Too Much a commentary on excess and inequality
Too Much a commentary on excess and inequality

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November 2015

This Month

Researchers with the Swiss bank Credit Suisse have just released their latest annual global wealth report. The United States, the bank informs us, currently sports over twice as many millionaires as the next four richest nations — the UK, Japan, France, and Germany — combined.

America has become, says Credit Suisse, the “land of fortunes,” a reality that actually poses both a huge problem and a huge opportunity.

The opportunity? America’s rich have become so rich that merely raising the overall tax rate on our top 0.1 percent just a few percentage points, the New York Times calculates, would raise $55 billion a year, well over “the estimated $47 billion cost of eliminating undergraduate tuition at all the country’s four-year public colleges and universities.”

The problem? Our rich have become so rich that they’re dominating our democracy as never before. Almost half the money so far raised for 2016 White House hopefuls has come from just 158 exceedingly wealthy families. Need we wonder why college students remain so indebted?

In this month’s Too Much, more on our top-heavy economic order — and some promising signs of new and innovative struggling against it.


About Too Much

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Images of Inequality

Yacht slide

Looking for some diversions to keep the guests on your super yacht engaged? FunAir — “We don’t make yachts, we make yachts fun!” — is now offering customized inflatable slides designed to hook over the railings of most any pleasure boat. Since 2009, says company co-founder Mark Anastasia, FunAir has sold over 500 super yacht custom inflatables.


Greed at a Glance

Deep pockets can’t seem to resist going ever deeper. The world’s richest artist, the billionaire Damien Hirst, has just won approval to build an underground art gallery behind his 19-bedroom, $61-million London mansion. The construction will level a small forest.

The Vivos Group, a transatlantic “survival” firm, is now offering luxury bomb shelters. Just $3 million will get any person of means a bunker that “comes with double-queen bunks clothed in 600-thread-count ivory sheets and duvet covers worthy of a four-star hotel,” not to mention a 30,000-gallon tank of diesel fuel “calculated to last for a year of underground living.”

Inequality by the Numbers

November Too Much infographic

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Stats of the Month

If last year’s 10 highest-paid American CEOs had had their pay cut down to $1 million each, the Demos think tank calculates, their over one-half million employees could have received an average 5 percent raise.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, home to the fortunes of Google, Apple, and Facebook, one in seven children live in federally defined poverty. Bay Area rents, adds the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, run nearly triple the U.S. average.

High-end home buyers picked up 52 luxury properties in the Hamptons, the favorite weekend watering hole of Wall Street movers and shakers, this past summer. The median purchase price: $5.3 million.

The United States now ranks 20th worldwide in average broadband speed, the latest global figures show. The United States ranks first in broadband provider CEO pay. The chief exec of the largest U.S. broadband provider, Comcast’s Brian Roberts, pulled in $32.96 million last year. At the second-largest provider, Time Warner, CEO Rob Marcus did even better. His take-home: $34.6 million.

Millennials consider inequality the top problem facing the world today, says new global polling released at the World Economic Forum last month in Abu Dhabi. Asked to pick the three top global problems, 56 percent of the surveyed millennials from 125 nations — average age, 28 — chose “social and economic inequality,” 42 percent climate change, and 33 percent education.




The Too Much Interview

How Taxes Have Kept Wealth White

From the days of slavery to the 21st century rebirth of the poll tax, our tax system has been concentrating wealth at African-American expense, as legal scholar Andre Smith is documenting.

The concept of institutional racism, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, is moving right onto America’s political center stage. The institution under the brightest spotlight? That has to be America’s criminal justice system. But considerable attention has also focused on other institutions as well, most notably education and the financial industry.

Andre SmithBut one institution hardly ever comes to mind when talk turns to institutional racism: our tax system. Most of us simply do not think about racism when we think about taxes. Andre Smith does.

Smith currently teaches at the Delaware Law School, and he has a timely new book out — Essays on the Relationship Between Tax Law and Racial Economic Justice: Black Tax — that just may redefine what we mean by institutional racism. He shared his perspectives last month with Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati.

Too Much: At its core, American slavery before the Civil War operated as a system of forced labor that expropriated the wealth that people of African descent created. But that expropriation, your new book relates, had a powerful tax component as well. How did taxes intensify the exploitation that slavery represented?

Andre Smith: Suppose we play Monopoly and one of us isn’t allowed to move around the board while everybody else can make money and buy up the best properties. Then, after twenty rolls of the dice, the other players allow the excluded player fully into the game. Is the game suddenly fair? Of course not.

