Inequality in the news – Dec 2017

Susan Anderson, NYT, 17 Dec 2017 An Egregious Wealth Gap Returns

 As things stand now, the top 1 percent of the population by wealth — the group that would primarily benefit from the tax bill — controls nearly 40 percent of the country’s wealth. The bottom 90 percent has just 27 percent, according to the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

Just three decades ago these numbers were almost exactly the reverse: The bottom 90 percent owned nearly 40 percent of all wealth. To find a time when such a tiny minority was so dominant, you have to go back to the Great Depression.

The net worth of the richest Americans continues to eclipse that of almost everybody else, more so than at any time since the Great Depression.
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By The New York Times | Sources: Thomas Piketty, Paris School of Economics; Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, University of California, Berkeley

As kingmakers, rich families have supported candidates who share their hostility to progressive taxation, welfare programs and government regulation of any kind. These big-money donors have pushed the Republican Party in particular further to the right by threatening well-funded primary challenges against anybody who doesn’t toe the line on tax cuts for the rich and other pro-aristocracy policies. The power of donors has contributed to political polarization and made the federal government less responsive to the needs of most voters, a new book by Benjamin Page of Northwestern University and Martin Gilens of Princeton University argues.

The power of the one-percenters may help explain why President Trump, who ran as a populist, has not only abandoned any pretense of fighting for the working class but also joined Republicans in Congress in ripping up regulations that protect families and the environment — in order to help business tycoons. Together, they’ve tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Its repeal would have deprived millions of people of health insurance while trimming taxes for high-income families. Now, they want to cut taxes on corporations and offer new loopholes to the rich, even if that means hurting their own constituents by limiting the ability of middle-class families to deduct state and local taxes on their tax returns.

Most political campaigns now rely on a small group of wealthy donors who give tens of thousands of dollars or more per election cycle. About 40 percent of contributions to campaigns during the 2016 federal election came from an elite group of 24,949 donors, equivalent to 0.01 percent of the adult population. In 1980, the top 0.01 percent accounted for only 15 percent of all contributions, according to an analysis by Adam Bonica, a Stanford professor, and his collaborators.

Campaigns for the Very Few

An elite group of “superdonors” — 24,949 people in the last federal election — contributed an enormous share of campaign funding. Sources: Adam Bonica, Stanford University; Nolan McCarty, Princeton University; Keith T. Poole, University of Georgia; Howard Rosenthal, New York University

Of course, the growing importance of wealthy donors is not exclusively a Republican phenomenon. Democratic candidates have also benefited from the largess of wealthy donors like George Soros, Tom Steyer and James Simons. But on economic and tax issues, big-money liberal donors have not really shoved their party to the far left. Donations from Wall Street and corporate America have, in fact, pushed many Democrats to the center or even to the right on issues like financial regulation, international trade, antitrust policy and welfare reform.

Further, liberal donors have been nowhere near as skillful at coordinating their giving as conservative donors have been. No liberal organization comes close to rivaling the network of donors and political activists created by the conservative Koch brothers, says Theda Skocpol, a professor at Harvard, who has written extensively about these issues. The Koch network has spent years methodically pushing state and federal lawmakers to cut regulations, taxes and government programs for the poor and the middle class. The leading donor network on the left, the Democracy Alliance, is smaller and much less successful.

Even allowing for money “wasted” on losing candidates and failed causes, the donor class has notched many impressive wins. Tax rates have fallen substantially, with the top marginal income tax rate now just below 40 percent, from 70 percent when Ronald Reagan won the presidency. The top corporate tax rate has dropped to 35 percent, from 46 percent in 1980, and many businesses pay an effective rate that is much lower than that. While supply-side economics remain mostly a Republican fiction, politicians from both parties have supported the effort to reduce taxes on capital — profits, capital gains and dividends — on the grounds that this would spur investment and make American businesses more competitive.

