Posts from Sam Pizzigati

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.

How The Super-Rich Avoid Paying Their Share

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

We have a great deal of statistical data, in America today, about the economic circumstances of Americans who live in poverty. We know far less, by contrast, about Americans who live amid great wealth. And much of what we do know, suggests a revealing new study, turns out to be wrong.

America’s wealthiest, this new study details, almost certainly hold substantially greater personal fortunes than our standard analyses of the nation’s distribution of wealth indicate.

What are these conventional analyses not taking into account? A simple reality of our deeply unequal age: Extravagantly wealthy people cheat on their taxes. Regularly. Extravagantly, too. Our super rich are stashing vast chunks of their personal fortunes in offshore tax havens, generating billions annually in new income that — to their governments — goes unseen and untaxed.

Just how enormous has this tax evasion by the super rich become? University of California-Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman and his Scandinavian colleagues Annette Alstadsæter and Niels Johannesen calculate — in a just-published American Economic Review paper — that offshore tax havens are enabling our world’s richest 0.01 percent to evade 25 percent of the income taxes they ought to be paying.

The holdings of this wealthiest one-hundredth of 1 percent, the three researchers relate, make up about 50 percent of the overall assets parked in tax havens. The super rich are using these havens, add Zucman and his colleagues, to conceal about 40 percent of their total personal fortunes.

The most recent Federal Reserve Board figures on U.S. inequality, released this past March, put the top 1 percent’s share of American personal wealth at 32 percent, up from 23 percent in 1989. Other estimates place the top 1 percent share closer to 40 percent. But with the new calculations from Zucman and his colleagues, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s Matthew Gardner reflects, even this 40 percent estimate could well be a distinctly “low-ball number.”

But can we trust the numbers from the Zucman team? After all, how could a mere trio of researchers unearth hidden fortunes that the super rich spend big bucks to keep hidden? These three particular researchers had some unconventional assistance.

Over recent years, whistleblowers at some of the private banks and legal firms that cater to wealthy tax evaders — remember the “Panama Papers”? — have exposed vast stores of financial records that document the daily nitty-gritty of tax-evading transactions. The Zucman team tapped these records.

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A Nation Where Only The Rich Have Homes?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

In our daily lives, as anyone who keeps a household budget can attest, the unexpected happens all the time. A refrigerator motor fails. Some part on your car you never realized existed breaks down. A loved one passes away and you have to — you want to — be at the funeral a thousand miles away.

“Unexpected” expenses like these will, sooner or later, hit all of us. But all of us, says new research out of the Federal Reserve, can’t afford them.

In fact, just under 40 percent of Americans, says the Fed’s sixth annual household economics survey, “would have difficulty handling an emergency expense as small as $400.”

A fifth of American adults, the new Fed study adds, had major unexpected medical bills last year. An even larger share of Americans — one quarter — “skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.”

Meanwhile, 17 percent of American adults can’t afford to pay all their monthly bills, even if they don’t experience an unexpected expense.

The new Fed report offers no anecdotal color, just waves of carefully collected statistical data. For a sense of what these stats mean in human terms, we need only look around where we live, particularly if we live in one of the many metro areas where inequality is squeezing millions of Americans who once considered themselves solidly “middle class.” Places like the Bay Area in California.

San Francisco, recent research shows, now has more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world. By one reckoning, San Francisco also has the highest cost of living in the world, as all those billionaires — and the rest of the city’s ultra rich — bid up prices on the most desirable local real estate.

But the Bay Area squeeze goes beyond the confines of San Francisco. Nearby Oakland and Berkeley are facing enormous affordable housing shortages as well. The Bay Area as a whole now has more than 30,000 homeless.

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A Few Hundred Million Good Reasons Not to Care

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Millions of American families are still reeling from the aftershocks of the financial crash a dozen years ago. But a key architect of that debacle, Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo, is feeling no pain — and no remorse either. In the decade before the crash, Mozilo took $650 million out of Countrywide, a hefty chunk of that just before the subprime mortgage scam Countrywide exploited started to implode. Earlier this month, Angelo described Countrywide as a “great company” at a conference appearance and declared subprimes as “not the cause at all” of the nation’s 2007-2008 financial wreckage. Added Mozilo: “Somehow — for some unknown reason — I got blamed.” The former CEO is acknowledging that all the blame did at one point bother him. And now? The famously always tanned Mozilo notes simply: “I don’t care.” 

