Tuesday, December 31, 2013
How Wall Street Turned America Into Incarceration Nation
EDUCATE! CORPORATISM, CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND PRISONS, FINANCE AND THE ECONOMY, HOUSING, RACISM
By Les Leopold, www.alternet.orgNovember 26th, 2013 (6 VIEWS)
The U.S. leads the world in prisoners with 2.27 million in jail and more than 4.8 million on parole. Minorities have been especially hard hit, forming 39.4% of the prison population, with one in three black men expected to serve time during their lifetimes.
How is it that our land, supposedly the beacon of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world, puts so many of its own people into prison?
We usually attribute the prisoner increase to a combination of overt racism and Nixon’s war on drugs, followed by Rockefeller’s “three strikes” legislation in New York, and then the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act with its mandatory sentences. While racism and these laws certainly provide ample opportunity to incarcerate millions for violating senseless prohibition laws, they do not tell the whole story.
Racism was just as virulent, if not more so, long before the dramatic rise in prisoners set in during the 1980s and 1990s. Just because there are draconian laws on the books, it doesn’t explain why they are so dutifully enforced. It also doesn’t explain why so many are willing to risk prison, knowing the increasing odds of getting caught.
If we dig deeper, we’ll see that the rise in incarceration corresponds with the rise of financialization and the dramatic increase in Wall Street incomes. Of course, just because trend lines on charts rise and fall together doesn’t mean one causes the other. But this correspondence is much more than coincidence.
In fact, we could show you a dozen other trends lines about financialization, wealth and the rising incomes of America’s elites that follow the same patterns over similar years as the incarceration rate. What is the connection?
‘Unleashing’ Wall Street destroys manufacturing, older urban areas and black America’s upward mobility
By the end of the 1970s, our policy establishment embarked upon a new experiment to shock the nation out of stagflation (the crushing combination of high unemployment and high inflation). To do so, neo-liberal economists successfully argued that Wall Street should be deregulated and that taxes on the wealthy should be cut to spur new entrepreneurial activity that would enrich us all.
Entrepreneurial activity certainly increased, and with a vengeance. Rather than create new jobs and industries that would promote shared prosperity, a new and invigorated Wall Street set about to devastate American manufacturing. Its goal was, and still is, to make money from money, not to make money by producing tangible goods and services. Wall Street’s main product for America is debt. And its profits derive from loading up the country with it, and then collecting compound interest.
Wave after wave of financial corporate raiders (now politely called private equity firms) swooped in to suck the cash flow out of healthy manufacturing facilities. Wall Street, freed from its New Deal shackles, loaded companies up with debt, cut R&D, raided pension funds, slashed wages and benefits, and decimated well-paying jobs in the U.S. while shipping many abroad. The released cash flow was used to pay back the financiers, buy up stock to drive up its price, and pay out dividends. Nearly half the raided companies failed as America’s heartland in a few short years turned into the Rust Belt.
But Wall Street prospered as its profits rose to account for nearly 40% of all corporate profits by 2003, up from less than 10 percent in 1982 (It would take more space than we have here to explain why this had little to do with “unfair” foreign competition. We could also show that so called free-trade agreements were designed by financiers to promote their interests, not ours.)
The catastrophic collapse in manufacturing jobs was particularly tragic for black Americans who during the first two decades after WWII had seen their standard of living rise as they entered higher paying industries. As the Wall Street vultures sucked the life out of these industries, black Americans found themselves in dying urban areas where the next best jobs paid less than half what manufacturing once paid. If lucky, young minority men and women could find work in the public sector which still was unionized. More typically, scarce jobs might be found in fast-food chains, box stores, warehouses, and in the lower ranks of the healthcare system. Overall, however, unemployment rates soared, especially for minority youth. Participation in the underground economy often became the only means of survival.
Financialization, gentrification and the removal of low-income residents
Not only does financialization destroy middle-income manufacturing jobs in urban areas, but the process also removes low-income neighborhoods through gentrification. The rise of high-income financiers (and the desire of banks to loan more money to them) creates upward pressure on housing prices in urban areas that cater to elites, like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. As land values rise rapidly, lower-income residents are squeezed out of their neighborhoods, which are revamped into fashionable townhouses and apartments for the wealthy. (Typically, the children of the well-to-do unconsciously serve as forward troops as they flock into lower-income areas in major cities, seeking to support themselves as artists and young professionals.)
