Thursday, 2 November 2017

A registered Republican who thinks trade unions are good

This talk by American investigative journalist David Cay Johnston was compered by Australian investigative journalist Michael West, who is an associate professor at the University of Sydney. The talk was part of the Sydney Ideas series. Before the talk started West introduced the Dark Money project that is being conducted by the Sydney Democracy Network, which is examining corporatocracy. West said that he and Cay Johnston had a common interest in multinational tax avoidance. But he also pointed out that revenues for journalism were falling by five or 10 percent a year.

This was Cay Johnston’s first time in Australia. He said the average income of the bottom half of Americans is $300 per week. He also said that the average income of the bottom half of the population is $40,000 per year. Why are 90 percent of Americans’ incomes flat? he asked. There has been 0.5 cents growth in wages per year since 1961. In 1961, he said, 400 people made $1 million per year. That figure has skyrocketed. Donald Trump is the symptom not the disease.

He said that he had found a major social trend affecting the world and he saw it in the rise of Narendra Modi in India and Christian fundamentalists in the US. People, he said, are unable to adapt to the explosion of knowledge in the modern age. Things are moving faster than they ever have before. This is leading to an attack on democracy. Putin, he noted, says that democracy is a joke, and is working to undermine the democracies of Europe and the US. He added that 24 percent of millennials in the US do not believe in democracy. There is, he went on, less participation in civic activity than there used to be. But there is also an attack from another sector.

Corporations are soulless, eternal and amoral. The Romans created corporations to hold communal property and manage it. But we need rules to govern them. Being a person, you need to share in supporting the needs and burdens of being a society. Corporations have figured out how to shirk their responsibility. They make a profit out of the income tax system. He also talked about the time value of money. You buy stock that don’t pay dividends, and bonds that don’t pay tax. Apple has a quarter of trillion dollars in interest free loans from the government, he said. Wealth is more concentrated now than it was 30 40 years ago. If you have a surplus, it snowballs.

We tax capital at a lower rate than labour, Cay Johnston went on. Andrew Mellon published a book about taxes in 1924 titled ‘Taxation: The People's Business’. Mellon wrote that capital should be taxed higher than labour. If you have capital it keeps earning. Cay Johnston said that taxes are not just the basis for civilisation, he went further and affirmed that taxes are civilisation, echoing historical conservative Edmund Burke who said the revenue of the state is the state. Cay Johnston recounted the story about mud in the Delaware River that led to the writing of the US Constitution.

Today, he said, US democracy is in deep trouble. Commercial sports, he said, consume the lives of ordinary people and they don’t want anything to do with politics. They say, “You can’t beat city hall.” He also aimed a finger at advertising. Advertising, he said, is designed to get us to think about things other than civics. Journalism, he went on, is the only business where you get paid to tell the truth. The problem, he said, is the rise of a set of values that favour capitalism. People thoughtlessly make a connection between wealth and character which, he said, is absurd. And we are constantly being barraged with this message, as advertising gets you to think about what the advertisers want you to think about. He said that money is distorting our human values.

Cay Johnston said that the founding fathers were concerned that extreme inequality would bring down the country. Without taxes you will see your liberties washed away. Rules are one step in the process, he went on, but you also need a culture of enforcement. Culture and norms matter. Pope Francis says there is no economic justice without trade unions. In responding to one question, he also pointed to “binary economics” and the ideas of Louis Kelso. He furthermore touched on a basic universal income when answering another question.

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