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Monday, March 28, 2011

How the Oligarchs Took America-Part 2 of 4


By Andy Kroll Thu Dec. 2, 2010 2:45 PM PST


"The Thirty-Year War"


How did we get here? How did a middle-class-heavy nation transform itself into an oligarchy? You'll find answers to these questions in Winner-Take-All Politics [11], a revelatory new book by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The authors treat the present figures we have on American wealth and poverty as a crime scene littered with clues and suspects, dead-ends and alibis.


Unlike so many pundits, politicians, and academics, Hacker and Pierson resist blaming the usual suspects: globalization, the rise of an information-based economy, and the demise of manufacturing. The culprit in their crime drama is American politics itself over the last three decades. The clues to understanding the rise of an American oligarchy, they believe, won't be found in New York or New Delhi, but on Capitol Hill, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and around K Street, that haven in a heartless world for Washington's lobbyists.


"Step by step and debate by debate," they write, "America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many."


[12]Most accounts of American income inequality begin in the 1980s with the reign of President Ronald Reagan, the anti-government icon whose "Reaganomics" are commonly fingered as the catalyst for today's problems. Wrong, say Hacker and Pierson. The origins of oligarchy lay in the late 1970s and in the unlikely figure of Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president presiding over a Congress controlled by Democrats. It was Carter's successes and failures, they argue, that kicked off what economist Paul Krugman has labeled "the Great Divergence." [13]


In 1978, the Carter administration and Congress took a red pen to the tax code, slashing the top rate of the capital gains tax from 48% to 28%—an enormous boon for wealthy Americans. At the same time, the most ambitious effort in decades to reform American labor law in order to make it easer to unionize died in the Senate, despite a 61-vote Democratic supermajority. Likewise, a proposed Office of Consumer Representation, a $15 million advocacy agency that was to work on behalf of average Americans, was defeated by an increasingly powerful business lobby.


Ronald Reagan, you could say, simply took the baton passed to him by Carter. His 1981 Economic Recovery and Tax Act (ERTA) bundled a medley of goodies any oligarch would love, including tax cuts for corporations, ample reductions in the capital gains and estate taxes, and a 10% income tax exclusion for married couples in two-earner families. "ERTA was Ronald Reagan's greatest legislative triumph, a fundamental rewriting of the nation's tax laws in favor of winner-take-all outcomes," Hacker and Pierson conclude.


The groundwork had by then been laid for the rich to pull definitively and staggering ahead of everyone else. The momentum of the tax-cut fervor carried through the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and in 2000 became the campaign trail rallying cry of George W. Bush. It was Bush II, after all, who told [14] a room full of wealthy donors at an $800-a-plate dinner, "Some people call you the elites; I call you my base," and who pledged that his 2001 tax cuts would be a boon for all Americans. They weren't: according to Hacker and Pierson, 51% of their benefits go to the top 1% of earners.


Those cuts will be around a lot longer if the GOP has its way. Take Republican Congressman Dave Camp's word for it. On November 16th, Camp, a Republican from Michigan, said [15] the only acceptable solution when it came to the Bush-era tax cuts was not just upholding them for all earners, rich and poor, but passing more such cuts. Anything in between, any form of compromise, including President Obama's proposal to extend the Bush cuts for the working and middle classes but not the wealthy, was [15] "a terrible idea and a total non-starter."


Why should you care what Dave Camp says? Here's the answer: in January, he's set to inherit the chairman's gavel on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the body tasked with writing the nation's tax laws. And though most Americans wouldn't even recognize his name, Camp's message surely left America's wealthy elites breathing a long sigh of relief. You could sum it up like this: Fear not, wealthy Americans, your money is safe. The policies that made you rich aren't going anywhere.

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