Wealth and Inequality

Wealth and Inequality                                                                                                                                                                                                 Robert A. Levine

One may ask why a nation of such great wealth allows so much inequality and suffering among its population. The simple answer is that wealthy people, corporations and special interests have the power to control politicians and government bodies through lobbying, contributions and job offers. This results in skewed laws being passed that favor the most affluent individuals and corporate interests. The voices of impoverished citizens are muted in Washington and the state capitals. Tax laws in particular are structured to allow the ultra-wealthy and corporations to pay lower taxes than their income should require. This is done through tax shelters and tax avoidance schemes dreamed up by tax lawyers and accountants who specialize in finding ways to lower tax obligations to the federal and state governments. Of course, this places a greater tax burden on the middle class and salaried workers and means less funding available for various programs that would help lift the poor out of poverty. America is supposed to have a progressive tax system, where those who earn more pay more in taxes. But thanks to corrupt politicians, that is not how the tax system works.                

Aside from the legal tax breaks that the ultra-wealthy are provided by politicians in thrall to them, the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers revealed how the super-rich in many nations use secret off-shore accounts to hide money. The leaks that showed ‘predatory capitalism’ for what it really is released nearly 12 million files in the Pandora Papers alone. Investigative journalists were able to see private emails, secret contracts and bank accounts of more than 100 billionaires, business leaders, celebrities, world leaders and rock stars obtained in a two year investigation by more than 600 journalists in 117 countries. Shell corporations were employed to hold cash as well as luxury items like extra homes, property, yachts, jewelry, art and so forth.            

Participants in these tax schemes included Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, and King Abdullah of Jordan, and a number of affluent Americans. Certain states in the United States also provide tax havens for some of the super-rich, but South Dakota is by far the champion. For instance, South Dakota trusts have hundreds of billions of dollars in funds that generate no taxes and are safe from anyone who might have a legitimate claim on them. The state has no income tax, no inheritance tax and no capital gains tax. There is also extreme secrecy even from law enforcement agencies. Many affluent foreigners use South Dakota as a tax haven because of the protection it affords them.                                                                                                                        

Top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, many of them billionaires, also find other ways to dodge federal and state taxes and gift and estate taxes. In a law devised to help start-ups, long-time tech executives have discovered techniques to use this law to avoid taxes. Before their companies go public, they give shares to relatives or friends who have not invested money in the company, but who are able to receive these tax breaks. Tens of millions of dollars legally can be saved by individuals who use these tax avoidance mechanisms called stacking. Venture capital firms have also benefited by early investments in successful firms by stacking before the companies go public.                                                                                                                                   

Besides an unfair tax system, government support for social programs that would help the poor are severely underfunded, especially those involving impoverished children. Evictions in the United States have increased significantly in the months after the moratorium ended, even though some federal rental assistance and expanded child tax credit payments remained in place. Obviously, more aid is needed. Education, apprenticeships and a truly progressive tax system with more financial support for the poor are the pathways out of poverty. An unanswered question is whether the level of inequality can be maintained indefinitely or at some point will result in riots and revolt. The current situation is unfair and will people continue to peacefully accept the status quo? Many of those who are extremely wealthy will go to any lengths to hold onto their wealth and accumulate more, unwilling to give proportionately to the common good. Some may be philanthropic and contribute huge sums to charities or causes that they deem worthy, but avoid their fair share of taxes to allow elected officials decide where funding is needed. To reduce inequality, a fair, equitable and enforceable tax system is needed.                                                                                                                                                           Buy The Uninformed Voter on Amazon or Barnes and Noble                                                                                                                                   

White Privilege

White Privilege

            Robert A. Levine 

The belief in white supremacy provides justification for the nation’s racial conflicts and is the basis for white racial privilege. Currently, the major racial problems for America are the inequality between Blacks and whites and the continued obstruction of Black rights and attempts at advancement. But difficulties also exist between whites and Asians and whites and indigenous peoples, their origin eminating as well from the presumption of white supremacy and entitlement. Though America’s democracy supposedly is based on the concept expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, it appears that an influential part of the nation’s white population does not accept that thesis and acts in ways to subvert it. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In schools across the country, children must have heard these words at least dozens if not hundreds of times, and discussed the meaning with their teachers and fellow students. But there is still a large portion of white citizens who refuse to acknowledge the words of the Declaration and insist on believing in white superiority and privilege. The fact that Blacks were initially enslaved by whites has also contributed to the legacy of white supremacy and privilege, with an unwillingness among many white men and women to grant Blacks equal status and social standing.

After slavery was abolished in the United States and Blacks were freed, white attitudes towards them did not change significantly, particularly in the South with Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. With the passage of Federal Civil Rights statutes in the 1960s, there was movement towards equality under the law, but attitudes were mostly unaltered. But in the half century since, Blacks have been more assertive about their rights and many whites have shared their concerns. In the last decade, police brutality towards Blacks resulting in unnecessary deaths reinforced the presence of systemic racism in American society. Many whites reassessed their beliefs about Blacks, though racial privilege by whites remains, either overtly or covertly. The question now is whether we are truly on the road to change.

