I keep hearing about the war between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the other 99 percent of people. Tom Perkins, a Silicon Valley billionaire, recently published a letter in the Wall Street Journal. In it he compared today’s vilification of America’s moguls with the Nazi persecution of Jews. He may have overstated his concern, but I think he’s correct in assuming that today’s War on the Wealthy does exist.
I don’t know much about economics, but I’m able to ask questions. Following are a few that strike my mind on a Tuesday unshaven morning with a cup of coffee beside me and another 10-degree F. New England air mass hovering outside my window.
How would or will I know when I reach the super-rich level? Has someone defined exactly how much wealth a person must have before he/she can be hated by the rest of us? We’d better find out, because one day there may come a knock on the door. An ominous voice will say, “The latest figures are in. They show that you have crossed the line into SRT – super-rich territory. Prepare to face the consequences.”
And what will they be? For openers, I hope both the rich and the poor will avoid violence. The rough stuff seldom helps either side. And it would be unfair to the rich guys. As a rule poor folks have more guns and know how to shoot straighter than billionaires who spend their spare time on yachts ordering their hired skippers to “Bring her a few points to starboard, Kowalski.” On the other hand, we all know who usually wins when the rich face the non-rich in legal proceedings involving armed assault.
If “super-rich” is not clearly defined, how will the poor know precisely who our enemies are? What if we select someone as a target of attack, and then later discover he/she was NOT really super-rich but merely “comfortable” or “well off”?
When the economic wars break out in earnest, what will some of the weapons be, on both sides? Exorbitant taxes on the wealthy immediately come to mind. But that will require action by Congress and state legislatures. Many of them are already controlled by the rich and powerful of both parties, and that’s not likely to change.
Economic boycotts may become a more effective weapon. Let’s say that the Sigafoos Corporation, which makes most of the world’s oatmeal, is owned by a man worth $300 billion who pays his workers next to nothing. One day on the Internet, the Citizens Boycott Center sends out this message to every American: “Stop buying Sigafoos Oatmeal!” Within a few months, the Sigafoos Corporation has vanished. However, many other companies – frightened by the Sigafoos boycott – will have suddenly increased their workers’ wages, and are now run by CEO’s whose salaries may not exceed 100 times what their janitors earn.
Would such a tactic work in real life? I don’t know. It’s easy to concoct solutions on paper. Besides, it’s been pointed out that as Tom Perkins (above) climbed the slippery plutocracy pole, he created 275,000 jobs and generated more than $90 billion for persons other than himself.
The Robin Hood theory of income distribution, if put into effect, would surely please those persons who received money taken from the coffers of the super-rich. But would the mathematics hold up over the long run? If, overnight, almost all of the 1-percenters’ financial holdings were re-distributed to families earning, say, less than $20,000 a year, would that really solve our nation’s inequality problems?
Today’s rich vs. not-rich conflict is by no means history’s first example of economic imbalance. In the 40 years following the Civil War, titans such as Carnegie and Rockefeller ruled our country and ushered in the age of conspicuous consumption. Teddy Roosevelt and his trust-busters brought a peaceful end to that vulgar splurge. In contrast, France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 witnessed bloody and terrifying rearrangements of the economic order. Could such upheavals ever take place in the USA?
I certainly hope not. But even the faint possibility of such events should act as a spur for our government and individual citizens to seek and find an end to this dissension. I doubt if most Americans favor the random, wholesale ransacking of the ultra-rich’s bank accounts. What fair-minded men and women desire is to return to the time when hard work, perseverance, some degree of talent and a level playing field assured contenders at least a 50-50 chance of achieving pay dirt and some kind of hoped-for dream. Did such an era ever really exist? Could we ever get back to it? Stay tuned.