Tax me to help us

This is not my typical post. I came across the following rather interesting news story on the BBC website and thought of sharing it with the readers of this blog. What are your thoughts? 

Rich Germans demand higher taxes

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8321967.stm

A group of rich Germans has launched a petition calling for the government to make wealthy people pay higher taxes.

The group say they have more money than they need, and the extra revenue could fund economic and social programmes to aid Germany’s economic recovery.

Germany could raise 100bn euros (£91bn) if the richest people paid a 5% wealth tax for two years, they say.

The petition has 44 signatories so far, and will be presented to newly re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The group say the financial crisis is leading to an increase in unemployment, poverty and social inequality.

Simply donating money to deal with the problems is not enough, they want a change in the whole approach.

“The path out of the crisis must be paved with massive investment in ecology, education and social justice,” they say in the petition.

Those who had “made a fortune through inheritance, hard work, hard-working, successful entrepreneurship, or investment” should contribute by paying more to alleviate the crisis.

The man behind the petition, Dieter Lehmkuhl, told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel that there were 2.2 million people in Germany with a fortune of more than 500,000 euros.

If they all paid the tax for two years, Germany could raise 100bn euros to fund ecological programmes, education and social projects, said the retired doctor and heir to a brewery.

Signatory Peter Vollmer told AFP news agency he was supporting the proposal because he had inherited “a lot of money I do not need”.

He said the tax would be “a viable and socially acceptable way out of the flagrant budget crisis”.

The group held a demonstration in Berlin on Wednesday to draw attention to their plans, throwing fake banknotes into the air.

Mr Vollmer said it was “really strange that so few people came”.

Bankers robbed the banks

Wasn’t it only in October ’08 that we all were told to believe that the whole financial system had collapsed/was on the verge of collapse and that we need to shell out $780 billion of tax payers money to the exact same bankers has cost us upwards of $5 trillion to-date (per President Obama on the Letterman Show)?

So what happened?

Goldman Sachs (GS) reported $3.4B in profits for the 2Q09. GS plans to pay $18B in total compensation to employees averaging a staggering $600K/employee.

However, Unemployment is still at 16.5% (including semi-employed and people who have given up looking for a job).

That’s what happened.

People are so worked up about the Health Care reform when what we are talking about is A) keeping people alive/healthy which will “actually” benefit the economy B) saving the long term “social” model (yes, social) of Medicare, Medicaid and VA that will not survive unless we control cost and C) most importantly, making it affordable to buy insurance for individuals.

That to me is completely misplaced anger. We all have reason to be angry, reason to feel disoriented, reason to feel like we’ve been had and reason to lose trust. But directing it at Health Care reform is not only wrong it is a disservice to the country. It is much better to focus on reforming our Financial Industry and I contend, the only way to do that by reforming our election campaign finance – remember that issue that was hot before the 2008 elections and oh yes, also before the 2004 elections? Though, I must admit right on the outset that I am not very hopeful that either can happen.

However are some plausible ways to make a dent:

1. Make Banking boring —  Banks should, asPaul Krugman points out, return to being “boring” and provide money at reasonable, conservative rates to support the rest of the society to invest, innovate and develop “real products” not consider credit default swaps as a product….ever! In effect, behave like a Utility Company….like they use to back in the 50s and 60s.

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The real bailout prescription

Banks Only

It seems like I am in a statistical state-of-mind lately.
If you were to go to the IRS website you will find the total number of Individual Income Tax Returns for the year 2008 is: 156,297,000 (Source: http://www.irs.gov/taxstats/ –>Filing Season Statistics –>Filing Season Weekly Reports –> Report for filing year 2008 –> End of Year End Report.)

Let’s take the top 25% of tax payers out and we are left with 117 million individuals.
Next, let’s take the $3.8 Trillion (anticipated government spending across current and pending stimulus and bailouts including Bush bailout) and distribute it evenly to the 117M individuals that filed taxes.

You will arrive at the astounding number of $32,478!

That’s what we all could have gotten (except for the top 25% of earners who shouldn’t need it) instead of the current morass of bailouts and stimulus.

