Throughout the IBM Pension heist, Ellen E. Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal, exposed IBM's and other companies shenanigans that have cost retirees millions and millions of dollars, while enriching corporate executives.
Ms. Schultz has just published a book that every IBMer should read: Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit From the Nest Eggs of American Workers. Many IBMers are aware of the "cash balance heist" of 1999. However, IBM has been stealing money from the pension plan dating back to 1991, well before the Gerstner era.
""Retirement Heist takes a provocative look at the unseen corporate forces that have weakened our nation's employer provided retirement benefits. Ellen E. Schultz documents an emerging corporate culture - spurred on by benefit consultants - that places shareholder value and executive compensation above employee retirement security. Retirement Heist shows how the growing retirement insecurity of today is a direct outgrowth of the hidden manipulation of plan benefits for other corporate purposes. David Certner, Legislative Policy Director for AARP.
Companies claim they have no choice: They're victims of a "perfect storm" of an aging work force and market turmoil. But if you're one of the 50 million employees and retirees covered by a pension at a U.S. company, you can't necessarily rely on what your employer tells you.
Here's a translation of some of employers' most common claims:
"Spiraling costs force us to freeze your pensions." That's partly true -- but not the whole story. A little over a decade ago, pension plans had $250 billion in surplus assets. But employers siphoned billions from the pension plans to pay for restructuring costs, often by providing additional payouts in lieu of severance, and by withdrawing money to pay retiree health benefits -- and in some cases parachutes for executives.
When the market cratered in 2008, there was no surplus to cushion the blow, and today, pensions collectively are underfunded by 20%. With one big exception: Pensions for top executives continue to spiral, and account for much of the growing pension cost companies complain about. ...
"We're improving your pension plan." Hundreds of companies began changing their traditional pension plans, which are based on average pay and years worked, into "account-style" plans, resembling 401(k)s. Employers claimed the plans were easier to understand, but usually failed to mention that the new formula reduced pensions of older workers by 20% or more, and in many cases, including at AT&T, froze the pensions of long-tenure workers.
"Lump sums are better for a modern work force." The new-style pension plans usually gave departing employees a choice of taking their pension in monthly payments in retirement or cashing it out in a single, one-time payout. That's a key reason employers claimed that the new account-style pensions were better than traditional pensions for a more mobile work force. But they weren't doing employees any favors.
Employers used lump sums as carrots to lure workers in their peak earning years to retire early, and didn't tell them the payouts might be worth 20% to 50% less than the value of the monthly pension. When Mary Fletcher left her management job at IBM and was offered a lump sum, she hired an actuary, who determined that although the lump sum was $71,500, Ms. Fletcher's pension was really worth $100,000.
"Retire now, and we'll provide health care until you reach 65, at little cost to you." Hundreds of thousands of employees, including managers at Unisys and Lucent, took this bait, believing they'd have affordable health coverage until they qualified for Medicare at age 65. But within a few years, their employers began jacking up premiums or eliminating coverage.
When frantic retirees pointed to written promises, employers pointed to "reservation of rights" clauses in the technical plan documents, which gave the employer the legal right to renege on the promise.
"Retiree health costs are spiraling." Retirees' premiums and other costs for health care have been jumping by hundreds of dollars a month, but not necessarily because employers are spending more for coverage. A key reason is that years ago employers capped the amounts they would pay for the benefits, so when the ceilings are reached, all the increases are passed on to the retirees. As the retirees' share of costs escalate, healthier ones drop out and get cheaper coverage elsewhere, leaving a pool of older, sicker retirees -- with higher expenses.
Retirees' share of costs may also grow when companies, such as Xerox, segregate the retirees into their own risk pool, instead of including them in the broad-based employer plan. And some companies charge salaried retirees more to subsidize union retirees, whose premiums the companies can't unilaterally raise. (Editor's note: IBM also segregates retirees into their own risk pool.)
"The main narrative is that [companies] are struggling to pay both their pensions and these unexpectedly high health care costs for the retirees," Schultz says. "What isn't known is that companies were well-prepared for this phenomenon. The plans were in fact significantly overfunded. They had more than enough to pay every dime for every person currently employed and already retired." ...
In the early 1990s, Schultz says, companies were looking for new ways to push out workers, especially older, more expensive ones. She says the expensive way would have been to pay severance, "but the cost-effective way was to instead promise them a bit more pension money in lieu of severance." In the end, "you've just laid off somebody who's expensive and it has cost you nothing." ...
