The very rich are richer than people imagine.
A peculiar chapter in the 2020 presidential race ended Monday, when Bernie Sanders, after months of foot-dragging, finally released his tax returns. The odd thing was that the returns appear to be perfectly innocuous. So what was all that about?
The answer seems to be that Sanders got a lot of book royalties after the 2016 campaign, and was afraid that revealing this fact would produce headlines mocking him for now being part of the 1 Percent. Indeed, some journalists did try to make his income an issue.
This line of attack is, however, deeply stupid. Politicians who support policies that would raise their own taxes and strengthen a social safety net they’re unlikely to need aren’t being hypocrites; if anything, they’re demonstrating their civic virtue.
But failure to understand what hypocrisy means isn’t the only way our discourse about politics and inequality goes off the rails. The catchphrase “the 1 Percent” has also become a problem, obscuring the nature of class in 21st-century America.
Focusing on the top percentile of the income distribution was originally intended as a corrective to the comforting but false notion that growing inequality was mainly about a rising payoff to education. The reality is that over the past few decades the typical college graduate has seen only modest gains, with the big money going to a small group at the top. Talking about “the 1 Percent” was shorthand for acknowledging this reality, and tying that reality to readily available data.
But putting Bernie Sanders and the Koch brothers in the same class is obviously getting things wrong in a different way.
True, there’s a huge difference between being affluent enough that you don’t have to worry much about money and living with the financial insecurity that afflicts many Americans who consider themselves middle class. According to the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of U.S. adults don’t have enough cash to meet a $400 emergency expense; a much larger number of Americans would be severely strained by the kinds of costs that routinely arise when, say, illness strikes, even for those who have health insurance.
So if you have an income high enough that you can
- easily afford health care and good housing,
- have plenty of liquid assets and
- find it hard to imagine ever needing food stamps,
you’re part of a privileged minority.
But there’s also a big difference between being affluent, even very affluent, and having the kind of wealth that puts you in a completely separate social universe. It’s a difference summed up three decades ago in the movie “Wall Street,” when Gordon Gekko mocks the limited ambitions of someone who just wants to be “a $400,000-a-year working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable.”
Even now, most Americans don’t seem to realize just how rich today’s rich are. At a recent event, my CUNY colleague Janet Gornick was greeted with disbelief when she mentioned in passing that the top 25 hedge fund managers make an average of $850 million a year. But her number was correct.
One survey found that Americans, on average, think that corporate C.E.O.s are paid about 30 times as much as ordinary workers, which hasn’t been true since the 1970s. These days the ratio is more like 300 to 1.
Why should we care about the very rich? It’s not about envy, it’s about oligarchy.
With great wealth comes both great power and a separation from the concerns of ordinary citizens. What the very rich want, they often get; but what they want is often harmful to the rest of the nation. There are some public-spirited billionaires, some very wealthy liberals. But they aren’t typical of their class.
The very rich
- don’t need Medicare or
- Social Security; they don’t use
- public education or
- public transit; they
- may not even be that reliant on public roads (there are helicopters, after all).
Meanwhile, they don’t want to pay taxes.
Sure enough, and contrary to popular belief, billionaires mostly (although often stealthily) wield their political power on behalf of tax cuts at the top, a weaker safety net and deregulation. And financial support from the very rich is the most important force sustaining the extremist right-wing politics that now dominates the Republican Party.
That’s why it’s important to understand who we mean when we talk about the very rich. It’s not doctors, lawyers or, yes, authors, some of whom make it into “the 1 Percent.” It’s a much more rarefied social stratum.
Critiques Washington Post anti-Bernie Sanders articles.
“The more online shame cycles you observe,” Andrews writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window.”
Most of us have certain stereotypes about the European far right — that it’s just a bunch of blood-and-soil racists. But in an essay in The New York Review of Books, “Two Roads for the New French Right,”Mark Lilla shows that there’s a lot more going on. He found a group of Catholic conservative intellectuals who argue that social conservatism is the only viable alternative to neoliberal cosmopolitanism and who are all fans of Bernie Sanders.
