Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Having a Secure Backup

Our parents and grandparents told us it was smart to have extra put by for a rainy day, but what happens when the rainy day fund in the coffee can under the floorboards is washed away with the house? What happens when your neighbors are too busy rescuing themselves to help you? We've learned from experience that institutional reserves are more practical than letting everyone fend for themselves. We need government, because the government is us.

When flood or drought or an earthquake strikes, it's good to live in a big country. (Joe Conason has a very good piece about this at A nation needs to plan for disasters that are more than local. Republicans are busy looking for redundancies to eliminate, but redundancy is an essential part of planning and planning is a key role of government. In a crisis big government is better than small. Extra is better than not enough. The Republicans are mocking the government response to Hurricane Irene, but it's better to be there early with sufficient force than too late with too little as happened to the previous administration with a previous hurricane.

Redundancy isn't the enemy of efficiency; it's crucial to maintaining efficiency in a crisis. Redundancy is a key part of emergency planning at the government level. It's been part of planning by governments of both parties, until the Republicans began thinking small.

There's a rationale for the Republicans' slimming obsession: disaster is an excellent profit opportunity for corporations that Republicans represent. War, disaster, famine, pestilence, epidemic, any or all the horses of the apocalypse will make opportunists very very rich if government is as small as Republicans would like it to be. But it will cost us.

It's called "Disaster Capitalism" and government preparedness is just what they don't want. Naomi Klein wrote about it in her book Shock Doctrine.

Here's a strange glimpse at the far extreme. Apparently the concept of personal redundancy is pretty important among the survivalist folks who demand less sufficiency in government. These podcasters preach the redundancy of two homes, for instance, which is nice for them. But consider this: when millions of people stockpile extra food, extra supplies and hide cash under the mattress, what does it do to the broader economy? What happens to those who can't afford to stash a year's worth away (or five years' worth)?

During the Great Depression this kind of behavior was called "Hoarding". Apart from how self-centered it is, hoarding causes shortages among those who aren't hoarding, who can't afford to or think it's wrong. Hoarding cash depresses the economy. (The corporations sitting on trillions in unspent government bailout money are the prime culprits here.)

There is a vital pragmatism to redundancy at the national level. It's been understood by most modern presidents. Roads and bridges to carry traffic if one or more are damaged, redundant lines of communication, backup power supply lines and backup power capacity. Securing these are the most important role of government, but the "cost cutters" eye sufficiency and backups as "waste" and "excessive". The way George W. Bush considered the revenue surplus he inherited from Clinton as free money he could throw away. Which is why we are experiencing shortages now. We could be more prepared and better equipped, but the Republicans want us to be less so. Why? Because it might make their clients rich.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sanitized for Your Protection

There's an excellent piece at, written by an Austin Texas high school history teacher who tells how the Texas history curriculum has been purged of impure thoughts and inconvenient truths.

Texas has sanitized the high school curriculum, not for the protection of the students but to protect the ruling elite. The textbooks are sanitized to keep students from learning about any proto-socialist or communitarian views held by the Founding Fathers, to disguise the founders' occasional agnosticism and open-minded theism, to erase any useful understanding of how the union movement in the twentieth century led to the forty hour week, the weekend, the paid vacation, to the idea of giving employees raises and benefits like health insurance and pensions. Instead of learning about how Washington and Hamilton introduced the idea of a national debt to spur investment and economic growth, Texas school children will learn about Estée Lauder and a handful of other business tycoons. They'll learn how the House Un-American Activities Committee bravely saved America from the march of Communism––no mention of the witch-hunt, the censorship, the careers ended, the innocent lives destroyed or the broad fear they created. In Texas textbooks, Westward Expansion did not drive native Americans from their ancestral lands or kill millions with disease and privation, it saved their souls. History is all about how you look at it. Conservatives and Republicans have warned us about propaganda; this is it.