David Certner, a policy director at the AARP, says that "corporations weren't always so transparent and clear about what they were doing." Schultz says there was a massive transfer of wealth over the past two decades, from a multitude of retirees to a small number of executives. But while she calls her book Retirement Heist, she concedes that nothing that happened was illegal.
"When you have a properly funded plan, it doesn't matter how many retirees you have or how long they live," Schultz says. "It's not the fact that you have a lot of retirees; it's the fact that you have abused the pension plan."
Ball, a Republican from Brewster in Putnam County whose district includes IBM’s headquarters, said he has questions about the deal.
As an Assemblyman, Greg Ball fought to launch an investigation into IBM’s offshore practices after they received a windfall totaling nearly $100 million from New York. In December of 2008, IBM accepted $45 million from the Empire State Development Corporation in return for not cutting jobs at its East Fishkill facility. Just two weeks later, according to reports, the company laid off 278 workers. Shortly after, Ball authored legislation to end tax incentives for companies that offshore jobs.
“Let me explain this in simple terms. IBM has already received hundreds of millions of dollars from New York taxpayers. Not even a few years back, we found out IBM was cashing checks from taxpayers while simultaneously patenting a new technology specifically designed to outsource our jobs in America. Now, as small businesses everywhere are shutting their doors, we are going to reward these global giants with an even larger giveaway of corporate welfare, without asking the tough questions?”
In 2009, IBM refused to respond to a Wall Street Journal report stating the company was shifting 5,000 American jobs to India. To this day, the company remains mum about how many jobs it has outsourced over the past two years.
Ball’s war against corporate welfare to powerful multi-national corporations has been a continuous uphill fight because of powerful corporate interests in both parties. Ball first went public with the IBM issue after constituents alerted him to the severity of layoffs made by the company, including cases in which employees were refused severance and health care packages, despite being promised by the company that these benefits would be given even if layoffs were made. Ball organized and attended several rallies and press conferences outside IBM facilities to bring light to these financial dealings and the terms of the layoffs.
“It is the new and small businesses, those creating over 70% of the jobs, that we must help if we truly want to turn this economy around. This $400 million could have been divided into 1,600 or more small business loans, spreading opportunity to new businesses and entrepreneurs statewide. In fact, a portion could have immediately went to fix bridges, roads and crumbling infrastructure, putting thousands of New Yorkers back to work, now that would have helped Main Street!”
Selected reader comments follow:
In this case, the money is being given to the Nanocollege (probably to avoid that *appearance* of corporate welfare). But given the money will be used to build and to supply expensive equipment to be used by the various participating companies, it is indeed corporate welfare. The companies no longer have to pay for, maintain or repair the tools and building, while gaining the benefit of their use.
So taxpayers are on the hook for free space, utilities (water, gas, electricity) and extremely expensive equipment. Can’t blame the companies for taking handouts…but do blame your elected officials for giving them. They really should know better, given the track records of some of their beneficiaries like IBM.
According to Ibbotson data, the long-term annualized gain for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index dating back to 1926 is 9.9 percent. For bonds, it's 5.4 percent. (From 1970 to 2010, the Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond index average was 8.3 percent.) Plug those numbers into a portfolio of 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds and the return is about 8 percent, which is precisely the number most financial planners -- and retirement calculators -- were using up until recently. ...
Today many advisers are looking out a decade or so and lowering the rate of return they expect from stocks and bonds. Jon West, a director at Research Affiliates, which manages $50 billion, says the firm's number crunching leads it to estimate that stocks could deliver 5 percent to 6 percent, and bonds 2 percent or so. That's based on getting "at least 2 percent less from dividends," anemic earnings growth, and no growth in the stock market's price-earnings ratio, he says. It produces a return below 5 percent for a 60/40 portfolio. That's a far cry from 8 percent. ...
Monte Carlo simulations are useful but can have shortcomings. William Bernstein, a principal at Efficient Frontier Advisors and author of "The Investor's Manifesto," worries they can give a false sense of security since, for the most part, they assume normally distributed returns -- not the dramatic market meltdowns of recent years. Fidelity's calculator shows savers two probabilities: one that assumes the historical rates of return are borne out, and another shows how savers would fare if they had below-average outcomes. ...