Let’s play this hypothetical scenario out a little further:
Imagine how fast our economy would have recovered if we were given this money, income tax free in a special account, to spend within two years within United States including purchase of airline tickets to fly out of United States (money spent abroad will not count). For any one with credit card loan or mortgage default, there would be additional stipulation that they pay off the loans/mortgage first. I am sure IRS can think of many other stipulations (and that would be fine). At the end of each of the two years we all would have to submit receipts to ensure we complied with the stipulations.

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Average Joe

Actually, Joe Biden is not even average. He is way below average. Let me just break the news — he comes in last, at the bottom, no one behind him. I am of course talking about his Net Income and Net Worth when compared to other Senators.

Biden’s tax returns for 2008 showed earnings of only $269,256 and paid $46,952 in federally taxes.  The salary paid to a US Senator by us, the tax payers is, $169,300. I believe the remainder of Biden’s income is from teaching engagements in local colleges in Delaware. His net worth could possibly be negative.

And quite honestly, that’s the way I like my Vice President.  While he still makes more than the average American — which he should given his responsibilities — he is the closest to understanding what an average person’s daily trials and tribulations are like.

  Being a US Senator doesn’t require filing of exact value of assets, instead a range for each asset is provided. Hence it is difficult to know he exact net worth of a Senator but it is very easy to decipher who is filthy rich, very rich and rich (note: there are no poor senators — except of course for Mr. Biden in 2008 given Senator standards).

So that you get an idea, the richest five and their avg. net worth (all data from 2006):

1 Herb Kohl (D-Wis) (owner of Kohl’s Dept store)   $336,885,513  
2 John Kerry (D-Mass) (wife owns Heinz Ketchup)   $267,789,805  
3 Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass)   $102,822,519  
4 Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)   $90,713,011  
5 Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif)   $79,555,657  

Interestingly enough, all five are Democrats but lest you get carried away, Republicans make a fine recovery and occupy 12 out of top 25 spots.  The 25th rank goes to:

25 Maria Cantwell (D-Wash)   $6,181,006  

And the 75th, spot goes to:

75 Patty Murray (D-Wash)   $641,509  

So the questions we really need to ask are:

1. Is it only the rich that can make it to the Senate?

2. Or, is it getting elected that somehow allows for Senators to get rich? (This can be found out by looking at historical records, may be one of the readers who is in the know can comment on this.)

3. Most importantly, is democracy actuallya pseudo-aristocracy? Pseudo because I do believe we are, on the average, much better off than under a true aristocracy.

4.  First a statement then a question. Statement: I believe America till recently has not been class envious, i.e. rich have not been envied for their wealth but actually look upon as inspiration and American ideals promoted all to aspire to be rich. Question: With the recently acquired knowledge of how many rich people got rich and the recently acquired loss of their own net worth, will Americans start thinking differently?

I have opinions (of course!), but what do you think?

Data source: http://www.opensecrets.org/ (click on Politicians and Elections –> Net Worth)

Why AIG Bonus is an important issue?

I know the furor on AIG bonuses is behind us but I didn’t come across any article that really hit the mark on why it is so important to focus on it — at least to my satisfaction.

Admittedly, Mr. Blow, in his column at the New York Times   came close. On the other hand, another NYT columnist, the famous Mr. Brooks,  in his recent column minimizes the issue — he doesn’t get it.

This is not about the $165M and the pittance it is in comparison to $2T required to “fix” the banks. It is about values that 95% (I believe) of us live by: a value system that has in-built checks within the system and more importantly within us as individuals that prevents us from conducting daylight robberies at the same companies that provide us sustenance. In AIG’s case it is obviously worse — they are not just stealing from the company money they don’t deserve, they are stealing from the American Treasury and the American people. We want to be ensured that we ALL understand the world the same way. This is a very important point — otherwise the foundation for a civilized society is pulled from underneath it. It is akin to driving by making your own rules — there will be accidents and deaths galore. Secondly, and equally importantly, unless we “fix” the thinking that afflicts Wall Street, I don’t know how people like Mr. Brooks and others imagine that we can “fix” the current situation? Despite the $2T bailout.

