Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Emergency Bailout Plan That Americans Will Love

By Jonathan Tasini

30/09/08 "
Working Life" -- There is a great economic emergency looming in our country. But, it seems to me that we—or at least our elected leaders—have only looked at one side of the crisis, that of the housing bubble-inspired financial credit crunch. By doing so, we’ve missed the bigger picture and the solutions needed. So, here is one person’s take on the Emergency Economic Bailout package that will heal the economy.
As quick background, let’s consider this:

24.5 percent of all Americans earn poverty wages ($9.60 or less)

10 percent of all Americans—15 million Americans—earn $6.79 or less

33.3 percent of African American works and 39.3 of Hispanic workers earn poverty wages.

The share of our entire national income hoarded by the top one percent is, as of 2005, 21.8 percent. The last time it was that high was in 1928 (23.9)—just as the Great Depression was about to hit with its full fury.

We accept poverty as a fact of life in this country—partly because workers have not gotten the fair share of their hard work over the past three decades (in Republican and Democratic Administrations). If productivity and wages had kept their historic link (meaning, as workers were more productive, that translated into higher paychecks), the MINIMUM WAGE in the country would be $19.12. Yes, $19.12.

At the recent new minimum wage of $6.55 an hour, if you worked every single day, 40 hours a week, with no vacations, no holidays, no health care and no pension, you would earn the grand sum of $13.624. The POVERTY LEVEL for a family of three is $17,600.

47 million Americans have no health care and tens of millions more have inadequate or costly health care that can bankrupt them.

Since 1978, the number of defined-benefit plans—that means, pensions that give retirees a promised monthly amount—plummeted from 128,041 plans covering some 41 percent of private-sector workers to only 26,000 today. It’s a Dog Food Retirement future for millions of people.

All those numbers above do relate to the more narrow crisis in a very specific way: without being able to rely on their paychecks to survive, a lot of people got sucked into the housing bubble mania as an economic coping mechanism. Home equity credit lines substituted for decent pay, retirement and affordable, quality health care. And we know the rest.

So, here is what I think is a more comprehensive economic rescue plan, all of which should be attached to any new "bailout" proposal:

1. Immediately raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, with additional increases over the fives years following raising the minimum wage to $20, which will begin to return some justice and return to workers’ sweat of the brow.

2. Pass HR676, Medicare for All legislation to  (Rep. John Conyers is the main sponsor of the bill). Aside from the moral issue of covering every single American and making health care a right not a privilege, it would save the economy hundreds of billions of dollars and immediately make American-based companies competitive around the world with companies operating from countries with national health care.

3. Create a national guaranteed universal pension plan, backed by the government, so people can be sure that their retirement years will not be threatened by the wild swings of Wall Street.

4. Repeal the Bush tax cuts now and raise the top two income tax rates to 40% and 45%, add a new 50% income tax bracket for those with taxable income over $1 million, and tax investment income as ordinary income. Frankly, that is pretty modest and should only be the first step in rediscovering a progressive taxation system—but it will still raise several hundred billion dollars this year to finance a variety of public investments. The very people who have enriched themselves in the deregulation orgy of the past couple of decades should pay to repair the country.

5. A couple of years ago, when I was involved in a little political race of my own, I latched on to this idea: a tiny transactions tax on stock sales. It would be so miniscule that the small investors would never feel it, say, 0.25 percent of the sale. It would raise about $150 billion. Wall Street benefits from government protections, not the least of which is a regulatory system (oh, there I go using that "regulation" word, which now seems to be back in vogue) that prevents, in theory, fraud and crazy speculation (ok, so that doesn’t always work out well). Plus, such a tax might also exercise some restraint, perhaps modest, on the wild and crazy big trades made on rumors and the thirst for a quick buck. But, the main point is shared responsibility. You live in this society and, so, you make a contribution. And that contribution is relatively modest and relatively painless.

6. The Employee Free Choice Act. There is no better middle-class jobs program than unionization. Period.

  The point of these suggestions is not just moral but common, economic sense. The way to avoid, to some extent, speculation and crazy amounts of debt is to take away the victims that are preyed on by banks, unscrupulous investors and free-market pirates. If a person has a decent income, real health care, a secure retirement and a government that can invest in the country, he or she is less likely to feel the need to latch on to risky investments and get-rich-quick schemes (also known as day-trading).

My guess is the American people would feel pretty good about a deal that included the above. To those, I’d add two specific pieces about the current mess:

First, any investment of money in banks is done on a debt-for-equity swap. No bailouts. As Nouriel Roubini and my friend Dean Baker have both pointed out, there is no justification or economic logic to bailout banks as a solution to the crisis we find ourselves in. Roubini writes, in arguing that the buying up bad assets is the exception, not the rule, and:

So this rescue plan is a huge and massive bailout of the shareholders and the unsecured creditors of the financial firms (not just banks but also other non bank financial institutions); with $700 billion of taxpayer money the pockets of reckless bankers and investors have been made fatter under the fake argument that bailing out Wall Street was necessary to rescue Main Street from a severe recession. Instead, the restoration of the financial health of distressed financial firms could have been achieved with a cheaper and better use of public money.

Second, as I’ve argued, we should own Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. We need those two huge institutions to be boring and predictable, not participating in crazy leveraging and speculation. The only we guarantee that is by installing publicly accountable board members who will run the companies for the benefit of homeowners, not profiteers.

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