Isabel Wilkerson’s riveting book, Caste, expounds the concept that America has a caste system not unlike India’s, except that there are two major castes instead of many. Blacks are on the bottom and whites on top. People are born into their castes and certain behavior is expected by caste members no matter their level of education or accomplishments. Caste is a social construct like race and not is based on scientific evidence. In fact, scientific analysis finds no defining characteristics or genetic variations as markers of race or caste. The only difference between Blacks and whites is a matter of pigmented skin. However, the idea of race was a deliberate creation to justify the enslavement of Blacks and their subsequent treatment by the white population when they were freed.

Since the founding of the United States, racial privilege has not merely been manifest by whites in regard to Blacks. All racial groups have been perceived as inferior to northern European whites. The indigenous inhabitants of the United States were initially subjugated by European colonists and Hispanics were also denigrated in comparison to whites (though some were mainly Caucasian). Chinese laborers brought to work on the western railroads were looked down upon by whites with many believing in the threat of the “Yellow Peril.” Japanese farmers and gardeners were also seen as beneath whites and potentially dangerous, being interned during World War II. In addition, Eastern and Southern Europeans and Jews were all felt to be racially inferior compared to Northern Europeans and white Anglo-Saxons, and less intelligent. At various times, immigration laws were passed to prevent these groups from entering the United States with concern about miscegenation. But it was the Blacks who suffered the most from white privilege.

Until the concept of white supremacy is much less prevalent, racism and white privilege will remain divisive problems for America. Changing people’s mindset that has been imbued for generations will be a daunting task when these people refuse to accept that change is necessary if we are to have a true democracy.

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Where is the GOP Going?

Where is the GOP Going?

                        Robert A. Levine 5-18-21

Since Trump took over the Republican Party in 2015, the question that needs to be asked is where is this political party headed?  What is their raison d’etre or reason for being? In the 2020 election, the Party ran without a platform or specific policy objectives. The only factor that bound members together so it could be called a party was its support of Donald Trump. That would be fine if Trump espoused a specific ideology, but he doesn’t. He is defined by populism and nationalism, but his allegiance appears to be primarily to people of wealth and perhaps how to help them get more. Though he is thought of as a populist and is adored by a large segment of the population, during his term in office he did little to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. He seemed to be mainly concerned by how to make his own life better along with those of his family and friends.

Having lost his bid for re-election, he still claims that he won and that the election was stolen from him, mostly because he does not want to be labeled as a “loser”. To obtain Trump’s support in future elections, the overwhelming majority of Republicans have backed his claim that the election was stolen though they all know this is a boldfaced lie. But few Republicans want to cross him in any way. Though he is out of office and does not have the bully pulpit any longer, he is still the leader of the GOP and all of its members must pay fealty to him or suffer the consequences. Aside from loyalty to Trump, the Republicans still have no specific policy proposals on which to run a campaign. They do oppose virtually every idea that the Democrats have brought up and tried to make into law, but opposition alone is not enough to define a political party. They need specific proposals that they are trying to make law, but thus far have not come up with anything concrete. Recently, it appears that some Republicans in the Senate may be willing to compromise with the Democrats over infrastructure plans. But this still does not a party make. They are also willing to have their members support conspiracy theories like QAnon and people like Marjorie Taylor Greene

The Republicans who oppose Trump for the most part call themselves conservatives, but they also have not come forth with a specific platform they can stand on. They are anti-Trump and anti-Democratic Party, but what are they for. What new laws would they like to see enacted? So Republicans of all stripes, pro-Trump and anti-Trump appear to be lacking goals and ideas that they can trumpet to their base and independents to help them get elected or re-elected. Are there any Republicans who know where their Party is going aside from how it relates to Trump? And outside the Party, do the Democrats or Independents know what Republicanism stands for at this point in time?                                                                                                                                  

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            Robert A. Levine  4/12/21

By dint of money, celebrity or power, many individuals in America consider themselves entitled and able to have their way in everything they want. They see ordinary people as pawns to be used to further their own comfort and interests. That everyone is not created equal is apparent to even casual observers. Aside from sexual and racial variance, some people are tall, some short, some fat, some thin, some muscular, some weak, some smart, and some of average intelligence. We are all products of our genes, shaped to a large degree by our environment as children, but also happenings later in life. The genetic makeup and childhood experiences of people differ markedly, producing adults who are diverse in looks, cognitive function, athletic ability, and so forth. However, in a democracy these differences should be of no significance in how individuals are treated by one another or by the state. Everyone should expect consideration and respect from other men and women, no matter how different they may be.