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A Plaintive Plea from America’s Rich: Can We Please Change the Subject?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

America’s elites have for decades now enjoyed — and exploited — a mainstream political consensus.  America is doing just fine, this consensus has held, but just not for everybody. We have some poor, unfortunate souls in our midst, the consensus continues, and decency demands more “opportunity” for them.

Aspiring politicians have always loved this opportunity message. They can spout it and sound compassionate and caring to the voting public. The message’s more important attraction: Pols can spout it and not in any way come across as threatening to the deep pockets they count on for campaign cash.

The rich, after all, simply adore the mainstream “opportunity” gospel. Talking about increasing opportunity distracts attention from how rich people — and the corporations they run — behave, how what the rich do to become and stay rich keeps poor people poor and most of the rest of us struggling.

But this mainstream political consensus has over recent years collapsed. Precious few analysts are still claiming that the nation is doing “just fine.” The United States these days is essentially working well only for the rich, and appreciable numbers of Americans no longer just wonder why. They’re demanding checks on grand private fortunes and the behaviors that pump these fortunes up.

All this has today’s rich worrying. Really worrying. Recent headlines tell the story. From the Financial Times: “Why American CEOs are worried about capitalism.” The Guardian: “The kings of capitalism are finally worried about the growing gap between rich and poor.” The Washington Post: “U.S. billionaires worry about the survival of the system that made them rich.”

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Gentrification Now Has More than Landlubbers Worried

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

We typically think urban neighborhoods when we think gentrification. We think places where modest-income families have thrived for generations suddenly becoming no-go zones for all but the affluent.

The waters around us have always seemed a place of escape from all this displacement, a more democratic space where the rich can stake no claim. The wealthy, after all, can’t displace someone fishing on a lake or sailing off the coast. Or can they? People who work and play around our waters are starting to worry.

Local boat dealers and bass fishing aficionados alike, reports one leading marine industry trade journal, are all now “expressing concern about the growing income disparity in the United States.” That journal, Soundings Trade Only, is even highlighting stats that show America’s top 1 percent holding more wealth than “the bottom 90 percent of the population combined.”

What has boat dealers so concerned? The middle-class families they’ve counted on for decades are feeling too squeezed to buy their boats — or even continue boating.

“Boating has now priced out the middle-class buyer,” one retailer opined to a Soundings Trade Only survey. “Only the near rich/very rich can boat.”

Mark Jeffreys, a high school finance teacher who hosts a popular bass fishing webcast, sees a bubble close to bursting. His pastime is getting too pricey, and he wonderswhen bass anglers are “going to get to the point where they’re not going to pay $9 for crankbait.”

Not everyone around water is worrying. The companies that build boats, Jeffreys notes, seem to “have been able to do very well.” They’re making fewer boats but clearing “a tremendous amount” on the boats they do make.

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A Shrill Health Insurance Chief Goes in for the Kill

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

UnitedHealth CEO David Wichmann doesn’t much like all the talk going around these days about “Medicare for All.” In comments to stock analysts earlier this month, Wichmann intoned that proposals for Medicare for All would, if enacted, “destabilize the nation’s health system” and “surely have a severe impact on the economy and jobs.” He’ll likely prove right about the severity of that impact on his job. Medicare for All proposals introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal envision absolutely no role for private insurance execs who take home $83.2 million a year, Wichmann’s 2017 realized compensation. Share prices at UnitedHealth have nosedived since Sanders introduced his latest Medicare for All bill, as have shares at other big insurers. Their gravy train is clearly slowing. But what lush gravy that train has carried! Over the last decade, a business group has reported, average executive pay at leading U.S. health insurers has been growing at an annual 13 percent rate.

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The Richest Fantasy

The Richest Fantasy

Union Matters

Raise the Wage!

From the AFL-CIO

It’s been a decade since the federal minimum wage was increased—the longest period in American history without an increase. In that time, the cost of living has increased and working families have struggled to make ends meet. The Raise the Wage Act would finally bring the federal minimum wage up to $15 an hour.

The House of Representatives is voting tomorrow on the Raise the Wage Act, and we need to make sure lawmakers know where workers stand. Will you show your support and ask your friends to call their representatives?

One in 9 workers in the U.S. is in poverty—even when working full time and year-round. Passing the Raise the Wage Act as it stands would empower working families in need and build an economy that works for everyone.

Share our #RaisetheWage message on social media right now.

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