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OWS Protesters 'Milquetoast Radicals'? – A Rebuttal to NY Times' David Brooks Op-Ed

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I seldom do opinion pieces, but sometimes, one opinion gets expressed – one amongst so many – that finally pushes me passed that proverbial tipping point. Case in (tipping) point, Tuesday’s op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks, called ‘Milquetoast Radicals’  — a would-be criticism of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

Brooks’ main complaint – apart from the so far lack of a single coherent message (that presumably the media can then attack and dismiss) — is that protesters lack “big ideas”, offering only a litany of “small” complaints, and thus offering only “small solutions.”

As if it were the job of protesters to formulate economic policy for the country.

Mr. Brooks: the OWS protesters are protesters, they are expressing frustration and anger over perceived unfairness, inequality,  injustice and corruption.

In his op-ed, David Brooks quotes a Washington Post op-ed by Matt Miller and cites eliminating the corporate income tax as one of several “big ideas”. Brooks has advocated this idea in some of his previous op-eds, revealing a clear, pro-corporate leaning. This leaning is also made clear from his use of the word “confiscate” instead of “tax”.

“Eliminating” corporate income taxes goes against any sense of fairness and economic justice, especially given that corporations are not spending their surplus capital on new hirings, but on lobbying efforts to make laws more favorable to their bottom lines.

And whose going to fund our super power military?

Allowing that any war requires a believable enemy, when we get down to the economics of war, it is to protect corporate assets, or future ones, for which we deploy our super power military in foreign wars and occupations. These wars cost billions per week — shouldn’t corporations shoulder most of the burden of supporting this military (whose rank and file members come from the lowest income groups?).

Here’s a big idea: the cost all future wars shall be shouldered by the corporation whose interests are being protected, or who stand to gain financially from said wars. Of course, this will require a degree of transparency in corporate-government dealings never before seen in our history (impractical, but it’s still big).

But as to the corporate income tax…US corporations already enjoy one of the lowest effective tax rates (after breaks and loopholes and sheltering) in our history. Any tax break for Big Business should be tied to new hiring, apart from the standard non-profit donation exemptions; the collected revenue then going directly (that’s right, “ear-marked”) for investments in new sustainable energy technologies and jobs training programs for the millions left behind, and now becoming “unemployable”.

How’s that for a big idea?

Right now, with the Bush tax cuts still in place, America’s biggest companies are siting on 2 trillion in cash and not hiring at a pace needed for economic recovery (estimated to be around 300,000 jobs per month). Perhaps this is an example of what Paul Krugman calls the “confidence fairy”…In any event, the CEO’s of these companies, banks, and money firms are pretty much all members of that one percent. The corporate tax rate varies between 17 and 23 % (depending on those breaks and loopholes), with some, like GE, paying a negative tax (we actually refunded 140 million to GE for 2010!).

And let’s not forget outright tax evasion: 300 billion dollars a year in uncollected taxes, according to one IRS report  from 2008.

Plus, energy industries pay virtually no royalties, and minimal fees (if at all), to the US government for use of public lands and water ways and resources (like forests), much of which is put at risk from over-harvesting, degradation, pollution and/or contamination.

Many of us do not believe that the “trade-off” between keeping our environment healthy,  and, creating (highly polluting) jobs is a legitimate one; violations of  our Clean Air and Water Acts results in billion of dollars in Health Care costs annually. The coal industry alone accounts for 4 billion annually in health care (mostly from treating respiratory illnesses). This is one of the “externalities” that corporations do not account for, but which we pay for.

One of the other big ideas you quote is the paring down of health care costs through more privatization (“aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs”). To be fair, you do say “public provisions” — but what does this refer to if not a purchasing role for government (on behalf of consumers) and/or regulatory laws?

This is an issue that the right wing, the super rich, the corporate moguls, just don’t want to see: protecting human health — a person’s life and death — or treating disease or injury, should not be a profit-making enterprise. Privatizing health care will always lead to injustices and rationing (denial of treatment) for those who cannot afford to pay (a growing number, closing in on 50 million).

This is another “big” policy position that benefits private industry, but not necessarily patients. Privatization of virtually anything always increases cost to consumers (as profit is built-in). This is why a public option, and an ability to negotiate for prices,  was so crucial to real health care reform, and keeping costs down. Neither of these provisions made it into the final law; the insurance corporations won, with no limit on the number of times, nor the total amount, that premiums can be increased each year.

