Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Six things rich people need to stop saying

Here's an article by David Wong at Cracked.com on the six things rich people need to stop saying. I think it's a great essay, probably because his reaction is so very similar to my own. But I have to wonder why anyone in the middle class would think otherwise.

I recommend that you read it yourself, but here are the six things, paraphrased a bit, with severely edited excerpts and a few brief comments of my own:

#6 - Well, this might sound like a lot, but it's not easy making it on $400,000 a year, or $500,000 a year, or $600,000 a year, or...

Yeah, the more you make, the more you spend. But most Americans are making it on a lot less than you are. Do you understand why it's hard to have a lot of sympathy for the rich? Especially the rich who whine about how hard they have it?
Hell, you've probably heard it in real life, from a boss or some guy sitting nearby at Starbucks. "I guess I'm considered rich now! Well, if I'm so 'rich,' why am I broke at the end of the month?!?" Uh, I think it's because your mortgage is $3,000 a month, since you live in a fucking palace. And because you took your family on that Disney cruise last summer. And because you pay for your kids' college, so that, unlike us, they won't be crushed under six figures of student loan debt at age 22. And because you eat all the best foods and drink the finest liquids.

Or, as Hamilton Nolan at Gawker put it, "'Sure, it's an objectively large sum of money,' they say. 'But it is far smaller after I spend it.'"

And yes, that's a very good post at Gawker, which also includes this line:
This argument is like a man eating a hearty meal, licking his plate clean, then turning to a starving person and saying, "Look, we're in the same boat. My plate is empty too!"

#5 - Hey, I worked hard to get what I have!
It's insulting for the exact same reason "Hey, I love my country!" is insulting: It implies that the listener doesn't. Otherwise there'd be no reason to say it.

It implies a bizarre alternate reality where society rewards you purely based on how much effort you exert, rather than according to how well your specific talents fit in with the needs of the marketplace in the particular era and part of the world in which you were born. It implies that the great investment banker makes 10 times more than a great nurse only because the banker works 10 times as hard.

I used to work nights, and I'd talk to the cleaning crew when they came in. Most of them had full-time jobs elsewhere, and when they left those, they went directly to that second job, and often to a third job, too, when the buses ran that late. But they were the working poor, nonetheless. With all of their jobs combined, they made less than I did.

You can work hard and still not be rich. In fact, the vast majority of Americans fit into that category. And those who aren't working hard are often just desperately trying to get a job in this terrible economy.

And the really crazy thing about this is that you hear it even from people who were born rich. Yeah, it's great that they're not just sitting on the couch, enjoying their unearned wealth without lifting a finger. But they started with every advantage. (Note that Mitt Romney was born rich, into a politically powerful family, and his kids are starting off with a $100 million trust fund. And yet, he wants to cut his own taxes even further and to eliminate estate taxes, to create even more of a hereditary aristocracy.)

Even if you weren't born rich, chances are that you got a good education, because we were still willing to pay taxes to support public schools back then. Thanks to our tax support, college tuition was still low enough that ordinary people could afford it. (Many kids, like me, could even manage to pay for their own education, simply by working part-time and summers.)

And if you were middle class, your parents probably made enough back then, back when wages and benefits for working families were decent, to help pay for college, if not pay the whole thing.

All we're asking now is for wealthy people to help support the same system that let them succeed.

#4 - To quote Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels: "We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves."

How crazy is that? Everyone can't be rich. We could all be middle class, probably. But you can't have everyone on top. That's the whole point of being on top. It's mathematically impossible - not to mention just logically impossible - for everyone to be in the 1%.
So "anyone can get rich" isn't just untrue, it's insultingly untrue. You can't have a society where everyone is an investment banker. And you can't have a society where you pay six figures to every good policeman, nurse, firefighter, schoolteacher, carpenter, electrician and all of the other ten thousand professions that civilization needs to survive (and that rich people need in order to stay rich).