Under the Republican plan, the top corporate tax would fall to less than half of what it was for most of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Meanwhile, where are the political champions of poor Americans? Whoever they are, they haven’t been producing results. Wages for the poorest have languished, partly because Congress has been so slow to raise the minimum wage — $7.25 an hour since 2009 — that its purchasing power is now about 10 percent less than it was in 1968. Lawmakers and conservative judges have also undermined workers by making it harder for them to unionize, so they are not in a position to demand better pay and better working conditions.

This tax bill would exacerbate all these trends. The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and the Joint Committee on Taxation, both respected, both nonideological, say the bill would primarily benefit the wealthy and would leave most poor and middle-class Americans worse off over the long run. That’s without Congress doing anything else to widen the gap. But even now, Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress are talking about cutting government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security next year to help make up for the more than $1 trillion the tax bill would add to the federal deficit.

Inequality in America does not have to be self-perpetuating. When people turn up at the polls, as they did recently in Alabama, they can produce unexpected results. That’s why Republican lawmakers might want to think again about whether they want to be the means through which their wealthy donors pull off this heist.

Bob Lord, The GOP Tax Plan Will Complete the Destruction of America’s Middle Class Wealth. If the GOP tax plan becomes law, we may be looking at a future where our 1,600 richest hold more wealth than the nation’s entire middle class.

Sarah Anderson, Alabama Upset Sparks Calls to Slow Down GOP Tax Push. Take a look at some of the pettiest anti-middle class provisions the GOP hopes to ram through in their tax giveaway to the wealthy.

Joel Westheimer and John Rogers, Teaching About Economic Inequality Is Political, but Not the Way You Think. A new study finds that teachers’ civic engagement drives conversations on inequality in the classroom.

Bob Lord, A Backdoor Tax on the Middle Class, US News & World Report. By cutting the estate tax, Republicans are just asking the middle class to pick up the tab.

Josh Hoxie, After Alabama, Dems Should Target Policies to Help Blacks, Newsweek. The typical black family in America has seen a decrease in household wealth from 1983.

The Tax Bill That Inequality Created, The New York Times Editorial Board. A bill made for the wealthy will only widen the gap.

Michael Hobbes, Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression, Huffington Post. On the road to zero wealth.

Nouriel Roubini, Populist Plutocracy and the Future of America, Project Syndicate. Pluto-populists have been turning democracies into autocracies with the same playbook for thousands of years.

Eduardo Porter, Tax Plan’s Biggest Cuts Could Be in Living Standards, New York Times. The evidence that tax cuts for the rich hurt everyone else.

Jonathan Chait, Why the Trump Tax Cuts Might Jack Up the Deficit More Than Anybody Expects, Daily Intelligencer. A new analysis details the new tax-avoidance loopholes the GOP tax legislation opens up.

Mathew Schmalz, Here’s what the Bible actually says about taxing the rich to help the poor, Raw Story. The biblical principles on inequality.

Celine McNicholas, Zane Mokhiber, and Adam Chaikof, Two billion dollars in stolen wages were recovered for workers in 2015 and 2016 —  and that’s just a drop in the bucket, Economic Policy Institute. Still another reason CEOs are sashaying down Easy Street.

Craig Torres and Jordan Yadoo, America’s Inequality Machine Is Sending the Dow Soaring, Bloomberg. Understanding why the stock market is setting records.

This Map Shows You the Richest Politician In Every State, Plutocracy’s most out-front faces.

The epidemic of drug overdoses, often perceived as a largely white rural problem, made striking inroads among black Americans last year — particularly in urban counties where fentanyl has become widespread.

Although the steep rise in 2016 drug deaths has been noted previously, these are the first numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to break down 2016 mortality along geographic and racial lines. They reveal that the drug death rate is rising most steeply among blacks, with those between the ages of 45 and 64 among the hardest hit.

Drug overdose deaths by race

Drug deaths among blacks in urban counties rose by 41 percent in 2016, far outpacing any other racial or ethnic group. In those same counties, the drug death rate among whites rose by 19 percent. The data, released on Thursday, suggests that the common perception of the epidemic as an almost entirely white problem rooted in overprescription of painkillers is no longer accurate, as fentanyl, often stealthily, invades broader swaths of the country and its population.
Urban counties are those classified by the N.C.H.S. as large central metropolitan areas. Rural counties are those classified as nonmetropolitan or as small metropolitan areas.

