How to Earn $900,000 an Hour While Unemployment Soars

Wall Street moguls are confident that Americans will always believe that that the big boys are really worth their money. But for how long? Will the middle class finally get angry at the plutocrats who stole their dreams?
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly rose last week (Oct 14, 2010).

Let's be honest. Wouldn't you like to rake in a cool $900,000 for one hour's work? No? Still have hippie ideals, perhaps? You could work for just 10 minutes and walk off with $150,000. Push yourself to work one entire day and we're talking $7.2 million. Hang in there for a month, and you'll pull in more than the richest athletes make in 10 years -- $256.5 million. And in one year? Well, you'll be earning what the top ten hedge fund honchos each averaged in 2009 -- $1.87 billion. Wouldn't you like to know their secrets? Here are a few:

Step 1: Check your conscience at the door.
You must be able to live with the knowledge that while you were making $900,000 an hour, more than 29 million other Americans had no job at all or were forced into part-time work. Also you'll have to live with the uncomfortable fact that your sector -- high finance -- crashed the economy, leaving eight million Americans jobless in a matter of months.

You're obviously good at math so you'll be able to calculate that it will now take 22.5 million new jobs to bring the economy back to full-employment (an unemployment rate of 5 percent or less). That's the equivalent of creating 630 new corporations the size of Apple Corp. (35,000 employees each). Sadly, you're also a realist, so you know that unemployment is likely to remain at record post-WWII highs for years to come.

Feeling guilty? Don't. Remind everyone again and again that hedge funds like yours didn't get bailed out. You're not too big to fail. You just figured out how to be better at investing than anyone else. You're what capitalism is supposed to reward. You earned your $900,000 an hour fair and square! Suppress all your doubts and just keep telling yourself -- and everyone else -- that you have nothing to do with rising poverty or the fact that nearly 50 million people can't afford health care. You're the solution, not the problem. Conscience be damned!

Step 2: Remember: None of this is your fault!
Yes, a few tiresome critics will keep pointing the finger at you, saying that the financial sector crashed the economy. Ignore them and put the blame where it belongs - somewhere else. When in doubt, seek guidance from the pros on Wall Street. They know exactly who to blame:

  • The few bad apples who gave out mortgages like candy
  • The greedy Americans who bought homes they couldn't afford (they should have ignored the bankers who told them they could!)
  • The politicians who pushed for risky loans for "low-income" buyers (subtext: favoritism for minorities.)
  • The Fed, which kept interest rates too low for too long, inflating the bubble
  • And, most importantly, American consumers who "lived beyond their means," running up too much debt. (Those people, not you, really need to tighten their belts!)

Assert with the utmost confidence that it's Wall Street billionaires who make our system the envy of the world, so help me god.

Step 3: Proclaim that you are the solution:
It's not enough to dodge the blame. You've got to convince academics and journalists to anoint you as the savior. You see, it's you and your fellow high finance moguls who will save us from ever having to endure a crisis like this again. Fortunately for you, they've already bought the story. For example, in More Money than God, Sebastian Mallaby writes:

How can governments promote small-enough-to fail institutions that manage risk well? This is the key question about the future of finance; and one part of the answer is hiding in plain sight. Governments must encourage hedge funds....The chief policy prescription can be boiled down to two words: Don't regulate." (p 380-81)

Imagine that! Top hedge fund managers who earn $900,000 an hour are the answer to too-big-to-fail bailouts, and you don't even need government regulations to keep them honest! People who suggest that Wall Street billionaires are essentially card counters in a Las Vegas casino? They're just envious. People who question whether the entire casino has any redeeming social or economic value at all? They're just stupid. (For my envious and stupid account, see The Looting of America.)

Step 4: Tell people, "Sure, go ahead and raise taxes on the super-rich!" (wink, wink): Because of Wall Street billionaires our income distribution is the most extreme since 1929. By some estimates it's even worse, with the top 1 percent hoarding nearly 50 percent of our nation's wealth. And yet, a recent academic survey suggests that most Americans have no idea things are so skewed. The vast majority actually said they would prefer a wealth distribution more like Sweden's. Heaven forbid!