The problem of health care affordability is growing monstrously large. This will necessitate, eventually, a greater role for government — one which at minimum must include the two provisions mentioned earlier. This will go a long way towards keeping individual insurance costs down. But remember, the government will end up insuring more people than the private sector; one has to look at per capita insurance costs here.

And, if private corporations aren’t hiring, and are increasing the medical deductibles for those employees they retain, then the burden of cost-covering on the Government will increase, as more people will now no longer be covered (or for as much) through their private sector jobs (which aren’t coming fast enough).

The Super Rich.

OK, there’s the Rich…Let’s define this term as anyone making 200,000 a year, after taxes, for 5 or more years (making them millionaires)…and then, there’s the Super Rich (these are the top .01% of income earners)…that’s anyone who can invest  millions in the market, afford to lose it all, and still walk away really, really rich — something ordinary investors cannot afford to do with their modest savings.

It seems entirely right that these folks should have their taxes increased (via a progressive tax rate) incrementally the further up the income ladder one moves. If you make tens of billions a year (like Oil companies do), then you pay billions in taxes. with any tax breaks tied to hiring, environmental cleanup —  independently monitored for compliance — or green technology investment (there’s another big policy idea for ya).

But the essential problem (and getting my main point here) is: If you cut corporate income tax (which is really the capital gains tax for business), then you allow this class to become even richer, and, more powerful (remember that the CEOs of these corps comprise the top 1%). Only a fool believes that these super rich will not use their money and power to influence government to their advantage, or to advance their interests (another great argument for real public campaign finance reform).

By the way, forgotten in all of this is the fact that under Eisenhower, the upper income tax rate was 90%, and under Kennedy (in a “radical” move), it was lowered to 70%…When we hear of mega corporations paying nothing (like GE), or paying the same rate as a person making 20, 000.00 or less, or a bunch of tool politicians  (and pundits) calling for even more corporate tax breaks, it makes many of us really angry.

Banks can borrow billions in zero interest money from the fed, and instead of investing in small businesses and human capital, they mostly buy bonds and treasury notes — essentially selling our money back to us (our government), and pocketing the profits (and not paying a just capital gains tax for this profit-making privilege).

Many of these are the very banks that we bailed out. To be fair, some of the banks have either paid off their loans, or are making payments on it…

…but that brings up another point: why can’t ordinary folks do this (we’re not talking about buying one or two bonds per month)?

Obviously, they don’t have the massive capital, or access to massive capital, that banks do. And if they default on their loans, they don’t get bailed out (they might get some help from the Gov., but only to reduce their payments, for some of the least risky, or fixed income elderly). They don’t get to borrow money, interest free,  pay off their debts (or pare them down, like that top 1 %), then go buy millions of treasury bonds, cash 10% of them in after a few years, and the pocket the excess which accrues because you have millions/billions of dollars on hand to buy more and more.

No, the banks and credit agencies WANT ordinary working people to carry persistently high debt, that’s one of the other ways they make profits.

What do the protesters want? It’s called “economic justice”.

If you must have it spelled out for you: it’s not about redistributing wealth, per se, but correcting an imbalance of power.

Let’s be frank: money equals power; if you agree with the Citizens United decision — essentially, that money is a form of free speech (the most wrong-headed ruling in jurisprudence history) — then if follows logically, that the more money you have, the more free speech you have (meaning: the more mass media advertising time you can buy to get your message out).

One is rich one can donate more to political campaigns and parties (who funnel the money to candidates that will help pass laws favorable to the donors), this means more access, and again, more power…I think the point is clear. Yet, it has to made over and over until the rich get it through their money-bloated brains.

Make no mistake, oh ye critics of the Occupy Wall St. protesters: they are not anti-wealth (and very few are “communists”), they ARE  anti-greed (of the super rich plutocrats) and anti-corruption (of the government by the corporate class), AND pro-accountability (what Mitt Romney calls “scapegoating”) of these financial elite (the former “Masters of the Universe”) when they gamble away trillions in pension funds and mortgages, or engage in predatory practices (see: Country Wide), or manufacture speculative bubbles that gouge and disenfranchise the populace and rob the nation’s wealth and public treasury, and/or spend tens of millions lobbying Congress to deregulate banking/finance laws that placed the world’s economy on the brink of collapse.

Can you hear me now?

As to the remaining, big ideas you praise (from the Matt Miller Op-ed), but decry the lack of in the OWS movement…here’s a quick look:

Energy Tax? Sure, this has been proposed by climate activists and environmentalist for the past decade! (so much for getting to know your protester). This will be a bit painful for consumers, but if it encourages conservation and use reduction — an more importantly, renewable technology investment and use —  it will help grow a green economy and help our planet in the long-run.

