OPINION
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Updated April 6, 2012, 11:01 a.m. ET
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The Real Causes of Income Inequality
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Any analysis of taxes paid in high tax-and-spend countries shows that the U.S. has the most progressive income tax system in the world.
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By PHIL GRAMM AND STEVE MCMILLIN

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David Gothard



In the stagnant days of the Carter administration, when inflation was approaching 13.5% and interest rates were peaking at 21.5%, income was more evenly distributed than in any period in 20th-century America. Since the days of that equality in misery, the measured income of the top 1% of income tax filers has risen over three and a half times as fast as the income of the population as a whole.



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This growth in income inequality is largely the result of three dynamics:


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1) Changes in the way Americans pay taxes and manage their investments, which were a direct result of reductions in marginal tax rates.




2) A dynamic shift in the labor-capital ratio, resulting from the adoption of market-based economies around the world.



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3) The flourishing of economic freedom and technological advances in the Reagan era, which were the product of lower tax rates, a reduced regulatory burden, and an improved business climate. These changes have not only raised the measured income of the top 1%, they benefited the nation and the world.



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While income distribution has become a source of protest and political debate, any analysis of taxes paid in high tax-and-spend countries shows that the U.S. has the most progressive income tax system in the world. An inconvenient truth for the advocates of higher taxes on America's rich is that big governments in developed countries are funded not by taxing the rich more than the U.S. does, but by taxing everybody else more.



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In 1986, before the top marginal tax rate was reduced to 28% from 50%, half of all businesses in America were organized as C-Corps and taxed as corporations. By 2007, only 21% of businesses in America were taxed as corporations and 79% were organized as pass-through entities, with four million S-Corps and three million partnerships filing taxes as individuals. By reducing personal tax rates below the level of the corporate rate, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 dramatically influenced how entrepreneurs structure businesses.




This has had a profound effect on what is now measured as the income of the top 1%, since a significant amount of what is now declared as personal income is actually income from businesses that are now taxed as individuals.
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In 1986, just 5.6% of the income of top 1% filers came from business organizations filing as Sub-chapter S-Corps and partnerships. By 2007, almost 19% of income declared on tax returns filed by the top 1% came from business income. A significant amount of income that critics claim is going to John Q. Astor actually is being earned by Joe E. Brown & Sons hardware store.



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The reported income of the top 1% also significantly increased as tax rates on capital gains were lowered, first under President Bill Clinton and then under President George W. Bush. At a top tax rate of 28%, realized capital gains were 2.5% of GDP and made up 17.7% of the income of top 1% filers. As the top tax rate fell to 20% in 1997 and 15% in 2003, realized capital gains rose to 4.6% and then to 5% of GDP. The percentage of the income of top 1% filers coming from capital gains grew to 26% in the 1997-2002 period and 28.1% during 2003-07.



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By reducing the penalty for transferring capital from one investment to another, these lower tax rates increased the mobility of capital. High-income taxpayers sold more assets, declared more income, and paid more taxes.



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Similarly, when the tax rate on dividends fell to 15% in 2003, dividend income for the top 1% grew 178% by 2007 to make up 5.6% of the income of these filers. In 2007, immediately prior to the recession, capital gains and dividend income combined was equal to the amount of salary, bonus and exercised stock options earned by the average top 1% filer.



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Lower tax rates made dividend-paying stocks more attractive to high-income investors and made dividend payouts more attractive for companies that would have previously retained those earnings or bought back their stock. Capital trapped in companies with below-market rates of return was redeployed and the entire economy benefited.



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All of this has had a huge impact on the measured income of the top 1% and the growth in income inequality. This impact can be estimated by examining what would have happened to the income of the top 1% if tax rates had not been lowered and these economic transformations had not occurred.


.If the share of income coming from businesses, capital gains and dividends had remained at the levels before the tax rate changes of 1986, 1997 and 2003 respectively, the income of top 1% filers would have been 31% lower in 2007. The growth in income since 1979 for top 1% filers would have been only 2.5 times as large as the income growth of all taxpayersnot 3.6 times as large.



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More businesses would have remained C-Corps and been taxed as corporations, fewer assets would have been sold and thus fewer capital gains would have been declared, and fewer dividends would have been paid. All of this would have lowered the income declared by the top 1%. Economic growth would have been lower and aggregate measured income of all taxpayers would have fallen, but the distribution of income would have been flatter.