So in ending, it is not as much about revenge or repatriation, it is about making us believe that we all have the same understanding of rights and wrongs. It is about restoring confidence in our leaders and system more so than restoring confidence in our markets. I would like my leaders to restore my confidence in the following saying: “With great power comes great responsibility,” and stop convincing me that with great power comes great opportunity to fleece the system and unsuspecting people.

Is this why Obama went to Canada?

The likes of Mr. Rich, the New York Times columnist, are scratching their heads trying to figure out what they would do to stop the meltdown of the financial system. And of course since they can’t figure out a solution they believe President Obama must be in an equal bind. To quote from Mr. Rich’s recent article, The Ecstasy and the Agony, “Therein lies the Catch-22 that could bring the recovery down. As Obama said, we can’t move forward without a functioning financial system. But voters of both parties will demand that their congressmen reject another costly rescue of it. Americans still don’t understand why many Wall Street malefactors remain in place or why the administration’s dithering banking policy lacks the boldness and clarity of Obama’s rhetoric.”

Given Mr. Obama’s moves to fundamentally restructure the American social and economic landscape, I believe a more likely solution to the banking problems of America is what Theresa Tedasco hints at in her article the “The Great Solvent North.” She points out that the World Economic Forum ranked the Canadian Banking System at # 1 in terms of stability. The Canadian Banking system, in short, is five large banks that are very carefully regulated by the Government and prevented them from taking huge risks and securitizing their loans.  And because it was only five banks it was easy for the regulators to regulate.

I think President Obama, more than to shake Mr. Harper’s hand, went to Canada to learn from the Federal Regulators how to manage banks and save them from themselves. President Obama and Mr. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, both have talked up the virtues of the Canadian system.

If President Obama is seriously considering the Canadian model, the interesting part will be of course the journey — the transition from thousands of banks in the US to only five to ten consolidated banks. I watch the next year with baited breath.

Obama’s Budget

I am rather conflicted about the budget that Obama administration unveiled. On the one hand it has the right investment areas — Health Care reform, alternative energy (with revenue generated from carbon emission heavy industries), and education.

It  also focuses on some of the right areas for generation of revenues — like  roll-back of tax cuts for people earning greater than 250K, cut-back of subsidies to agribusinesses, pharmaceuticals and defense contractors.

However, where it fails, in my eyes, is the cut-back required on wasteful government spending — I don’t see much of that. Another troubling sign is that the deficit for the fiscal year 2009 (that ends in Sept) will be $1.75 trillion. That is staggering addition to the government deficit. He predicts that the deficit will fall to $533 billion in the last year of his term — 2013 — but that is far off in the future.

It is a bold new experiment in trying to level the playing field between the haves and the haves not. However, neither is it trim enough nor is it immediate in reducing deficit, and I fear that entropy will take over as time progresses with positive goals less pronounced and negative factors exaggerated when all of this becomes reality.

In a very perceptive article in Washington Post titled, “A Budget Process Hijacked By Selfish Interest,” Steven Pearlstein points out that it was the drive for self interest that resulted in a pluralist approach which forced competing self interests to be looked at collectively by decision makers and helped balance out the overall outcome. He writes, “It’s hard not to see the parallel between the magic of this political marketplace and the “invisible hand” of the economic marketplace as described centuries ago by Adam Smith. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote famously in “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.””

 However, it is clear that the system can be manipulated and short term narrow interests can take away the focus from the long term issues that are more potent and dangerous. Also, the politics of Washington ensures that such sweeping, radical bills have more angles to attack it from. And that, I am afraid, will be the undoing of the budget. For, immediate, short term gains are easy for the butcher, the brewer, or the baker and hence that is what they lobby for but long term abstract gains like a balanced federal budget, reformed health care and green energy are hard to visualize. Just like Wall Street, Congressmen will continue to focus on short term gains till uncontrolled upheaval makes long term short term and then, unfortunately, change will be impossible to implement.