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Productivity, Compound Interest and Poverty

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Posted on Feb 9, 2013
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(Page 3)

Economics textbooks teach supply and demand curves. Every marginal increase in supply lowers the price of what is being supplied. For the job market this means that the higher the unemployment rate, the lower wages will fall. Conversely, the more workers you hire, the more you have to pay to attract workers. Government officials and bankers are indoctrinated in these textbooks and conclude that the less employment there is, the more wages will fall – thereby presumably leaving a wider profit margin, assuming that the goods can still be sold at a steady price. So employers seek to earn more by keeping employment low enough to prevent wages from rising. This maximizes the power of wealth over labor.

Economists conclude that to make economies more competitive, they need to keep wages low so as to undersell other countries. So a race to the bottom develops. But what seems to help countries compete actually hurts their domestic market.

Back in the 19th century this was called the reserve army of the unemployed. Unemployment keeps labour down. And even more important, to the extent that incomes do rise, they are paid out as debt service. A dynamic is put in place in which debt keeps labor down – not only by eating up its wages in debt service, but in making workers suffer sharp increases in the interest rates they have to pay or even risk losing their homes if they miss a payment by going on strike or being fired. Alan Greenspan explained that unemployment was not needed to keep labor down these days. All that is needed is to traumatize and disable them politically by debt leverage. (Quote his Senate testimony)

This is why, despite the fact that productivity has risen so dramatically, the real economy and its wage levels have tapered off in an S curve. The magic of compound interest has increased debt (and the savings of the 1%) to more than absorb the productivity gains. And this financial overgrowth has accrued to the 1%, not to the 99%.

Finance is what makes today’s economy different from that of 1945. We are at the end of a long cycle. Back in 1945 the private sector in every country was relatively free of debt. There was little civilian output for consumers to buy during the wartime years. Companies had little reason to invest, except for the government’s military demand. So most families had little debt – and a lot of savings, and good job opportunities after the return to peace. But today the economy is in reverse. Savings have been run down and consumers, real estate and industry is left in debt.

Untaxing land rent and monopoly rent so that it can be paid to the bankers, not to government

???To stop this reversal, it is necessary to understand its causes. They are not only financial. The banking interests have gained sufficient power to distort tax policy, creating a dual fiscal-financial problem. Taxes have been shifted off the major bank customers – real estate and monopolies – onto labor and consumers. In the United States, two-thirds of state and local tax revenues in the 1930s came from the property tax. Today the proportion has fallen to only one-sixth. States and cities replaced property taxes with income and sales taxes. Europe and the post-Soviet economies have adopted the most anti-labour tax of all – the value added tax.

The rationale is that it is easy to collect. But it falls on consumers, not on the economy’s free lunch of economic rent as advocated by classical free market economists. The value added tax adds to consumer prices and shrinks the market, preventing labor from buying the goods it produces. This is done simply to free more land rent, natural resource rent and monopoly rent from taxation so that it can be paid to bankers as interest.

When voters threaten to elect politicians to pursue less bank-friendly policies, the EU announces that the country needs a technocrat to impose more taxes to bail out the banks for their bad loans. It is all in vain without changing the system, because today’s financial business plan cannot work for more than a short time. Being extractive rather than productive, it leaves a swath of bankruptcy in its wake. Yet it is the banks that the technocrats are saving, not labor and industry, the “real” economy’s employment, social spending and public wealth.

Changing Social Security from being paid out of progressive taxation to a regressive labor tax

In 1982, bank lobbyist Alan Greenspan was appointed to head a U.S. commission to shift Social Security out of the public budget (where it was funded largely by progressive taxation) and fund it by user fees that fall on employees and employers. The aim was to privatize it Chilean style. Wall Street’s dream is to turn wage set-asides over to money managers to buy stocks and create a stock market boom (and in the end, siphon off commissions and push contributors into high-risk bets on the losing side of the deal with large financial institutions, Goldman Sachs style). In effect, Mr. Greenspan’s position was that Social Security should not be a public service. It should be a user fee, so that prospective retirees would pay for it in advance. Their savings were to be lent to the government to enable the Treasury to slash taxes on the higher income and wealth brackets. So the effect was to reverse the long trend toward progressive taxation.


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