Unfortunately, not only in America but in every society there are individuals who believe themselves privileged and above other people in status, thinking they are entitled to special treatment from the rest of us. As noted, wealth, power and celebrity are the major factors that make some men and women perceive themselves as entitled. Though in a democracy these feelings should be constrained, those who consider themselves special are often unwilling to surrender the attitudes and conduct that mark them as privileged. These may be manifest by minor aberrations from behavioral norms, or by more imperious conduct that reinforces their assumptions they are privileged.

One may ask whether relatively trivial actions by entitled people are connected to, or predictive of, more serious offenses, as privilege is often manifest by minor deviation from social norms. If they park in no parking or handicapped spaces or cut in line to bypass traffic, or fail to pick up their dog’s droppings, do these indicate that they see themselves as above the law? Are those who consider themselves privileged more likely to commit transgressions in business or social interactions that are unethical or illegal, thinking that they will not be caught or punished? Though a controlled study of these actions would be impossible to perform, common sense and observation of different personalities and behavior would make one believe the answer is yes, as they suggest the possibility of sociopathy. However, it is true that some acts revealing indifference to the sensitivities of others do not necessarily signal entitlement, but may merely represent rudeness and bad manners. None-the-less, the hallmarks of entitlement are lack of consideration and caring for others, along with the attitude that one is better than other people. Rules and regulations can be ignored when necessary to enhance an entitled person’s life.

‘Entitlement’ is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as- the feeling that you have the right to do or have what you want, without having to work for it or deserve it, just because of who you are. The word privileged is used in a similar manner to entitled. In our society, a person who feels entitled is one who considers him or herself special or superior to others, and whose conduct is indicative of that belief in various ways. Because of that individual’s bearing, attitude, and actions, most people are aware of his or her assumption that he or she is privileged and deserves to receive appropriate attention and treatment from others. The opposite of an entitled person would be one who is humble, unpretentious, deferential, kind and considerate.

Until people accept the idea of equal status, opportunity and equality under the law, we will not have a democracy. That does not mean all people are equal.

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A Coterie of Unhappy Billionaires

A Coterie of Unhappy Billionaires

                        Robert A. Levine

Even billionaires must realize that America’s infrastructure is decrepit and resembles that of a third world country more than that of a modern state. For a nation whose main mode of transportation is the automobile and that moves goods mainly by truck, one would think that the federal and state governments would keep our roads and bridges in tip-top shape. But the opposite is true. Civil engineers in the last few years have given the nation’s infrastructure a failing grade between C- and D.

Roads and bridges were supposed to be maintained by funding derived from gas taxes and tolls. However, it’s been 27 years since the gas tax was last raised. It remains at 18.4 cents for a gallon of gas and 23.4 cents for a gallon of diesel. Yet in the last quarter century, the number of automobiles using our roads and bridges has increased significantly and more and heavier trucks are being used to transport goods but destroy the roads. State gasoline taxes vary from state to state but have not been high enough to keep the roads and bridges in fine condition. Gasoline taxes are basically user fees which would seem to be a fair way to maintain the roads and bridges. But many drivers are working class or middle class people who would be hurt by raising their road taxes.

And there are numerous other elements of infrastructure that need to be upgraded or installed aside from roads and bridges. We probably have the worst railroad system of any developed country in the world. While China, Europe and Japan have high speed, sleek trains that can go at over 200 miles per hour, American passenger trains creep along at speeds below 100 miles per hour. It’s no wonder that more Americans do not travel by train. But it’s not only the train that has to generate speed, the train tracks must be able to handle trains traveling at high speeds. In many areas, new tracks have to be installed to utilize modern trains.

There are also many of our airports and airport terminals that appear as if they were lifted from a third world nation. While some of the terminals are decent, others are in dire need of repair and rebuilding. And our ports need reconstructing, both to handle goods in container ships and people going on cruises or traveling by boat. Broadband access also has to be provided to rural areas and poor sections of major cities. If poor people don’t have access to the Internet for communication and education, they are severely handicapped in their efforts to advance to higher levels.

So how are we going to pay for all of these requirements to improve the nation’s infrastructure to compete with other modern nations? Should we employ user fees on everything and force poor and middle class people to pay for what is needed. Or should we just raise their taxes, Given the overwhelming inequality in America, corporations and the wealthiest among us should bear the cost of these improvements. Remember that federal and state governments are partially responsible for the success of our corporations and the wealth that the affluent have accumulated. The infrastructure that we have, allowing products to get to consumers was built by the government. Education was provided to train skilled workers.

Thus, the burden of paying for infrastructure improvements and new elements should be borne by corporations and the super-wealthy. Billionaires may not be happy but they should be taxed adequately so that no further debt is accumulated to pay for infrastructure. Remember that it was only four years ago that Trump provided1-2 billion dollars in unnecessary tax cuts primarily to American billionaires.

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