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Cheater Economics

by Brent Blackwelder

Cheaters are lurking in the U.S. economy, corrupting what should be an honest game of production, commerce, and trade. “Cheater economics” refers to the corporate welfare system in which corporations are given special tax subsidies and granted access to loopholes for avoiding tax payments. Cheater economics drains away needed tax revenues, leaving governments with the lose-lose choice of running up deficits or reducing services, or both. Often this means cutbacks in environmental, health, and safety protections. Thanks in no small part to the cheaters, the debate on public finance in the United States has shifted to deficits and the need for cuts. To those seeking funds for worthwhile programs, the answer is, “Sorry, we’re broke!”

We must reframe the debate if we wish to eliminate corporate abuses and get serious about establishing a sustainable, steady state economy. And we should start by getting rid of the cheaters.

Some examples of cheater economics are blatant, such as welfare handouts to polluters. It’s bad enough that corporations are allowed to externalize the high costs of their polluting activities, but what’s worse is that taxpayer funds flow to dirty industries (e.g., oil and nuclear reactor companies) in the form of direct handouts and tax loopholes.

Other examples of cheater economics, however, are more subtle. One of the less well-known rip-offs, which benefits the top 1% of income earners, is a taxpayer subsidy for short-term speculation in derivatives. Traders, who can buy and sell complex derivatives in a matter of minutes, are allowed to claim a large portion of the resulting income not as a short-term capital gain, but as a long-term gain (which is taxed at a lower rate). Fortunately, the Senate is looking into this rip-off, and Senator Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan) has introduced legislation to shut it down.

Republicans and Democrats alike have helped set the stage for cheater economics through financial deregulation. Today’s Republican leadership continues to push for deregulation, but prominent Democrats, going back to President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, have also been prime drivers of financial deregulation.

President Obama won the election in 2008 just as the financial system collapsed in response to the deregulatory extravaganza promoted by both Republicans and Democrats. Those that destroyed the financial regulatory framework by repealing effective laws, such as the Glass-Steagall Act of the 1930s, brought on the devastating subprime collapse.

But Obama, as a new President with tremendous support, failed to seize the initiative in 2009. Instead the aggressive right wing brilliantly framed the debate over the size of government, the tax code, and unemployment. Thus the Republican leadership established a strong message in favor of: 1) cutting government spending as the way to deal with the deficit, 2) abolishing EPA’s environmental regulations as the way to relieve unemployment, and 3) maintaining low taxes on the wealthiest 1%, because raising taxes is never the solution.

And now there’s another looming setback to efforts aimed at reining in the cheaters. The IRS, the tax collection arm of government, is being cut, which will seriously limit the agency’s reach when it comes to tracking tax dodgers and overseeing the collection of legitimate tax payments.

The election year offers a prime opportunity to push back against cheater economics by reframing the debate. Let’s start asking who is hijacking the revenue. We are not broke. Simply closing the numerous tax loopholes would bring in more than the $1.2 trillion the Republican leadership has been demanding in budget cuts over the next decade.

Annie Leonard, the creator of the popular Story of Stuff video, is leading the charge to reframe the debate. Her new video, The Story of Broke, calls for a shift in government spending to invest in renewable energy and other industries that can provide jobs and a healthy environment. Another movie, We’re not Broke, is also helping to change the message. This new film, backed by the Tax Justice Network, tells the story of how corporations are dodging taxes and how seven fed-up citizens are working to make the corporations pay their fair share.

Another way to reframe the debate is to showcase the benefits of environmental regulations. A review of the scientific literature on the causes of job loss shows that environmental compliance costs are small. Only among a handful of the big polluting industries are the costs greater than 2%. Furthermore, the health benefits of environmental regulation are enormous.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that safety and environmental regulations are responsible for only 0.1% of job losses. Frank Ackerman’s Poisoned for Pennies provides more details on this story. Despite the facts, various Presidential candidates and the Congressional Republican leadership persist in attributing the loss of jobs to environmental regulations and call for the elimination of the EPA.