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The growing participation of China, India, Brazil, Russia and Turkey in the world economy has also affected income inequality. The vast expansion of labor engaged in world commerce has raised the return on capital and reduced the relative return on labor. The share of income flowing to capital—both traditional and human capital such as education and training—has risen.



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In relative terms, the return to unskilled labor has fallen. Short of a crippling reversal in world trade, which would reduce the value of both labor and capital, this effect will dominate world markets for the foreseeable future. Since high-income Americans own more capital and have higher levels of education and training, their incomes have grown faster than everyone else's.



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The flowering of talent from the expanded freedom and technological progress ushered in by the Reagan era has also played a role. Inequality is a natural result of the expansion of liberty and the development of new technology and new products. Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Sam Walton and Bill Gates caused the income distribution to become more uneven, but they enriched the world.



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To vilify success and the rewards it garners is an assault not just on capitalism but on liberty itself. As Will and Ariel Durant observed in "The Lessons of History" (1968), "freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies . . . to check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed."



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Nowhere is the political debate over income inequality more detached from reality than the call for the top 1% of American income earners to pay their "fair share." The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data on the ratio of the share of income taxes paid by the richest taxpayers relative to their share of income show that the U.S. has the world's most progressive tax burden.



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The top 10% of earners in the U.S. pay 35% more of the income tax burden than in Sweden and 22% more than in France. These figures—from the 2008 OECD publication "Growing Unequal?"—include all household taxes imposed on income at the federal, state and local level, including social insurance taxes.


.In an eternal irony unique to large welfare states, it is the expansion of government in the name of the poor and middle class that always costs poor and middle-class families the most. When the U.S. collects 16.1% of GDP in income taxes, the top 10% of taxpayers pay 7.3% and the other 90% pick up 8.9%.

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In France, however, they collect 24.3% of GDP in income taxes with the top 10% paying 6.8% and the rest paying a whopping 17.5% of GDP. Sweden collects its 28.5% of GDP through income taxes by tapping the top 10% for 7.6%, but the other 90% get hit for a back-breaking 20.9% of GDP.


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If the U.S. spent and taxed like France and Sweden, it would hardly affect the top 10%, who would pay about what they pay now, but the bottom 90% would see their taxes double.



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Since OECD members have significantly higher consumption taxes on average than the U.S., the total tax burden of bigger government is even more heavily borne by lower-income citizens in developed nations than these numbers suggest.


.The real and alarming message in these OECD numbers is that there appear to be limits in the real world to how much tax blood can be extracted from rich turnips. With much higher marginal income-tax rates, countries that are clearly willing to soak the rich have proven to be incapable of doing so.

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Proposals to raise taxes on high-income Americans in the name of "fairness" not only threaten economic growth. The experience of nations with large governments shows that this argument is simply a red herring for a massive tax increase on middle-income Americans.


.In the end, taxing is about feeding government, not redistributing wealth. What nation ever set off on the road to big government promising to tax middle-income workers, and what nation ever got big government without doing it?


.Mr. Gramm is a former Republican senator from Texas and senior partner of U.S. Policy Metrics, where Mr. McMillin, a former deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, is also a partner.


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Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved


The Second Foreclosure Tsunami Is Coming, And Is About To Kill Any Hopes Of A "Housing Bottom"

Submitted by Tyler Durden

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on 04/04/2012 21:00 -0400


In what appears to be surprising news for some, Reuters has an article titled "Americans brace for next foreclosure wave" whose key premise is that "a painful part two of the [housing] slump looks set to unfold: Many more U.S. homeowners face the prospect of losing their homes this year as banks pick up the pace of foreclosures." Thank the robosettlement, where in exchange for a few wrist slaps, contract law was thoroughly trampled by America's attorneys general, but far more importantly to the country's crony capitalist system, the foreclosure pipeline was once again unclogged, and whether one does or does not have a legal title on a given house, the banks are now fully in their right to foreclose on it. What this means also is that America's record shadow housing inventory, which is far greater than any fabricated number the NAR reports on a monthly basis, is about to get unleashed on buyers, shifting the supply curve much further to the right, as up to 9 million new properties slowly but surely appear on the market. And while many will no longer be able to live mortgage free, forcing them to go out and rent (and no longer be able to afford incremental iGizmos), it also means that the prevalent price of homes is about to take another major tumble, making buffoons out of all those who, once again, called for a housing bottom in early 2012.