It's like setting a jar of moonshine on the floor of a boxcar full of 10 hobos and saying, "Now fight for it!" Sure, in the bloody aftermath you can say to each of the losers, "Hey, you could have had it if you'd fought harder!" and that's true on an individual level. But not collectively -- you knew goddamned well that nine hobos weren't getting any hooch that night. So why are you acting like it's their fault that only one of them is drunk?

How stupid do Republicans think we are that they'd even say something like that? The haves and soon-to-haves? I'm insulted that they think so little of our intelligence that they'd even try to make an idiotic argument like that! Do they think so little of the American people, that we'd actually be dumb enough to buy that?

#3 - You're just jealous. Or, as Mitt Romney says, "I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare."

But I don't hate Warren Buffett. Buffett makes more money in a year than I will in a lifetime, plus he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Am I jealous? Well, I'd certainly like to have Warren Buffett's money, just as I'd like to be able to fly like Superman. (They're both equally likely, I suspect.)

But I admire Warren Buffett. Buffett thinks that it's wrong that he pays a lower tax rate than middle class Americans. Unlike Mitt Romney, he's not trying to cut his own taxes even further. He's trying to make America a better place, even when it would cost him a little extra in taxes.
Hell, every Christmas we celebrate the tale of the wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. We hate him in the first part of the story, and then we love him by the end. Not because he gave away all of his wealth and became poor (he didn't), but because he stopped acting like a shithead. Do you get the incredibly subtle and nuanced message of that story? ...

And when we hate people, it's always for the same reason: They refuse to acknowledge that their power brings with it any responsibility. It's why we hate bullies and dictators and supervillains. It's why we hate people who benefit hugely from society and then pretend like they're living on an island with a population of only them.

#2 - You're punishing success. ("I never got a job from a poor person.")

There are two parts to this. Indeed, I think Wong should have made this list seven items, rather than six. But let's just dismiss the first part of this as quickly as I can. "Punishing success"? The rich have made out like bandits in recent years, because we've given them more and more tax breaks.

Those tax breaks have given us record-breaking budget deficits. And note that we need tax money. We pay taxes for a reason. Under a progressive tax code, which is what income taxes were always supposed to be, the people who are doing the best should pay more than the people who are doing poorly, partly because those are the people who have the money and partly because they can more easily afford to part with some of it.

And, after all, you became rich in our society, however you did it (even if you just inherited it). So why won't you support the society which made it possible for you to become rich and even just to be rich? And how is paying the same tax rate the wealthy paid in the 1990s, which itself was far less than in previous decades, "punishing" you?

Were we actually "punishing success" in the 1990s, the 1980s, the 1970s, the 1960s, the 1950s,...  You know, we had rich people back then, too. But we also had a flourishing middle class.

The second part of this,... well, I'll let Wong tell it:
... it's the concept of "You have your job because of a rich person."

This is true, I suppose, if that rich person inherited their money and you are personally working for them as a gardener. But if you are working at a Toyota factory, your paycheck doesn't come from under the mattress of the owner of the company. That money came from lots and lots of regular Joes who bought Toyota cars. The guys in suits are just middlemen between the supply and the demand.

So as for the popular talk radio joke, "I've never gotten a job from a poor person"? Well, Sean [Hannity], a lot of your listeners are poor, and your advertisers are paying you with money they made by selling goods to those poor people. So, yeah, the cash you make does in fact bear the smelly fingerprints of the lower classes. It's the same for somebody working at Walmart, or a grocery store, or a liquor store. You didn't get your job from a poor person, but collectively their money made it happen. Which is just a long way to say the obvious: That rich people don't make the world go around. It takes everybody.

#1 - Stop asking for handouts! I never got money from anybody!

Yeah, right. Sure you didn't.
I think your parents poured untold resources into your hungry mouth. I think you had a roof over your head that was paid for by other people, I think you went to schools that were built and staffed and paid for by other people, I think you felt safe because the streets were patrolled by other people, I think you drove to your three jobs on roads paved by other people, in a car built by other people and burning oil that was drilled by other people in a nation whose borders were defended by other people. ...

