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.
There are only two sure things in life: death, and Donald Trump refusing to release his taxes. At this point hiding his taxes isn’t even supposed to be an option: the law says that the House of Representatives has the right to see his returns, and IRS officials are breaking that law if they fail to comply. But this isn’t the America we used to know. It will be a big surprise if the Trump administration complies with the law, and most Republicans will surely support Trump in his defiance.
What will we see, if those returns ever become public?
- Maybe that Trump isn’t as rich as he claims;
- probably evidence of corrupt practices, before and after taking office; and
- we will definitely see clear, unconstitutional conflicts of interest in his dual role as president and business tycoon.
.. Hypocrisy is pretending to care about the public interest when you’re actually serving your own interests. Opposing things that would be to your personal benefit, and supporting things that would make you a bit poorer, isn’t hypocritical at all — if anything, it deserves a little extra respect, because you’re making at least some sacrifice in support of your beliefs.
Democrats of all people should realize that being rich — which, by the way, none of the candidates are, as the truly rich assess such things — doesn’t prevent a politician from helping ordinary working families. Ever heard of a guy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
I have to admit that Sanders’s reluctance to release those returns, and his vague, almost Trumpian promises to release them “soon” were starting to worry me. Was there something actually bad in them? But right now it seems that he was just being foolish.
Trump, by contrast, almost surely has some very strong reasons he doesn’t want us to see his taxes — reasons strong enough to push him into defying the law. And that’s exactly why the public interest demands that those returns get released.
The tax cut fizzled; send in the clowns!
As far as I know, the Federal Reserve — the world’s most important economic policy institution — doesn’t have an anthem. But if it were to adopt one now, the choice would be obvious: “Send In the Clowns.”
You see, the Fed’s governing board currently has two vacancies, and Donald Trump has proposed filling those vacancies with ludicrous hacks. If he succeeds, one of our few remaining havens of serious, nonpartisan policymaking will be on its way toward becoming as corrupt and dysfunctional as the rest of the Trump administration.
Stephen Moore and Herman Cain are, of course, completely unqualified — I say “of course” because their lack of qualifications is, paradoxically, a key qualification not just for Trump but for the G.O.P. in general.
There are plenty of genuine monetary experts with conservative political leanings, some of them quite partisan. But modern Republicans have shown consistent disdain for such experts, perhaps because of a sense that anyone with real expertise or an independent reputation might occasionally be tempted to take a stand on principle.
There’s no risk that either Moore or Cain will ever take such a stand. In fact, what seems to have recommended both men to Trump was their evident willingness to completely reverse their policy views when politically expedient.
Both were hard-money men during the Obama years, demanding higher interest rates despite very high unemployment. Both have now taken to berating the Fed for failing to print more money in the face of low unemployment — because that’s what Trump wants.
That said, there’s a difference between the two men.
I wrote about Moore a couple of weeks ago, noting that he has long been a prominent fixture in the conservative movement; he is, basically, a classic right-wing hack who tries (incompetently) to impersonate an economic expert. Cain, on the other hand, is a spam king whose business model involves making his email list available to direct marketers.
Put it this way: In recent years Moore has been out there predicting magical results from tax cuts, putting out fake economic numbers, and giving speeches to FreedomFest. At the same time, Cain has been offering a platform for peddlers of get-rich schemes and cures for erectile dysfunction. So it says something about what Trump wants that he apparently sees the two men as equally valuable allies.
What does Trump want? His attempted beclowning of the Fed follows, I’d argue, from the fact that his one major legislative success, the 2017 tax cut — which he predicted would be “rocket fuel” for the economy — has turned out to be a big fizzle, economically and, especially, politically.
It’s true that U.S. economic growth got a bump for two quarters last year, and Trumpists are still pretending to believe that we’ll have great growth for a decade. But at this point last year’s growth is looking like a brief and rapidly fading sugar high.
Meanwhile, the tax cut remains unpopular, partly because few people perceived personal benefits, partly because voters appear to be less concerned about paying too much than with the sense that the rich — the prime beneficiaries of the Trump cut — are paying too little.
Some leaders might see such disappointments as reasons to make a course correction. But this is Trump: When the going gets tough, he blames someone else. Everything would have been great, he insists, if the Fed hadn’t thwarted his plans.
There’s a good argument to be made that the Fed misjudged the economy’s strength, that it raised interest rates too fast and that the economy would be doing somewhat better if it hadn’t. In fact, it’s an argument I agree with.
But that’s not what Trump is saying. He wants the Fed to act as if we were still in a deep depression; he wants it both to cut rates and to resume the emergency policies it pursued — and he denounced — when we had more than twice as much unemployment as we do today. This would, he insists, turn the economy into the “rocket ship” he originally promised.
You don’t have to be a gold bug or even an inflation hawk to see these demands as deeply irresponsible. Indeed, they sound a lot like the “macroeconomic populism” that has repeatedly led to economic disaster in Latin America, with Venezuela the latest example.
Running the printing presses to fight a depression, as the Fed did after the financial crisis, is prudent and sensible; running them because you refuse to accept the reality that your policies aren’t delivering an economic miracle is different, and always ends badly.
Now, even putting both Moore and Cain on the Fed board probably wouldn’t be enough to push America over the monetary edge. And so far, markets don’t seem worried about the potential for runaway inflation.
But maybe investors should be worried, at least a bit, by the spectacle of a president who would rather appoint hacks and debase the Fed’s integrity than admit that his policies aren’t working as promised. U.S. policymaking is looking ever more like that of a corrupt third-world regime. And that is bound, sooner or later, to have consequences.
Why would Tucker Carlson, who used to brag about being an “out-of-the-closet elitist,” use his primetime Fox News show to rail against the “ruling class?”