The privileged players would have, by then, more wealth and property at their disposal. The disadvantaged player would have to somehow make do with low-value properties like Baltic and Mediterranean — and will likely end up bankrupt and out of the game.

Ending preferential treatment for capital gains would narrow the racial wealth divide.

Slavery and Jim Crow-style peonage after the Civil War essentially represented a 100 percent tax on black labor, the proceeds of which were redistributed to every corner of American society.

Then, after segregation, blacks were finally allowed to play the game under substantially the same rules as everyone else, but without the financial, intellectual, and social capital whites in the United States had accumulated over the previous several hundred years.

Slavery as a 100 percent tax on labor remains a principal reason why blacks in America remain disproportionately without wealth to this day. The billions of dollars extracted from slave labor represent tons of missing wealth from the black balance sheet.

TM: What happened to those billions?

Smith: Those billions of dollars did not disappear. Local, county, and state taxes on the profits from slavery redistributed those billions throughout American society. The proceeds were spent on schools, roads, and other programs that, of course, excluded blacks from their benefits.

Read the rest of the full Too Much interview . . .



“We know from historical experience that if inequality is not addressed through peaceful means and peaceful democratic institutions, it's always potentially a source of violence.”
Thomas Piketty, Inequality in South Africa and Africa: Possible Solutions, University of Johannesburg, Soweto, October 3, 2015

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”
Stephen Hawking, The New Reddit Journal of Science, October 8, 2015

“The world cannot survive on super yachts and silk sheets. We've got to stop giving all the money to billionaires.”
Max Lawson, Oxfam global policy director, International Business Times, October 17, 2015

“The political equality that is required by democracy is always under threat from economic inequality, and the more extreme the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy.”
Angus Deaton, 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, An economist with a human face wins the Nobel, October 24, 2015

Petulant Plutocrat of the Month

Don BlankenshipThe first coal industry CEO ever to face criminal charges thinks mine safety regulators are getting all worked up about nothing. The fight against black lung disease, as former Massey CEO Don Blankenship opined back in 2009, doesn’t rate “the effort they put into it.” Blankenship certainly didn’t put much effort in that fight. In 2010, 29 of his miners died in America’s worst mine disaster in a generation. Autopsies found that 71 percent of the dead had black lung, a horror that has killed and incapacitated 76,000 miners since 1968. Blankenship now faces 31 years in jail for conspiring to violate safety standards and hide mine hazards. The prosecution’s best witness? Blankenship himself. His secretly recorded conversations, now playing in court, reveal “a man seemingly consumed with his own wealth and frustrated with federal regulators and company officials who pushed for more attention to safety,” notes one reporter covering the trial.


Plutocrats at Play

IMAX, the super-size movie screen company, is downsizing. The firm is testing in China a new home IMAX for awesomely affluent movie lovers. Each 20-by-10-foot IMAX home installation runs $400,000. Movies come extra. IMAX exec Robert Lister isn’t worrying about the home screens taking business away from IMAX’s regular operations. Those rich enough to invest in their own private IMAX, he told the China Daily, “will not be the same people who stand in line at a local theater.”

Antidotes to Inequality

Oregon Climate Activists Target CEO Pay

A coalition of business, health, faith, labor, and climate advocates in Oregon has just filed two ballot initiatives that, if enacted in November 2016, would likely make their state the first in the nation to go coal-free.

A November 2016 vote could limit the pay of foot-dragging corporate polluters.

At the heart of this Renew Oregon coalition push: a cap on corporate executive compensation.

The first of the two initiatives requires state utilities to phase out power generated from coal-fired plants by 2030. The second has an incentive to help make that phase-out happen.

Utility executives who miss the state’s renewable energy targets would, under this initiative, have their total compensation limited to “five times the annual Oregon median household income in the preceding year.”

Elsewhere on the inequality-battling front: In Washington, D.C., mainstream pundits are hailing the two-year budget deal the White House and top lawmakers reached late last month. The agreement will avoid a government shutdown over the debt ceiling until at least March 2017.

But the new budget pact, charges Americans for Tax Fairness executive director Frank Clemente, represents “a missed opportunity.”

“This budget,” Clemente noted, “does not close a single tax loophole benefiting corporations or the wealthy.”

The new congressional budget deal gives America’s wealthy another free pass.

Some 52 national organizations had urged lawmakers earlier last month to put into any budget deal legislation introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin that would end the preferential tax treatment of the “carried interest” income that goes to hedge fund managers.

The nation’s top 25 hedge fund managers last year pulled in $11.6 billion in compensation, more than the total pay of all America’s kindergarten teachers. At tax time, the carried-interest loophole saves hedge fund execs about $170 million on every $1 billion of carried-interest income.

