Greed Is Good? Where Will America’s Sick Obsession With Wealth And Money End?

Greed - Photo by J. Solana from Madrid, SpainEverywhere you look, Americans appear to be extremely obsessed with wealth and money.  These days, networks such as CNN endlessly run “news stories” with titles such as “Best cars for the super rich“.  We have television shows where people proudly show off how wealthy they are, and it seems like Hollywood is putting out an endless parade of movies that glorify the lifestyles of the elite.  We have hordes of motivational speakers and “life coaches” that will teach you how to be “more successful” in life, and every small movement in the stock market is carefully monitored by the mainstream news media.  Even in the world of faith, we have an entire class of ministers known as “prosperity preachers”, and many of those ministers wear that label quite proudly.  Yes, those that grew up in the 1980s may have been the “greed is good” generation, but the truth is that they didn’t have anything on us.  As a society we love money, and we are not ashamed to admit it.  In fact, there are times we absolutely revel in it.  For example, Time Magazine published an article this year entitled “Science Proves It: Greed Is Good” and hardly anyone even raised an eyebrow.  But where will America’s sick obsession with wealth and money end?  Could it end up destroying us?

I got the idea for this article when I was browsing through CNN’s website.  The following are eight “news stories” about wealth that were featured on CNN just on Thursday alone…

#1 “The richest Americans in history

#2 “How much do you need to be happy?

#3 “Where are the super rich?

#4 “From broke to billionaire

#5 “Homes: What $25 million buys around the world

#6 “Best cars for the super rich

#7 “America’s homes are bigger than ever

#8 “Mega yacht with a movie theater

This is what passes for news these days?

It has been said that we tend to talk about the things that we are obsessed with.

And CNN is clearly obsessed with wealth.

Not that there is anything wrong with having money.

If none of us had any money, we would all be homeless and starving.  So the truth is that money can be very useful.  But when it becomes an idol, that is when it becomes a problem.

And because we have taught entire generations of Americans that becoming wealthy is one of the primary goals in life, it is creating a tremendous amount of envy, jealousy, frustration and anger among those that have not been able to become wealthy.

In recent years, the level of bitterness and resentment that the rest of the nation has toward the very wealthy has risen to an unprecedented level.  It has become exceedingly apparent that the system is designed to funnel wealth to the very top of the food chain, and many of those at the bottom of the food chain are starting to become extremely upset about this.

Since the last financial crisis, almost all of the income gains have gone to the top one percent of all income earners.  The following comes from a recent Huffington Post article

Economic statistics show that incomes for the top 1 percent of U.S. households soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, yet inched up an average of 0.4 percent for those making less. Many economists are sounding alarms that the income gap, greater now than at any time since the Depression, is hurting the economy by limiting growth in consumer spending.

And income inequality has become such a hot topic that it has even produced a New York Times bestseller by a French economist named Thomas Piketty.  This is what CBS News recently had to say about his book…

His book has landed on that debate like a bomb. Piketty’s thesis: that the rate of return on capital, such as real estate, dividends and other financial assets, is racing away from the rate of growth required to maintain a healthy economy. If that trend continues for an extended period of time — if wealth becomes ever more concentrated in the hands of a few — then inequality is likely to get worse, says Piketty, 43, who started his academic career as an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who now teaches at the Paris School of Economics.

Another reason “Capital” has caught the public’s attention is that inequality is evident in what are by now a host of familiar symptoms. Stagnant pay, except among the super-rich. Soaring health care and education costs. The diminished expectations commonly found in young, especially those lacking college degrees, and old alike, as retirement becomes something to endure rather than to enjoy.

It would be foolish to deny that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing.  Even as the stock market reaches unprecedented heights, the middle class is dying and one out of every five children in America is living in poverty.

On a global scale, the wealthiest one percent now have 65 times more wealth than the entire poorest half of the global population does.

That is an astounding figure.

Most people don’t realize this, but the ultra-wealthy have approximately 32 trillion dollars (that we know about) stashed in offshore banks around the planet.  That amount of money would almost be about enough to pay off the entire U.S. national debt and buy every good and service produced in the United States for an entire year.

Meanwhile, the poorest half of the world’s population only owns about 1 percent of all global wealth, and about a billion people throughout the world go to bed hungry every night.

If greed was going to save the world, it would have done it by now.  At this point, the wealthy have accumulated more wealth than they ever have before.  For example, according to Zero Hedge the total amount of wealth in the U.S. has just hit a brand new record high…

Earlier today the Fed released its latest Flow of Funds report, which showed that in the first quarter household net worth rose from last quarter’s $80.3 trillion to a new record high of $81.8 trillion, driven by a $1.5 trillion increase in total assets while household liabilities were virtually unchanged in the quarter. And since the Fed is onboarding all the liabilities why should households bother with debt: that’s what the central bank balance sheet is for.

