Chronicles of Inequality {13 May 2013]

Too MuchMay 13, 2013
American Banker has just released some new annual numbers for bank CEO pay. The magazine has thoughtfully calculated, for each of 149 financial institutions large and small, a figure for “average compensation per employee” and expressed each bank’s CEO pay for 2012 as a multiple of this average.The lowest multiple? Ames National, an Iowa bank with 91 staffers, has a CEO who only makes three times the bank’s per-employee average. The highest? America’s biggest banks have multiples in the 200s.Maybe we need smaller banks. Maybe we need smaller everything. In the media industry, we learned last week, top CEOs enjoyed a 30.2 percent pay hike in 2012. Top-earners in high-tech saw take-homes leap 31 percent. And how well did you do last year? Most likely, not well at all. In the United States, our economy simply no longer works for average families.

So “what then must we do”? The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once asked that question in a moving essay on 19th-century inequality. A top U.S. historian is now asking the same question. This week’s Too Much explores his answer.

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No one may have ever relished the global limelight as lavishly as former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. Now the 83-year-old has returned to center stage. A musical on her life has just opened Off Broadway in New York,staged as an interactive disco where spectators “jubilate in Imelda’s rise to power while feeling uneasy about how much fun they’re having.” Marcos actually spent years in Manhattan and even bought a skyscraper in 1981. On one sojourn, theNew Yorker relates, Marcos had the management at Bloomingdale’s empty out the store. She then proceeded to march around the empty aisles, pointing to items she wanted, declaring simply, “Mine. Mine. Mine.” Marcos and dictator husband Ferdinand looted billions from the Philippines over a two-decade span. Their kleptocracy helped make the world safe for plutocracy . . .Miriam AdelsonBillionaire Sheldon Adelson became an instant celebrity last year after his millions in political contributions made him, asTime put it, “the public face of what critics cast as a plutocrat class trying to buy U.S. elections.” But the 79-year-old’s life partner, Dr. Miriam Adelson, has never had much of a public presence — until last week. Dr. Adelson draws a modest $50,000 annual stipend as the director of community involvement for her husband’s Las Vegas Sands gaming empire, and she has told reporters that money sits “down on the list of my priorities.” Not too far down apparently. Back in 2008, Dr. Adelson gained the right to buy tons of Las Vegas Sands stock at a bargain-basement price. In 2012, Vegas media have just reported, she exercised her right to buy the stock — and cleared a $3.88 billion personal profit . . .An unusual sighting in the UK: a corporate top exec who shares. The chief of the retailer Next, Lord Wolfson, last month announced he was handing his latest £2.4 million bonus, about $3.7 million, to his company’s employees. The sharing will up the annual pay of Next’s 19,400 employees by 1 percent. Lord Wolfson isdescribing his generosity as a “gesture of thanks and appreciation.” Deborah Hargreaves, Britain’s top CEO pay watchdog, is calling his move “welcome.” But she points out that Lord Wolfson’s overall pay jumped 13 percent last year — and that nothing prevents him from keeping his bonus the next time around. The High Pay Centre Hargreaves leads advocates ending stock bonus awards for performance, giving workers seats on corporate boards, and breaking up the “cozy club” of chief execs who sit on these boards and “set each others’ pay.” 

Quote of the Week

“The number one minimum wage employer in this country is Walmart. Where the CEO makes more in an hour than most of his employees will make in a year.”
Robyn PennacchiaMost minimum wage workers are adults who work for large corporationsDeath and Taxes, May 10, 2013

Ray IraniAngry shareholders at Occidental Petroleum won’t have Ray Irani to kick around anymore. You wonder if Irani cares. Two years ago, shareholders upset about Iran’s princely pay eased the 78-year-old out of Occidental’s CEO slot. Earlier this month, at Occidental’s annual meeting, Irani lost his status as the executive chairman of Occidental’s board of directors as well. No big deal for Irani. He’ll likely exit with $38 million in severance, on top of the $1.2 billion be collected between 1990, the year Occidental annointed Irani CEO, and the end of last year. Irani will need that stash. The property taxes alone on his mansion in Los Angeles run $252,000 a year. Irani, to be sure, won’t be totally fading off into the sunset. He still sitson the Wynn Resorts board of directors. The seat-time brings him $400,000 a year. 