If using any of the calculations shows that a savings goal needs to be hiked, one way to eke more return out of a portfolio is to focus on fees. Forking over 1 percent to 1.5 percent of your money each year to cover a mutual fund's expense ratio may have been easy to overlook in the 1990s when the S&P 500's annualized return was 18.2 percent. If returns are 6 percent or 7 percent over the next decade, a 1.5 percent expense ratio cuts a net return by about 25 percent. "In this day and age, there's simply no excuse for paying [an expense ratio of] more than 0.25 percent for a portfolio of U.S. stocks and bonds, and maybe 0.5 percent for a portfolio of foreign stocks," says Bernstein.
If you didn't' receive a letter, or if you want to see other IBM Canada DB retirees reaction to the letter, go to the Rewind site at http://www.bigblueretirees.com/ for more information. It is the IBM Canada retiree site.
If you want to object to the company's plan to extend the repayment of the shortfall, you need to mail in the form you received, anonymously...i.e. don't put your name on it and don't put a return address on the envelope, or it won't count. But you MUST send in the form if you want to object to the IBM plan.
The objection must be received by Towers Watson by October 28, 2011. Towers Watson must receive these forms from at least 1/3 of the Plan members; otherwise IBM Canada will implement a 10 year deficit funding plan.
If you moved since you retired, IBM may not have your new address, the letter they sent won't reach you and IBM will assume that you have agreed to their plan to prolong making the pension plan whole for 10 years! So it is up to you to be proactive.
Note this note only applies to IBM Canada pensioners and those current employees who are vested and only to Defined Benefit plans.
There is a fear amongst some of the IBM Canada retirees that that some retirees might have moved or IBM might not have all the retirees addresses. Since letter requires IBMers who object to their extended top up on the pension plan to mail in a notice of objection, those who never received the letter and therefore not objected will have 'deemed agreement' to the plan they never saw.
There is a Facebook site for IBM Canada retirees as well as the website Rewind site at http://www.bigblueretirees.com/. Facebook site: Not sure if this link will work https://www.facebook.com/groups/207495335982893/?id=208273309238429. Other IBM Canada retirees are posting comments in both places.
Here is the phone number offered in the IBM letter: Morneau Shepell Call Center 1-888-813-1735. There is still time for you to get the letter, the notice of objection and decide if you want to object to IBM's proposed 10 deferral plan before the October 28, 2011 deadline.
The board decided to give Sharer more. It boosted his compensation to $21 million annually, a 37 percent increase, according to the company reports.
The company board agreed to pay Sharer more than most chief executives in the industry — with a compensation “value closer to the 75th percentile of the peer group,” according to a 2011 regulatory filing.
This is how it’s done in corporate America. At Amgen and at the vast majority of large U.S. companies, boards aim to pay their executives at levels equal to or above the median for executives at similar companies.
The idea behind setting executive pay this way, known as “peer benchmarking,” is to keep talented bosses from leaving. But the practice has long been controversial because, as critics have pointed out, if every company tries to keep up with or exceed the median pay for executives, executive compensation will spiral upward, regardless of performance. Few if any corporate boards consider their executive teams to be below average, so the result has become known as the “Lake Wobegon” effect.
But now they want to bring their treasure to the United States, albeit at a steep discount on what they owe the IRS. Instead of paying the statutory corporate income tax rate of 35 percent — or even the "effective rate," which for most global companies, is closer to 11 percent — they're urging Congress to let them do this at a tax rate that's a whisker over 5 percent.
They tell Congress they need a "tax holiday" to free up badly needed capital to invest in right here — creating jobs at a time when the U.S. economy is sputtering. ...
The problem with these WIN America promises is this: Their pants are on fire. Here's how we know that: They waged the same campaign in 2004 with the same promises that they would create jobs, got their way, and created few jobs. Worse, some companies destroyed tens of thousands of jobs. ...
In fact, 58 of the large corporations that took advantage of the 2004 tax holiday shed almost 600,000 workers in subsequent years. This downsizing was not a result of the economic meltdown as many of these companies prospered. Today, these 58 companies maintain combined cash reserves of more than $450 billion. There's nothing holding them back from investing in America.
These 58 giant corporations accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total repatriated funds and collectively saved an estimated $64 billion from what they otherwise would have owed in taxes. The 10 biggest "layoff leaders" were Citigroup, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, Pfizer, Merck, Verizon, Ford, Caterpillar, Dow Chemical, and DuPont. ...