Last year the CSMonitor reported on the "whitening" effort in Texas education, to make slavery less significant in the history books, to whitewash it. Maybe this is how Michele Bachmann got her notions about how slavery was happier than the lives of African Americans today. In case you don't remember, this is how the Soviets taught history. I guess Texans and Republicans learned something from the Cold War.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I came across this term by accident, coined in 2007, in a book by Jonathan Knee, and blogged a couple of times since. Quoted here and enlarged on a bit here, it's still not in common usage. IBG-YBG: I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone. Another way of saying "Never Mind" or "What, Me Worry?" As acronyms go, it's very clever, pointing up a pernicious habit in the financial and ruling classes. This passage seems especially ironic, reading it now, after the collapse IBG-YBG thinking precipitated.

"The bankers who pressed . . . questionable telecom credits at Morgan in their quest for market share, fees, and internal status coined an acronym that could well be a rallying cry for what the entire investment banking industry had become more broadly. "IBG YBG" stood for "I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone." When a particularly troubling fact came up in due diligence on one of these companies, a whispered "IBG YBG" among the banking team members would ensure that a way would be found to do the business, even if investors, or Morgan Stanley itself, would pay the price down the road. Don't sweat it, was the implication, we'll all be long gone by then."

(Jonathan A. Knee, The Accidental Investment Banker (Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. xvi-xvii)

This knack for committing crimes that won't be discovered till years later reminds me of a recent president. James Wolcott wrote about him in Vanity Fair:

"On the last page of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack (2004), Bush, asked how history would judge the war in Iraq, verbally shrugs: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” And on the first page of Robert Draper’s Dead Certain (2007), Bush cautions, “You can’t possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency—until I’m dead,” then inserts a piece of cheese into his mouth. This exit clause isn’t something he invokes only to reporters. In Bill Sammon’s The Evangelical President (2007), an aide confirms to the susceptible author that Bush doesn’t brood about the petty setbacks that bedevil less serene souls: “His attitude is a very healthy one. He says, ‘Look, history will get it right and we’ll both be dead. Who cares?’ ” If only the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis displaced by the war and driven into Syrian exile could adopt such a healthy outlook, maybe they too would learn how not to sweat the small stuff."

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Getting Underlings to Commit Your Crimes

Reading the news I often get the feeling I've read the same thing before. There's this from a Stephen Moss profile of historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw in the Guardian:

" ...the phrase most associated with Kershaw: "working towards the Führer", the idea that though Hitler was not dictating every aspect of policy the entire bureaucratic apparatus devoted itself to trying to interpret his wishes. "People second-guessed what he wanted," Kershaw explains. "He didn't need to command everything. People interpret 'getting rid of the Jews' in different ways, and cumulatively that then pushes along the dynamic of the persecution without Hitler having to say 'do this, do that, do the other'."

And this paragraph from Michael Wolff's analysis of the Murdoch scandal in AdWeek from a week ago:

"It’s all about the organization. It’s an organization all about doing what Rupert wants you to do, or doing what you imagine Rupert wants you to do, or doing what you imagine your boss imagines Rupert wants done. There are few companies as large as News Corp. that are so devoted and in thrall to one man. There are few companies which, over so long, have so assiduously hired the kind of people who would be in thrall to one man. Indeed, News Corp. can be quite a disorganized and scattered company, and yet its driving premise, what unites and motivates this oft-times gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight enterprise, is to do as Rupert would have you do."

In the Reagan White House, this same management style gave Reagan "plausible deniability" when his subordinates were selling advanced weapons to Iranian terrorists and using the profits to arm Central American guerillas that Congress had refused to support. Ollie North's "neat idea." They knew what the president wanted and got it done without explicit instructions. When the crime was discovered, the boss avoided blame.

The useful managerial instruction "I don't care how you do it...just get it done" has caused of a lot of misery in the world, but it takes awhile for the consequences to fall on the perpetrator. The harm hits everyone else first. Ethical managers know better. It isn't a new phenomenon. In the twelfth century Henry II had an archbishop named Thomas á Beckett who he wanted dead, and some eager minions who took care of it for him.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Different Kind of Strike

From Thomas Frank, writing in Harper's.