As for the proceeds, they go to the mega rich: of the $81.8 trillion in net worth, 70.4% of the total amount or $67.2 trillion, was in financial assets: the higest it has ever been courtesy of just one person: Ben Bernanke, and to a far lesser extent Janet Yellen who however is tasked with picking up Bernanke’s pieces.

But of course most people who are rich are only rich on paper.

As noted above, 67.2 trillion dollars of the total of 81.8 trillion dollars of wealth in this nation is made up of financial assets.

So what happens if there is a major financial crisis (such as the derivatives bubble bursting) which causes the total amount of financial wealth in the United States to drop by 50% or more?

What would such an event do to our country?

We are so obsessed with wealth and money that it is truly frightening to think about how we would react as a society if it was taken away.

But this current financial bubble will not last forever.

At some point it will come to an end.

When it does, will our society throw a massive temper tantrum?

How The Super Rich Avoid Taxes Even As They Demand That The Rest Of Us Pay More

The way that we tax people in the United States is fundamentally broken and should be completely discarded.  The U.S. tax code is absolutely riddled with loopholes that allow the super rich to legally avoid taxes while many of the rest of us are being taxed into oblivion.  In our system of taxation, middle class families that work hard and try to play by the rules are deeply penalized while those that are willing to abuse the system make out like bandits.  There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that enables wealthy politicians such as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to pay a smaller percentage of their incomes in taxes than millions of middle class families.  Mitt Romney has millions of dollars parked down in the Cayman Islands and in other tax havens.  He does this to avoid taxes.  Unfortunately, most Americans do not have the resources to funnel money through offshore tax havens.  Most Americans just automatically have their paychecks shredded by taxes and then try to live on whatever is left over.  Most Americans are just trying to survive financially from one month to the next.  But the super rich have options.  Thanks to technology, they can live almost anywhere they want and they can run their companies and manage their investments from anywhere in the world.  The truth is that the wealthier you are the easier it is to avoid taxes.  But even as the ultra-wealthy do their best to avoid taxes, many of them still feel free to demand that the rest of us be taxed more.

So what are some of the ways that the super rich avoid taxes?

Well, let’s start with those that are just “somewhat wealthy”.  Many millionaires still want or need to be U.S. citizens, so they are subject to the U.S. tax code.  Fortunately for them, their tax lawyers know of thousands of loopholes that have been designed to help the rich avoid taxes.

The following is from a recent article by Jen Talley….

Some of the richest people in the country pay the least, relatively speaking, in taxes. How is this possible? Answer: Through the clever manipulation of the U.S. tax code’s loopholes. And it works: as income rises, effective tax rates rise as well, but only up to a point. IRS data shows that the effective income tax rate flattens out at just over 24 percent for those making over a million dollars. As income exceeds $1.5 million, the rate begins to decline; those with incomes above $10 million pay an average income tax rate of around 19 percent. So, how do they do it?

You could write an entire series of books on the technical details of how this gets done.  Trust me, I studied tax law when I was in law school.

If you are interested in digging into some of the technical details of tax avoidance, a recent Businessweek article detailed 10 ways that the wealthy use our current tax code to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes.  It is an article worth reading if you have the time.

Sadly, tax avoidance by the wealthy is not just something that happens in the United States.  The truth is that the exact same kind of thing happens in the UK as well.

There is not an easy fix to this problem.  Our politicians have had decades to try to come up with a fair tax system and they have completely failed.  The wealthy are always several steps ahead of them.

But federal taxes are not the only taxes that can be avoided.  The vast difference in state tax rates creates another opportunity.

One advantage that wealthy Americans have is that they are far more mobile than most other Americans are.  So if they don’t like the tax system in one state they can simply pick up and move to another state.

According to the Tax Foundation, 3.4 million Americans left New York state between 2000 and 2010.

So where did they go?

The following is from a recent CNS News article….

Where are they escaping to?  The Tax Foundation found that more than 600,000 New York residents moved to Florida over the decade – opting perhaps for the Sunshine State’s more lenient tax system – taking nearly $20 billion in adjusted growth income with them.

There is no state income tax in Florida.  So moving from New York to Florida can end up saving you a bundle.

The same kind of migration is happening out west as well.  According to that same CNS article, hundreds of thousands of people have been moving from California (a high tax state) to Texas (no state income tax)….

Between 2000 and 2010, the most recent data available, 551,914 people left California for Texas, taking $14.3 billion in income.  Texas has no state income tax or estate tax.

