Opinion: Yacht welfare for the oligarchs
Free Press Opinion Columnist
In the Occupy Wall Street protests that eventually fizzled out a few years ago, the most popular slogan was “We are the 99 percent,” meaning the vast majority of Americans who do not inhabit Wall Street, either physically or virtually. But the majority is actually larger than that — more like the 99.9 percent whose income has barely risen over the past 50 years, while a graph of the remaining .1 percent’s income resembles a Himalayan elevation plot.
They are all worthy go-getters, of course, earning and deserving their titanic rewards. Paris Hilton comes to mind. Or Jordan Belfort (the “Wolf of Wall Street”). Not a few ditzy heiresses, clever con men and ruthless hustlers in this crowd, whose stratospheric income has been launched along not only by hard work, genius and savvy decision making, but by a whole slate of welfare benefits courtesy of our “millionaire” Congress.
For example: Tax write-offs for private jets, or zero tax if they’re claimed to provide security. Subsidies for beach homes and yachts, using the mortgage-interest deduction originally designed to help low- and middle-income people own homes. Hedge fund and private equity subsidies in the form of the “carried interest” loophole. And the $83 billion per year taxpayer subsidy to the biggest banks — because Uncle Sam guarantees to pick up the pieces if they crash the world economy again, they can borrow money at below-market rates.
But the biggest indulgence is the get-out-of-jail-free card, known as “deferred prosecution,” saving white-collar criminals having to pay elite lawyer fees to keep their butts out of prison. Our politicians and regulators have deemed these worthies “too big to fail,” even after their shenanigans wiped out $34 trillion in global wealth in 2008.
The trend has now reached its end point. After the Savings & Loan rip-offs of the 1980s, about 800 white-collar crooks were convicted, fined and imprisoned; in the early 2000s, a few dozen were prosecuted in the CEO scandals (Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen). But after the subprime mortgage tsunami of 2008, only one man has been jailed so far — Bernie Madoff — which proves that you can destroy 40 percent of the net worth of millions of working-class people and not suffer a hand slap, but woe if you put a dent in the investments of the .01 percenters! Bernie hurt the wrong people.
Our pundits have been hyperventilating lately in condemning Vladimir Putin as a tyrant, but at least he put an end to the predations of the oligarchs and mobsters, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who were raping Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Iran a couple of years ago, 38 people were prosecuted for a $2.6 billion bank fraud; four were sentenced to death.
I’m not advocating Iranian justice for our banksters, but even the feeble reforms that were passed in the Dodd-Frank legislation are now being undermined by an army of 2000 lobbyists from Wall Street swarming Capitol Hill, spearheaded by the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and his vanguard of 29 staffers. In a recent hearing, Hensarling joked, “Occasionally we have been accused of trying to undermine aspects of Dodd-Frank. I hope we’re guilty of it.”
Employees and political action committees representing financial companies have donated $150 million to congressional candidates in this election cycle, far beyond the second-place industry — health care at $57 million. With a few exceptions, our congress of millionaires is effectively owned lock, stock and barrel by Wall Street banksters and oligarchs pushing for even more fat-cat subsidies and corporate welfare. As Rolling Stone financial journalist Matt Taibbi has noted, Bush Jr. was harder on corporate crime than our supposedly populist president, Barak Obama.
And if Hillary Clinton gains the Democratic nomination for next president, you can forget any stronger regulation or prosecution of our financial bluebloods; in the past several months, she has been busy giving speeches (at around $200,000 a pop) to Goldman Sachs, private equity firm KK&R, and the notorious Carlyle Group, assuring them all that if only they fill her campaign coffers, it will be business as usual with another Clinton in the White House. It was her partner, after all, who signed off on the Gramm-Leach-Blily Act of 1999 that overturned the venerable Glass-Steagull Act of 1933, paving the way for the epidemic of fraud we’ve suffered in the last 15 years.
That means our only hope will be a Republican or independent candidate — which is to say there is no hope at all. The American aristocracy is well entrenched and liberated to stir up more economic hurricanes in the near future. As a safeguard against these storms, it might be wise to open a collateral new bank account — your mattress pays dismal interest, but at least Goldman Sachs cannot find a way to hoover it up.
GJ Free Press columnist Travis Kelly is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction. See his work or contact him at http://www.traviskelly.com.
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