David Cay Johnston has employed a couple of key graphic images that tell a significant story about the way that US laws have favored the rich--including tax administrative procedures that have reduced real audits of the rich and tax laws that have cut the top rates significantly and cut the rates on the "favorite" form of income of the rich to extraordinarily low rates. See David Cay Johnston, The rich get richer, reuters (Mar. 15, 2012) (noting that the figures he uses here, in 2010 dollars, are from an analysis of IRS data by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty). [hat tip Francine Lipmann and Tax Prof]
The 1934 economic rebound was widely shared, with strong income gains for the vast majority, the bottom 90 percent.
In 2010, we saw the opposite as the vast majority lost ground. National income gained overall in 2010, but all of the gains were among the top 10 percent. Even within those 15.6 million households, the gains were extraordinarily concentrated among the super-rich, the top one percent of the top one percent.
So while the Great Depression acted as a leveler, the cascading impact of tax and other fiscal policies that are extraordinarily favorable to the rich was little influenced by the Great Recession. Here're the two telling graphs from the article.
Johnston notes that the story in numbers for adjusted gross income is discouraging:
Saez and Piketty show that the vast majority’s average adjusted gross income, of which wages are just a part, was $29,840 in 2010. That was down $127 from 2009 and down $4,842 from 2000.
Most shocking? The average income of the vast majority of taxpayers in 2010 was just a smidgen more than the $29,448 average way back in 1966.
At the top, the super-rich saw their 2010 average income grow by $4.2 million over 2009 to $23.8 million. Compared to 1966 their income was up on average by $18.7 million per taxpayer.
The graphic illustration shows just how much the inequality we see today is from the richest of the rich getting an indecent proportion of income growth.
Is this a problem that needs fixing? Yes, it clearly is. We have long recognized the importance of a society where everyone takes part and everyone has at least the minimum essentials for a decent life and a chance for improvement.
A society where a very few "elite" at the top garner all the benefits of the system and more and more of the income for themselves is not a sustainable society--the top becomes predatory, willing to take gains no matter what the cost to everyone else. It is the kind of attitude that many who are familiar with Wall Street banks have criticized as endemic to Wall Street culture--and one that was revealed even more starkly by the resignation from Goldman of a star banker who publicly criticized the current culture at Goldman that believes in profits for the firm at the sacrifice of the good of the customer. See Greg Smith, Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs, New York Times Op-Ed (Mar. 14, 2012). Shareholders obviously agree with Smith that the "profit for the firm above care of the client" mentality is wrong. See Christine Harper, Goldman Roiled by OpEd Loses 2.2 Billion for Shareholders, Bloomberg (Mar. 15, 2012).
[Goldman is worried--I got a release from a PR firm suggesting that Goldman's profit-making is a boon to the economy and gives its clients great trust in the firm. I read it and thought--hmm, misses the point. Smith isn't condemning profit-making per se. He is condemning profit-making at all costs, and in particular the "greed is good" type of profit-making that creates conflicts of interest with the client that is purportedly being served but would as soon eat a client as eat a steak, if money could be made for the firm (and the trader's bonus) that way.]
If we want the kind of society that gives everyone a chance to have a decent education, we have to quit running down public schools and diverting public monies to support private religious schools. Hold schools accountable, but quit the wasteful focus on testing and assessment. Do a little assessment and a lot more teaching.
If we want a more equal society, then we have to change our tax laws so that they don't favor the rich over everybody else. Reduce the interest deduction, so that leveraged buyouts aren't a way to take a stable working company, make a huge profit by borrowing, and then dump it (either in bankruptcy or out of it, but nonetheless yoked with the debt that got the private equity firm rich). Get rid of provisions that are primarily beneficial to the wealthy--reinstate a hefty estate tax, eliminate the preferential rate on capital gains, reinstate the phase out of deductions at high income levels, increase the top income tax rate (let the Bush tax cuts lapse in toto or at least for the top earners), phase out the accelerated depreciation schedules, bonus depreciation and expensing provisions, and otherwise return our tax system to a saner progressive model that can support the important basic research at universities and basic public infrastructure development that are the real keys to economic growth.
The right has bamboozled the public with its tiresome but endless class warfare rhetoric pushing corporatist policies that claim that tax cuts for wealthy corporations and wealthy individuals are the way to boost growth and help the majority of Americans have good jobs and decent wages. It's a lie. The way to do that is by moving to a more progressive tax system and providing more government funding for basic research (NIH, NSF, etc.) and for public infrastructure (mass transportation, rails throughout America and its inner cities, urban development).