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Here's the simply math: there will be no housing bottom until the 9 million excess homes clear. Period. Until then it is a buyer's market, even if said buyer is unable to obtain bank financing, as ultimately it will be the seller who is forced to monetize (or vacate if underwater) their home in a world of ever diminishing cashflows. The fear of the supply onslaught will only make the dumpage that much faster.



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As a reminder, this is what America's recover shadow inventory looked like recently (read more here):



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For those curious how much more foreclosed properties are about to hit the market, we have the answer. Courtesy of RealtyTrac we know how many homes were foreclosed upon in the period until November 2010, when robosigning became a prevalent, if short-lived issue, or roughly 330,000 a month. In the aftermath, this average has dropped to 227,000 a month: a roughly 100,000 difference in less foreclosures each month! Which means that in the deferred amount of foreclosures, over and above the already endogenous deterioration in home prices and declining household income, means that there is at least 1.6 million in homes that are just waiting for a green light to be foreclosed upon, sending shadow inventory in the double digit millions, and unleashing a selling wave unlike any seen before. Behold the deffered foreclosures in all their glory:

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Translation: Just like John Paulson lost billions on his massively wrong way bets that housing would soar (ironically, after getting the move lower correct), so Goldman's recent bet that properties will rebound is about to cost the firm dearly. Because at the end of the day, it is all about supply and demand, or, said otherwise, money.


Reuters explains further:

"We are right back where we were two years ago. I would put money on 2012 being a bigger year for foreclosures than 2010," said Mark Seifert, executive director of Empowering & Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP), a counseling group with 10 offices in Ohio.
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"Last year was an anomaly, and not in a good way," he said.
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In 2011, the "robo-signing" scandal, in which foreclosure documents were signed without properly reviewing individual cases, prompted banks to hold back on new foreclosures pending a settlement.
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Five major banks eventually struck that settlement with 49 U.S. states in February. Signs are growing the pace of foreclosures is picking up again, something housing experts predict will again weigh on home prices before any sustained recovery can occur.
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Mortgage servicing provider Lender Processing Services reported in early March that U.S. foreclosure starts jumped 28 percent in January.


Well, no. LPS which is going through legal troubles of its own, unfortunately, is very much, less than credible. For the only real source on foreclosure data, we go to RealtyTrac, where we find that February foreclosures hit 206,900, the second lowest in many years, and higher only than December 2011's period low 205,000 (see chart above). But while there is no need to fabricate data, foreclosures will eventually come, as banks, first slowly, then very, very fast, start sending out foreclosure notices. What happens next will be entire neighborhoods with "Foreclosure" signs in front of the houses, doing miracles to prevailing home prices.
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A January report by the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project in New York found that in the first half of 2011 the number of 90-day pre-foreclosure notices in New York City outnumbered court foreclosure actions by a ratio of 14 to one, indicating that while proceedings were initiated against many homeowners, they were left incomplete.
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"Now the banks have a settlement, foreclosure numbers for 2012 are going to be high," said NEDAP co-director Josh Zinner.
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A recent survey by the California Reinvestment Coalition, an umbrella group of nearly 300 non-profit groups in the state, of member agencies found 75 percent of respondents expected increased demand for their foreclosure prevention services in 2012 but more than a third had to scale back services because of funding cuts.

"Funding is a major concern given what our members expect for this year," said associate director Kevin Stein.
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Needless to say, the return of reality, i.e., when one actually has to pay for living somewhere, instead of living 5 years without making a mortgage payment like the Ritters, means a return of ever louder calls for socialist debt principal reduction. What is odd is that nobody seems to care: certainly not the millions of other hard working Americans who would end up footing the bill.
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All this has non-profits intensifying calls for the Federal Housing Finance Agency to drop its opposition to allowing the government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac it regulates to reduce principal for underwater homeowners.
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Principal reduction involves reducing the amount borrowers owe in order to make a loan modification affordable for struggling homeowners. Republicans and the FHFA oppose principal reduction because of the risk of "moral hazard"- that homeowners who do not need help will seek to abuse largesse and have their mortgages reduced too.
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"Until banks engage in meaningful principal reduction as a matter of course," ESOP's Seifert said after a recent protest at a Chase branch in Cleveland, "this crisis will not end."
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Well then it won't. Because since every bank asset is another bank's liability, unless the government pulls a GSE, and funds the wholesale mortgage reduction (call it the "final solution" of ubiquitous and unquestioned socialism), banks will not do this. And while this next bank bailout is only years (at most) away, in the meantime we will see banks do just what they always do: foreclose once again, and release the pent up vacant homes into the market. Which for anyone who has taken Econ 101 means prices are about to take yet another dive lower, and the entire housing recovery plan can be scrapped. As to what it means for the Fed's plans for future easing, well... we believe our readers are smart enough to figure this out on their own.