"A series of psychological studies appeared recently showing that the rich are quantitatively less nice than others. My object in the latest issue of Harper's Magazine, is to ask how that might be remedied, how the rich might be made nicer. My answer:

"Let us consider a different sort of strike, one that might help the emotionally arrested rich in their time of need. I propose a twenty-four-hour refusal to fawn. A servility strike. A day without deference..."

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Two Speeches-Two Romneys-one for taxing rich people-one against

One day, two audiences, two contradictory stands on tax cuts for rich people, same Republican.

First, Romney opposes tax cuts for the rich

"I'm not for tax cuts for the rich," Romney said. "The rich can take care of themselves. I want to get America working again. And so I want to make sure that whatever we do in the tax code, we're not giving a windfall to the very wealthy."

Then, Romney supports tax cuts for the rich

...several times today, he was asked about the New York Times opinion piece by billionaire Warren Buffett calling for increased taxes on the wealthy as a way to cut the deficit. “I disagree with Warren. And I do want to keep the Bush tax cuts in place,” Romney said.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is America Going Insane?

There's a great and eye-opening article in the Harvard Business Review by Umair Haque. He asks some key questions, and raises others.

Why are the lives of millions being broken for the enrichment of a very few? Why is it that small crime brings long prison sentences while enormous frauds have no consequences––other than multi-billion dollar rescues with consequent bonuses?

Watching political and economic news unfold it seems as if we are living inside a Swiftian or Orwellian satire. The anchors smile, the financial reporters smile, the political brokers smile, the citizens smile. Everybody smiles as if nothing is happening.

Americans are so wedded to normality that they refuse to acknowledge that normality has been undone. The social contract has been broken. But who broke it? To answer that you need to look at who has benefited. Who is winning? More importantly, who is winning enormous amounts in every game they play? Why has the game been rigged and who has rigged it?

What puzzles me most is this: millions of Americans whose lives have been diminished, whose prosperity has been stolen from them over the past 25 years, continue to side with the very rich who have benefited from their ruin. Why do these people take sides against the leaders and agencies who want to right these wrongs, who want to punish the wrongdoers from the financial class––the Enrons and AIG's, the fixers of markets and the sellers of bad securities? Why do ordinary citizens side against themselves, especially when things get tough?

It's easier to see how the perpetrators seem so normal and competent. They dress well. They live well. They have handlers and bodyguards and personal hairdressers. They are secure. Self-assuredness is very attractive. They also have the luxury of not caring. There is research that shows very very rich people tend to have an atrophied or malfunctioning sense of empathy. There's an excellent article discussing this on the MSNBC website.

There've also been studies indicating that many of the people who gain the top in business have the advantage of a psychopathic personality. These aren't fringe studies. They represent the prevailing school of thought which guides our penal systems. In our justice system small time psychopaths are imprisoned but successful ones are given positions of power.

Previously, I've cited the program about this on This American Life. There's also a provocative article on psychopathic business leaders in Fast Company.

How has this affected all of us? We should feel more than an outraged sense of fairness. It hasn't just insulted us, it's harmed all of us. It has crippled our society. It has put decent fairminded people at a disadvantage and, in too many cases, it's put the cleverest most cold-blooded people in control of our working lives and our security. Our system encourages large crime while punishing the helpless and relegated who use small crime to stay alive.

There have been recent periods when lax regulation and unwise incentives have created waves of largescale looting of the economy. Unlike the looting of a $30 toaster, which will result in a jail sentence, this largescale financial looting is legal (thanks to Republican deregulation and Republican judges). It's also massively costly to everyone in the society. Scientists and academics are noticing this and studying it (here's one study), but so far the general public isn't paying attention. Possibly because it's being hidden from them by the smiling happy people on television.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's Amazing What Most Americans Don't Know About Incomes

This segment by the NewsHour's economics reporter discloses what most of the news media works so hard to disguise:


That means productivity gains––workers working harder and more efficiently for longer hours––are being paid less and less to the workers themselves, and instead are going to the people who don't work at all.

Which, if you like, is a pretty fair description of a slave economy. An old-fashioned peasant and master economy. In a properly run economy the gains are enjoyed by everyone who works for a living. Instead, in America, we now glorify and pamper the leisured owner class.

