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.
Reclusive U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer
helped Donald Trump win the
presidency. But what is his ultimate goal?
Bannon’s relationship with Robert Mercer is cited in a remarkable lawsuit brought by David Magerman, a former employee of Mercer’s hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies. On its surface, the lawsuit is a wrongful dismissal complaint against Mercer. But at its heart, it is an indictment of Mercer’s character and reputation that draws together his political views, his connections to Bannon and Trump and racist comments Mercer allegedly made to Magerman directly... “I have a lot of respect for Bob Mercer. I think he’s a very intelligent person, a very thoughtful person,” Magerman told me recently. But he quickly added, “If the world knew what he was trying to do, they wouldn’t stand for it.”.. He’s fond of talking about the time, years ago, when a colleague he was visiting summoned a helicopter to his estate to whisk them into Manhattan.
There was no life-or-death reason for the extravagance, not even a business emergency. They were just going to a dinner, he says, and his friend rented the chopper to avoid the bother of traffic. From the helicopter, Magerman saw his fellow citizens travelling along a thin ribbon of perfectly good highway below.
.. “Either you are in awe of the grandeur of commuting, taking a two-hour drive and turning it into a helicopter ride, or you can just be, like, disgusted by the waste.” As though there were even a sliver of doubt, Magerman added, “I was in the latter category.”
It wasn’t just the waste that gnawed at him — it was the trespass of a moral principle. The helicopter commute was an example of something that, if everyone did it, would obviously be wrong. ”10,000 people can’t be flying helicopters from their backyard,” he said.
.. Magerman calls that helicopter trip “extra-societal” and “outside the realm of normal behavior,” words that also fit what he believes is wrong with Mercer’s relationship to the president. Magerman thinks Mercer has bought special access to impose “extra-societal” views on the Trump administration.
.. “The ultra-wealthy of today differ from the ultra-wealthy in past eras in that they have, a lot of them, no stake in the infrastructure of society,” Magerman said. He’s seen that their wealth does not depend on the health and stability of the country. In fact, they get rich on volatility and instability.
.. Mercer is not a finance guy; he is a computer scientist. But his research developing speech translation programs through pattern recognition can apparently also be used to discover obscure patterns in the financial markets and make an enormous fortune
.. Instead of poring over prospectuses and profit and loss statements, they apply their sciences to the data that affect markets. It’s called quantitative analysis, and they themselves are known as “quants.”
.. Medallion has pumped out annualized returns of almost 80 per cent a year, before fees.” Even in a bad year, it churns out more than 20 per cent returns.
.. “The people I worked with were great scientists. I mean, we could have solved a lot of important and interesting problems if we’d worked on different things. Instead, we made hundreds of millions of dollars,
.. The problem that Renaissance Technologies faced trying to predict market behaviour is, he said, essentially the same problem that Cambridge Analytica faces in voter analysis and persuasion.
.. Data analysts are largely skeptical that Cambridge Analytica could have had a decisive impact on the 2016 U.S. election or the Brexit referendum, but Magerman brushes that off with a reminder that so-called experts were also skeptical that computer algorithms could predict financial markets.
.. , “Bob thinks the less government the better. He’s happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the president’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it all to fall down.”
.. They didn’t get rich by providing the goods, services and infrastructure that bring people into direct contact with their community and its interests — they got rich in financial markets, making money for the sake of it.
.. But the real shrinking of the role of government has been in Trump’s choice of cabinet members, whose aim seems to be to assail the policy goals of their departments.
- secretary of energy is someone who once campaigned to get rid of the Energy Department; the
- Secretary of Education has advocated against the public schools system; the
- Environmental Protection Agency director has a record of repeatedly suing the EPA; and the
- Attorney General has a reputation for opposing the expansion of civil rights.
Other departments are reportedly withering from neglect, as key positions are filled by unqualified people or not filled at all.
.. his daughter Rebekah was part of the transition team that helped Trump choose his cabinet.
.. Was it all worth it?
“It’s like, was having surgery worth it?” Magerman says. “I mean, it was necessary. There was a disease that I thought, like, maybe I had a scintilla of a cure for.”