Thanks to Occupy, Senate Looks at Inequality

I had the opportunity to testify on inequality before the Senate Budget Committee last week. No one seems to recall the last time the committee devoted a whole hearing to this issue. So you can add this to the signs of the Occupy movement's impact on our political discourse.

Here's a link to my written testimony. My oral statement is below.

On the Democratic witness side, I was joined by two excellent economists: Jared Bernstein, who served as Vice President Biden's economic adviser and is now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Heather Boushey from the Center for American Progress. Jared gave an incisive summary of recent inequality and mobility trends, while Heather focused on some of the most disturbing impacts of extreme wealth concentration on health care, education, and other key middle class indicators.

The Committee's Ranking Member, Senator Jeff Sessions, and Republican witnesses tried to raise doubts about the inequality data, questioning whether things were really as bad as they look. I didn't envy them the task of being an inequality denier in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Oral Testimony of Sarah Anderson Before the Senate Budget Committee, Feb. 9, 2012

Thank you very much for this opportunity. I believe inequality is the pressing issue of our time, and I applaud the committee for giving it this level of attention.

Let me begin by emphasizing the good news, which is that our nation has tackled this problem before. A century ago, we had extremely high levels of inequality comparable to those we are seeing today. But over several decades, policymakers managed to use fair taxation and effective social programs to build the world's strongest middle class. And there is much we can learn from that experience.

At the Institute for Policy Studies, we have particular expertise in one key driver of inequality that has not yet been mentioned -- and that is executive compensation.

For nearly 20 years, we've tracked the upward spiral in CEO pay. My written testimony includes several indicators. Let me just mention that the ratio between CEO and worker pay has risen from 42-to-1 in 1980 to 325-to-1 in 2010 and average S&P 500 CEO pay is about $11 million.

Beyond contributing to inequality, excessive compensation is a problem because the chance of hitting such massive jackpots gives executives incentives to behave in ways that may bump up short-term profits and their own paychecks, while undermining our nation's long-term economic health.

In our annual Executive Excess reports, we've looked at corporate behaviours such as tax dodging, mass layoffs, reckless financial activities, and offshoring jobs. All of these appear to boost CEO pay. But they have dealt one body blow after another to the American middle class.

Policymakers should also be concerned about executive pay because extreme inequality within firms is simply bad for business. It is now well-documented that when companies have massive gaps between their top and bottom earners it hurts employee morale and productivity and increase turnover rates.

Congress has taken some recent steps to rein in executive pay and I'd like to highlight two:

The first is the provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that requires all U.S. corporations to report their CEO-worker pay ratios, which could encourage corporate boards to narrow these gaps. Unfortunately, there's been intense backlash from lobby groups representing CEOs, and the SEC has delayed this important transparency measure.

The second executive pay reform I'd like to highlight is a little-known provision in the TARP bailout bill that capped the tax deductibility of executive compensation at bailout firms at $500,000. A similar provision was included in the health care reform legislation for insurance companies. If such deductibility caps were extended to all U.S. corporations it would fix a loophole that encourages excessive pay. As it is now, the more they pay their CEO, the more they can deduct from their taxes.

Beyond the issue of executive pay, we clearly need a broader agenda to reverse extreme inequality. If you look back at the previous era, it's clear that one of their most important tools was progressive taxation.

In my written testimony, I have three charts that look back over the past century, showing that the decades of the highest top marginal tax rates were also the decades of the lowest levels of inequality and the highest GDP growth rates.

I end with seven tax reforms that could get us back to healthier levels of inequality. I'd like to highlight one that deserves more attention. This is the idea of placing a small levy on trades of stocks, derivatives, and other financial instruments. Such a financial transactions tax could both generate substantial revenue and discourage the short-term speculation that has driven up financial sector pay while contributing little to the real economy.

In conclusion, I want to acknowledge that reversing extreme inequality will be a long-term challenge. But we have transformed a highly divided nation into a more stable and equitable society before. And we can certainly do it again. Thank you.

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