So the question to both Republican and Democratic candidates this year should not be, “What are you going to cut or deregulate?” The question should be, “Why aren’t you getting rid of cheater economics?” Now is the time to demand the honest economy we all deserve.

How to Turn the Power of the Wall Street Protests into Real Reforms

by Brent Blackwelder

As the Wall Street protests have spread from New York City to the rest of the country, some media pundits have criticized the protesters for being unfocused — as if there were only one thing wrong with the financial sector of the U.S. economy. The protests have provided a welcome response to Wall Street’s massive takeover of governance, and continued opposition to the status quo could produce opportunities to enact real reforms.

Don’t expect Wall Street to undertake such reforms voluntarily — some of the shady practices are too profitable. It’s going to take new laws, and key legislation is pending in Congress that could provide important remedies. But new legislation won’t pass without the strongest pressure. That’s where the protesters could make a difference, especially with some forceful activity in the districts where the obstructionists, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Virginia, reside. Cantor said to the conservative Values Voter conference: “I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street” but he backtracked a week later when cautioned by his political finger-in-the-wind testers about the growing popularity of the protests.

Among all the morally bankrupt practices on Wall Street, there’s one in particular that would be easy to abolish. Easy, that is, if we can translate some the energy of the protests into pressure on lawmakers. Pending in Congress are powerful bills such as Senator Levin’s S. 1346 (Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act of 2011) that would strike hard at tax dodgers. But a bill like that has no prayer of passage unless representatives like Cantor feel the pressure.

Instead of reform, Congress is in fact poised to give another “one-time only” tax holiday to companies that stashed profits in tax havens. Huge and wealthy U.S. corporations are actively seeking what is known as a “repatriation holiday” because they say it would create jobs. Such a holiday would allow them to bring home offshore profits at a reduced rate — a nice holiday for the well-to-do CEOs and shareholders, while the rest of us taxpayers suffer the consequences of losing $80 billion of revenue.

The Tax Justice Network and a number of small business associations are trying to right this wrong. They have sent a letter to Congress to dispute this repatriation holiday, noting: “Too many corporations have turned their tax departments into profit centers, using aggressive accounting manipulation to disguise U.S. profits as foreign profits.”

Bloomberg Business Week has pointed out prime examples: Google reduced its income taxes by about $3.1 billion over three years — first by shifting income to Ireland, then to the Netherlands, and finally to Bermuda. Another example is Forest Laboratories, a company that sells over 99% of its drugs in the U.S. but attributes the bulk of its profits to a law office in Bermuda.

Corporate abuses are all the more frustrating in light of how the Congressional “Supercommittee” is discussing the deficit. The Supercommittee is poised to recommend draconian cuts in important programs, but its Republican members are unwilling to address tax havens and tax dodgers that cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $100 billion per year. The two biggest banks benefiting from taxpayer bailouts are Citigroup with 427 subsidiaries in tax havens and Bank of America with 115.

A recent report  by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) adds more grist to the protesters’ mill. The report notes that the salary of chief executives (CEOs) of the S&P 500 soared 27.8% in 2010 to $10.8 million, making the ratio between average CEO pay and average U.S. worker pay now 325 to 1. Back in the good old days of 2009, the ratio was much more equitable at “only” 263 to 1. The IPS study found that 25 of the top 100 CEOs received more pay than their companies paid in federal income tax. Furthermore, 20 of these 25 companies spent more on lobbying than they paid in federal income tax.

One more recent analysis,  published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, provides new support for those advocating major reforms in the tax code. The analysis found that those countries with the most progressive tax codes (those that are the exact opposite of a flat tax where everyone regardless of income pays the same rate) had the highest happiness ratings.

Americans want a sustainable and fair economy. But we won’t get one without fundamental financial reforms and a clamp-down on tax dodgers.  And we won’t get that without applying pressure to lawmakers and corporations.  Now that’s a good focus for a protest.

Steady State Economics and the New Congress

by Brent Blackwelder

My New Year’s wish is for everyone to see the movie Inside Job. It’s a dynamic overview of the people, forces, and philosophy behind the global financial crisis and the ensuing bailouts of the “too-big-to-fail” banks and investment firms. Inside Job shows how pervasive the corruption of the global financial system has become. The movie singles out various Democrats and Republicans as being part of the problem, but it also contains scenes of some keen Congressional investigators such as Senator Levin of Michigan, Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, who is shown grilling the heads of the big banks and exposing the kinds of swindles that took place.