As hundreds of neighborhoods are transformed, higher income residents require more protection from the alternative low-income economy, called “crime in the streets.” As mayors cater to these new elites, police patrols increase and incarceration rises through “stop and frisk” programs which invariably target minorities.
Simply put, for financial interests to transform poorer neighborhoods into desirable real estate for the new elites, it is necessary to get rid of the poor. Jail becomes the new home for many.
The housing bubble and bust further destroyed lower income neighborhoods and decent-paying public sector jobs. Not only did financial interests feast upon productive firms, but they thrived on consumer debt (yet another chart that mirrors the incarceration rate).
The housing bubble, which was entirely engineered by Wall Street, created enormous demand for junk mortgages to package into securities which then turned toxic. When the bubble burst, the biggest losers were lower-income homeowners who thought they had finally gotten a piece of the American dream. With declining housing prices they found themselves underwater and/or living in neighborhoods with hundreds of abandoned homes. Their debts, remained, while, as we all know, the richest of the rich were bailed out.
Because of the Wall Street crash, revenue-starved urban areas in the Rust Belt were hit once again. With unemployment higher than anytime since the Great Depression, business and worker tax revenues fell, leading to cuts in public employee jobs and benefits—the very jobs middle-income minorities were fortunate to find as manufacturing declined over the previous decades.
Detroit became the poster child for the ravages brought about by financialization. First corporate raiders and private equity firms squeezed the life out of manufacturing all over Michigan. Then the Wall Street crash destroyed more jobs and undermined the tax base, leading to urban bankruptcy and more job loss in the public sector.
Wall Street’s Jobs Program: Incarceration
What will happen to all those unemployed, given the massive shortfall in jobs? What will happen to those trapped in neighborhoods crammed with foreclosed homes? Where is the jobs program for the millions who need it?
High finance has the answer that is now the de-facto government policy—put the dislocated, the unemployed, the “surplus” youth in jail.
That’s because financial interests and their crony politicians have no interest at all in traditional jobs programs that could put millions of young people to work. Instead, they are doing all they can to bring austerity policies to America. The less government spends on public services and safety net programs, the more money it has to support Wall Street. As government services are cut, state and local governments must turn even more to Wall Street in order to finance infrastructure projects (where the total cost including interest payments is usually several times the initial costs of construction).
Wall Street’s super-profits can only continue if public and consumer funds are transferred to high finance via interest payments on loans. So public jobs programs are out of the question, and both parties have been “convinced” (with campaign contributions) that we can’t afford them.
So that leaves us with one and only one jobs program—incarceration—which is also a growth opportunity for Wall Street. As public revenues falter, pressure will mount to privatize more and more correctional facilities and law enforcement functions, opening up lucrative opportunities for more privatization and more Wall Street loans to make it happen.
So by all means, let’s legalize drugs, get rid of mandatory sentencing and prohibit “stop and frisk.” But until we tackle financialization and its destruction of neighborhoods and jobs, we will channel another generation into the underground economy—and into jail.
These four graphs tell the tale visually — click to enlarge each:
1. The soaring American prison population since 1920:
2. Where the money is going: financial sector vs. non-financial sector yearly compensation:
3. The total collapse of manufacturing jobs in America since 1960:
4. Unemployment levels since 2007:
5. The staggering rise of household debt — home mortgages and credit debt:
Les Leopold is the director of the Labor Institute in New York. His latest book is How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning off America’s Wealth (Wiley 2013).
Intentional Deception: Corruption Of Economists
EDUCATE! CORRUPTION, FINANCE AND THE ECONOMY, MEDIA
December 31st, 2013 (39 VIEWS)
By Dean Baker, www.america.aljazeera.com
BY DEAN BAKER
The public needs expert guidance on economic issues, but moneyed interests have gotten in the way.