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Mondragon headquarters in SpainAusterity budget cuts have taken a ferocious toll in Spain, where jobless rates now top 25 percent. But Spain’s Mondragón network of worker-owned co-ops has managed to fend off Europe’s inequality tsunami. In Mondragón’s 102 enterprises, the highest-paid staff make no more than eight times the lowest, one reason why “new economy” activists worldwide see Mondragón as a model. 


Web Gem

Real-Time Billionaires/Forbes magazine, with itsForbes 400, used to hold the unquestioned franchise on billionaire stats. Then Bloomberg started running adaily billionaire tally. NowForbes has countered with its own daily scorecard. This newForbes site updates, every five minutes during the stock-trading day, the level of wealth America’s richest hold in publicly traded assets.

Toward a Cap on Egypt’s Modern PharaohsEgyptian trade union activists took to the streets earlier this month to renew their call for a “maximum wage” throughout their nation’s troubled and deeply unequal economy. This week, Egypt’s first maximum wage — of sorts — goes into official effect. The new pay cap limits paychecks for top executives to 35 times the new-hire pay for higher ed graduates. But the cap applies only to Egypt’s public sector. Labor groups wants a maximum wage set at 15 times the minimum wage — and want this maximum applied to executive slots in both the public and private sectors. Publicly owned companies in Egypt currently employ about 835,000 employees, with another 5.8 million Egyptians working in public administration. Egyptian public sector workers average $108 a week. 

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Tenth-largest fortunesStat of the Week

The world’s 11 largest pharmaceutical firms last year paid their chief execs a combined $199.2 million, Health Care for America Now researchers have just reported, a total well over double their take-home in 2003. In 2006, the first year of the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription drug law, Big Pharma CEO pay jumped $58.9 million, the decade’s largest one-year increase.



A Promising Path for Pummeling PlutocracyLooking for a quick fix to the deep inequality that so afflicts us? Stop your searching. We need to strategize instead for the long-term. A riveting new work from a leading historian helps us see how.The 79-year-old corporate gadfly Robert Monks, the former top federal regulator over America’s pension system, earlier this year opined that Corporate America operates “for the personal enrichment and glorification of its manager-kings.”

Too harsh a judgment? Hardly. Current standard corporate operating procedures only make sense if we acknowledge that America’s biggest private enterprises have essentially become the private preserve of an elite executive class.

How else to explain today’s most routine corporate behaviors? The endless rush to mergers that create little more than chaos in newly consolidated workplaces. The ongoing corporate refusal to invest significantly in research and development and employee training. The billions of dollars corporations spend to “buy back” company shares of stock on the open market.

All these moves leave corporations less equipped to succeed in the long term. But all these moves generate multiple millions, sometimes even billions, in the here and now for the corporate executives who make them.

Corporations, of course, have always done well by the executives who run them. But a half-century ago the United States had institutions that kept this enrichment within somewhat reasonable bounds. Trade unions acted as a brake on executive greed grabs. A progressive tax system — with rates as high as 91 percent on income over $400,000 — discouraged the greed grabbing in the first place.

But both these institutions — trade unions and progressive taxes — have atrophied over recent decades. Income and wealth, without these institutional checks in place, have concentrated at America’s economic summit. Below that summit, daily life for average Americans has become ever more insecure.

The United States, in effect, has slid into what University of Maryland historian and political economist Gar Alperowitz calls a “systemic crisis.” For the nation’s vast majority, America has simply stopped working. Daily life has turned into an ever-faster treadmill. And no real relief looms anywhere on the near horizon.

In this dreary environment, an understandable disillusionment — with our political leaders — runs deep. So does a decapacitating cynicism. Why bother struggling against an unjust status quo when nothing ever changes?

Historian Alperovitz has a new book out that aims to rouse us from this suffocating political stupor. In his new What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution, he endeavors to show that societies in “systemic crisis” can change. Revolutions do happen. Indeed, he suggests, “we may now be well into the prehistory of the next American revolution.”

Just what does Alperovitz mean by that? In any social order, he explains, political power reflects the ongoing distribution of wealth. Meaningful change only begins when that existing distribution starts coming under challenge.