Raise capital requirements for banks? This was already proposed in the Financial Crisis Commission Report (opposed/unsigned by the 6 Republican members — an amazing reveal of political corruption). Sure, but this is now becoming an excuse for not loaning to new businesses, or extending credit to growing ones.

Require national service? Liberals and progressives commonly volunteer for non-profits,  civic and conservation projects, etc.,  so,  we think national service for younger Americans is a great idea…But, may I suggest requiring national service for the top 1% via paying more taxes?

And your last “big idea”:

Balance the budget by 2018? – Here’s my big idea:

All corporate polluters are taxed for the cost of environmental remediation from their activities, plus health care costs. Capital gains tax increases based upon increasing  profits should be additional, and go directly to the deficit.

Alternatively, a “fee and dividend’ approach (as proposed by NASA’s James Hansen) for high carbon energy use could be imposed with dividends going to consumers.

Cease all wars of occupation (military interventions for humanitarian purposes only, via NATO), most of which currently take place in Islamic nations; take one third of the annual savings (based upon current war costs) and invest in space industry/exploration, clean technologies, cultural-creative innovation (a “golden age ” for the Arts),  and environmental engineering (restoration) projects (many military personnel would be great here). Another third goes towards the deficit (since war is one of the largest drivers of deficits). The remainder is a SPENDING CUT/SAVINGS.

And the biggest plus here is a dramatic decrease in terrorism threats caused by our military’s presence in the Islamic world (especially in their Holy Land); this will also allow a reduction in the size of the Homeland Security budget (4o-50 billion per year). Yet more savings.

As to “entitlements”…you can reduce these too by not waging wars, since veterans are the largest group here (in no way am I disparaging current vets or active troops for their service). With people back to work by the millions, we can raise the payroll tax (SS and Medicare) by .25 , like Reagan did, keeping them solvent. In a growing economy, people tend not to mind small increases that maintain benefits for our elderly and disabled.

There. It’s simple; it’s not perfect, but it qualifies as a Big Idea, I think.

As to the protesters…

Mr. Brooks: take a closer look (and not just in New York City): unlike the Tea Party folks, the OWS folks are drawn from a much wider spectrum of society (yes, you can actually see people of color: Hispanics, Blacks, Asians and Whites); they are teachers, cops, social activists, union workers, legal advocates, discharged  (unemployed) veterans, single moms and dads, college students (or recent grads), and of course, the long-term unemployed…Heck, I even met a few gun-owners.

So, hear this: raising taxes on the rich, and corporations in general, is fundamentally about limiting their power …power over elected officials pledged to uphold the Constitution and “promote the general welfare” (that’s all of us).

Make no mistake, the broad-based movement unfolding before our eyes is about economic justice, and restoring power to the people (that bottom 99%). We may take a rest here and there, we may get distracted by pseudo news scandals, but we will not stop until justice – as we define it — is achieved.

Lastly, if you want some real numbers, here an excerpt from a Yahoo News article discussing a ThinkProgress.org report (see: America’s Middle Class Crisis: The Sobering Facts), followed by some end notes by me:

#1) The Top 1% Owns 40% of the Nation’s Wealth:

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz points out the richest 1% of Americans now own 40% of the nation’s wealth. This disparity is much worse than it was in the past, as just 25 years ago the top 1% owned 33% of national wealth.

How much does the bottom 80% own? Only 7%.

#2) The Top 1% Take Home 24% of National Income:

While the richest 1% of Americans take home almost a quarter of national income today, in 1976 they took home just 9% — meaning their share of the national income pool has nearly tripled in roughly three decades.

#3) The Top 1% Own Half of the Country’s Stocks, Bonds and Mutual Funds: The Institute for Policy Studies illustrates this massive disparity in financial investment ownership, noting that the bottom 50% of Americans own only 0.5% of these investments.

#4) The Top 1% of Americans Have Only 5% of the Nation’s Personal Debt:

Using 2007 figures, sociologist William Domhoff points out that the top 1% have 5% of the nation’s personal debt while the bottom 90% have 73% of total debt.

#5) The Top 1% Are Taking In More off the Nation’s Income Than at Any Other Time Since the 1920s: Not only are the wealthiest 1% of Americans taking home a tremendous portion of the national income, but their share of this income is greater than at any other time since the Great Depression, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities illustrates in this chart, using 2007 data.

