaccine movement and you won’t get much of an answer. The Washington Post tried, calling Selz at his Manhattan home. The answer offered up by the woman who answered and refused to identify herself: “There’s nothing to say.” Actually, the 79-year-old Selz ought to have a lot to say about why he’s invested over $3 million over the last few years into groups claiming that federal health officials are covering up the dangers from the measles vaccine. Before 1963, the year current measles vaccinations began, 400 to 500 Americans a year died from the disease.

Health Care Should Not Be A Bargaining Weapon

Health Care Should Not Be A Bargaining Weapon

Union Matters

An Invitation to Sunny Miami. What Could Be Bad?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

If a billionaire “invites” you somewhere, you’d better go. Or be prepared to suffer the consequences. This past May, hedge fund kingpin Carl Icahn announced in a letter to his New York-based staff of about 50 that he would be moving his business operations to Florida. But the 83-year-old Icahn assured his staffers they had no reason to worry: “My employees have always been very important to the company, so I’d like to invite you all to join me in Miami.” Those who go south, his letter added, would get a $50,000 relocation benefit “once you have established your permanent residence in Florida.” Those who stay put, the letter continued, can file for state unemployment benefits, a $450 weekly maximum that “you can receive for a total of 26 weeks.” What about severance from Icahn Enterprises? The New York Post reported last week that the two dozen employees who have chosen not to uproot their families and follow Icahn to Florida “will be let go without any severance” when the billionaire shutters his New York offices this coming March. Bloomberg currently puts Carl Icahn’s net worth at $20.5 billion.

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