It is remarkable that the public has been convinced that the earth revolves around the sun. This is remarkable because we can all look up in the sky and see the sun revolving around the earth.
Most of us are willing to believe the direct opposite of what we can see with our own eyes because we accept the analysis of the solar system developed by astronomers through many centuries of careful observation. The overwhelming majority of people will never go through the measurements and reproduce the calculations. Rather, our belief that the earth revolves around the sun depends on our confidence in the competence and integrity of astronomers. If they all tell us that the earth in fact orbits the sun, we are prepared to accept this view.
Unfortunately the economics profession cannot claim to have a similar stature. This is both good and bad. It is good because it doesn’t deserve that stature. Economists too often work as hired guns for those with money and power. It is bad because the public needs expertise in economics, just as it needs expertise in medicine and other areas.
Theories for sale
If you head a big pharmaceutical company and you want to strengthen your patent monopolies to allow you to charge more money for your drugs for a longer time, there is no shortage of economists who are willing to argue your case. If you run an investment bank and you want to avoid regulations and oversight, there are plenty of economists who are willing to attest that government interference will slow growth and cost jobs. If you own a gas or oil company that wants to frack without paying for the damage done to farmland and drinking water, you can find economists to back you too.
In short, in keeping with economic theory, there are plenty of economists who, under the influence of moneyed interests, are willing to put forward arguments that don’t fit the data. For this reason, the public has rightly grown skeptical of economists.
The problem is that the public desperately needs economics knowledge now, when there is a strong need for measures by the government to boost demand and create jobs. The public needs to have economists it can trust to make this case because it involves measures that are counterintuitive.
The basic point is that the government must deliberately spend more money than it takes in from taxes — in other words, run large deficits — in order to create enough demand to get the economy back to full employment. This is counterintuitive because running deficits has the appearance of being irresponsible.
Inflicting needless suffering on tens of millions of people cannot be viewedas responsible economic policy.
We all know in our own lives that we cannot persistently spend more than our income. This would leave us with large debts and growing interest payments, which would become ever harder to meet. Eventually no one would be willing to lend us more money. At that point, we would really be in trouble, since we would still be consuming more than our income and would have large interest payments to meet as well.
It is only natural that people would extrapolate from their own experience with borrowing and debt to conclude that the government should not spend more than it takes in from taxes. This is where it would be useful to have an economics profession that could explain to the public that the situation of the government is fundamentally different. It does not face the same constraints on borrowing as a household, and it has a responsibility to sustain demand in the economy, which certainly no individual household shares.
The fact that governments with their own currency, like the United States, do not face any near-term limits on borrowing is easy to show. The ratio of government debt to GDP in the United States is just over 100 percent. By contrast, the United Kingdom had debt-to-GDP ratios over 200 percent through much of the 19th century. Japan has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 250 percent and can still borrow long term at less than 1.0 percent interest. Clearly there is no basis for concern that the United States is about to hit some debt cliff at which point it would no longer be able to borrow.
Economists should be able to explain the other side of the story. Since the collapse of the housing bubble, the economy has faced a severe shortfall in demand. There was no plausible source of demand that could replace the $600 billion in lost construction demand when the housing bubble burst or the $500 billion in consumption demand that was fueled by massive amounts of home equity created by bubble-inflated prices. When the bubble burst and house prices fell back to trend levels, consumption fell back to more normal levels.
The combination of lost construction and lost consumption created a massive drop in demand in the economy that could be replaced only by government spending. This is the reason the federal government must run deficits; there is no other plausible way to compensate. In this context the decision not to run large budget deficits is a decision to leave millions of people unemployed or underemployed and to forgo trillions of dollars in potential output.
Inflicting needless suffering on tens of millions of people cannot be viewed as responsible. If economics had as much standing as astronomy, economists would be explaining this point to the public. They would be telling them why the rules for responsible household budgeting are not the same as the rules for responsible federal-government budgeting.
But economists are not scientists like astronomers, perhaps because there is so much money at stake. As a result, the United States and much of the rest of the world is likely to needlessly suffer from the collapse of the housing bubble for many years into the future.
Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author, most recently, of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.