As thousands of demonstrators marched in European capitals on Wednesday to protest recent austerity measures, officials in Brussels proposed stiffening sanctions for governments that fail to cut their budget deficits and debt swiftly enough. ("Workers In Europe Protest Austerity Measures", New York Times, 9/30/2010)
Oh, do the super-rich hate the sound of "class struggle." Dare to utter the words and they'll reach for their red-baiting paint guns and spray you silly with invective. It's un-American. It's socialistic. It's an insult to democracy and freedom.
But try as they might, they can't paint over the reality, which the new Fortune 400 listings make so clear: Wall Street billionaires have more money than they'll ever be able to use--at a time when more than 29 million of us don't have that most basic necessity, a full-time job. A hidden class war got us to this point. It's not hidden anymore.
Once upon a time there was a tangible connection between the plutocrats and the rest of us. Carnegie, Mellon and Rockefeller built sprawling enterprises that employed tens of thousands of workers (even if they did treat them brutally). But today's billionaire financiers, about 100 of whom are on the Fortune 400 list, have a tough time explaining how their money-making schemes produce any jobs at all. Very few of us have a clue about how they even make their money.
But we are clued in to the way our society is splitting apart. What's good for the Wall Street tycoons is not good for America. The wealthy may loathe hearing about "class struggle," but we're in the middle of one -- and it's a doozy.
Back in the 1800s (and onward), "class struggle" meant the economic conflict between the interests of working people and those who owned "the means of production." But that construct proved too rigid to describe a complex modern economy. Companies are often run by managers who aren't owners. Most middle managers and supervisors also are workers, not owners, though they may identify with upper management. In glamor industries like Hollywood and sports, some workers are far richer and more powerful than the managers and owners. And many workers are "owners" through stock purchases made individually and through their pension funds.
"Class struggle" also doesn't capture the symbiotic relationship between workers, managers and owners. Yes, we fight over everything from plant shutdowns to job safety and health care benefits. But we also have common interests - workers want to keep their jobs, and for that they are dependent upon "owners." Instead of class struggle, we often see workers lobbying alongside owners for policies that might keep their industry afloat. This worker-boss connection is often much stronger than any sense of broad class solidarity among workers across the country. Most of us define ourselves as middle class, not working class, and we don't see ourselves at war with the business owners.
Until now. The financial crisis is squaring up a new class struggle: The handful of financial elites versus the rest of us. Where's our common interest? What's good for them (a $10 trillion bailout) costs us jobs and public services, and deepens the public debt. Financial elites have effectively hijacked our economy and there will be hell to pay to get it back.
Beginning in the mid-1970s the twin policies of financial deregulation and tax cuts for the super-rich laid the groundwork for the rise of financial industry billionaires. We were told these policies would fuel an enormous investment boom that would cause all boats to rise. Not quite. Income certainly gushed to the top fraction of one percent. But then we entered the financial industry Twilight Zone: The super-rich accumulated so much money that they literally ran out of investments in normal industries that produced real goods and services. Wall Street, now a deregulated Wild West, rode to the rescue by creating all manner of new paper investment opportunities. Instead of buying a piece of a factory or company through stocks and bonds, you bought derivatives. Or you gave your money to hedge funds where you could "earn" outsized returns with little risk -- just what the super-rich craved. Unfortunately, the entire enterprise was built upon layer after layer of leverage. The result was an unstable upside-down pyramid of "structured finance" balancing on a very narrow base of real tangible assets.
All of this worked just fine until it didn't. You know the rest of the story. When housing prices stopped rising, these paper assets - the CDOs and all the rest - went up in smoke, incinerating the rest of the economy in the process. (Please see The Looting of America for an easy-to-read account.)
On their long way up, financial industry billionaires grabbed our economy by the cojones-- and they're not letting go. Here are a few of the indicators:
- Financial sector profits dramatically increased in the past several decades, peaking at over 40 percent of all corporate profits just before the economic collapse. Now the industry's profits are chugging back up again.
- After the inevitable crash, the financial sector and its investors had all the political clout they needed to ensure their swift rescue by the government. Instead of paying a hefty price for wrecking the economy with their bad bets as dictated by free market principles, they got bailed out at taxpayer expense.
- The 2010 financial reform bill did not break up financial institutions that were too big to fail or too interconnected to fail. It also didn't rebuild the Glass-Steagall Act's wall between investment banks and depository banks. The six largest banks are now bigger than ever.
- Congress rejected our calls for a windfall profits tax or financial transaction tax to help pay for the financial sector's catastrophic damage to our economy. Instead Wall Street elites are again reaping enormous profits, leaving 29 million unemployed and underemployed people in the dust.
- To pay for our rising public debt we're being told to tighten our belts so that they don't have to tighten theirs.
Economists assure us that the financial sector's role is to prudently move excess savings into investment. But that's not how Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, the largest private equity funds and the largest hedge funds are raking in their billions. Their real cash cow is their secretive daily practice of "proprietary trading" -- the equivalent of gambling in a rigged casino. This has nothing to do with investing in industries that might put our people to work. So our paltry economic growth is generating financial industry booty, not jobs.
Our billionaires might want us to think of them as great statesmen working to help our nation prosper and grow. But in reality, they're busily siphoning off our nation's wealth -- and blocking all efforts to regulate or tax their destructive behavior.
Wall Street's class warfare doesn't just target workers. While many top multinational corporate CEOs are in league with the big financiers, most of the medium and small business owners now struggling to find the capital to stay alive have few friends on Wall Street. Workers, supervisors and middle managers alike now live in fear that they'll lose their jobs -- and it's all because of the financial shenanigans on Wall Street. You don't have to be a Marxist to know that we bailed out the very people who wrecked our economy. You'll find precious few defenders of Wall Street anywhere in America.
This new class struggle will soon begin playing out on some new battlefields. The weight of the U.S.'s massive debt (created by the financial crisis and our failure to tax the super-rich the way we used to) will be put on our backs. The financial elites, along with their richly funded think tanks and compliant political hacks, will tell us to privatize Social Security, reduce its benefits and extend the retirement age. We'll be told we must cut funding for schools and health care services. We'll have to live with a crumbling infrastructure and a deteriorating environment -- because, well, the money just isn't there.
But if we call for raising taxes on the super-rich to prevent these dire developments, they'll bring out their paint guns and scream "socialism!" -- and threaten us with more economic catastrophe. Of course, they can fly their private jets over our collapsing infrastructure and send their kids to private schools. And they have no worries about jobs, health care or retirement, since they and their families have more money than they could spend in a hundred lifetimes. Talk about a class struggle!
The Wall Street billionaires utterly refuse to accept any blame for our economic woes. They simply can't believe that their billions came from fatal flaws in our system rather than from their own genius. They'll fight to the end to convince us and themselves that they are indeed God's gift to our economy. (Wouldn't you if you had a billion dollars?)
It's time to make them pay their fair share for the damage they've done. That will help finance the massive jobs programs we need to put our people back to work. Of course, the super-wealthy can afford to pay. Only their pride will suffer.
In truth most of us would prefer to duck this fight. We just want to find a job, or keep the one we have, be with our families and cope with what life throws at us while enjoying as much of it as we can. We don't want to go to war with the richest people in the world, even though we greatly outnumber them. But we can't avoid this battle--it's coming to our doorsteps. The Dow may hit 12,000 but unemployment will haunt us for a decade to come. We can't afford the brutal cuts to retiree benefits, healthcare or education that they're pushing on us.
It will take a lot of time and effort to figure out how to fight back and win. But don't despair. As the old union song suggests, the toughest question always is "Which side are you on?" In the new class struggle, that decision has already been made for 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.