Saturday, June 15, 2013

Happy Days Are Here Again?

At 55, I watch the stock market more than I used to.  Oh, not its daily ups and downs, which are like my cats chasing each other around the house: something spooks them and off they go.  But I have a graph in the back of my mind. I'm aware that my hopes of a retirement with Rona partly depend on the value of our retirement accounts.  When the line is going down, as it did in the Great Recession, we have to exercise patience.  When it's going up, we get to wonder how two children of working-class parents can grow up to be secure, even at a modest level.

That's why I take personally the question that James Surowiecki raised in a recent article in The New Yorker: "Boom or Bubble?"  The stock market has been going up, even though employment, housing, and income equality have lagged behind.  Is this really sustainable? 

The answer I get from reading the article is: unfortunately, yes.

The value of stock is based on the triumph of corporate power.  The last time what we now call "the 99%" could consistently force the wealthy to share the wealth we all created was when I was a teenager.  Since then:
  • Corporate tax rates have fallen dramatically (and so have the rates that rich people pay as individuals).  
  • Corporations have gone global. A study of "American" corporations that Surowiecki cites found "they got forty-six per cent of their earnings from abroad."
  • Partly as a result, corporations have broken the power of unions and forced wages down.  (Retirement benefits, too.  If we had pensions instead of 401ks and IRAs, stocks would be lower, and we wouldn't care.)
And one more thing that Surowiecki doesn't mention but his colleague Elizabeth Kolbert makes clear: raping the planet is good for profits.  If the companies that our financial advisor has invested us in were to pay the full environmental cost of just the energy they use, then they--and we--would have far fewer dollars in our accounts.  But that is just what I would like to see.

I would like to see fewer new products and more days when the air is clear.  I would like to see lower profits and more social benefits.  We and the vast majority of other Americans would lead happier lives if corporate taxes went up instead of the stock market--and we used that tax money to pay for universal health care and a more generous retirement benefit for all.  No boom, no bubble, just lives of useful work and pleasurable leisure with friends, followed by an old age not hampered by concerns about my investments, your children's future, the fate of our earth.

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