Ever since Governor Romney's comment about writing off the 47 percent of households who don't pay federal income tax became public, news stories and opinion pieces have been dominated by discussions of who does and does not pay taxes. This is great news for the one percent.
The obsession with taxes means that the one percent are playing a game that they can only win. The vast majority of the upward redistribution of income over the last three decades has been in before tax income. This has been brought about through a variety of changes in laws and institutions that had the effect of restructuring markets in ways that redistribute income upward.
For example, we have a trade policy that is designed to put downward pressure on the wages of manufacturing workers by putting them in direct competition with low-wage workers in the developing world. (Highly paid professionals like doctors and lawyers are still largely protected from such competition.) This downward pressure is amplified by the over-valued dollar, a policy that had its origins in the Clinton administration.
The implicit government insurance provided to too big to fail banks transfers around $60 billion a year to the shareholders and top executives at the big banks. Patent and copyright monopolies redistribute hundreds of billions a year from consumers to drug companies and the tech and entertainment industry.
Anti-union laws weaken the power of workers trying to organize for collective action, thereby reducing their ability to secure wage increases. (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was going to court to have union leaders thrown in jail if the teachers continued their strike.) And a Federal Reserve Board that throws workers out of work to meet inflation targets protects the wealth of creditors at the cost of undermining the bargaining power of workers.
These and other areas of public policy are the key factors determining the relative well-being of the rich and the rest of us. As long as we are obsessed with a discussion of whether the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy will continue, the policies responsible for the bulk of the upward redistribution over the last three decades will never be discussed. The current debate may be good news for President Obama's re-election prospects, but it is not a positive development for those who don't like to see the perpetuation of government policies that redistribute money upward. (Yes, this is all a plug for my free book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive.)