Congress shouldn't be fooled again. Limited incentives should go to activities that will create jobs, not another tax holiday for off shore tax dodgers. These companies are not in the business of creating jobs. They are in the business of shifting as much wealth to their top managers and shareholders as possible. ...
Unfortunately, a segment of corporate America embraces a "built to loot" business model. They shift every possible expense off their balance sheet and squeeze their stakeholders, with the exception of top management and shareholders. They outsource and offshore jobs and engage in accounting gymnastics to game their tax bills to nothing. They mooch from the common treasury, but don't contribute.
I also filed labor charges against my second line who basically told me to take down my union signs or risk being 'written up' (whatever that implies, the court took it as a veiled threat) the case was eventually won in our favor, a nationally recognized/Federal case.
I also confronted Gerstner and and Sam at various Shareholder meetings, the last meeting Sam actually refused to call on me at the microphone, skipping the normal functioning of the shareholder meeting, which tells an awful lot about him in my opinion.
I get along well with my managers, (even the one in the Fed case mentioned) as I can tell them quite honestly I have nothing to hide and don't consider management the problem. Management doesn't send thousands of jobs offshore, Armonk executives do. Management didn't decide to replace thousands of Americans with visa workers as is ongoing, Armonk executives did. Managers aren't fleecing workers pensions and cutting benefits and keeping raises down, Armonk executives are.
Managers are in many cases just as screwed as we are in terms of benefits and retirement issues and have even more difficult rights to pursue if they wanted to, and some have even told me they wanted their own union! Managers and we are basically in the same position, financially screwed.
My ratings have been consistent 2-2+ for my career and didn't change since joining. I'm often approached by the fearful wondering why I keep my job while thousands keeping their head down and hiding their frustrations are fired. While there are many reasons, the main ones are I am a solid contributor and follow the legal rules regarding organizing, no bending things, just stick to the laws and be ready to fight legally if the company ties to violate your rights. This removes a big incentive for the company to target organizers as the company can fire hundreds who won't make a peep about leaving.
You don't have to do what others like me have done, you can join and support the cause anonymously, but either way, stand up for yourselves and gain some self respect while you're at it. You have nothing to lose but your self imposed chains!
The story I'm in above notes about some workers who were fired, who tried to use union rules while not being involved with the union:"They were not involved with a union, the board said, and thus lacked the rule's protection." So if you want to stand up for your rights, smarten up and join the Alliance, regardless of the long term outcome, you can be proud of yourself for standing up while others hide or pretend they don't care about where things are heading. I wear my union button daily and my alliance tee-shirt every Friday, if you're in Fishkill, NY, look me up and say hello anytime, we can take a break and head to a break area and have a legal and protected conversation about workers rights! Plus I've met hundreds of CWA workers and even joined them on the picket lines on several occasions, my Union Brothers really are a part of my family now, I know they can be counted on, unlike the Armonk bunch.... -Bill Costine-
Alliance reply: To clarify our membership number in the linked article: The 6000 were both supporters and members. Dues paying members at that time were about 450. Currently, we have about 200 members and 4000 supporters.
The three companies, Amedisys Inc., LHC Group Inc. and Gentiva Health Services Inc., get most of their revenues from Medicare. Home-health care, which involves sending nurses to patients' homes in an effort to cut down on costly hospitalizations, is one of the fastest-growing areas of spending for the $524 billion-a-year health plan for the elderly and disabled. The Senate committee, citing emails and other internal documents obtained from the companies, alleges that they encouraged employees to make enough home-therapy visits to reach thresholds that triggered bonus payments, whether or not the visits were medically necessary. ...
Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), the Senate Finance Committee's chairman, said "the gaming of Medicare by these companies represents serious abuse of the home-health program." Elderly patients "should not be used as pawns to increase a company's profits," and "in these tough economic times, taxpayers simply cannot afford for their dollars to be wasted on unnecessary care," he added. "The reimbursement policy encourages gaming, and gaming is what's occurred," said Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee's senior Republican member. "The federal government needs to fix the policy that lets Medicare money flow down the drain."
So what is driving up insurance premiums? The main factors, analysts say, were increased medical care costs and higher profits for insurance companies, which charged a lot more in premiums than they paid out for medical services. Both problems are being addressed by the health care reforms. But, clearly, they will require even more vigorous attention.
This latest survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust found that the average total family premium climbed above $15,000 in 2011, with the worker paying roughly $4,100 and the employer about $10,900. Since the survey started in 1999, worker contributions to premiums have increased 168 percent, while wages have gone up 50 percent. ...