We live in a country with more inequality than most African kleptocracies. Most Americans THINK we have an income distribution similar to Sweden's. That's what they'd like it to be.

The saddest part of it is most Americans have no idea about the real distribution of incomes or wealth, because the airwaves they own and the internet they log onto and the newspapers they buy every morning refuse to inform them.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Middle Class Fear is the GOP's Best Weapon

Middle class worry has worked very effectively for the Tories in the UK, as this piece from the Guardian explains. In England, David Cameron, the Conservative leader who has been sacrificing programs for the working and middle class in order to protect the perks and benefits of the super-rich, is privately glad riots have broken out in London and Manchester. The violence takes his corrupt bargain with Rupert Murdoch, tabloid baron and owner of FoxNews and the Wall Street Journal, out of the news. And it also gins up the worries of an already worried middle and working class, people who feel insecure about their jobs are more pliable when violence threatens everything they've earned

Meanwhile, in this country, Republicans are delivering exactly the economy they want, as this article from explains. Stagnant, insecure, fragile, panicky. They love it. Fearful people are more obedient and more easily fooled. People working their brains out trying to stay even aren't as likely to ask hard questions. They are more likely to watch the propaganda programming on FoxNews that juices their fears and directs them not at the causes but at each other.

I've been pushing the word "HOARDING" as it pertains to the trillions corporations and super rich investors are sitting on. Is it any different than hoarding food in a famine or water in a drought? I'm glad to see the word is being properly applied.

Another article, by a professor at UC Santa Cruz, with useful charts and graphs, explains the poisonous asymmetry in the American economy. Imbalance causes instability. On a fundamental level, worried workers make poor consumers. What ought to worry Main Street is that the Big Boys don't care much about America. Their toast is buttered by growing prosperity in other countries. How patriotic is that?

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Today's Must-Read

From the Wall Street Journal there's this interview with economist Nouriel Roubini. Roubini places blame for this economy squarely on George Bush and Republican policies:

This morning's must-read is an excellent Warren Buffett piece in the New York Times. Buffett has been saying the same thing for several years, that our tax policies coddle the rich and punish working people. Tax the rich fairly, as Eisenhower did, or even as gently as Reagan did, and goodbye deficit. A fair policy would prevent a second recession, but a second recession is exactly what the Republicans want. More people ought to be saying this out loud.

I've said it before: the engine of our economy isn't the rich, the so-called "job creators" who aren't creating any jobs. The engine of any economy is the working men and women, the people who work and earn paychecks that they spend on groceries and mortgages, cars, new refrigerators, new clothes, on goods and services.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Corporations and Rich Interests Created this Economic Mayhem

Today's must-read. A very good piece in the Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein, an intelligent writer about markets and money, and one who lives far enough from Wall Street not to be in thrall to it.

As I watch the stock market drop like a stone, again, fueled downward by panic selling by small investors, whose retirement will materialize or not depending on what happens in five minutes, and then zoom just as quickly upward, lightened by the absence of thousands of little people who got off at the bottom, I think of the "bounce effect".

The "bounce effect" is a term I invented to describe something I overheard on television: the "useful elimination of investors who have no business owning investments." Here I'm quoting a "market expert" explaining creative destruction on one of the television stock market programs. This was years ago now but it's happening again and worse than ever. The economy drops hard and bounces back up, without thousands, millions, of poor losers.

When bad things happen to little people, big people will explain why it's a good thing. Ever since Reagan restacked the deck against all little people in America we've had no explanation of the bad events except ones that let the big investors, the big market manipulators, the "market makers" off the hook.

This cannoning stock market and these three years of a bad economy are the lovechild of Wall Street and K Street. Americans need to begin asking their Republican representatives and their corporate bosses who pay for the Republican campaigns, "Is this the economy you wanted?" I believe it is. I believe they are privately very happy for most Americans to be fearful and impoverished because a worried workforce works harder for less, and a worried electorate is more obedient.