Advocates of the steady state economy should be working more closely with the cutting-edge organizations fighting global corruption because the corruption and its attendant bribery of public officials is undermining governance around the world.

The ongoing economic depression is the very time steady state advocates should be pushing for a totally different way of proceeding, a way to avoid the boom and busts of the past. We need to blow right by the typical politicians pushing their pet hackneyed ideas for getting the economy moving.

We don’t want to return to the same spot we were in, only to have a new round of speculators crash the economic system and undermine governance. It is important, therefore, to force decision makers in Congress and the Executive Branch to think about a paradigm shift and what a steady state economy would look like.

One obvious approach is to continue increasing the teach-ins, symposiums, and conferences that feature this deep economic debate. CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy) can provide the names of experts to university groups, religious congregations, and public interest organizations who want to host events to educate their members and the public about new economic models.

Rallies and demonstrations can help make a difference in awareness and can stimulate Congress to conduct hearings. For example, Tea Party activists demonstrated repeatedly this past fall at Republican primaries to protest the deficit and the gridlock in Congress and to push for tax cuts. Many were bankrolled by powerful right-wing interests, and they got a lot of press. Advocates of big economic change need to think about doing more demonstrations to raise awareness and force Congressional oversight into new economic models of sustainability.

For example, on the United Nations Anti-Corruption Day, December 9, I organized a demonstration outside the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber has been a large force pushing growth at all costs and is well known for its anti-sustainability positions. But what is not so well known is the Chamber’s opposition to those trying to clean up global corruption and improve governance.

On behalf of the Tax Justice Network with participation by Common Cause, Public Citizen, and Friends of the Earth, we paraded in front of the U.S. Chamber and laid out the charges against it. For example, the Chamber is seeking to weaken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and is blocking efforts to abolish offshore tax havens, which contain vast sums of money (about $20 trillion) that go untaxed by any jurisdiction.

In addition to protests, rallies, and teach-ins, there may be other opportunities to confront the new Congress to get a deeper economic discussion going. Here are a couple of possibilities. Given the stated desire of most of the 97 new Members to cut federal spending, Congress should be challenged to eliminate the subsidies for polluting industries, especially for fossil fuels. The last Congress unfortunately continued the big subsidy for corn ethanol that will cost several hundred billion dollars by the year 2022. The new Congress could reverse this decision, and it could cut the agricultural commodity subsidies that benefit agribusiness and undermine organic food production. The challenge is to make the Congress vote and then we can tabulate the results and expose any hypocrites.

Many advocates of a steady state economy criticize gross domestic product (GDP) for failing to give an honest indication of the well-being of the nation. In 1989 Senator Robert Kasten (R-Wisconsin) added an amendment to the Commerce Department appropriations bill that required the Department to product an index of gross sustainable production in addition to the usual GDP. The provision became law and the Commerce Department started implementation, but in the mid-1990s the fossil fuel lobby forced the removal of this modest requirement. Perhaps as part of truth-telling to the American public, Congress could reinstate this provision.

I have suggested several measures of offense, but in 2011 we may have to work significantly on defense. For example, more bailouts may be proposed without any serious reform conditions. Keep in mind the inability of Congress to resist bailing out too-big-to-fail corporations.

For example, take the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler by the last Congress and the Obama administration. Why wasn’t a provision added to prohibit these companies from suing state or federal governments? GM got bailed out and then sued the State of California over clean car standards.

The Obama administration could have insisted on binding conditions for the production of better mileage vehicles similar to Toyota’s Prius and provided for government fleet purchases of high-mileage vehicles. Dan Akerson, CEO of General Motors, recently told the Economic Club in Washington: “We commonly refer to the geek-mobile as the Prius…I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Prius.”

Let’s make sure that Obama and the new Congress don’t continue rescuing fossilized corporations that stubbornly cling unsustainable policies of the past.