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Ultimately, we pay for the bailout

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Scott Jagow: Thirteen days and counting to April 15. This tax season, there’s a new reason to grumble while you’re sorting through your receipts. Commentator Robert Reich shares his thoughts.

Robert Reich: Now let me get this straight: Some of the dollars I’m sending to Washington this time of year are being used to backstop Wall Street investment bankers, hedge fund and private equity managers, and anybody else associated with a borrower that’s too big to fail.

The reason they’re too big to fail is they’ve borrowed so much from our pension funds and money-market funds that if they went bust, our savings would disappear. Even the danger of their going bust might make us so anxious we’d demand our money, which would close down the entire financial system.

Now, the reason they’ve been able to borrow so much from us without putting up much of their own capital is they’re unregulated, and don’t have to put up their own money. The tax code also rewards them to treat the earnings they get on the investments they make with the money you and I lend them as capital gains rather than ordinary income. So many of them are paying taxes at a lower marginal tax rate than you and I are paying.

Finally, when the risky investments they’ve made with our money go bad, we get a housing crisis, and the value of our homes — our biggest assets — plummets. And our pension funds get socked. Yet Wall Street executives continue to pull in whopping incomes. James Cayne, the former CEO of Bear Stearns, left the company with a $232 million pay package. That’s because when they place risky bets that pay off, they get the windfall, and when their bets go bad, they’re bailed out with our tax dollars.

This just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We want a tax system that rewards risk taking. But not any risks — and not one where it’s heads they win and tails we lose.

Jagow: Robert Reich was Labor Secretary for President Clinton. His latest book is called “Supercapitalism.”

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