So -- why on earth would someone like Warren Buffett be offering to pay more taxes? Well, for one thing, there are worse things than higher income tax rates. What you want to avoid at all cost is any reform that might reduce financial industry profits -- like controls on derivatives and financial transaction fees.

As for raising taxes: Just because you say you're willing to pay them doesn't mean you'll actually ever have to. Everyone knows that the moment anyone actually tries to tax the super-rich, a Greek chorus of greed will chant: "Investor confidence will crash! Small businesses will suffer! Jobs will crumble! The recovery will stall!"

So, once you get to be a billionaire, join the cavalcade of gurus who insist they should at least pay the same tax rates as their secretaries. And if those weak-kneed politicians simply refuse to raise your taxes, well, what's a billionaire to do?

Step 5: Count on America's admiration:
Americans may say they want wealth to be distributed much more evenly. But they also have a perpetual love affair with the super-rich. Any effort to rein in billionaires grates against one of our most fundamental values: the right to make as much money as we can, however we can, whenever we can. The very existence of Wall Street billionaires opens up the possibility that we ourselves will become super rich someday.

Fortunately for Wall Street billionaires, Americans tend to view even modest proposals to redistribute wealth as cataclysmic. (Remember Joe the Plumber?) When I propose that maybe we would be better off without Wall Street billionaires, even non-plumbers tell me: "Oh, no. We don't want to live in a socialist society where incomes are flat. Everyone would lose their motivation. And we'd be stuck with only one flavor of ice cream at our dilapidated collectivist food co-op!" In our political culture, there seem to be no mental resting points between North Korean communism and an economy that lets Wall Street billionaires run wild.

However, every once in a while we get pissed off. In 1913 we passed a constitutional amendment to legalize income taxes on plutocrats. From the 1930s to the 1970s we enacted tax rates on the super-rich that hovered between 70 and 90 percent. And long before that Andrew Jackson vetoed the National Bank because, as he said, "the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes." The rigged Bank laws, he argued, "make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society the farmers, mechanics, and laborers, who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

We're still complaining. We get upset at government because it seems to favor the super-rich. Yet in the end we protect our Wall Street billionaires by attacking regulations and taxes on the wealthy.

Step 6: Thank the lord for sex, drugs and rock'n roll: Reagan and company may have hated the 1960s youth rebellion, but they sure glommed on to a key feature of it: People wanted to be liberated from society's constraints and from a government that was betraying our nation's ideals. Through either insight or dumb luck, the Reagan revolution successfully melded the idea of accumulating wealth with the idea of gaining freedom from everyone and everything -- the ultimate form of "doing your own thing." (My surfer friend called it "takeoff velocity.")

Few of us who came out of the 1960s trusted government. After all, it had waged an unjust and un-winnable war in Vietnam. Public figures seemed to lie to us on a regular basis -- from Mai Lai to Watergate. You want that kind of government running the economy too?

"Do your own thing" economics also caught on. Free love and free markets may have had a lot in common. Milton Friedman (who also opposed criminalization of drugs) led the way among American economists, arguing that government interference always distorts free markets. Only when markets are left entirely alone can they operate efficiently and create prosperity for all. Friedman's free market philosophy won over the academic and policy establishment. They saw the rise of Wall Street billionaires as a sign of our nation's economic health and prosperity. It wasn't just that their vast wealth might trickle down to the rest of us. It was that the accumulation of such wealth in the first place signaled a strong underlying economy.

According to the free market economists, under our system you can't possibly earn $900,000 an hour unless you produce $900,000 worth of something. So financial industry billionaires must, by definition, have the knowledge, skills, and experience to create that enormous value. Because nobody would cough up that sum of money unless they got equivalent value in return.

Therein may lie the biggest secret of all: Wall Street moguls are confident that Americans will always believe that that the big boys are really worth their money.

But for how long? Will our millions of unemployed workers eventually get fed up? Will the middle class finally get angry at the plutocrats who stole their dreams? Or will our anger continue to focus on government regulations, social spending and taxes instead of on our financial plutocrats? Eventually we'll have to choose or the choice will be made for us: Do we want a $900,000 an hour Valhalla for the few? Or a prosperous America for the rest of us?

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009. He is currently working on a new book, How to Earn $900,000 an Hour: The Rise of Wall Street Billionaires and the New Class War, (hopefully to be published in 2011).

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