Alperovitz sees the challenge needed today as much more any single campaign for a candidate or cause. He has something deeper in mind: an “evolutionary reconstruction” of our society, a decades-long shift that aims to democratize wealth, to build “a community-sustaining economy from the ground up.”

Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? We already, Alperovitz stresses, have the seeds of an alternate, wealth-democratizing economy in place. Well over 100 million Americans belong to credit unions and co-ops. Ten million Americans labor in worker-owned enterprises. Millions more Americans live in municipalities where public institutions generate electric power — or even provide Internet service.

Alperovitz envisions a steady expansion of wealth-democratizing institutions like these that creates new political constituencies for fundamental change. Over time, over decades, the people these institutions touch begin to see from their daily experiences that alternatives to our dominant corporate status quo do exist. They begin to hold “clear ideas” about what can be done.

In times of acute crisis — say another banking failure — people with clear ideas about democratizing wealth won’t let their tax dollars bail out billionaires. They’ll demand public banks. They’ll carve away at private corporate power, bit by bit.

What Then Must We Do? mixes these intoxicating visions of a future yet to be with concrete descriptions of wealth-democratizing efforts already underway all across the nation, from Cleveland and Chattanooga to Portland and Sacramento.

These descriptions can surprise. One example: In Texas, the heart of red-state America, Dallas has opted to build a city-owned convention center hotel. Quips Alperovitz: “Everyday socialism, all the time, American-style.”

The pages Alperovitz has penned here hold a promise that goes beyond the compelling clarity of his prose. National networks are already working to advancehis strategic vision, efforts like the community wealth-building initiative of the Maryland-based Democracy Collaborative and the New Economy Working Group, a center for both local and global thought and action.

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America, Alperovitz reminds us, has become the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. The nation’s annual income, if divided equally, would be enough to bring each family of four $200,000. We can, in other words, do far better for average Americans than we do today. Why not try?

New Wisdom
on WealthMike Rose, Leave no unwealthy child behind,Washington Post, May 7, 2013. A closer look at how inequality impacts the achievement of students at all income levels.

Robert Scheer, Obama Did It for the MoneyTruthDig, May 7, 2013. With billionaire Penny Pritzker’s nomination as Commerce secretary, the two Cabinet positions that address the chicanery of the financial community will now likely be occupied by people who’ve engaged in this chicanery.

Duncan Exley, Improving motherhood means reducing inequality, not just povertyNew Statesman, May 8, 2013. The message from the Mother’s Index.

Chrystia Freeland, Money Cuts Both Ways in EducationReuters, May 9, 2013. Being groomed for the winner-take-all economy starting in nursery school turns out to exact a toll on children at the top.












The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

A new review of Too Mucheditor Sam Pizzigati’s latest bookThe Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class,1900-1970.

Tax Reform: Not Quite the Whole StoryReport to the House Committee on Ways And Means on Present Law and Suggestions for Reform Submitted to the Tax Reform Working Groups, Joint Committee on Taxation, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. May 6, 2013, 560 pp.They’re talking “tax reform” again on Capitol Hill. And this time lawmakers just may be serious. Or so this massive, just-published compendium from the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation would suggest.

You want background for a debate over tax reform? You’ll find plenty to chew over here. Over 400 pages that detail the ins and outs of the current U.S. tax code. About another 50 pages that spotlight tax reform plans advanced by an assortment of official commissions, think tanks, and members of Congress.

Add into the mix 80 more pages full of ideas from the general public that the House Ways and Means Committee invited this past March.

All in all, quite a reference. This volume has everything. Almost everything. Only one element appears missing. Context. This text has no references to what we can learn from America’s own tax past or the tax experience of other nations.

This amazing — and total — absence of context helps explain why America’s wealthy have nothing to fear from “tax reform,” the 2013 edition.

Not one page of this massive text notes that our most affluent once paid taxes at over twice the top rate they do now. Or that the nation’s rich face a tax burden significantly lower than the rich in America’s peer nations face.

We don’t need another “tax reform” debate on Capitol Hill. We need a “tax the rich” debate — and a reference book that helps all Americans understand why.

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