A total of 48,877 people moved to Texas from California between 2009 and 2010 alone, totaling $1.2 billion in income.  Another 28,088 from California relocated to Nevada and 30,663 to Arizona, a loss of  $699.1 million and $707.8 million in income respectively.

Not that anyone really needs much of an excuse to move away from California.  It is rapidly decaying right in front of our eyes.

But a lot of families do not have the same options that wealthy people do. Unfortunately, most average Americans are tied to their jobs and it would be much more difficult for them to pick up and move across the country.  In this economy it can be economic suicide to give up a good job.

The reality is that most of us simply do not have the resources to play the same kinds of games that the wealthy play.

Sadly, even our most prominent politicians avoid taxes.

Just look at Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.  He has avoided approximately $500,000 in taxes by docking his yacht in Rhode Island rather than in Massachusetts.

Yet Kerry sure does love to call for more taxes on the rest of us, doesn’t he?

Now let’s talk about the “super rich” and the “ultra-wealthy”.  For many people that are worth billions of dollars, tax avoidance has become an art from.

Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin made national headlines recently when he gave up his U.S. citizenship, but the truth is that his case is small potatoes compared to the global elite and the shadow banking system that supports them.

According to the IMF, the global elite are holding a total of 18 trillion dollars in offshore banks.

That amount is more than the GDP of the United States for an entire year.

So what do I mean by “offshore banks”?  I defined the term in a previous article….

Well, the term originally developed because the banks on the Channel Islands were “offshore” from the United Kingdom.  Most “offshore banks” are still located on islands today.  The Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Isle of Man are examples of this.  Other “offshore banking centers” such as Monaco are actually not “offshore” at all, but the term applies to them anyway.

Traditionally, these offshore banking centers have been very attractive to both criminals and to the global elite because they would not tell anyone (including governments) about the money that anyone had parked there.

It has been reported that 80 percent of all international banking transactions involve offshore banks.  A whopping 1.4 trillion dollars is being held in offshore banks in the Cayman Islands alone.

An article that appeared in the Guardian estimated that a third of all the wealth on the entire planet is being kept in offshore banks.  One of the primary reasons for this is tax avoidance.

A lot of wealthy individuals never even visit these tax havens and yet reap the benefits anyway.  The truth is that tax avoidance has become way too easy.  The following example is from a recent Politico article….

A plausible scenario plays out like this: I hire an accountant. Doing her job, my accountant tells me that if I sign a few legal documents and route my money through a small Caribbean island, I could keep more of my paycheck and pay a lower tax rate. I may have earned my money in the United States, but legally I can claim that it was, in fact, earned in a tax haven.

Are you disgusted yet?

You should be.

But even though they avoid taxes like the plague, many of these elitists have the gall to call for higher taxes on all the rest of us.

For example, let’s review what the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, said in a recent interview….

“Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.”

Even more than she thinks about all those now struggling to survive without jobs or public services? “I think of them equally. And I think they should also help themselves collectively.” How? “By all paying their tax. Yeah.”

It sounds as if she’s essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe, you’ve had a nice time and now it’s payback time.

“That’s right.” She nods calmly. “Yeah.”

And what about their children, who can’t conceivably be held responsible? “Well, hey, parents are responsible, right? So parents have to pay their tax.”

Well, it turns out that she doesn’t pay any income taxes at all on her own income….

The IMF chief Christine Lagarde was accused of hypocrisy yesterday after it emerged that she pays no income tax – just days after blaming the Greeks for causing their financial peril by dodging their own bills.

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund is paid a salary of $467,940 (£298,675), automatically increased every year according to inflation. On top of that she receives an allowance of $83,760 – payable without “justification” – and additional expenses for entertainment, making her total package worth more than the amount received by US President Barack Obama according to reports last night.

Her “diplomatic status” allows her to escape all income taxes.

So perhaps she should pay her “fair share” before pointing the finger at anyone else.

But she is not the only one being hypocritical.

The super rich claim that they should pay lower taxes on investment income for the good of our “capitalist system”, but when their banks are about to go under they are more than happy to have those losses be socialized.

As I wrote about yesterday, the stage is already set for another massive round of bailouts when the next great financial crisis strikes.  Once again our taxes will pay for the mistakes of the ultra-wealthy.

The truth is that our system is fundamentally broken.

We need to abolish the income tax and shut down the IRS.

Those two steps alone would do wonders for our economic system.

We also need to shut down the Federal Reserve and break up the too big to fail banks.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of our politicians are not even willing to consider any of those solutions.

So our fundamentally broken system will continue to chug along.

It really is sad.

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