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Monday, April 12, 2010

The 91% Solution

The Quick & Simple Way to Fix Wall Street

[Editor's Note: in a post last week, "Financier, Heal Thyself? Don't Count On It," I promised a part 2. This is it. Heads up: if you read this blog purely for real estate content, or want a post with a little levity -- skip this one.]

Want to test your knowledge of political Americana?

Answer this puzzler:

Which U.S. Presidential candidate endorsed a 91% marginal tax rate on income?

A. George McGovern
B. Dennis Kucinich
D. Dwight Eisenhower

Answer: D.

In fact, the question is a bit of a curve ball: Eisenhower never campaigned on a platform of 91% marginal tax rates -- he didn't have to. That's because Eisenhower inherited a 91% marginal rate from the Truman administration -- and saw fit to leave it there during his eight years in office.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: West Point graduate. Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. President of Columbia University. Two-term Republican(!) U.S. President . . . wealth-redistributing, Commie radical!

Beaver Cleaver

If you don't remember the '50's -- and you won't unless you're at least 60 years old -- it wasn't exactly a Communist love-fest.

On the contrary, that era notably witnessed the Cold War, "duck-and-cover," and Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunts ("are you now, or have you ever been . . .?").

Some other tidbits of '50's culture: Beaver Cleaver, "Father Knows Best," Bob Hope, Doris Day, and drive-in movies. (And to be sure, "colored-only" drinking fountains, restrooms, etc. in the South.)

Still, not exactly Haight-Ashbury in the '60's.

And yet.

And yet society and its lawmakers saw fit to levy a 91% marginal rate on annual income over $400,000 (equivalent to about $3 million today).

What were they thinking?!?

Values, Then & Now

A couple things, perhaps.

--That the country's social fabric was more important than the (very) well-being of its richest .05%.

--That the pursuit of ungodly sums of money was unhealthy -- even corrosive -- to one's self, and one's larger community.

--That the ability to make such ungodly sums of money was itself due to a peculiar historical confluence of built-up legal and political institutions; heretofore unimaginable gains in technology and productivity; and the sacrifices of many, many preceding generations.

Isaac Newton said that "if I have seen further, it's because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Today's CEO's are pygmies who think they are giants -- and that modern economic life began with them (obviously not true, but if we're not careful, it certainly may end with them).

It's hard to tell which trait best defines today's CEO's: hubris -- or greed.

Financial Reform, Circa 2010

Which brings us back to financial reform.

First, three stipulations:

One. The current financial system is so enormous and complicated, and has so many moving parts and interconnections, that few people understand half of it. Unfortunately, almost none of those people are elected officials in Washington.

Two. Even if FDR and his brain trust somehow sprang back to life with a divinely inspired blueprint for reform, they would be thwarted by today's political system. Too partisan, too balky, too corrupt.

Three. More limited, strategic reforms have either been ineffective -- or backfired spectacularly.

Case in point: legislation passed by Congress in 1993 to limit executive compensation -- considered excessive back then, even though it was a fraction of today's levels.

Barred from deducting executive salaries greater than $1 million, publicly traded corporations simply switched to awarding stock options and bonuses to CEO's.

More accurately, CEO's -- via their handpicked boards of directors -- started paying themselves in stock options and bonuses.

The 91% Solution, or, "I Like Ike"

Add the foregoing "stipulations" together and what do you get?

A broken, dysfunctional financial system that cannot be fixed.

Or can it?

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the problem of Wall Street cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which it was created.

So, go up a level.

What is Wall Street ultimately about, at least today?

Not service to one's fellow man ("God's work" -- the real kind); one's country (the definition of patriotism); or even just providing and efficiently allocating capital to the rest of the economy (Wall Street's putative purpose and raison d'ĂȘtre).

It's all about making money.

Obscene, unprecedented tidal waves of money.

To pick just one example, last year -- not a banner year for most, to put it mildly -- the top 25 hedge fund managers averaged $1 billion in compensation. That they paid 15% income tax on.

$30 Million a Year

Such a financial bonanza also suggests the solution: go back to Eisenhower-era marginal tax rates.

Hell, bump them up 10-fold, just to account for today's more expensive luxuries and toys (tycoons really couldn’t buy Lear Jets in 1955).

So, the John Paulson's and Lloyd Blankfein's of the world can make up to $30 million annually before coughing up the lion's share of it to Uncle Sam. Thirty million a year -- still not too shabby.

Such a remedy has the virtue of being simple, efficient, and laser-focused on the underlying problem plaguing today's financial system.

Oncologists now understand that the best way to kill an advanced or otherwise inoperable tumor (because of its proximity to vital organs) is to cut off its blood supply.

Raising marginal tax rates to 91% will have the same effect on the metastasizing cancer that modern-day Wall Street has become.

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