Opinion

The Great Debate

The middle class’s missing $1.6 trillion

The United States was the world’s first middle-class nation, which was a big factor in its rapid growth.  Mid-19th-century British travelers marveled at American workers’ “ductility of mind and the readiness…for a new thing” and admired how hard and willingly they labored. Abraham Lincoln attributed it the knowledge that “humblest man [had] an equal chance to get rich with everyone else.”

Most Americans still think of themselves as middle class.  But the marketing experts at the big consumer goods companies are giving their bosses the unsentimental advice that the middle class is an endangered species. Restaurants, appliance makers, grocery chains, hotels are learning that they either have to go completely up-scale, or focus on bargains for the struggling and budget-conscious.

Current income surveys, for statistical reasons, usually segment families by broad categories, which obscure the recent radical shift of income to a thin stratum of the super-rich. Well-to-do people may buy $100 coffee pots, but the lion’s share of the income growth has been going to folks with five houses and staff to make the coffee.

For the last 15 years, an international consortium of economists has been building data bases on the income shares of the richest people in the developed countries, based on pre-tax market income including capital gains and tax-exempt income, and excluding government transfers. The American data reveals the greatest inequality by far, followed by Great Britain.

The stunning income distribution has a remarkable symmetry.  In 2012, the top 10 percent captured half of all reported income. But the top 1 percent got almost half of that — 22.5 percent — while the top 10th of 1 percent (0.1 percent) captured half of that. All three are within a few decimal places of the previous highs — which occurred in 1928, just before the market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.

Occupy Wall Street’s message: more than a sound bite

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.

Pop quiz: What’s so bad about the financialization of the U.S. economy over recent decades?

If you’re like most people who are uneasy with the outsized power of finance, chances are you can’t boil down your concerns to a pithy sound bite. So why is there such ridicule of the protesters “occupying” Wall Street for lacking a coherent message?

Three years after the 2008 financial crisis, it is still hard to neatly encapsulate the problem with letting bankers and traders dominate American economic life. Once Congress passed the Dodd-Frank reform law last year, most political leaders and commentators moved on to other issues, leaving behind an unfinished debate about Wall Street’s influence.

Writing history – the Panic of 2008

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

Economic history is the only field of human endeavor where the past changes as much if not more than the present and the future. Policymakers and practitioners struggle to define and write a “narrative” of the past as a means to control how policy responds to current and future problems.

The debate now over financial reform is a case in point. Even though the banking system has only just emerged from the most severe shock since the 1930s, the battle over how to define the events of the last 18 months, and what they should mean for investors and regulators in future, is already well underway.

Leave pay to companies, shareholders

James Pethokoukis – James Pethokoukis is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

For the populists who really, really want to make Wall Street pay by slashing their pay, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner certainly isn’t giving them what they want.

Yes, the top executives of the remaining TARP firms seem destined to be salary serfs to the “pay czar”, Kenneth Feinberg.

U.S. mouth writing checks its body won’t cash

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

A look at credit insurance prices for U.S. banks shows that market thinks the government’s mouth is writing checks its body can’t or won’t cash.

Despite a blistering rally in bank shares and Herculean efforts by the U.S. to build confidence in its financial sector, the price of insuring some leading banks’ debt against default has increased markedly in recent weeks.

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