Posts from Sam Pizzigati

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.

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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Union Matters

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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Corruption Coordinates

Corruption Coordinates