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Occupy Wall Street – For Some Reason

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Back in July, the Canadian-based, activist network known as Adbusters, announced plans to organize an occupation of Wall Street on September 17, 2011.  Their July 13 announcement revealed that the ultimate goal of the occupation was deliberately left open:

On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.  Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.

Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum – that Mubarak must go – over and over again until they won.  Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand?

The most exciting candidate that we’ve heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy:  we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.  It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we’re doomed without it.

This demand seems to capture the current national mood because cleaning up corruption in Washington is something all Americans, right and left, yearn for and can stand behind.

A website specifically dedicated to this event was created:  OccupyWallSt.org.  The site has a Mission Statement, proclaiming that on September 17, a tent city will be established in lower Manhattan:

Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices and we will not leave until that demand has been met.

As for that mysterious demand, the website provides a hint as to how it will be determined:

What we demand from our government is for the people to decide through democratic consensus, not this website.  A Facebook poll started by Adbusters suggests the demand might be an end to corporate personhood.

So, will the Facebook poll serve as the vehicle for reaching that “democratic consensus”?

On August 23, Adbusters announced that the Internet hacktivist group, Anonymous had joined #OCCUPYWALLSTREET.  Anonymous prepared this one-minute, promotional video for the cause.  Once Anonymous got on board, the Department of Homeland Security became interested in the event (if it had not done so already).  Computerworld magazine reported that on September 2, a bulletin was issued by the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC):

The DHS alert also warns of three cyber attacks and civil protests it says are planned by Anonymous and affiliated groups.

The first attack, dubbed Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is scheduled for Sept. 17.

The so-called ‘Day of Rage’ protest was first announced by a group called Adbusters in July and is being actively supported by Anonymous.  The organizers of OWS hope to get about 20,000 individuals to gather on Wall Street on that day to protest various U.S. government policies.

It sounds to me as though the Department of Homeland Security is getting revved-up for a mass-rendition to Guantanamo and a busy schedule of “Full Roto-Rooter” cavity searches.  It could get scary.  The camoflauge-attired attendees probably won’t be interested in hearing my explanation that “I’m just here to demand the dismissal of Kathryn Wylde from her post as a Class C Director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.”

My favorite commentator for MarketWatch, Paul Farrell, predicted that the turnout could be a bit larger than anticipated:

Given today’s intense anger against America’s totally dysfunctional government, no one should be surprised if 90,000 arrive for Occupy Wall Street and its solidarity allies at other financial centers across the world, armed with their rallying cry to stop “the corruption of our governments by Wall Street money.”

After discussing the potential for historic change Occupy Wall Street seems to offer, Farrell posed the simple question:  Will it work?

In the final analysis, this may be a bad case of “too little, too late:”  Back in 1776 our original 57 revolutionaries also “had enough” when they signed the Declaration of Independence. They also risked everything, family, fortunes and lives.  They actually had “one simple demand,” to be free of a tyrannical ruler, George III.

Today, the new ruler is greedy, corrupting democracy.  But it’s locked deep in the American soul.  Maybe they’re asking the wrong question:  Not “Is America Ready for a Tahrir Moment?” Rather ask:  “Is America Past That Moment, Buried Too Deep in a Culture of Greed to Change?”

If so, Wall Street wins, again.  And America loses, again.

The promoters of the Tea Party movement were able to channel the outrage experienced by taxpayers, who watched the Federal Reserve hand trillions over to a small handful of ineptly-managed megabanks.  The Tea Party promoters redirected and exploited that anger as a motivating force, which provoked those citizens to vote against their own interests.  The attempt to tame the beast with regulation (as had been done after the Great Depression) was sabotaged.  Could the Occupy Wall Street effort bring justice back to defeat financial anarchy?  It would be nice if it worked, although I gave up on “hope” in early 2009.