For the longer term, the reform law will create a slew of pilot projects in Medicare to find ways to reduce the cost of delivering care. Any effective strategy should be pushed quickly into the private sector. Until the underlying health care costs are reduced, it will be hard to hold premiums down.
The rankings cover 830 private, Medicare, and Medicaid health insurance plans that enroll an estimated 127 million people. Private plans are those that people join through their jobs or buy on their own.
Our analysis of the NCQA rankings found that the five largest national insurers—Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Permanente, and United Healthcare, plus the mostly state-based Blue Cross Blue Shield plans—account for about 75 percent of the 390 ranked private plans, but only 36 percent of the top 50.
Here are other highlights:
"But dependency on government has never been bad for the rich. The pretense of the laissez-faire people is that only the poor are dependent on government, while the rich take care of themselves. This argument manages to ignore all of modern history, which shows a consistent record of laissez-faire for the poor, but enormous government intervention for the rich." From Economic Justice: The American Class System, from the book Declarations of Independence by Howard Zinn.
Because the owners, the owners of this country don't want that. I'm talking about the real owners now, the BIG owners! The Wealthy… the REAL owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.
Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't. You have no choice! You have OWNERS! They OWN YOU. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls.
They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying, to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I'll tell you what they don’t want:
They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That's against their interests.
That's right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that!
You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you sooner or later cause they own this fucking place! Its a big club, and you ain’t in it! You, and I, are not in the big club.
It may shock you exactly how wealthy this top 1 percent of Americans is. ThinkProgress has assembled five facts about this class of super-rich Americans:
The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Owns 40 Percent Of The Nation’s Wealth...
The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Take Home 24 Percent Of National Income...
The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Own Half Of The Country’s Stocks, Bonds, And Mutual Funds...
The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Have Only 5 Percent Of The Nation’s Personal Debt...
The Top 1 Percent Are Taking In More Of The Nation’s Income Than At Any Other Time Since The 1920s.
The Patriotic Millionaires contend that Americans with incomes over $1 million should shoulder a larger share of the tax burden to pay for Pell Grants, road improvements and training programs "that made it possible for me to get to where I am," as Edwards told Obama during the president's appearance last week at the Mountain View social networking company LinkedIn. .../p>
But conservatives, particularly Republicans who control the House, prefer to refer to wealthy individuals as "job creators" who will be less likely to invest in the economy should their taxes rise. Besides, if wealthy people like Edwards really want to pay more to the federal government, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said "he can send it in to the Treasury." "The reason we tax cigarettes in this country is to get people to stop smoking," Ryan said. "If you tax capital more, you get less capital. If you tax job creators more, you get fewer jobs. "That's the seed corn for the economy, which gets invested in entrepreneurs and startups and small businesses," Ryan said. Raising taxes would cut that supply off at a critical time when banks aren't loaning to small businesses as freely.
But Ask.com founder and Oakland venture capitalist Garrett Gruener said that changes in the marginal tax rates make "zero difference" about where he is going to invest. "The kind of investing I've done for the last 25 years isn't based on how a few points of the income tax rates change," said Gruener, a Democrat and member of the Patriotic Millionaires. But "somehow, the Republicans have managed to convince 98 percent of the people that they are affected by how 2 percent of the population is taxed." ...
While at least half of the Patriotic Millionaires would identify themselves as progressive Democrats - including several from the Bay Area - many of the rest are independents. Some are like David Watson, a 34-year-old former Google engineer, who was employee No. 83 at the search-engine behemoth. The Oakland resident is registered as a decline-to-state voter and has cast ballots for Republicans and Democrats. Raising taxes on wealthier individuals "seems like it's a common-sense thing." "I don't even see the point of why this discussion is going on," said Watson, who is now a music producer. "There should be some adults in this conversation."
But here’s the most astonishing fact: the One Percenters consist of just 34,000 households, about 90,000 people. Relative to the great mass of New Yorkers—9 million of us—they’re nobody. We could snow them under in a New York minute. ...
According to the FPI, the wealth of the One Percenters derives almost entirely from the operations of the sector known as “financial services,” whose preoccupation is something they call “financial innovation.” The One Percenters draw the top salaries at commercial and investment banks, hedge funds, credit card companies, insurance companies, stock brokerages. They are the suit people at Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan and AIG and Deutsche Bank. To get a sense for how their fortunes have blossomed, consider the fact that the largest twenty financial institutions in the U.S., almost all of them headquartered in New York, now control upward of 70 percent of the country’s financial assets, roughly double what they controlled in the 1990s.
