Transcript #158

"We have to tolerate inequality to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all": The Right-Wing Mind's Strained Relation To Reality


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Your sources today include:, the New York Times,,, CNN, the Wall Street Journal,, and


Sometimes escaping from the mouth of a right-winger is an utterance so jaw-dropping, that it merits an entire show.


Brian Griffiths is a Goldman, Sachs international advisor.  He was recently discussing Wall Street salaries and bonuses.  You've probably heard that the financial industry is all set to award itself a record $140 billion in total compensation this year.  Goldman, Sachs all by its lonesome will pass out $23 billion in bonuses.


Griffiths said in defense of such numbers:


We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all

In case your brain has the same reaction mine did the first time I heard that -- this doesn't compute, this doesn't compute -- let me repeat it.


This former advisor to Margaret Thatcher said with a straight face:


We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all

Ah, trickle-down economics.  Thatchernomics.  Reaganomics.  Right-wing economics.  Let me become filthy rich, it will be better for you also, better for everyone.




I think not.


The Wall Street guys did become filthy rich.  Back in 1985, the average Wall Street bonus was a bit less than the average annual salary of a U.S. worker.  By 2006, Wall Street bonuses were fourteen times greater than the average salary of everyone else.


And everyone else's annual salaries essentially stagnated over those decades.


More recently, from 2000-2007, the situation got even worse.  The median income of working age households actually fell almost $2000.  Went backwards.  Where's the trickle-down?  Thanks, George W. Bush.


And there's no relief in sight.  Since the 2008 financial crisis,  pay cuts outside of the financial industry "are occurring more frequently than at any time since the Great Depression."


Where are you, oh trickle-down effect?  The right-wing promised us you'd be here.


Nothing trickled down.  According to Griffiths, we should have the greatest prosperity of all time, since we have the just about the greatest economic inequality since the Great Depression.


Two overall stats here illustrate where trickle-down economics has really left us.


Since 1980, the richest 1% of Americans have nearly tripled their share of the national income pie.  They went from about 8 ˝% when Reagan took office, to 23 ˝ in 2006.


Now, wealth is excess income accumulated over time.  So the wealth inequality is far, far worse even than the year-to-year income inequality.


When I first saw the following statistic, I couldn't believe it, even though the writer was a reliably solid source.  Maybe she added a few zeros by accident somewhere?  So I went and checked the underlying original data, from Forbes magazine and the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Yup, the writer, Holly Sklar, was dead-on accurate as always.


Get a load of this:


The 400 richest American families in 2006 had as much wealth, as the entire bottom half of the nation.


The 400 richest American families had as much wealth, as 57 million American households.


Again, I ask you: where oh where is Griffith's prosperity for all, now that there is such severe economic inequality?


I don't want to get into a long discussion about the various theoretical shortcomings of this absurd right-wing construct, trickle-down economics.


Just one theoretical point should suffice.


Our economy is 70% consumer spending.


Someone making $20,000, $30,000, $50,000 will spend virtually all their income.  They can't and don't save much.   Every penny they get, is going to rev up the economy as they contribute to that 70% consumer spending sector.


But someone making $20 million, $30 million, $50 million, sure they're going to spend a lot, but no way are they going to spend all their income, or even a majority of it.  Most won't go towards that 70% consumer segment. 


And don't tell me about how they'll invest the money and create jobs.  Most of that money will be used, as it always has been, for speculation: hedge funds, foreign stock exchanges and the like. 


Ever heard of derivatives and how they almost brought down the world's financial system?  See podcast 149.  Who do you think bought all those trillions of dollars of derivatives?  Not the average working or middle class guy, I'll guarantee you that.


So putting money not into the hands of the super-wealthy, but of the working and middle class, that's the way to gin up economic growth and shared prosperity.


But let's get beyond theory.  Anyone can come up with a theory.  Or a counter-theory.  The proof is in the real life results.  And the real life results for trickle-down economics are truly disastrous.


Trickle-down theory…predicts a positive correlation between inequality and economic growth, the idea being that income disparities strengthen motivation to get ahead. Yet when researchers track the data within individual countries over time, they find a negative correlation.

For example, after World War II there was low economic inequality over the next few decades.  Yet we saw extremely high growth rates in most industrial countries. 


Then economic inequality started increasing.  And what happened?  Growth rates fell almost by half.


As one reporter [correction: should be "economist"] nicely summed it all up:


Again and again, the observed pattern is the opposite of the one predicted by trickle-down theory.

In other words, the rich wind up with a larger and larger share, of an economic pie that is smaller than it otherwise would have been.  Nice.


If you're a long-time listener, you know one of my mantras:  whatever a right-winger says, the exact opposite is true.  Nowhere more so, as illustrated here, than when money is involved.


In a moment, some other disastrous effects of trickle-down economics and economic inequality.  Stick around.