Driven by the continued surge in drug deaths, life expectancy in the United States dropped for the second year in a row last year. It’s the first consecutive decline in national life expectancy since 1963. Drug overdoses have now surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 55.

In Washington, D.C., the emergence of fentanyls caused the rate of drug deaths to double in a single year. The rate of drug deaths there is now on par with those in Ohio and New Hampshire. It’s an unsurprising consequence of an epidemic that is both widespread and extremely localized. If fentanyls enter the drug supply in one area, deaths can accumulate rapidly. Drug deaths are also up sharply in cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, Fla.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, said it appeared that many of the African-Americans who died were older men who had become addicted to heroin during a previous epidemic in the 1970s. “Despite beating the odds for the past 40 to 50 years,” he said, “they’re dying because the heroin supply has never been so dangerous — increasingly it’s got fentanyl in it or it’s just fentanyl sold as heroin.”

Shifts in the drug death rate by state

West Virginia
New Hampshire
District of Columbia
Rhode Island
New Mexico
New Jersey
North Carolina
South Carolina
New York
North Dakota
South Dakota
Drug deaths per 100,000 residents. Rates are age-adjusted.

Fentanyl-laced cocaine, too, may be playing a role. A studypublished this month in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that cocaine-related overdose deaths were nearly as common among black men between 2012 and 2015 as deaths due to prescription opioids in white men over the same period. Cocaine-related deaths were slightly more common in black women during that period than deaths due to heroin among white women, according to the study. But it also found that the largest recent increases in overdose deaths among blacks were attributed to heroin. One of the researchers, David Thomas of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said he did not know whether some of the cocaine-attributed deaths in the study involved fentanyl, although he had heard anecdotally of such mixing.

The study, by researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, also found that the recent rise in overdose death rates was sharpest among older blacks. The same held true last year in New York City.

“What’s really interesting is you’re not seeing younger blacks getting involved in heroin as much,” said Denise Paone, senior director of research and surveillance in the city’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use Prevention.

Across the board, though, fentanyl has caused a huge spike in overdose deaths in New York in just the last year. Fentanyl played a role in about 16 percent of overdose deaths in 2015 and 44 percent in 2016, Dr. Paone said, compared with 3 percent in prior years. A growing number of the deaths involve cocaine cut with fentanyl, she added — which is probably particularly deadly for someone who has not used opioids before.

In Ohio, which had the nation’s second-highest overdose rate last year, the medical examiner in Cuyahoga County told a United States Senate subcommittee in May that a fast-rising rate of fentanyl-related deaths among blacks was probably a result of drug dealers mixing fentanyl with cocaine. In Cuyahoga County (the home of Cleveland), fentanyl contributed to the deaths of five African-Americans in 2014, 25 in 2015 and 58 in 2016. But both opioids and cocaine still kill far more whites than blacks there.

Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, said it was hard to sort out how many deaths involved people taking cocaine cut with fentanyl versus people who died of an opioid overdose but also happened to have cocaine in their blood at the time.

Dr. Kolodny said he believes the latter is more common. “Many people who are overdosing because of an extremely dangerous heroin supply also use other drugs,” he said, “so I think the cocaine is sort of an incidental finding.”

Health experts say the evolving nature of the crisis suggests that progress against it will be slow, despite stepped-up efforts to address it with medication-assisted treatment and naloxone, which can save people who have overdosed. As overdose deaths keep climbing, there is a good chance that life expectancy will be found to have declined again this year, said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics. If so, it would be the first three-year period of consecutive life expectancy declines since World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

Dr. Kolodny pointed to the rising drug death rate among older black men, many of whom he said have probably used heroin on and off since the 1970s, as evidence that progress against the new epidemic could take decades.

“Forty, 50 years later we’re still paying a price,” he said. “What this means is for our current epidemic, we’re going to be paying a very heavy human and economic price for the rest of our lives.”