 

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Wealth Redistribution

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One of the sleaziest, most disingenuous arguments exploited by politicians is the “wealth redistribution” theme.  Whenever an influential corporate sponsor of some creepy politician is confronted with proposed legislation, which might change the status quo by reducing unconscionable profiteering, we are told that the new bill is a “socialist” attempt at “wealth redistribution”.  Unfortunately, there are too many sheeple who don’t realize that “wealth redistribution” already happened.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East have demonstrated how difficult it can be to maintain a plutocracy in the modern world.  As the American voting public becomes more familiar with the economic circumstances which led to the Egyptian turmoil, attention gradually gets refocused on how our domestic situation compares with Mubarak’s dystopia.  Blogger “George Washington” (a former law school professor) of Washington’s Blog recently wrote a piece concerning how the “Gini coefficient” demonstrates that America’s upward wealth redistribution has reduced this nation to banana republic status:

Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni protesters all say that inequality is one of the main reasons they’re protesting.

However, the U.S. actually has much greater inequality than in any of those countries.

Specifically, the “Gini Coefficient” – the figure economists use to measure inequality – is higher in the U.S.

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Gini Coefficients are like golf – the lower the score, the better (i.e. the more equality).

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini Coefficient of 45.

In contrast:

  • Tunisia is ranked the 62nd most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.
  • Yemen is ranked 76th most unequal, with a Gini Coefficient of 37.7.
  • And Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of around 34.4.

And inequality in the U.S. has soared in the last couple of years, since the Gini Coefficient was last calculated, so it is undoubtedly currently much higher.

So why are Egyptians rioting, while the Americans are complacent?

Well, Americans – until recently – have been some of the wealthiest people in the world, with most having plenty of comforts (and/or entertainment) and more than enough to eat.

But another reason is that – as Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School demonstrate – Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in our nation.

Ariely and Norton’s paper, based on their 2005 poll of 5,522 citizens about their preferences for wealth division, has been the subject of much commentary.  Last fall, Bruce Watson wrote an article for Daily Finance discussing Ariely and Norton’s report.  As Watson explained, the following empirical data compiled by Professor Edward Wolff, (and incorporated into the Ariely-Norton paper) portrayed the “real world” wealth distribution in America:

Currently, 85% of America’s wealth, which is defined as total assets minus total liabilities, is held by the country’s richest 20%.  Meanwhile the upper middle class holds 11%, the middle class has 4%, and the lower class and poor share an anemic 0.3%.

Here’s how Watson summarized the results of the Ariely-Norton research:

In the poll, the vast majority of Americans across the political, gender and wealth spectrum displayed a markedly skewed understanding of how America’s money is divided.  On average, respondents thought that the rich hold only 58% of the nation’s wealth, 32% less than their actual holdings.  They thought that the middle class controls 13% of the country’s wealth, more than three times their actual holdings.  As for the bottom 40% of the population, the assumption was that the lower class and poor own a measly 9% of the country’s wealth.  In reality, these two groups control about one thirtieth of that amount.

Who Should Get the Money?

Although the perception that America’s wealth distribution is unfair cut across partisan lines, Republicans and Democrats disagreed about the ideal distribution.  People who voted for George Bush believed that the richest 20% of the population deserved roughly 35% of the nation’s wealth.  Kerry voters radically disagreed:  they felt that the rich deserved only about 30%. When it came to the country’s poorest citizens, Bush voters felt that they deserved about 9% of the country’s assets; Kerry voters preferred to give them 12%.

Respondents making over $100,000 per year, the group most heavily skewed toward a top-heavy distribution of wealth, advocated a system in which the top 20% received about 40% of the country’s assets and the bottom 20% got roughly 7%.  Yet even this comparatively Dickensian wealth distribution still gave America’s rich less than half of their current holdings, while giving the poorest more than twenty times their current holdings.

In October of 2008, before the full extent of the Wall Street megabank bailouts had been completely understood by most Americans (and before those multi-million-dollar bonuses had been awarded to the malefactors who caused the financial crisis) the Gallup Organization conducted a poll on the subject of wealth redistribution.  This is what they observed:

A majority of Americans (58%) say money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people, although slightly less than half (46%) go so far as to say that the government should redistribute wealth by “heavy taxes on the rich.”

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Still, in each of the four times Gallup has asked this question in recent years, between 45% and 51% of Americans have gone so far as to agree with the fairly harsh-sounding policy of “redistribut[ing] wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

Because the polls discussed above reveal that the current wealth distribution is unacceptable to most Americans, the “wealth redistribution” argument — as it is often used by politicians – should be a non-starter.  Perhaps a program of  “enhanced tax incentives for generosity” might enjoy more widespread acceptance than Gallup’s “heavy taxes on the rich” – to the point where an overwhelming majority of Americans would support it.