Unfortunately for all the non-super-wealthy rest of us, slower growth and less opportunity and prosperity are not the only negative results when right-wing trickle-down policies hold sway.


A book, already out in the United Kingdom, will be published next month here in the United States.  It's called "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger."


The authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have a website,


What they have found, is that economic inequality within a society is the single most powerful determinant of whether that society will have more or less of a host of social ills.


No one can summarize their research better than they in their own words.  From their website:


Great inequality is the scourge of modern societies. We provide the evidence on each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage births, and child well-being. For all eleven of these health and social problems, outcomes are very substantially worse in more unequal societies.

We have checked the relationships wherever possible in two independent test beds: internationally among the rich countries, and then again among the 50 states of the USA. In almost every case we find the same tendency for outcomes to be much worse in more unequal societies.

As the book's publisher put it, in reference to the United States in particular:


Almost every modern social problem—ill-health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness—is more likely to occur in a less-equal society. This is why America, by most measures the richest country on earth, has per capita shorter average lifespan, more cases of mental illness, more obesity, and more of its citizens in prison than any other developed nation.

Do you get the picture?


And, all this would be bad enough, if our own tax dollars weren't contributing to our own destruction.


How galling is it, that socialism for the ultra-rich, at taxpayer expense, is helping fuel the Wall Street mega-compensation and increasing economic inequality we've been talking about this entire show.


We’re talking bailouts here.


The Wall Streeters are getting money cheaply from the Fed, and then loaning it back to governments at higher interest.  Or using that cheap money to make huge risky bets, with the security of knowing that their companies are too big for the government to let fail.  So they feel comfortable betting the house.  With our money.  With our financial backstop.



Ok, sometimes right-wingers write in and say all I do is complain, and don't offer solutions.




I've repeatedly called for the trickle-down economic, right-wing economic policies that got us in our woeful current situation, to be reversed, and for progressive policies to be implemented.


In previous podcasts I've talked about the need to once again heavily regulate Wall Street, to prevent the abuses that led to the financial crisis.


I've also advocated in the past that the minimum wage be raised substantially, that the earned income tax credit be increased, and that the income tax rate on the wealthiest tiers be hiked.  These would be solutions that would mightily contribute to leveling our Himalayan peaks of economic inequality.


Here let me give you a few steps we could take that would specifically target Wall Street money-grabbing.


You can use any or all of these to go on the offensive against your friendly local right-winger, challenging them to tell you why these measures shouldn't be taken.


First off, how about a windfall profits tax?  Even the Wall Street Journal recently ran an op-ed piece supporting this step:


A windfall tax is blunt, arbitrary and something supporters of free markets usually instinctively avoid. Even so, following news that Goldman Sachs Group has already set aside a $16.7 billion bonus pool for 2009, the case for windfall taxes on banks that pay giant bonuses is becoming unanswerable.

This year's bank profits are windfalls in the purest sense. They aren't the due rewards for exceptional skill but gifts from taxpayers. Many banks are earning huge, risk-free profits borrowing from central banks at ultra-low interest rates and lending back to governments at much-higher rates. If this giant, hidden subsidy was being used to support new lending, fair enough. Instead, it looks destined for bankers' pockets.

Next, add on a financial transactions tax.  Ralph Nader wrote a great piece arguing the case for this. 


A financial transactions tax would be miniscule in each instance,  a one-tenth to one quarter of a percent tax on each financial market transaction.  It could be stock trades, currency trades, derivatives trades, or some combination of them.


Those investing for the medium and long-term wouldn't even notice it.  But short-term speculators would, having to pay the tax over and over again, each time they want to buy and quickly sell, buy and quickly sell.


The amounts that could be painlessly and even beneficially raised are humungous.


Estimates range from $100 to $500 billion dollars a year!


Yes, $100 to $500 billion dollars a year.


We actually had such a tax for over 50 years, starting in 1914.


Japan, Great Britain and dozens of other nations currently utilize such a tax.


Nader wrote a great line.  He said this tax would


make the Wall Street crooks and gamblers pay for their own Washington bailout.

How could anyone be opposed to that?  Even you right-wingers: personal responsibility is called for, isn't it?


Lastly, the international community could impose globally what is called a Tobin tax.  T-o-b-i-n.  It's also a financial transactions tax, imposed on international financial transactions, like currency trading.  It's named after Nobel Prize winner James Tobin who proposed such a measure in 1971.  Some argue that its receipts should be used for financial assistance to Third World nations.


In a moment, we'll expand the frame in a couple of ways, to really get inside the right-wing psyche.  Stay tuned.






Expanding the frame a bit, guess what the topic was that Brian Griffith's panel was discussing?


It was "What is the place of morality in the marketplace"


If this were an email, I'd type in the capital letters ROTFLMAO.