End notes:

(More to ponder)

1%  own about 40% of total wealth [actually 35 + %, but it varies a bit], and who also own 50% of stocks and bonds…BUT only 5% of our nation’s debt (this is the most telling, and obviously, if you’re rich or high income, you can afford to pay off your debt [and only buy in cash] much more quickly than a lower income person)…the rest are straddled with debt that was sold to them in the form of easy credit by, most likely, members of that one percent (hey, advertising works; who doesn’t want to be “living the dream”; plus, good for the economic engine, 2/3 of which is consumer spending).

At some point, one has to look at the big numbers, the big picture; it is easy to blame individuals for over-extending their credit, but when you look at the millions all in the same boat, and then at the millions spent on credit advertising, one can only suspect that this is the intent, or, the result of intentional profit-making through credit-selling

The thinkprogress.org stats site 24% of national income is own by this 1%. This is the largest share of national income since the 1920’s.

As just reported on ABC News, 46.3 million are living in poverty (earn < 12,500 per year); greatest % since 1942, and largest number of poor in our history.

And, 55 million are currently on food stamps (and some want to cut spending for this program, or impose drug testing, as if one could buy drugs with a EBT card!)

Real unemployment is 16.5% (it’s actually higher than this, as folks who no longer qualify for insurance or extensions, and/or have been out of work for more than 2 years – the earliest recession victims — are not included)

And, more important than the top 1% figure is that fact that the top 10% own more than 80% of the nations wealth, and, even more importantly, the bottom 90% own just 12% of the nation’s wealth.

Top image: source: Star Tribune; SACK ; reposted on Facebook.com

 




6 comments
  1. GTurner

    Sir,

    Statism is a disease. Just about every ONE of your premises are flawed. When Corporations “pay” taxes, where does the money come from? Lowered return to shareholders (also known as “people”)? Not for LONG, my friend… Lower pay for executives? Again, unless your “big idea” is to unhinge ALL commerce from ALL market (competitive) forces, not for long… The ANSWER, of course, is that the taxes are passed as increased PRICES. On CONSUMERS (also known as “people”).

    Of course, you could turn over all Corporate decision-making to the Federal Government. Everyone KNOWS, after all, that Government officials NEVER use “greed” as a criteria for deciding stuff… Unless you reflect on the effect of Corporate Lobbyists on the political system (GE pays their fair share, right?)…

    You are a classic lib: all we need to do is “fundamentally transform” human nature, and everything would be FINE…

    1. Zachary Shahan

      GTurner, you are so far confused I’m not sure if it’s useful to even discuss this topic with you.

      the rich have gotten increasingly rich as the rest have gotten poorer. this is directly linked to deregulation. wake up! heads of corporations are robbing the country (and the world).

      http://planetsave.com/2011/10/27/occupy-george-i-e-occupy-the-dollar/

      http://ecolocalizer.com/2010/04/12/plutocracy-reborn-wealth-inequality-gap-largest-since-1928/

      yes, a government that is not owned by the heads of big corporations is going to do better by the remaining 99% of the population.

  2. Joseph

    Normally I can’t imagine a rebuttal to David Brooks ever being necessary (‘left-wing’ NYT? Riiight), but I’m not looking forward to his words being cited in upcoming news cycles by supporters of Wall St corruption. His inability to grasp the meaning of OWS says much more about Brooks and his ilk who only see and hear what they want no matter is actually happening. The sad part is I imagine Brooks sincerely wants things to improve for the better in this country but here he is using his platform to espouse what amounts to pure garbage. In my opinion David Brooks needs to step back, take an objective view of these WORLDWIDE protests, and decide if he’s going to continue to be an enabler to the oppressors or do his job.

    1. Melissa Richard

      WOW! Awesome article. I know you’ve stated that you seldom write opinion letters, I am really happy that you have! Well written. Very informative. Honest. To the point.
      I am Canadian, living my little life here on Canada’s East Coast. Know that the 99% includes us all. These 1% are not only affecting Americans, they are playing with everyone’s lives. WE ARE the 99%.
      We are educated and well written. Do not think that we are unaware that there is great effort in placing blame on Governments to take all eyes away from The Elite (Aristocrats). But we know better. It does not matter who is in “charge” (gov.) because they are powerless to make a change.

      Do you know of the Bilderberg Gr. ? One thing is for sure, with the Americans standing up on this issue, they can help the whole world to become a better place.
      And yes, THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING
      Much respect from Canada. I am so proud to be your neighbor. Stay strong… this is not over and won’t be for a while. It’s gonna be a tough winter!! And spring will bring in the winds of change…

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