They are happy to impoverish the government because they hate it. Without a democratic government there is no one to boss them. Without government spending there is no spending right now, and no help for this economy. Meanwhile they are giddily tearing down useful institutions and replacing them with nothing. This is what revolutions are made of, only they are the revolutionaries and we are the innocent bystanders.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011


Jon Stewart (and his writers) are again the sharpest news analysts in the business, taking apart the hypocrite-du-jour on FoxNews. It's really funny even if it makes you mad.

"We deserve what we get, dammit. But everything everybody else gets is wrong and greedy and unfair." The evil entitlements are those going to other people. Those entitlements not going to attractive, blonde, highly paid FoxNews anchors with attractive children destined for exclusive private schools.

Is this or is this not the core belief of all Republicans?

To put it differently, Republicans who make their living off capital gains are Hard Working Americans. Everybody else is lazy and undeserving and damn lucky Republicans are nice enough to employ them at a poverty wage.

Republicans who make millions off the government are doing so out of selfless patriotism––the millions they receive are accidental. Other people who make a meager living off the government are parasites and Communists.

This is called hypocrisy and Americans would laugh at it if Republicans weren't holding a gun to our head.

I think this is what Mr. Stewart is noticing. Maybe I should do his blogging for him...

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Talking Back to your Tea Party Brother-In-Law

This post by economist Jared Bernstein is the smartest, most useful piece of writing I've come across this year.

Memorize it.

Send it to everyone you know.

Send it to your elected representatives, your governor, your mayor.

Send it to your newspaper. If they won't print it, send it to your alternative newspaper.

Tack it to lampposts. Leave copies where you have coffee every day.

Xerox copies and drop them from an airplane over the State Fair.

If it does nothing else, it might shut up those smug relatives who feed off the garbage on FoxNews.

It may be a hopeful sign when the economists who help Republican politicians with their math start calling the Republicans stupid and dangerous. Here's an article from the New York Times.

We are in the grip of dangerous extremists eager to trigger complete economic collapse so (at least this is the theory) Jesus will come rescue them. I doubt He will though.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Standard & Poors or Dumb & Dumber?

Should the name be Standard & Poors or Dumb & Dumber? Here's a very good analysis in The Nation.

And another by Joe Nocera in the New York Times.

The Times is also reporting that the S.E.C. has downgraded S&P back for their own failings. Why didn't the S.E.C. downgrade the credit raters credibility earlier?

Remember, S&P and Moody's and Fitch were the ones who rated Enron AAA and did the same for the fraudulent toxic securities Wall Street dumped on customers prior to the 2008 collapse. The credit rating agencies caused the collapse by selling their ratings rather than making corporations earn them. And who had to clean up the mess? Taxpayers. It's S&P's mistakes that have ballooned our national debt. As I said the other day, blaming Obama for this is like blaming the surgeon for the cancer you wanted removed.

The real causes get lost in the noise as mommy and daddy argue. The problems we have aren't obscure or hard to understand, just hard to hear anyone talk about on television, unless you count Jon Stewart who may be the best explainer around. Maybe it's because he's allowed to use obscenities. We need them to describe what is going on.

Then there's the dull, boring but pithy and usually dead-on correct Brookings Institution.

But these causes are just political. The real cause of America's thirty year decline has been Reaganomics. Ronald Reagan (who was officially declared a god several years ago) established the rule that people who work should be paid less and pay more in taxes, and that people who own and don't work at all or work very little should reap the big rewards and pay taxes at a lower rate.

This dynamic took a robust economy and made it fragile, nervous, unstable and underfed. What feeds an economy? Incomes from honest work. Who has thrived most in Reagan's economy? The predators, the parasites, the "creative destroyers", the manipulators, the people who shuffle money rather than making products or delivering services. Reaganomics has hollowed out the America we grew up in, moving the wealth and the productivity offshore to low-wage havens and their private islands. Maybe Americans are finally waking up to this. I hope so.

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Blaming the Surgeon for the Cancer He's Removing

Today's Must-Read is from the Daily Beast, Tina Brown's hard-hitting digital newspaper. And nobody deserves to be hit harder than Standard & Poors.