April 5, 2012
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Not Enough Inflation
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By PAUL KRUGMAN



A   few days ago, Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, spoke out in defense of his successor. Attacks on Ben Bernanke by Republicans, he told The Financial Times, are “wholly inappropriate and destructive.”
He’s right about that — which makes this one of the very few things the ex-maestro has gotten right in the past few years.



But why are the attacks on Mr. Bernanke so destructive? After all, nobody in America is or should be immune from criticism, least of all those — like the chairman of the Fed — who, by the nature of their positions, have immense power to make our lives better or worse. And while there is an unmistakable thuggishness to the campaign against the Fed, most famously Rick Perry’s warning that the Fed chairman would be treatedpretty ugly” if he visited Texas, surely the bad manners of the critics aren’t the most important issue.


No, the real reason the attacks on Mr. Bernanke from the right are so destructive is that they’re an effort to bully the Fed into doing exactly the wrong thing. The attackers want the Fed to slam on the brakes when it should be stepping on the gas; they want the Fed to choke off recovery when it should be doing much more to accelerate recovery.


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Fundamentally, the right wants the Fed to obsess over inflation, when the truth is that we’d be better off if the Fed paid less attention to inflation and more attention to unemployment. Indeed, a bit more inflation would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

O.K., I know that many readers are already outraged. But bear with me, and let me take this in stages.


First, about inflation obsession: For at least three years, right-wing economists, pundits and politicians have been warning that runaway inflation is just around the corner, and they keep being wrong. Do you remember the tirades about “debasing the dollararound this time last year? Do you remember the scorn heaped on Mr. Bernanke last spring when he argued that the bulge in inflation taking place at the time was just a temporary blip caused by gasoline prices and would soon recede? Well, he was right. At this point, inflation is once again running a bit below the Fed’s self-declared target of 2 percent.


       
Now, the Fed has, by law, a dual mandate: It’s supposed to be concerned with full employment as well as price stability. And while we more or less have price stability by the Fed’s definition, we’re nowhere near full employment. So this says that the Fed is doing too little, not too much. Indeed, some Fed officialsnotably Charles Evans, the president of the Chicago Fed — have tried to make exactly that case.


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To be sure, more aggressive Fed policies to fight unemployment might lead to inflation above that 2 percent target. But remember that dual mandate: If the Fed refuses to take even the slightest risk on the inflation front, despite a disastrous performance on the employment front, it’s violating its own charter. And, beyond that, would a rise in inflation to 3 percent or even 4 percent be a terrible thing? On the contrary, it would almost surely help the economy


How so? For one thing, large parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years; this debt burden is arguably the main thing holding private spending back and perpetuating the slump. Modest inflation would, however, reduce that overhang — by eroding the real value of that debt — and help promote the private-sector recovery we need. Meanwhile, other parts of the private sector (like much of corporate America) are sitting on large hoards of cash; the prospect of moderate inflation would make letting the cash just sit there less attractive, acting as a spur to investmentagain, helping to promote overall recovery.


      
In short, far from fearing that more action against unemployment might lead to an uptick in inflation, the Fed should actually welcome that prospect. Which brings me back to those Republican attacks and their chilling effect on policy.


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True, Mr. Bernanke likes to insist that he and his colleagues aren’t affected by politics. But that claim is hard to square with the Fed’s actions, or rather lack of action. As many observers have noted, the Fed’s own forecasts indicate that while things have been looking up a bit lately, it still expects low inflation and high unemployment for years to come. Given that prospect, more of the “quantitative easing” that is now the main tool of Fed policy should be a no-brainer. Yet the recently released minutes from a March 13 meeting show a Fed inclined to do nothing unless things take a turn for the worse.

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So what’s going on? I think that Fed officials, whether they admit it to themselves or not, are feeling intimidated — and that American workers are paying the price for their timidity.