John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column.
So far, the Occupy Wall Street movement is just that, a social movement. The protestors have much to protest. Our socio-economic system suffers from some acute illnesses. At some point, the protests need to evolve into policy prescriptions.
The slogan “We are the 99 percent” seems to be catching on. The just released report on inequality from the Congressional Budget Office helps explain why. The top 1 percent now includes incomes of $350,000 or more per year. In the last thirty years, after-tax income for the top 1 percent increased by 275 percent, or about 7 times as much as the rest of us. At the beginning of the period, the top 1 percent made as much as the entire bottom 20 percent. Now they make as much as the bottom 40 percent.
The problem has been thirty years in the making. It was too easy to ignore increasing inequality when the overall economy appeared to be doing well. Now the Census Bureau reports that over 20 million in the United States are not just living in poverty, but in deep poverty. These are people making less than half the poverty level. These are, for example, families of four making less than $11,157.
The national unemployment rate has been in the 9 to 10 percent range for two and a half years. The unofficial underemployment rate is over 17 percent. Over six million people, almost half of the unemployed, have been out of work for six months or more.
Meanwhile, the financial firms that caused the great recession and took government help are not helping us. The New York State Comptroller reported that Wall Street paid out an average bonus of $128,000 last year. Yet, financial firms cannot find their way to allow homeowners who have never missed a payment to refinance. Eleven million homeowners are trapped “underwater” because the market value of their home is less than the outstanding debt.
Meanwhile, the government continues to offer preferential treatment to the 1 percent. One of the most egregious examples is “carried interest.” Hedge fund managers take this cut out of shareholder gains. It can add up to billions of dollars a year of income for a fund manager while shareholders take the investment risk. The federal government taxes carried interest as capital gains. Instead of paying the top rate of 35 percent, or even a typical 25 percent paid by working families, these millionaires and billionaires pay only 15 percent on their unearned income.
Meanwhile, the top 1 percent gets preferential treatment from financial firms. Just two years ago, one out of three checking accounts had fees. Now over half do. Not only do the wealthy not pay these fees, they get better rates and preferred service.
Meanwhile, last year the Supreme Court overturned bipartisan legislation and court precedent to make it much easier for the top 1 percent to influence elections. Candidates for public office need big money for the media to take them seriously. Elizabeth Warren may end up being a fine choice as the Democratic nominee for Senator. Marisa DeFranco may be a good choice as well, but we will probably never know because she cannot raise money from the top 1 percent.
When anyone has the temerity to suggest even modest attempts at fairness, defenders of the top 1 percent accuse reformers of starting “class warfare.” See, for example, President Obama’s proposal to return the top tax rates to the slightly higher rates of the Clinton years – a time when economic growth was quite strong and budgets were balanced.
I offer the following response, free of charge, to candidates who want to embrace Occupy Wall Street and their cause:
You are correct, it is class warfare, it has been going on for thirty years, and now we are finally fighting back!
Further, I offer the following suggestions to candidates who want to occupy policy.
Everyone is talking about jobs. The latest jobs report shows progress is still insufficient. We need a two-pronged approach.
One, in the short run the federal government needs to continue stimulating the economy and creating jobs. In particular, they should focus on investing in our crumbling transportation infrastructure and our underfunded education infrastructure.
Two, the government needs to give private businesses the confidence to invest. In the long run, the private sector will be the engine of job creation. Corporations do not need lower taxes as an incentive. The evidence makes is clear that approach is ineffective. Companies need less uncertainty. They need to see a serious long-range plan to balance the budget. It worked for President Clinton. As for taxes, what is required is a simpler and more equitable tax code (more on that in my next column).
More jobs are good. Jobs that pay more equitably are better. Education and taxes are again the keys.
A well-educated work force is a well-paid workforce. When I graduated from a Massachusetts state university a little over thirty years ago, tuition increased by over 13 percent in my senior year. It went from $300 per academic year to $340. Even adjusting for inflation, that is only about $1,300 per year in today’s dollars. In-state tuition and fees (but not room and board, and textbooks) at UMass Lowell is currently $11,300. In the last year alone, public universities nationwide increased tuition by 8.5 percent.
Not everyone should go to a 4-year college. Community colleges, technical training, computer and financial literacy, and job placement services are all part of the equation.
Early childhood education is essential. Investing in small children has the best payoff of any long-term investment we can make.
The top 1 percent claim we need lower taxes to encourage investment. Does that mean we need higher taxes that may discourage work? If legislators insist on using taxes to encourage investment, they must base the incentives on the number of decent paying jobs created. Federal and state governments should expand very successful earned income tax credit programs that encourage work.
Lack of proper financial regulation led to the great recession. In 2010, Congress passed financial reform legislation that offered modest steps toward addressing the worst of Wall Street abuses. There is much more work to do.
President Obama gave up on Elizabeth Warren heading the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection she helped form. He must not give up on this agency having the power to enforce his vision where “there are clear rules and basic safeguards that prevent abuse, that check excess, that ensure that it is more profitable to play by the rules than to game the system.”
Finally, campaign finance reform has to be part of the agenda. Running for public office should not require being in the 1 percent, being financially obligated to the 1 percent, or even giving the appearance of being obligated.
Our forefathers, quite correctly, warned us about tyranny of the majority. Now we need public policy that protects the 99 percent from the tyranny of a vastly wealthy and inordinately powerful minority.