The Wisdom of Willie Sutton

You know, the math is the math regardless of what Karl Rove and neoliberal economists say.  Willie Sutton was right.

Where the money is

by John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

on July 25, 2011

My analysis is quite simple and follows the apocryphal statement attributed to Willie Sutton. The wealth that has accrued to those in the top 1 per cent of the US income distribution is so massive that any serious policy program must begin by clawing it back.

In both policy and political terms, nothing can be achieved under these circumstances, except at the expense of the top 1 per cent. This is a contingent, but inescapable fact about massively unequal, and economically stagnant, societies like the US in 2010. By contrast, in a society like that of the 1950s and 1960s, where most people could plausibly regard themselves as middle class and where middle class incomes were steadily rising, the big questions could be put in terms of the mix of public goods and private income that was best for the representative middle class citizen. The question of how much (more) to tax the very rich was secondary – their share of national income was already at an all time low.

One thing the Tea Party has shown is that, in the current dire state of the US, there are few penalties for abandoning moderation. What the US needs at this point is someone willing to advocate a return to the economic institutions that made America great – 90 per cent top marginal tax rates, strong trade unions, weak banks and imprisonment for malefactors of great wealth.

It seems to me that a good place to start would be a primary challenge to Obama (Bernie Sanders suggested this, and he’d be a good candidate I think). It would be impossible for the media to ignore completely, and might get enough votes to shift the Overton window. Whether such a challenge could form the basis of a mass movement, I don’t really know, but it seems to be worth a try.

I came across John Quiggan in this piece by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism substituting for Glenn Greenwald at Salon.

Yves continues-

(T)he fares (verb definitions) of the have versus the have-nots continue to diverge. A new survey found that 64% of the public doesn’t have enough funds on hand to cope with a $1000 emergency. Wages are falling for 90% of the population. And disabuse yourself of the idea that the rich might decide to bestow their largesse on the rest of us. Various studies have found that upper class individuals are less empathetic and altruistic than lower status individuals.

This outcome is not accidental. Taxes on top earners are the lowest in three generations. Yet their complaints about the prospect of an increase to a level that is still awfully low by recent historical standards is remarkable.

Given that this rise in wealth has been accompanied by an increase in the power of those at the top, is there any hope for achieving a more just society? Bizarrely, the self interest of the upper crust argues in favor of it. Profoundly unequal societies are bad for everyone, including the rich.

You might argue: Why do these results matter to rich people, who can live in gated compounds? If you’ve visited some rich areas in Latin America, particularly when times generally are bad, marksmen on the roofs of houses are a norm. Living in fear of your physical safety is not a pretty existence.

Japan, which made a conscious decision to impose the costs of its post bubble hangover on all members of society to preserve stability, has gotten through its lost two decades with remarkable grace. The US seems to be implementing the polar opposite playbook, and there are good reasons to think the outcome of this experiment will be ugly indeed.

Memories of 1789 aside,  I would argue that even among the top 400 there will be winners and losers.  The $600 to $700 Trillion notional value of financial derivatives represents over 10 years of the entire World’s output.

Now some analysists see this as a reason to invest in Gold which I find absolutely nutty since Gold’s perceived value except as a non-corroding conductor and a maleable metal for personal adornment is nothing but hype and nostalgia for an economic system that was obsolete 120 years ago and produced exactly the same bad outcomes and inequality of the present one.

What I see instead is that “notions” of value are are about to change and those left without a seat when the music stops are going to take a 100% haircut on their spreadsheet electrons.

And who are they?  The top 20% who own more than 91% of it (38% just by the top 1%).

As Willy said, you have to go where the money is.

Yves again-

It’s easy to see how “big status differences” alone have an impact. The wider income differentials are, the less people mix across income lines, and the more opportunties there are for stratification within income groups. Thus a decline in income can easily put one in the position of suddenly not being able to participate fully or at all in one’s former social cohort (what do you give up, the country club membership? the kids’ private schools? the charities on which you give enough to be on special committees?). And lose enough of these activities that have a steep cost of entry but are part of your social life, and you lose a lot of your supposed friends. Making new friends over the age of 35 is not easy.

So a perceived threat to one’s income is much more serious business to the well-off than it might seem to those on the other side of the looking glass. Loss of social position is a fraught business indeed.

Or to quote Jim Morrison-

Five to one, baby.  One in five.  No one here gets out alive.  Now you get yours, baby, I’ll get mine.  Gonna make it baby, if we try.

The old get old and the young get stronger.  May take a week and it may take longer.  They got the guns but we got the numbers.  Gonna win, yeah, we’re takin’ over.  Come on!


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