In brief: Federal and state lawmakers may not be able to ignore the growing movement to establish public banks much longer. An energetic citizen’s campaign is pushing for a public bank right under the nose of Congress, in Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia government currently deposits most of its money with giant Wall Street banks. With a D.C. public bank in place, tax dollars would be deposited locally and no longer pump up over-the-top Wall Street executive earnings . . .

A 2014 California law that fines wealthy beachfront property owners $15,450 per day for illegally blocking public access to the coastline appears to be working, news reports indicate.


Take Action
on Inequality

Join the Tax Alliance for Economic Mobility and a host of other partners for a November 9 afternoon webinar for anyone committed to the idea that combating wealth inequality will require tax reform. Find out more and register.

Tell your U.S. Senators to close the carried-interest loophole, the tax provision that enables hedge fund billionaires to pay lower effective tax rates than nurses and school teachers.

with Pitchforks

At U.S. Bank, says bank spokesperson Dana Ripley, “we offer fair and competitive wages in all of our markets.”

Local unions in Minnesota would beg to differ. They’ve launched a campaign to raise bank teller and janitor wages to $15 an hour at U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo.

Tellers at Wells Fargo currently earn, according to figures, just $11.81 an hour, workers at U.S. Bank just $11.60.

The CEOs of each bank both made about $20 million last year. They make, in effect, more before a single day’s mid-morning coffee break than tellers at their banks can make in an entire year.


A quick look at major new inequality-related research efforts

How's Life?How’s Life? 2015
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, October 2015

This latest edition of the How’s Life? series, a four-year-old effort to get the world focusing “on people and the quality of their lives,” rates 34 major economies across 11 measures that range from environmental quality and work-life balance to housing and income and wealth.

The data can make for jaw-dropping reading. One example: Full-time workers in France and Germany average an hour per day more leisure than workers in the United States and Australia.

Another: The most affluent 10 percent of the population in Denmark and Finland are taking home about five times the income of the poorest 10 percent. The top 10/bottom 10 divide in the United States: close to 19 times. In Mexico: 25 times.

Also newly released: Climate change is worsening inequality much more previously suspected, concludes new research from scholars at Stanford and the University of California Berkeley. That change, if left unmitigated, will chop average global incomes 23 percent by 2100. Says study co- author Solomon Hsiang: “Climate change is essentially a massive transfer of value from the hot parts of the world to the cooler parts of the world. This is like taking from the poor and giving to the rich.”

The inequality of who’s dying from traffic accidents in America is getting worse.

The inequality of who’s dying from traffic accidents, reports an American Journal of Epidemiology study, has “worsened over time.” We should anticipate, notes one analysis of the new research, that the initial benefits from new safer driving technologies will “mostly go to the rich.”

Cornell University researchers, teaming with analysts from the Pearl Meyer consultancy, have concluded that “offering CEOs huge bonuses to boost shareholder returns doesn’t actually work.” The Cornell study “examined a decade’s worth of data” from every S&P 500 company.

CEO compensation varies widely within Europe, details new Towers Watson research on the continent’s 100 largest corporations. Median-paid chief execs in Spain and Switzerland are taking home three times more than top execs from the Nordic countries. Overall, Europe’s top 100 CEOs averaged 5.4 million euros, the equivalent of $5.9 million. The median pay last year for America’s 200 highest-paid CEOs: $17.6 million.


New Wisdom
on Wealth

Paul Keegan, Here's What Really Happened at That Company That Set a $70,000 Minimum Wage, Inc, October 2015. The CEO who cut his own pay has encouraging news to share.

Jim Wallis, Inequality as a Religious Test, Sojo, October 22, 2015. Why the Parliament of the World’s Religions is focusing on income inequality.

Gar Alperovitz, Socialism with an American face, Aljazeera, October 22, 2015. Let’s democratize who owns our productive wealth.

Shoa Clarke, How Hospitals Coddle the Rich, New York Times, October 26, 2015. A doctor explores the dangers this preferential treatment brings rich and poor alike.

Brooke Harrington, Inside the Secretive World of Tax-Avoidance Experts, Atlantic, October 26, 2015. A sociologist trains to become a wealth manager.

Rupert Ticehurst and Helen Roberts, The responsibility of wealth: Should rich people give away their money? Legal Week, October 26, 2015. To whom, ask these two attorneys, and when?

Sean McElwee, The more unequal the country, the more the rich rule, Aljazeera, October 27, 2015. A look at the research literature.

Richard Rubin and Josh Zumbrun, When the Superrich Die, Here’s What’s in Their Wallets, Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2015. What estate tax data show.