And what do the suit people do to earn such heaping returns? At one time, the financial sector could be relied upon to allocate capital for the building of things that society needed—projects that also invariably created jobs. But productivity is no longer its purview. Lord Adair Turner, a financial watchdog and former banker in the city of London—the other world capital of finance—recently denounced his class as practitioners and beneficiaries of a “socially useless activity.” Paul Woolley, who runs a think tank in London called the Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality, observed that the “presumption that financial innovation is socially valuable” was a kind of metaphysics. “It wasn’t backed by any empirical evidence,” Woolley told John Cassidy, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Structured investment vehicles, credit default swaps, futures exchanges, hedge funds, complex securitization and derivative pools, the tranching of mortgages—these were shown to have “little or no long-term value,” according to Cassidy. The purpose was to “merely shift money around” without designing, building, or selling “a single tangible thing.” The One Percenter seeks only exchange value, as opposed to real value. Thus foreign exchange currency gambling has skyrocketed to seventy-three times the actual goods and services of the planet, up from eleven times in 1980. Thus the “value” of oil futures has risen from 20 percent of actual physical production in 1980 to 1,000 percent today. Thus interest rate derivatives have gone from nil in 1980 to $390 trillion in 2009. The trading schemes float disembodied above the real economy, related to it only because without the real economy there would be nothing to exploit.
This is, of course, stupid: the operative word is “some.”
And we’re not talking about one or two exceptional guys, either. Look at the I.R.S. data on returns for the 400 highest incomes in America, available at irs.gov. If you look at the numbers since 2004, you’ll see that in a typical year between 30 and 40 percent of those super-high-income players paid an average tax rate of less than 15 percent; most of them paid less than 20 percent. Bear in mind that for the very wealthy, the payroll tax — the main burden on working-class Americans — is trivial because of the cap on Social Security taxes and the fact that it only applies to earned income. And what becomes clear is that Mr. Obama’s claim that Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a higher tax rate than Mr. Buffett does is absolutely, totally true.
With taxes on the wealthy on the political radar, we’re going to be drowning in a vast wave of double-talk and smothered by the fuzzy math. Still, one has to try. So, a couple of notes. One is that you have to beware of the old trick of saying “taxes,” then slipping into “income taxes.” Most Americans pay more payroll taxes (for things like Medicare and Social Security) than income taxes, but the reverse is true at high incomes. So focusing only on income taxes makes it seem as if the rich bear much more of the burden than they really do.
Amid a gloomy outlook for economic growth, Bernanke warned that the recovery is “close to faltering,” and he said the central bank has adjusted its forecasts downward since they were last released publicly in June.
The politicians' only real action is counterproductive; austerity and bank bailouts that hurt the economy. Is the government evil or incompetent? Does it matter?
Here in the United States, no one should be surprised that young adults are among the nation's angriest and most alienated citizens. No other group has been as systematically ignored by the mainstream political class as the young. What's shocking is that it took so long for them to take to the streets.
Every other age groups get government benefits. The elderly get a prescription drug plan. Even Republicans who want to slash Medicaid and Medicare take pains to promise seniors that their benefits will be grandfathered in. Kids get taken care of too. They get free public education. ObamaCare's first step was to facilitate coverage for children under 18.
Young adults get debt.
The troubles of young adults get no play in Washington. Pundits don't bother to debate issues that concerns people in their 20s and 30s. Recent college graduates, staggering under soaring student loan debt, are getting crushed by 80 percent unemployment-and no one even pretends to care. Young Americans tell pollsters that their top concerns are divorce, which leaves kids impoverished, and global warming. Like jobs, these issues aren't on anyone's agenda.
Choose a year from some fondly remembered past when the American economy generated broadly shared prosperity. How about 1947? That year, the top 1 percent of U.S. households grabbed a bit less than 12 percent of the nation's pre-tax income, and the other 99 percent shared around 88 percent of the take. It wasn't a perfect time, but it was an era when a large middle-class was emerging.
Or maybe you think 1967 was a great time to be an American worker. That year, the top 1 percent grabbed 10.7 percent of the pile, and the other 99 percent divvied up around 89 percent of our income.
