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Global Economy » Article / Magazine Article

The Costs of Wall Street Greed

October 27, 2011 · · Originally published in The Nation

Despite growing support in Europe and elsewhere, the Obama administration has remained opposed to a Wall Street tax.

Bank of America had impeccable timing when it decided recently to charge a $5 monthly fee for the privilege of using its debit cards. The notorious bailout baron, having just announced 30,000 job cuts, decided to stick it not to the platinums, not to the golds, but to the debit card masses.

Occupy Wall Streeters could not have asked for a more perfect target. They’ve melted the bank’s debit cards, organized “mass account closures” and rallied outside numerous branches around the world.

Nurses support taxing Wall Street to heal America. Photo by National Nurses UnitedSo thanks, Bank of America, for making one of the costs of Wall Street greed so crystal clear.

But wouldn’t it be illuminating if we got a monthly bill tallying up all the ways the financial industry makes the 99 percent pay for the pleasures of the 1 percent?

I’m not even talking about the incalculable costs of the 2008 meltdown, the bailouts and the ongoing crisis. I’m talking about the less conspicuous ways the financial industry picks our pockets. Here are just a few examples:

Oil speculation: $82 per month. Ordinary Americans pay extra at the pump because of high-roller gambling in oil futures markets. When gas was nearly $4 per gallon in May, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, professor Robert Pollin estimated [see PDF] the monthly cost of this speculative premium at $82 for the average two-car family. A new report by Better Markets finds that excessive speculation on food commodities also inflates our grocery bills.

Americans for Financial Reform, Maryknoll, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and other groups are fighting for regulations that could end such brazen price manipulation. Among the proposals: strict limits on how much of the market a single speculator can corner.

Tax breaks for wealth creation: $65 per month. When the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes, it’s the 99 percent who have to fill the gap—or face painful spending cuts.

One of the most absurd loopholes allows gazillionaire hedge-fund chiefs to pay only a 15 percent capital gains tax on “carried interest,” the profit share they get as a management fee. The White House estimates this loophole costs the Treasury around $20 billion over ten years, about $1.50 per household every month.

But let’s look at the broader cost of this preferential tax treatment. By favoring those who make money from money, even if it’s from high-speed gambling with no social value, the tax break for capital gains keeps the Wall Street roulette wheels spinning. The estimated cost of the capital gains discount: $88 billion per year, or $65 per household every month.

Tax haven abuse: $74 per month. US financial firms use tax havens to avoid paying their taxes, and they help clients do the same by setting up their offshore accounts. Gains from such tax dodging pad the wallets of the 1 percent. Prudential Financial, for example, has lowered its tax bill [see PDF] by establishing thirty-six subsidiaries in tax-haven countries. CEO John Strangfeld made $16.2 million last year, while the firm received a $722 million refund on its federal corporate income taxes.

Tax havens overall cost Americans an estimated $100 billion per year [see PDF]—or $74 per month per household. Senator Carl Levin and Representative Lloyd Doggett have introduced bills to close numerous loopholes that facilitate such tax dodging.

But it’s not enough for the 99 percent to stop paying the costs of Wall Street greed. The Occupiers have shined a brighter spotlight on the need for our financial sector to actually serve, rather than bilk, the rest of the economy.

At a rally in Washington on November 3, National Nurses United will be working to right this imbalance by sending the banks a bill of their own. As part of global actions tied to the G-20 summit, the union and its allies are pressing for a Wall Street tax on each trade of stocks, derivatives and other financial instruments that could generate massive revenues.

Most proposals would set the tax rate on each transaction at 0.25 percent or less. At such low levels, ordinary investors would have to trade at least $24,000 worth of stock every year to pay the annual equivalent of BofA’s monthly $5 debit card fee. The overwhelming burden would fall on the big gamblers who make thousands of bets per day on market movements that have nothing to do with the real economy.

The nurses-led rally will target defenders of the 1 percent at the US Chamber of Commerce, in Congress and in the Treasury. Despite growing support in Europe and elsewhere, the Obama administration has remained opposed to such a Wall Street tax.

In their sense of the zeitgeist, White House economic advisers may prove to be as astute as Bank of America.

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