Kids, if you're reading this, and you fucking shouldn't be, but if you are, let me tell you now:

The world doesn't give a shit about you, and you'll have to wrestle it for every good thing you get. Hell, I've written an entire article about how grown-ups don't tell us how freaking hard everything is, and how the shock of unexpected effort trips us up.

But, for the rich, this somehow gets extended to the absolutely delusional idea that they exist on a purely self-sufficient island, in an ocean full of shiftless layabouts always asking to borrow their stuff.

No man is an island. No woman, either (but women tend to be smart enough to understand that). We are social animals. We've always been social animals. We live together in societies. We live or die, we survive, we prosper in societies. It's always been that way, since our species first evolved.

That's why I think that libertarians are batshit crazy. Individualism? Fine, but only to a point. Yes, you succeed on your own merits, on your own efforts, but only to a point. Only to a very, very limited point. We are all part of our societies. And those societies were built, and are maintained, by other people. We would have nothing without that.
If you live in my part of the country, you'll hear hard-working, rural farmer types say, "I got my own piece of land, I grow my own food, all I want is to be left alone." All right, well tell me this, cowboy:

Let's say some mean, even richer guy, like a wealthy gangsta rapper, hired a bunch of armed thugs to come take your farm. What would you do? Your shotgun won't fend them off -- they have a hundred bigger shotguns. What will you do, call the cops? That is, other people, who will risk their lives while being paid with still other people's tax money, who will try these bad guys in a court funded by yet other people's tax money, under laws passed by legislators paid with other people's tax money? Whoa, slow down there, welfare queen!

But if none of that stuff existed, there would be nothing stopping Jay-Z from taking your farm. In other words, you don't "own" shit. The entire concept of owning anything, be it a hunk of land or a house or a fucking sandwich, exists purely because other people pay other armed men to protect it. Without society, all of your brave, individual talents and efforts won't buy you a bucket of farts.

So when I say "We're all in this together," I'm not stating a philosophy. I'm stating a fact about the way human life works. No, you never asked for anything to be handed to you. You didn't have to, because billions of humans who lived and died before you had already created a lavish support system where the streets are all but paved with gold. Everyone reading this -- all of us living in a society advanced enough to have Internet access -- was born one inch away from the finish line, plopped here at birth, by other people.

Hey, I agree with every bit of this. And it's hard for me to see how anyone wouldn't. But some people, clearly, end up buying what rich Republicans are saying. Why? How can they possibly do that?

Is it just because there's a black man in the White House? Is it still so easy to think the worst of other people that Fox News can convince you that Democrats are taking your hard-earned money and giving it to lazy, shiftless black people? Are you actually gullible enough to believe that rich white men have your best interests at heart when they demand a lower tax rate for themselves?

Republicans have made a very successful political career out of their "Southern strategy." But for chrissake, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was nearly 50 years ago! We're in the 21st Century now! We have a world-wide global economy! We understand that people are people, whatever the color of their skin.

But in Mississippi, even today, barely more than half of Republicans think that interracial marriage should be legal. Legal, not just whether they think it's right. 29% think that interracial marriage should definitely be banned, and 21% in Alabama. Only 12-14% think that Barack Obama is a Christian. Would anyone question that if he were white?

And yeah, Republicans in other parts of the country might not be quite that crazy, but they're still eager to see him as a "socialist." Well, he's black. And they're not. And it's been my experience that white conservatives tend to see economics in social (i.e. racial) terms.

Scratch a Republican, even when talking about purely economic matters, and race isn't usually far beneath the surface. I'm sure there are exceptions, but my experience is more that they'll indignantly deny being racist, and then express some incredibly racist views.

I suspect that's how the Republican Party gets middle- and low-income Americans to support tax cuts for the rich. They package it up in cultural terms and use blacks and Hispanics as boogeymen. And since it's always easy to think the worst of other people, especially when you have little personal contact with them, it works.

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