Weekly Audit: Wall Street Destroyed $8 for Every $1 Earned

 

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address. A major theme of the speech will be jobs and the economy. Let’s hope the president spares a few minutes for Wall Street reforms that might prevent a repeat of the economic collapse that we’re slowly starting to recover from.

As Kai Wright points out in ColorLines, the State of the Union is the unofficial kickoff of the 2012 election season:

The still churning foreclosures and mounding debt in black and brown neighborhoods don’t suggest a stabilized economy anywhere except Wall Street, but let’s set that familiar fight to the side for now. The point is that whether we’re talking about creating jobs or seating district court judges, the time for making policy is gone. Starting tomorrow night, it’s all talk until we vote next.

Amy Dean of Working In These Times shares Wright’s skepticism. With the Republicans in control of the House and the Democrats hanging on to the Senate, we’re looking at a legislative stalemate until the next election. Dean argues that activists should use this lull in the action to refocus their organizing at the grassroots level.

Wall Street destroyed $8 for every $1 it earned

In AlterNet, Les Leopold asks why bankers are earning such huge bonuses while the financial system is in disarray. According to standard economic theory, your compensation reflects the value of your work. Yet, according to Leopold’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, the financial sector has destroyed $8 worth of wealth for every dollar it earned over the last 5 years. His estimate includes the wealth-destroying impact of the subprime mortgage crisis and other epic Wall Street blunders.

The free market might not be as generous with bankers as the current system of government bailouts. If financial firms were allowed to fail, Leopold notes, bankers who drove their own firms out of business wouldn’t get paid. However, under the current “too big to fail” rules bad decisions lead to taxpayer rescues, not unemployment. So, the bonus checks keep rolling in.

Social Security switcheroo

James Ridgeway of Mother Jones predicts that Obama is gearing up to cut Social Security:

Having “retooled’’ his Presidency for a more open accommodation of the center right, Obama will soon be overseeing the battle to launch a dismantling of the Social Security system. [...] Without entirely destroying the popular program, he will support cuts that go beyond anything that should rightly happen during a Democratic administration.

Ironically, Ridgeway notes, our current Democratic president is to the right of many of yesterdays conservative Republicans. The legendary arch conservative Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-OH) was a staunch defender of Social Security. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower spearheaded the largest expansion of Social Security in the largest expansion of benefits in the history of the program.

Michelle Obama and Wal-Mart

Michelle Obama has enlisted the world’s largest corporation (and largest grocer) in her Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity. George Warner of Campus Progress takes a closer look at the skewed economics behind the “Nutrition Charter” signed by Wal-Mart last week. Amongst other things, Wal-Mart pledged to cut added sugar in its products by 10% by 2015; make healthy food more affordable; and develop a “nutrition seal” to alert shoppers to ostensibly healthier foods.

Yet, Warner notes that Wal-Mart is contributing to ill-health by employing a massive workforce at less than a living wage. Even if Wal-Mart follows through on its relatively modest pledges to promote healthy eating, it continues to put its own workforce at risk of ill health simply by paying them poverty-level wages. Studies show that for every job a new Wal-Mart store creates, it destroys three existing jobs, which paid an average of 18% more.

Poverty is one of the strongest predictors of obesity and poor diet.

Beck vs. Piven, Round 2

Last week, the Audit covered a bizarre right wing trend of demonizing 78-year-old CUNY political science prof Frances Fox Piven for an article she wrote in 1966. Glenn Beck and other leading lights of the right claim that Piven’s 45-year-old article is being used right now by liberal elites in their sinister plot to violently overthrow capitalism.

Piven is receiving death threats by email; and death threats are popping up on Glenn Beck’s website, including: “Snap her little chicken neck. This pinko filth needs a long dirt nap.”; “Somebody tell Frances I have 5,000 rounds ready.”, and “We should blow up Piven’s office and home.”

In actuality, Piven’s article argued that everyone who was eligible for welfare should sign up for benefits in order to expose the structural flaws in the system. Say what you will about the plan, it was non-violent. It involved a lot of paperwork. Far from overthrowing the federal government, Piven sought to usher in a federal guaranteed federal income as an alternative to the patchwork of state and local welfare agencies doling out benefits.

Matthew Rothschild reports in the Progressive that the Center for Constitutional Rights has sent a letter to Roger Ailes of Fox News asking him to reign in the anti-Piven demagoguery.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Bail Out Bonuses

I was heartened to see President Obama yesterday express outrage at bailed out banks using that money to hand out bonuses.

Mr. Obama was reacting to a report by the New York State comptroller that found financial executives had received an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for 2008, less than for the previous several years but the same level of bonuses as they received in 2004, when times were flush.

"That is the height of irresponsibility," Mr. Obama said. "It is shameful. And part of what we're going to need is for the folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint and show some discipline and show some sense of responsibility." [...]

"There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses," Mr. Obama said during an appearance in the Oval Office with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. "Now's not that time. And that's a message that I intend to send directly to them, I expect Secretary Geithner to send to them."

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo also spoke out against the practice of Wall St. paying out billions in bonuses to executives out of the bailout money and signaled he may even demand the return of $4b from Merrill Lynch:

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo may demand the return of $4 billion in bonuses paid by Merrill Lynch & Co. just before it was acquired by Bank of America Corp., a person familiar with the matter said.

Cuomo also wants to know what Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Lewis, 61, knew about the accelerated bonuses and about Merrill's surprise $15 billion net loss in the fourth quarter, the person said. Lewis fired Merrill's CEO John Thain this month after the losses required more federal aid. [...]

"No longer will this country stand for wasteful spending of tax dollars on bonuses for executives whose companies have taken huge losses and required taxpayer bailouts," Cuomo said today in a statement about bonuses paid at Wall Street firms that received funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP.

Not surprisingly, one voice that stands out from those rightfully outraged by the excess of Wall St. even as tax payers are saving their ass is Rudy Giulilani who made the case that the real danger would be if executives weren't paid those bonuses:

"Those bonuses, if they are reversed, are going to cause unemployment in New York," the self-described fiscal conservative said. "I remember when I was mayor, one of the ways in which you determine New York City's budget, tax revenue is Wall Street bonuses.

"Wall Street has $1 billion, $2 billion in bonuses, the city had a deficit. Wall Street has $15 billion to $20 billion, New York City had a $2 billion, $3 billion surplus, and it's because that money gets spent. That money goes directly into the economy. First of all, it gets taxed as income. Secondly, it gets taxes again when somebody buys something with it."

A bit tin ear, don't ya think, Rudy? I'd like to see him go on the campaign trail running for senate on the pro-bonus platform. There's a winning strategy!

The fact is, this crystallizes the differences in priorities between the two parties. As Josh Marshall points out:

This is the definition of trickle down -- give huge amounts of money to a small number of individuals, most of which will be socked away but a relatively small percentage of which will be spent on luxury goods.

Update [2009-1-30 13:24:40 by Todd Beeton]:Sen. Claire McCaskill will be introducing a bill this afternoon to cap salaries (including bonuses and stock options) of executives at companies receiving bail out funds:

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., plans to introduce legislation Friday afternoon that will cap compensation for employees of any private company that accepts federal dollars because of the economic downturn.

Employees would not be able to make more than the president — $400,000 — until the company no longer relies on federal assistance from the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector, McCaskill’s office said.

Good.

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