The New Feudalism
SHARMINI PERIES & MICHAEL HUDSON
SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, on page 260 of your book, J is for Junk Economics, you deal with the issue of Social Security and it’s a myth that Social Security should be pre-funded by its beneficiaries, or that progressive taxes should be abolished in favor of a flat tax. Just one tax rate for everyone you criticize. We talked about this earlier, but let’s apply what this actually means when it comes to Social Security.
MICHAEL HUDSON: The mythology aims to convince people that if they’re the beneficiaries of Social Security, they should be responsible for saving up to pre-fund it. That’s like saying that you’re the beneficiary of public education, so you have to pay for the schooling. You’re the beneficiary of healthcare, you have to save up to pay for that. You’re the beneficiary of America’s military spending that keeps us from being invaded next week by Russia, you have to spend for all that – in advance, and lend the money to the government for when it’s needed.
Where do you draw the line? Nobody anticipated in the 19th century that people would have to pay for their own retirement. That was viewed as an obligation of society. You had the first public pension (social security) program in Germany under Bismarck. The whole idea is that this is a public obligation. There are certain rights of citizens, and among these rights is that after your working life you deserve to live in retirement. That means that you have to be able to afford this retirement, and not have to beg in the street for money. The wool that’s been pulled over people’s eyes is to imagine that because they’re the beneficiaries of Social Security, they have to actually pay for it.
This was Alan Greenspan’s trick that he pulled in the 1980s as head of the Greenspan Commission. He said that what was needed in America was to traumatize the workers – to squeeze them so much that they won’t have the courage to strike. Not have the courage to ask for better working conditions. He recognized that the best way to really squeeze wage earners is to sharply increase their taxes. He didn’t call FICA wage withholding a tax, but of course it is. His trick was to say that it’s not really a tax, but a contribution to Social Security. And now it siphons off 15.4% of everybody’s pay check, right off the top.
The effect of what Greenspan did was more than just to make wage earners pay this FICA rake-off out of their paycheck every month. The charge was set so high that the Social Security fund lent its surplus to the government. Now, with all this huge surplus that we’re squeezing out of the wage earners, there’s a cut-off point: around $120,000. The richest people don’t have to pay for Social Security funding, only the wage-earner class has to. Their forced savings are lent to the government to enable it to claim that it has so much extra money in the budget pouring in from social security that now it can afford to cut taxes on the rich.
So the sharp increase in Social Security tax for wage earners went hand-in-hand with sharp reductions in taxes on real estate, finance and on top One Percent. The people who live on economic rent, not by working, not by producing goods and services but by making money on their real estate, stocks and bonds “in their sleep.” That’s how the five percent have basically been able to make their money.
The idea that Social Security has to be funded by its beneficiaries has been a setup for the wealthy to claim that the government budget doesn’t have enough money to keep paying. Social Security may begin to run a budget deficit.
After having run a surplus since 1933, for 70 years, now we have to begin paying some of this savings out. That’s called a deficit, as if it’s a disaster and we have to begin cutting back Social Security. The implication is that wage earners will have to starve in the street after they retire.
The Federal Reserve has just published statistics saying the average American family, 55 and 60 years old, only has about $14,000 worth of savings. This isn’t nearly enough to retire on. There’s also been a vast looting of pension funds, largely by Wall Street. That’s why the investment banks have had to pay tens of billions of dollars of penalties for cheating pension funds and other investors. The current risk-free rate of return is 0.1% on government bonds, so the pension funds don’t have enough money to pay pensions at the rate that their junk economics advisors forecast. The money that people thought was going to be available for their retirement all of a sudden isn’t. The pretense is that nobody could have forecast this!
There are so many corporate pension funds that are going bankrupt that the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation doesn’t have enough money to bail them out. The PBGC is in deficit. If you’re going to be a corporate raider, if you’re going to be a Governor Romney or whatever and you take over a company, you do what Sam Zell did with the Chicago Tribune: You loot the pension fund, you empty it out to pay the bondholders that have lent you the money to buy out the company. You then tell the workers, “I’m sorry there is nothing there. It’s wiped out.” Half of the employee stock ownership programs go bankrupt. That was already a critique made in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In Chile the Chicago Boys who really developed this strategy. University of Chicago economists made it possible, by privatizing and corporatizing the Social Security system. Their ploy was to set aside a pension fund managed by the company, mostly to invest in its own stock. The company would then set up an affiliate that would actually own the company under an umbrella, and then leave the company with its pension fund to go bankrupt – having already emptied out the pension fund by loaning it to the corporate shell.
So it’s become a shell game. There’s really no Social Security problem. Of course the government has enough tax revenue to pay Social Security. That’s what the tax system is all about. Just look at our military spending. But if you do what Donald Trump does, and say that you’re not going to tax the rich; and if you do what Alan Greenspan did and not make higher-income individuals contribute to the Social Security system, then of course it’s going to show a deficit. It’s supposed to show a deficit when more people retire. It was always intended to show a deficit. But now that the government actually isn’t using Social Security surpluses to pretend that it can afford to cut taxes on the rich, they’re baiting and switching. This is basically part of the shell game. Explaining its myth is partly what I try to do in my book.
SHARMINI PERIES: If the rich people don’t have to contribute to the Social Security base, are they able to draw on it?
MICHAEL HUDSON: They will draw Social Security up to the given wage that they didn’t pay Social Security on, which is up to $120,000 these days. So yes, they will get that little bit. But what people make over $120,000 is completely exempt from the Social Security system. These are the rich people who run corporations and give themselves golden parachutes.
Even for companies that have engaged in massive financial fraud, the large banks, City Bank, Wells Fargo – all these have golden parachutes. They still are getting enormous pensions for the rest of their lives. And they’re talking as if, well, corporate pensions are in deficit, but for the leading officers, arrangements are quite different from the pensions to the blue collar workers and the wage earners as a whole. So there’s a whole array of fictitious economic statistics.
I describe this in my dictionary as “mathiness.” The idea that if you can put a number on something, it somehow is scientific. But the number really is the product of corporate accountants and lobbyists reclassifying income in a way that it doesn’t appear to be taxable income.
Taking money out and giving it to the richest 5%, while making it appear as if all this deficit is the problem of the 95%, is “blame the victim” economics. You could say that’s the way the economic accounts are being presented by Congress to the American people. The aim is to popularize a “blame the victim” economics. As if it’s your fault that Social Security’s going bankrupt. This is a mythology saying that we should not treat retirement as a public obligation. It’s becoming the same as treating healthcare as not being a public obligation. We have the highest healthcare costs in the world, so out of your paycheck – which is not increasing – you’re going to have to pay more and more for FICA withholding for Social Security, more and more for healthcare, for the pharmaceutical monopoly and the health insurance monopoly. You’ll also have to pay more and more to use public services for transportation to get to work, because the state is not funding that anymore. We’re cutting taxes on the rich, so we don’t have the money to do what social democracies are supposed to do. You’re going to privatize the roads, so that now you’re going to have to pay to use the road to drive to work, if you don’t have public transportation.
You’re turning the economy into what used to be called feudalism. Except that we don’t have outright serfdom, because people can live wherever they want. But they all have to pay to this new hereditary “financial/real estate/public enterprise” class that is transforming the economy.
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About the authors
Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist. A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002). His new book is: Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy (a CounterPunch digital edition). Sharmini Peries is executive producer of The Real News Network. This is a transcript of Michael Hudson’s interview with Sharmini Peries on the Real News Network.