Unfortunately, unless that “overwhelming majority of Americans” has an army of lobbyists to advance such an initiative, the cash registers politicians portraying the effort as “socialism” will be the only voices that matter.


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Debunking Oil Industry Propaganda

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The political crisis in Egypt is being used by tools of the oil industry to – once again – put the scare into people about our dependence on “foreign oil”.  Stephen Moore was on Fox News talking-up the old “drill baby, drill” sentiment on February 2, lamenting our lack of “energy independence”.  I just wish Moore would restrict himself to a diet of Gulf shrimp.  I doubt whether it would change his mind, although it might make him more fun to watch on television as the hydrocarbons gradually work their karmic magic.

The myth of “foreign oil” is one of my pet peeves for several reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the one foreign oil company, which has done the most harm to the United States is British Petroleum, rather than some enterprise from the Middle East.

Much as been written to dispel the myths of “foreign oil” and “energy independence”, although the spokestools of the oil industry do all they can to pretend as though such information does not exist.  Take for example, the essay written by David Saied for the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled “America’s Economic Myths”, wherein he debunked the myth of “dependence on foreign oil”:

This myth basically suggests that the problem with oil prices is due to America’s “dependence” on foreign oil.  One of the worst economic myths, it plays on economic nationalism and on xenophobic feelings that are sometimes pervasive in the United States.

The high price of oil has nothing to do with its origin; the price of oil is determined in international markets.  Even if the United States were to produce 100% of the oil it consumes, the price would be the same if the worldwide supply and demand of oil were to remain the same.  Oil is a commodity, so the price of a barrel produced in the United States is basically the same as the price of a barrel of oil produced in any other country, but the costs of labor, land, and regulatory compliance are usually higher in the United States than in third-world countries.  Lowering these costs would help increase supply.  Increasing supply, whether in the United States or elsewhere, will push prices lower.

Importing a product does not mean you “depend” on it.  This is like saying that when we “import” food from our local supermarket we “depend” on that supermarket.  The opposite is usually true; exporters depend on us, since we are the customers.  Also, importing a product usually means buying at lower prices, whereas producing in the United States often means consuming at higher prices.  This point is proven when we see the cheap imports we can purchase from China and the higher prices of many of these same products manufactured in the United States.  The amazing thing is that the protectionists claim, on the one hand, that America should be “protected” from cheap imports, but when it comes to oil, they say we should be “protected” from “expensive imported” oil.

Most, if not all, of the higher price of oil can be explained by the expansion of the money supply or the debasement of the dollar.  The foreign producers are not at fault; our national central bank is the culprit.

As a fan of the Real Clear Markets section of the Real Clear Politics website, I was pleased to see this recent commentary by John Tamny, wherein he had a good laugh at T-Bone Pickings for accidentally revealing the absurdity of the “energy independence” meme:

As this column has shown more than once, the price of a barrel of crude tends to revert to 1/15th of an ounce of gold, and as of Tuesday, oil’s price increase merely brought it in line with its historical cost.

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Oil is oil is oil, and it’s a commodity whose price is discovered in deep world markets.

Canada is seemingly “energy independent”, but assuming ongoing Middle East uncertainty, its citizens will – like us – buy gasoline the price of which is based on the cost per barrel set in global markets.  Much as we might like to naively fantasize about walling ourselves off from international market realities, we’ll never be immune to the activities around the world that impact oil’s price.  Canada and its citizens won’t be either.

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So while we can expect lots of breathy commentary about the need for energy independence in the coming weeks, particularly if Middle East unrest spreads, cooler heads will hopefully prevail.  The false God of independence will not wall us off from supply-driven increases, and more important, the waste of  human and financial capital necessary to achieve the silly notion would be far more economically crippling than any presumed supply shock could ever hope to be.

My own dream of “energy independence” involves owning an electric car, which I can recharge with a “solar power station” similar to what we see advertised on television – along with another “solar power station” to provide my home electricity.  “Energy independence” can only be achieved when American consumers are liberated from the tyranny of the oil companies and the power utilities.


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