Thursday, January 12, 2012

If You Want to Resent Rich, Occupy the Capitol

(From the January 12, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

One of the interesting developments of the past year was the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which continues into 2012. This group of people struggles to articulate what their motivation or purpose is exactly. But a common refrain if any seems to be that they resent the wealth gap in our country. That’s why they use terms like “one percenters” to describe the wealthiest of Americans, who have so many advantages over the rest of us, the “99 percenters.”

While the OWS members are protesting across the country, as their name implies they are particularly upset with the wealthy who work on Wall Street, a euphemism for the high finance industry that many blame for our country’s current economic stall. Indeed there is much to be angry about there, with executives at numerous financial firms profiting mightily even as the work they did caused the collapse of industries and retirement portfolios.

President Obama, never shy to seize opportunities, has been using the refrain “corporate jet owners” in speeches to gain leverage with voters in an election year. He is tapping into resentment of the rich and uses “corporate jet owners” as a symbol of this anger. Never mind that many if not most corporate jet owners earned the money to pay for the jets, use the jets for business purposes, pay sales tax when buying the jets, fuel tax when operating the jets, and employ many people who build and fly the jets. A single corporate jet owner may provide more economic boost than any single White House policy of the past three years.

But Obama persists. He called out “corporate jet owners” again last month, right before he hopped on taxpayer-funded Air Force One for yet another vacation in Hawaii. He has set a record for presidential vacations in his first term even as he calls this the worst economy since the depression.

The president also lent his support to the Occupy Wall Street movement in a bald attempt to tap into the energy of this group of potential voters for later this year. One would hope that he spent some vacation time pondering the fact that a sizable number of members of his administration, from Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner right through the ranks of cabinet officers and advisors, came from the very Wall Street firms whose protesters he seems to endorse.

Meanwhile, members of Congress don’t seem to be feeling the economic pinch as much as the rest of us. Recent studies, reported in the New York Times and Washington Post, show a widening wealth gap between Congress and the average American. The median net worth of House of Representative members is at $913,000 compared to $100,000 for most Americans. The base pay for House members is $174,000. There are 250 House members, nearly half, who are millionaires. In other words, if you want to find “1 percenters” to resent, you can skip Wall Street and head to the Capitol.

The notion of “rich Republicans” is a fallacy. Wealth has no partisan preference among Congress members. In fact, some of the wealthiest are Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House and a democrat, is worth as much as $196 million according to the New York Times article. She never mentions her own flights on private jets to her district in California when she criticizes corporate CEOs. John Kerry, a democratic senator from Massachusetts, in spite of his criticism of rich people not paying enough taxes, docked his $7 million yacht in neighboring Rhode Island because it has no sales tax on pleasure boats.

So what are we to make of all this? First, in fairness, remember that the study reports the median wealth of Congress members, so there are certainly some who are of more modest means. We should not let the wealth gap feed a partisan divide, since there are rich politicians and private citizens of both parties. Also, given the fact that it costs a great deal of money to run for Congress, many of these millionaire public servants may have had wealth prior to being in Congress. We should not resent people merely for being wealthy. In fact, given their wealth and opportunities for a life of leisure or business pursuits we should admire people of passion and talent who decide to serve in Congress.

However, there have also been reports this past year that members of Congress take advantage of their privileged knowledge of government committees to make timely and beneficial stock purchases. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating this breach of ethics. Also, we should be concerned that people who represent us can’t relate to the economic realities we face when they make proclamations and policies that will ultimately affect us more than them. Most importantly, we should be skeptical of politicians who claim to be for the “little people” when in fact they are merely exploiting the wealth gap rhetorically to remain at the top end of it.

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