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Robert Reich

Why Washington is cutting safety nets when most Americans are still in the Great Recession

Over 47 million Americans saw cuts to their food stamp benefits Nov. 1. The majority of Americans are still recovering from the Great Recession, yet Washington is cutting safety nets. Why? Income inequality, Reich explains. 

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The S&P 500 “Buyback Index,” which measures the 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios, has surged 40 percent this year, compared with a 24% rally for the S&P 500. 

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Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His new movie, "Inequality for All," is available on Netflix. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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IBM has just approved another $15 billion for share buybacks on top of about $5.6 billion it set aside previously, thereby boosting its share prices even though business is sluggish. In April, Apple announced a $50 billion increase in buybacks plus a 15% rise in dividends, but even this wasn’t enough for multi-billionaire Carl Icahn, who’s now demanding that Apple use more of its $170 billion cash stash to buy back its stock and make Ichan even richer.

Big corporations can also borrow at rock-bottom rates these days in order to buy back even more of their stock — courtesy of the Fed’s $85 billion a month bond-buying program. (Ichan also wants Apple to borrow $150 billion at 3 percent interest, in order to buy back more stock and further enrich himself.)

The second big reason why shares are up while most Americans are down is corporations continue to find new ways to boost profits and share prices by cutting their labor costs – substituting software for people, cutting wages and benefits, and piling more responsibilities on each of the employees that remain.

Neither of these two strategies – buying back stock and paring payrolls – can be sustained over the long run (so you have every right to worry about another Wall Street bubble). They don’t improve a company’s products or customer service.

But in an era of sluggish sales – when the vast American middle class lacks the purchasing power to keep the economy going – these two strategies at least keep shareholders happy. And that means they keep the top 10 percent happy.

Congress, meanwhile, doesn’t know much about the bottom 90 percent. The top 10 percent provide almost all campaign contributions and funding of “independent” ads.

Moreover, just about all members of Congress are drawn from the same top 10 percent – as are almost all their friends and associates, and even the media who report on them.

Get it? The bottom 90 percent of Americans  — most of whom are still suffering from the Great Recession, most of whom have been on a downward escalator for decades — have disappeared from official Washington.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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