Griffiths urged bankers to increase their contributions to charity, invoking the Biblical injunction that "To whom much is given much is expected."


There is definitely an important place for charitable giving.  It acts as a tourniquet, an emergency ambulance to get the patient through to live another day.


But to solve the problems that cause the patient to be in such bad shape that charitable intervention becomes necessary, more systemic intervention is required.


Last podcast I told you about Catholic social doctrine and its concept of "structures of sin," which are economic mechanisms that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.


I think under the definition of structures of sin in the theological dictionary, must be the example of trickle-down economic policies.


Grabbing all of society's wealth with one hand, and with the other hand, giving a few alms, or even many alms, to those you've stolen from, that's hardly a mode of behavior in accord with Christian morals, or the morals of any other true religion.



How about we expand the frame in another way?


When you get up each day and look in the mirror, you certainly want to avoid having an irrepressible urge to punch yourself in the face.  If you thought you were doing something evil, you might be tempted to do just that.  So everyone has the need to be able to justify to themselves their own actions.


When Brian Griffiths or any other right-wing ideologue wakes up and looks in the mirror, he needs to like who he sees.  Now he knows he advocates a philosophy whereby a select few amass huge wealth, at the expense of the rest of society.


So that's why he latches onto an economic theory -- and I use that term loosely -- an economic theory that says, let me become filthy rich, and don't worry, it will work out better not just for me, but for you and everyone else.


No need to punch myself in the face, I'm really helping everyone else by getting ever richer and richer and richer.


This rationalizing fits in perfectly with what John Kenneth Galbraith, the noted late economist, once said.  It's one of my favorite quotes.  He wrote:


The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

Could there be a better example of this than trickle-down economics?


As long as you and I are talking about moral justifications for selfishness, let me briefly mention another right-wing entry in this category.  It's the doctrine of Social Darwinism.


Here's radio talk show host Bill Cunningham:


audio: Bill Cunningham

The reason people are poor in America is not because they lack money, it's because poor people in America lack values, character, and the ability to work hard.

The inimitable Bill O'Reilly, shortly after Hurricane Katrina:


audio: Bill O'Reilly

Every American kid should be required to watch videotape of the poor in New Orleans and see how they suffered because they couldn't get out of town.  And then every teacher should tell the students, "If you refuse to learn, if you refuse to work hard, if you become addicted, if you live a gangsta life, you will be poor and powerless just like man of those in New Orleans."

Yes, Social Darwinism teaches that the poor are poor because they're unintelligent, lazy and immoral.  The rich are rich because, of course, they possess the opposite virtues.  Allow the rich to become more rich, and their virtue will increase.  Helping the poor is morally wrong because it will induce them to worsen their bad habits.


Almost makes trickle-down economics seem benign, doesn't it?


Anyway, back to trickle-down economics.


Increasing economic inequality is its purpose.  It's all in service of that prime right-wing directive: transfer wealth from everyone else to the already rich.


This directive applies not just domestically, but internationally among countries as well.


That's why, the right is so apoplectic about progressive leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Ecuador.  Such leaders are working not only to reduce economic injustice within their own borders, but internationally as well, for example, in the form of securing fairer deals with multinationals for their natural resources.


What a great sin!  They want to stop the suffering and dying of the hungry who have no food, the sick who have no medical care.  Preventing multinationals from continuing to loot and economically pillage their nations is absolutely necessary to accomplish that.


Let me put that 23 billion dollars in bonuses that Brian Griffiths' company is awarding itself, in perspective.  Every year a little under 9 million children around the world die unnecessarily from hunger and preventable disease.  That $23 billion works out to $2,600 per child.  That amount is often far more than a year's earnings in those countries.  It's far more than enough to save those children's lives.


Every child in the world could be saved with a small fraction of just that one Wall Street company's bonuses.


These are the kinds of disparities that drive me crazy.


Listen, especially any right-winger before you write in, the inequality I condemn, or better put the lesser inequality I seek, is not some arithmetical division into perfectly equal shares for every person.


Of course not.


That would be an ideologically-driven stance.  I don't hold to any particular ideology.  I consider myself a humanitarian pragmatist.


If those at the bottom who are willing to work and live by society's rules, are able to earn a decent living and feed their families, get adequate medical care, put their kids through college, have some vacation time, save for retirement -- if they have that, then frankly, I don't care how rich those at the top are.


Those 400 richest families, they could have more wealth than everyone else on earth combined, I don't care.


But when there's just not enough wealth to go around at any given point in time, and those at the bottom can not earn enough to gain a decent standard of living, or even to survive, well, then, that's where I draw the line.  We're at a level of inequality that is morally repugnant, and it must be corrected.


All I seek, all we progressives seek, is a lessening of economic inequality sufficient so that those at the bottom are able to live a reasonably decent life.  In our country, and around the world.


How could anyone object to that?



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