As Noni Prins's article explains, S&P was "factory-stamping" AAA bond ratings on all the garbage Wall Street could manufacture in the run up to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008, and pocketing enormous fees.

The U.S. debt problem right now, which S & P is deploring, is largely made up of S & P's toxic garbage that we taxpayers (and our government) had to clean up.

A bit like blaming the surgeon for the cancer he's been asked to remove. The U.S. government removed the cancerous investments S&P and Moody's fed into the U.S. economy.

Instead of S & P downgrading U.S. Treasury Bonds, the U.S. Justice Department ought to be putting S & P on trial for its massive fraud. But major financial players appear to have total immunity.

This would be outrageous satire if it were satire, but it's not. It's all true, and we're paying for it.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Day the Middle Class Died

Today's must-read is from Michael Moore. Sometimes he's a bit annoying. Sometimes he's a blowhard. Sometimes he goes too far (endorsing Nader over Gore). Sometimes he's right. He's right about this.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Let's Worship the "Job Creators"

(What jobs?)

I read in the New York Times today how the very rich are spending their money. (No recession there.)

Is this how "job creators" "create jobs"?

(I'd love to know which premium PR consultant the GOP hired to rebrand the filthy rich.)

So instead of taxing rich people we tax the middle class and the working poor. What jobs are created? Jewelers? Couturiers? Expensive pedicurists?

And there is this worrisome article from Reuters about how cuts in infrastructure spending is hurting us. Instead of needed infrastructure spending (which would employ a lot of people, who would pay taxes) we get spending on $9000 sequinned tweed outfits and $50,000 tennis bracelets.

Instead of repairing roads that are falling apart and bridges that are falling down, we can comfort ourselves that a few very rich people are able to buy more fabulous new outfits and expensive foreign cars. To add to the closets and garages-full they already own. What jobs? No jobs. They don't need jobs.

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Goodbye American Dream

MarketWatch is reporting that paychecks account for the lowest percentage of GDP in history, and corporate profits are taking the largest percentage ever.

So why are we shifting taxes off of corporations, their shareholders and CEOs and onto workers?

Because the Republican Party represents people who own, not people who work. And because of this work means less today, it pays less. Owners are the gods in this new America. They can hold the nation to ransom. Ordinary taxpayers pay taxes corporations used to pay. We pay their legal fees when they break the law. We pay their fines and penalties. We pay for their mistakes by bailing them out when they fail.

TooMuchOnline is reporting that top management consultants like Booz & Co. are telling American businesses to pay their employees less than they are worth so they can keep all the money themselves. That is the expert advice of the Harvard Business School. Stiff the worker. But obscenely overpaying executives is OK.

(What makes this relevant today is how it affects the budget deficit. The vast majority of average earners, those whose incomes have flattened or disappeared, are the ones who pay taxes. The individuals and corporations who have reaped the greatest income hikes are the ones who have had the biggest tax cuts. This is where the budget deficit comes from.)

If you look at the pay graph over the past four decades, they've already accomplished this––the pay of average employees has been level for that long. (see Lane Kenworthy's economics blog.) There've been no increases for the American worker at any level (except the very very top) since Reagan declared Morning in America. It was a very cold morning, and an end to the American Dream.

Who does the American Dream belong to now? Look at the numbers. The most favored Americans are those who don't work at all.

This economy, this dead economy––for millions of Americans––and insecure at best for most, is out-of-this-world rewarding for the top top people, the ones with the enormous Republican tax cuts, the ones with Boehner and Cantor and McConnell slugging for them. The ones who own instead of working.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the income gap between the middle class and the extreme upper class has tripled.

The Washington Post reports on what this new exclusiveness creates: an insulation from the society that supports them, the society they live off of. As they earn more they care less about the people whose work creates their wealth.

Wall Street and the too-big-to-fail financial institutions, who taxpayers bailed out with trillions, reward themselves with billions apiece and handsome bonuses. But will they "loan money"? Will they hire? Will they get the economy going again? Why should they?

This bum economy is exactly the economy the bankers and Wall Street and Big Oil and their Republican operatives wanted.

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