Between 1949 and 1979, those at the top never took in more than 12.8 percent of the total. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, they grabbed 10 percent of our economic output, and the rest of us shared 90 percent. And that's when things started to shift, relatively rapidly. In Reagan's final year in office, the top 1 percent of American households grabbed 15.5 percent of the nation's income.
By the time George W. Bush was elected, they were taking in 21.5 percent. And in 2007, the year before the crash, they were pulling in 23.5 percent of our pre-tax income, leaving the other 99 percent to share just 76.5 percent of the fruits of our output.
According to Paul Buchheit, a professor with City Colleges of Chicago and founder of fightingpoverty.org, “if middle- and upper-middle-class families had maintained the same share of American productivity that they held in 1980, they would be making an average of $12,500 more per year.” The size of our economy, he wrote, “has quintupled since 1980, and we all contributed to that success. But our contributions have earned us nothing. While total income has also quintupled, percentage-wise almost all the gains went to the richest 1 percent.” This upward redistribution of wealth “translates into a trillion extra dollars of income every year for the richest 1 percent.”
Mr. Reid said the surtax would raise $445 billion over 10 years, just about the amount needed to pay for the jobs bill, though it appears unlikely it could make it through Congress. The proposal, he said, would “have the richest of the rich pay a little bit more” — specifically, “5 percent more to fund job creation and ensure this country’s economic success.” ...
Many economists predict that the economy will still face serious problems, including high unemployment, in 2012, an election year. Mr. Reid made clear that he thought his party would gain a political advantage from the proposal. “It’s interesting to note that independents, Democrats and Republicans and even the Tea Party agree it’s time for millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share of taxes,” Mr. Reid said Wednesday. ...
Congressional aides said it would probably work this way: The government would collect an additional tax equal to 5.6 percent of the amount of income exceeding $1 million. So for a person with income of $1.1 million, the extra tax would be $5,600, which is 5.6 percent of $100,000. Estimates from the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation indicate that 330,000 households have more than $1 million of income, broadly defined. ...
Tax rates on the wealthy have declined in recent decades. The total federal tax rate for the top one-thousandth of all earners — a group that now starts at about $1.5 million in annual income — was 53.7 percent in 1980, according to research by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. By 2004, the latest year for which the economists have data, the total federal rate had fallen to 33.7 percent. ...
“Drawing the line at a million dollars is the right thing to do,” Mr. Schumer said. “In the eyes of many, it is hard to ask more of households that make $250,000 or $300,000 a year. Many of them are not rich. In large parts of the country, that kind of income does not get you a big home or lots of vacations or anything else that’s associated with wealth.”
It is, therefore, a testament to the passion of those involved that the protests not only continued but grew, eventually becoming too big to ignore. With unions and a growing number of Democrats now expressing at least qualified support for the protesters, Occupy Wall Street is starting to look like an important event that might even eventually be seen as a turning point.
What can we say about the protests? First things first: The protesters’ indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely right.
A weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, has taken over much of our political debate — and, yes, I myself have sometimes succumbed. In the process, it has been easy to forget just how outrageous the story of our economic woes really is. So, in case you’ve forgotten, it was a play in three acts.
In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support — and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts — behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis. ...
Bear in mind, too, that experience has made it painfully clear that men in suits not only don’t have any monopoly on wisdom, they have very little wisdom to offer. When talking heads on, say, CNBC mock the protesters as unserious, remember how many serious people assured us that there was no housing bubble, that Alan Greenspan was an oracle and that budget deficits would send interest rates soaring.
Indeed, the twin drivers of America’s nascent protest movement against the financial sector are injustice and invisibility, the very grievances that drove the Arab Spring.
Go on the Web site “We are the 99 percent” and you will see the Mohamed Bouazizis of the United States, page after page of testimonials from members of the middle class who took out loans to pay for education, took out mortgages to buy their houses and a piece of the American dream, worked hard at the jobs they could find, and ended up unemployed or radically underemployed and on the precipice of financial and social ruin. ...
Our political system is skewed to extremes by party primaries and beholden to donors at every subsequent stage. Neither Democratic nor Republican candidates can win without the support of the wealthiest 1 percent. And even if they could finance their campaigns more broadly, moderate candidates on both sides of the aisle who are willing to compromise and make the dramatic economic, environmental and energy policy changes our country needs cannot survive partisan primaries. The result is a government that does not actually represent the majority of the American people.
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