Politics and Americans’ ambivalence about wealth
Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s modern pharaoh, and his two sons were “detained” in mid-April for questioning about corruption and abuse of power by Egyptian prosecutors. No one knows how much the longtime Egyptian strongman and his family have skimmed from the Egyptian economy during his rule. Estimates of $40-$70 billion appear absurdly high, but even $5 billion is unseemly enough for a career civil servant in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.
None of our Mr. Quinn’s staying in Motel 6s for our former Egyptian allies. Mubarak enjoyed a house in London, a presidential palace, private jets and a villa on the Red Sea when he got a hankering to look at something he didn’t own, just for a change.
Mubarak in fact lived like the most wealthy Americans, who also have grown rich under the protection of the U.S. government. During the uprising, ordinary Egyptians had bravely gathered to stand guard at Cairo’s museum to protect the nation’s archaeological treasures from looters. That was only days after members of our Congress stood guard in Washington to protect the looters, trading $57 billion in temporary extended benefits for people out of work for $801 billion worth of tax cuts, most of which went into the already bulging pockets of the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of the people.
Oh, there is a lot of grumbling here about “the bankers,” who did more damage to America than Osama bin Laden can only dream of doing, and with Mr. Obama for handing them checks instead of subpoenas. Yet no president pledges to send Special Forces into the Hamptons in August to root them out and kill them. Indeed, the bankers are again milking billions from the nation’s financial system, yet there are no Americans in the streets here, demanding the ouster of our plutocrat class.
Why? In a recent Vanity Fair article, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz answered that the ownership class uses its political clout to protect and extend its advantages, but that doesn’t explain why the rest of us don’t use our clout to counter that of the rich.
The president came closer to an answer in his speech on the deficit at George Washington University. Mr. Obama argued for imposing relatively higher income tax rates on the very rich, but “not because we begrudge those who’ve done well – we rightly celebrate their success.” One must dispute the word “rightly” here but celebrate success of that sort we certainly do. As the very successful George Soros has said, it is easier to be rich in America than in Europe, because while Europeans envy the billionaire, Americans hope to emulate him.
I am one of the many Americans whose ancestors came to this country to escape a society in which land that might have grown grain for their families grew stags and boars for the hunting nobles. Yet we as a nation have never hated the rich. That’s partly because most of us are rich ourselves, by world standards. More to the point, there persists among us the fantasy (peddled persuasively by Ronald Reagan, among others) that America is place where it is possible to get rich at no one else’s expense (save, of course, the Native Americans) by creating wealth where none existed before. Once that was true. But we are no longer such a rich country, and these days more and more of the money that goes into anyone’s pocket must perforce come out of someone else’s.
Stiglitz reminds us that creating wealth in a modern economy requires “collective action” expressed through government to invest in the things that such a society needs to thrive, such as public health, highways and bridges, railroads and airports, basic research and education at all levels. “The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, writes Stiglitz, “the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs” even though “their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.”
Ninety-nine percent of the population is a big potential constituency for changing how the other one percent lives, if leaders are there to mobilize it. Imagine the effect if such a leader were to try to redefine the political issue of the age. Instead of wrangling how to pay for government, we might go to wrangling over who should run it – “the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.”
In fact we once had a national leader who dared say such things in speeches around the turn of the 20th century against what he damned as “malefactors of great wealth” I quoted above – that dangerous bomb-thrower, Republican Teddy Roosevelt. Pity he’s dead.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at email@example.com.