They believe that both the European superstate and global capitalism undermine the cultural-religious foundations of European civilization. They are strongly environmentalist, feel that economic growth should be subordinated to social needs, believe in strong social support for the poor and limited immigration. As Lilla notes, they have a very coherent, communitarian worldview. I found the essay uplifting because it shows that in times of political transition, ideas get shuffled and reassembled in new and impressive ways.
.. In a post called “How This All Happened” for the Collaborative Fund blog, Morgan Housel walks us through 73 years of American economic history. He shows us how many economic phases there have been. And how each phase led to something unexpected.
.. In “How Did Larry Nassar Deceive So Many for So Long?” in The Cut, Kerry Howley blows up the conventional telling of the American gymnastics sex abuse scandal. The story is generally told as a large group of victims finding their voice and “breaking their silence.” But Howley shows that they were telling their stories all along, to every relevant authority. It’s because the abuser, Nassar, had built up an edifice of trust that people couldn’t see the monstrosity that was taking place literally in front of their eyes. Nassar abused many of these young girls while their parents were in the room. He just told them he was doing a medical procedure he called a “sacrotuberous-ligament release.” He might still be doing it today if a police officer hadn’t discovered his hard drives, with 37,000 child porn images on them. It was the hard drives that finally persuaded the world, not the women and their repeated warnings.
Andrew Sullivan has forced me to do something I really don’t want to do — award two separate Sidney awards to the same writer in the same year. But his work for New York magazine this year has really defined the era. His two masterpieces are “The Poison We Pick,” on the opioid crisis, and “America’s New Religions,” on political fundamentalism. If you want to understand America in 2018, those essays are a good place to start.
Democratic leaders in Iowa, the starting line for the party’s wide-open 2020 presidential contest, are hungry for a young standard-bearer who will usher in generational change, which is erecting a potential roadblock for the three best-known prospective contenders for the nomination.
.. Of the 76 Democratic county party leaders who responded to the survey, 43 said they would prefer a young candidate. They said they want a fresh face and expressed interest in potential candidates who haven’t run for president before. They yearn for a nominee with the energizing charisma of President Barack Obama to counter President Donald Trump’s rowdy base. Most said gender wouldn’t be a determining factor.
.. Those are hurdles that could trip up three of the best-known potential candidates, former Vice President
- Joe Biden, and Sens.
- Bernie Sanders of Vermont and
- Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts,
each of whom will be at least 70 years old when Iowa Democrats caucus in February 2020.
“They’re all too old,” said Chris Henning, the 71-year-old Democratic chairwoman in Greene County. “It’s not white bread America any more, we’ve got to get with the program.”.. “We have to look for the Barack Obama scenario for the party,” said Bryce Smith, the 26-year-old Democratic chairman in Dallas County, a booming Des Moines suburb that is the fifth-fastest growing county in the nation, with a 32% population increase from 2010 to 2017. “I can’t see how my generation, 18- to 34-year-olds, can get excited about a 70-year-old candidate ever again.”.. He said he is intrigued by Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost a Senate race to Republican Ted Cruz. “Beto, he sounds and talks like he’d be Barack Kennedy,” Mr. Smith said, suggesting that Mr. O’Rourke had charisma akin to Mr. Obama or the Kennedys... New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.. When Ms. Harris, 54 years old, appeared recently in Cedar Rapids, “I got calls from people in counties 100 miles away” hoping to attend.. The clamor for a generational change may take its harshest toll on the 77-year-old Mr. Sanders if he decides to run again...Ms. Warren, who will turn 70 in June, declined to run for president in 2016 despite a high-profile effort to draft her into the race. The delay may wind up hurting her chances in 2020... Some said they might make an exception for Mr. Biden, a 76-year-old who was still in demand as a campaign surrogate during this year’s midterms. One person defined “young” as “less than mid-70s.”