Imagine a sudden windfall. You wake up one morning and have the power to distribute $2.3 million dollars a day in charitable donations in your own hometown. Through your newfound philanthropy, you can help people access health care, feed the hungry, house the homeless, support community non-profits. The choices are limitless and they are yours to make.
But why exactly $ 2.3 million a day?
Because, according to Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsive Politics, that's the amount the financial sector has spent every day from January 2015 to June 2016 on lobbying Congress and on campaign contributions. In all, the financial industry has spent a remarkable $667 million dollars on lobbying and influence peddling in Washington over the past fourteen months while contributing over $798 million dollars to politicians' campaign coffers, an astounding 1.4 billion dollars spent to influence laws and regulations that will preserve their position at the top of the American economy, that breaks down to $2.3 million dollars a day spent to employ almost 1900 registered lobbyists to protect the status quo and give finance the upper hand in public policy.
I can assure you, America's financiers aren't spending money on lobbyists to help improve the lives of American citizens, but in a massive effort to weaken or repeal the Dodd-Frank financial reform act of 2008. Without this law and the regulation it imposes, they can and will continue to take unreasonable risks with depositor's money and if they fail, as they did during the financial crisis, they will once again turn to taxpayers pick up the tab. The last time that occurred, the bailout cost over 16 trillion dollars and the crisis wiped out millions of jobs, the retirements of tens of millions of people, generated record home foreclosures and small business failures, while taking the global economy to the brink of free-fall. Even today, a billion people continue to live in poverty having never recovered from a crisis manufactured by the unregulated greed of the financial sector. 400 million of those are children.
Now, almost ten years later, the financial sector continues to pay its executives outsized fees, salaries and bonuses and is using lobbyists to manipulate and game the system to escape paying their fair share of taxes.
Do you remember an ancient TV show from the 1950's called The Millionaire? It was among the top ten most popular TV shows for 5 years and over 200 episodes, precisely because the Millionaire, an anonymous donor, was generous and changed the lives of every-day people.
The idea was simple. The Millionaire, whose face we never saw, anonymously gave a million dollars to working people, like the local milkman or a striving teacher. His secretary would present the check on his behalf and we would watch to see how the money transformed the future of the lucky recipients.
As you might expect, not every recipient made good use of the money, a reminder that money is a powerful driver of human nature and can bring out the worst in people. However at the heart of The Millionaire was an appealing premise: wealth has a responsibility to the community which nurtures it and generosity is its own reward. It made for good TV.
But today's lobbying by the financial sector is starkly real. Just for a moment, imagine you're the millionaire looking to help others less fortunate and to improve your own hometown.
If it were up to me, I'd scale up housing vouchers and mental health services for veterans. I'd eliminate homelessness by expanding the availability of Section 8 housing vouchers. I'd renovate abandoned property and convert it into supervised halfway houses for mental health and addiction recovery programs. I'd provide food for the 400 families in my community that needed help to feed their children last winter.
I'd move to expand and improve school lunch programs and continue the meals during school vacations, as children eat daily, not just when school is in session.
I'd offer low-cost daycare for working families and student-parents and I'd expand Pre-K education and Head Start programs. I'd assign more social workers as case- workers to help move families from welfare to good jobs and have them work closely with the families to keep track of their progress and help cut red tape. This is actually an idea taken from Paul Ryan's poverty program.
I'd expand programs in the arts from kindergarten through high school, support Special Olympics and special needs programs. Where I live, there's a marvelous program that helps disabled children take riding lessons with amazing, transformative results!
It's cold where I live and the cost of heating oil is the highest in the country, so I would offer heating assistance to those that qualify by income. I'd make health care more accessible with more clinics, no co-pays, particularly affordable dental and eye care and I'd screen all school-age children for hearing and vision issues. I'd expand meals on wheels and offer home health aides and nursing services at reasonable and subsidized prices to those with medical conditions that confine them at home.
I'd want the programs I fund to be run by local people and organizations that live in and understand my community and I'd expect them to work closely with our state and federal governments.
Unfortunately, the financial sector isn't going to voluntarily fund social work at this level. They'd rather spend the money on a lobbyist or to curry favor with a politician, so rather than wait for them to do the right thing, I support the idea of a tiny tax on financial transactions, which would reduce empty speculation and trading that doesn't benefit anyone in the real economy.
A tiny tax on all forms of financial transactions would be paid primarily by the 10% who own or control 80% of the American economy. It would tax all forms of financial transactions at miniscule rates, but, given the size of the American economy, the amount of money that would be generated would be tens of billions of dollars that could then be invested in ourselves: our children, parents, students, neighbors – our communities.
We don't have to imagine $2.3 million a day, we could actually make it happen.
A financial transaction tax is a simple, tested and progressive mechanism for raising revenues to meet the chronically under-funded needs across our country.
Let's give the U.S. financial sector the chance it richly deserves to do its fair share. For more information about the FTT, click on this fact sheet.
Len Morris is Editorial Director of Media Voices and recipient of the 2012 Iqbal Masih Award from the U.S. Department of Labor for his work to end child labor.