According to the Congressional Budget Office, yearly income has grown "275 percent for the top 1 percent of households" compared to "65 percent for the next 19 percent" and "just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent." This is after Republican efforts to limit food stamps and unemployment benefits, nationwide calls for a higher minimum wage, and a report that the wealthiest 85 people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest people combined. And I cannot omit the 2008 American American subprime mortgage crisis, which was caused by investors greedily gambling on mortgages they had no right to be gambling on, and which nearly destroyed the economy. No one, as of yet, has been prosecuted for that fiasco, but the banks received a $700 billion bailout because they were, as the oft-repeated line was, "too big to fail."
To be honest, I'm nervous writing about this situation considering the politics and passions involved, but many comments in the last few weeks by some of America's wealthiest people have stirred my ire past the point of biting my tongue. Because these comments, by people who are role models of the financial industry (meaning billionaires), strike me as sad and inhumane. It rings of propaganda that demonstrates a lack of empathy and perspective.
Nicole Miller CEO Ken Bonheim: "We've got a country that the poverty level is wealth in 99% of the rest of the world. So we're talking about woe is me, woe is us, woe is this. ... The guy that's making, oh my God, $35,000 a year. ... Why don't we try that out in India or some country we can't even name ... China, anyplace -- that guy is wealthy."
Venture capitalist Tom Perkins: "The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes...But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?"
Tom Perkins again (with an even more offensive quote): "I would call attention to the parallels of Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'"
Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Group Investments: "The 1 percent are getting pummeled because it's politically convenient to do so...[people] should not talk about envy of the 1 percent, they should talk about emulating the 1 percent. The 1 percent work harder, the 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society."
The 1 percent work harder than everyone else? I'm sorry, do they all moonlight as stockboys at Wal-mart? I couldn't believe this quote when I heard it, and it clearly demonstrates that the ability to make money does not require the ability to understand the day-to-day struggles of one's fellow men and women. This comment is a slap in the face to every person in the United States who works retail, who works fast food, who does construction, who teaches our youth, who works in a factory, who struggles to find employment, who has children and works to be a good parent. But most of all, it demonstrates an ingratitude on the part of Mr. Zell for the cosmically lucky financial circumstances he finds himself in, and the financial struggles he will never have to face.
Maybe I'm biased as someone who grew up in a two-bedroom apartment with two working parents and three siblings, but comments like these are infuriating and disgusting amid rising rates of poverty, closing schools, persistent violent crime, a nonexistent mental health infrastructure, record prison populations, record student loan debt, massive pension problems, outsourcing of jobs, and rising health costs that a new health care law may or may not address. Mr. Zell doesn't seem to realize that choosing what and where to invest is not the same "hard work" as standing on an assembly line or working in a stockroom or driving a bobcat or grading papers all night.
This country should be a meritocracy. I'm not against wealth; I'm against wealth's lack of empathy for non-wealth. People should be rewarded for their hard work and held accountable when they try to take advantage of the system. But that's not how it works. Hard work for many people doesn't translate to wealth, especially with so many locked into debt. And this isn't a republic either when politicians are swayed by big money over social well-being. Until we are able to control this behavior--through legislation, voting with our dollars, education, empathy, or sheer human will--then problems like near economic collapse, widening income inequality, and widespread poverty will increase.
The comments by these men do, however, make sense. The idea of making money--or the profit motive, if you will--has always dehumanized people to serve the ends of those with the cash. From slavery to child labor, terrible working conditions to union-busting, organized crime to pay-to-play, poor products to poor service to poor treatment of the environment, the profit motive has always valued making money with little regard for the big-picture effects. It's just so frustrating when those with so much accuse those with so little of inciting class warfare. It's as if the Germans blamed everyone else for starting World War II (which is hopefully a far-more-valid WWII simile).
This also makes sense psychologically. When a child is born, they only care for themselves. They cry when their needs aren't met. They are only aware of their immediate environment. They only really care about the things that immediately affect them. It takes time to learn empathy for those around them, and it takes a much longer time to learn empathy for those not around them, for those different from them, for those affected by the third-person effects of one's actions. This is the process of maturation to adulthood: the ability to take responsibility for what one does and to sacrifice for others, eventually including strangers and animals and people you will never meet.
This quote by Cornel West sums up the differences in perspective pretty well:
"There is a self-indulgent hedonism and self-serving cynicism for those at the top. To simply let it collapse and pull back. Public school, nothing to do with it. Public transportation, nothing to do with it. Public health, nothing to do with it. Privatize them because I have access to resources that allow me to privatize in such a way that I can have quality. The rest, do what you will, make it on your own." From Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times by Cornel West (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.)
The majority of people do not have the luxuries of this perspective; not because they don't work hard, but because of the circumstances of the system. Some people do not mature empathetically as they mature chronologically, which means we'll have people with low levels of empathy and high levels of wealth who will do everything to secure more and more wealth. Not only does that wealth become a defining characteristic of their identity, but the drive for survival and the existential avoidance of death is going to have anyone--ourselves included--trying to gather as many acorns as possible, though most of us don't have tools at our disposal like Swiss bank accounts, low taxes on our capital gains, and political influence to sway legislation in our favor.
These people have become ultra-rich by solely thinking about themselves, so when they acquire tremendous societal power through their wealth, should we be surprised that they continue to act selfishly? When the profit motive is your dogma and your net worth a large measure of your personal identity, why would you stop to think about the kids that can't afford textbooks or parents that work past their kids' bedtime or prisoners whose lives are traded on Wall Street? Like it or not, our market rewards people for being insensitive jerks, so we can't blame them for acting like insensitive jerks when they get to the top. What we can do, at least, is point out the psychological phenomenon of a 65-year-old man that still has the same capacity for empathy and gratitude as a three-year-old. And then maybe us down here can use that wisdom to love each other better while those at the top enjoy all the spiritual fulfillment that have-your-cake-and-gorge-on-it-too materialism offers them.
So these comments, while sad, are not surprising. Despite them, historically we have shown great resiliency and progress as a country and race in furthering all kinds of equality. The end of slavery and fight for worker's rights is proof of that (not to mention civil rights, women's rights, human rights, etc.). We need to believe in the American dream, not just for people in our country, but everywhere. It should be a truth and a right of every human born on this planet to fulfill the goals of their life through hard work and dedication, and hopefully the stars align for as many of us as possible.
Admittedly, that's a nice fuzzy thought that's not going to be true in every situation. But Mr. Zell is right about one thing: the 1% do have a tremendous influence in this society. And with greater empathy on their part, we can steer this Queen Mary in the right direction, one that works to benefit 100% of us. But we aren't going to get there when the ones with the most control only act in their own self-interest.