Handy rejoinders to the apologists for our top-heavy status quo

The claim: Cutting taxes on the rich will increase tax revenues.

White House hopeful Bernie Sanders has, ever since his campaign opened, been talking up plans to significantly increase taxes on America’s wealthiest. Cheerleaders for those wealthy have been, predictably, dusting off their rationales for keeping a light tax touch on our richest.

Last month, for instance, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason Riley popped up on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page arguing that if folks like Sanders really wanted to increase the revenue available for social programs, they’d “favor a tax code that’s less progressive.”

Lower tax rates on the rich do generate more revenue, but only for the rich.

“Time and again,” Riley went on, “history has shown that the rich pay more when the top marginal rate is reduced.”

History has actually shown no such thing, as University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee related back in 2000. Goolsbee looked at corporate executive pay over the first half of the 1990s, a period that saw an increase in the top-bracket income tax rate from 31 to 39.6 percent.

In the year after that hike, taxable income in the United States did decline, just as conservatives predicted. But that decline, Goolsbee pointed out, merely reflected the income-timing decisions top execs were making. With a tax hike on the way, those execs rushed to exercise a ton of stock options right before the new higher tax rate went into effect.

Subsequent research has reinforced the case against the claim that tax cuts on the rich increase tax revenues. Over the past 65 years, notes a 2012 Congressional Research Service study, lower tax rates on the rich “do not appear correlated” with the size of the taxable income pie.

What lower taxes on the rich, this study concluded, do produce: “the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.”


What to Watch

Check out historian Edward O’Donnell talking about his new book on egalitarian author and activist Henry George, the “Thomas Piketty of the 19th century.”

Now featured on

Josh Hoxie on the three French economists who deserve a Nobel Prize for their work on inequality

Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati on the OECD and our economic chasms

Jim Hightower on billionaire political concierges

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on postings




The ‘Interconnectedness of Injustice’

Runaway InequalityRunaway Inequality:
An Activist’s Guide
to Economic Justice

Les Leopold
Labor Institute Press, 315 pp.

Les Leopold ranks as one of the best progressive “explainers” we have in American life today. This veteran labor educator particularly excels at explaining why the American economy — for average Americans — has gone so terribly wrong.

Leopold’s 2009 book, The Looting of America, remains one of the most readable guides to the financial machinations that ushered in the Great Recession.

Now his just-published new book, Runaway Inequality, is attacking the paradox right at the heart of 21st century American life: The United States stands as one of the wealthiest nations ever. Yet the vast majority of Americans are barely getting by.

Why? Our economic inequality, Leopold explains with refreshing vim and vigor, is running much deeper than most all Americans think — and much worse than inequality elsewhere in the developed world.

Our corporate leaders, shows Runaway Inequality, have essentially become “financial strip-miners.” They don’t add value to our enterprises. They extract value. They have transformed our American economy.

One sign of that transformation: Back in 1983, corporations devoted the equivalent of 5 percent of their profits to stock buybacks, a maneuver designed to spike a corporation’s share price — and, in the process, enrich the power suits that run the corporation.

Last year, corporations devoted 42 percent of their profits to buybacks.

America’s corporate leaders have essentially become ‘financial strip-miners.’

Leopold covers plenty of ground in Runaway Inequality, everything from climate change and charter schools to racism and empire, with an emphasis throughout on “how everything is connected to everything else.”  

His solutions range widely as well, from financial transaction taxes and other ideas already on our political center stage to ideas  — like the notion of a maximum wage — that ought to be front and center.

Leopold ends this engaging activist guide with an “open letter to new movement organizers.” Our current movement firmament — “thousands of individual groups working on every issue from fracking to a living wage,” each with its own to-do lists and struggles to stay afloat — just isn’t, he notes, getting the job done.

“Collectively our current to-do lists are simply no match for runaway inequality,” Leopold points out. “We are losing. We’ve got to try something different.”

What could that something be? Runaway Inequality makes a compelling case for a coherent mass movement for economic and environmental justice with a “clear and bold agenda that links us together.”

“The arc of capitalism does not bend towards justice,” Leopold sums up. “We must bend it.”

Runaway Inequality makes for ideal study group and book club reading. Check out the intro, now available to read free online.



“The day of accumulating gargantuan new personal fortunes in the United States,” one bestselling American author wrote in 1968, “is just about ended.”

What led to that hopeful appraisal? You’ll find the answer in The Rich Don’t Always Win, Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s compelling history of the triumph over America’s initial plutocracy. You can sample the first chapter online — and order at a publisher’s discount.

RDAW cover


About Too Much

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