Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Are the pitchforks coming?

Although it helps, one doesn't have to be a fan of Chekkov to understand that the idle rich are usually the last people on earth to understand that the lower economic orders are unhappy with their lot.  I once met a woman who had been part of a Christian mission to China.  When the Communists took over in 1949, missionaries were some of the first people invited to leave the country.  As the dedicated cadres came to throw this woman out of the place she called home, where she had dedicated a substantial portion of her life's work, one of the most enthusiastic in demanding she leave was a young man who had worked as one of her house boys for several years.  When I met her, this incident was already 17 years behind her yet she still burned with a raging sense of injustice and betrayal.  "Only Godless Communism could turn that boy against me.  We loved our house boys," she explained.

Yeah, I'll bet.

It turns out that people who are richer than their neighbors have a whole catalog of reasons for believing why they have been so blessed.  God loves them more.  They belong to a superior race.  They are smarter.  They work harder.  Unfortunately, the most important reason most people are richer than their neighbors is because they are just more willing to cheat, lie, and steal.  Virtually ALL Predator Class fortunes are the result of practices most of us consider criminal.  Burying that reality usually consumes a significant fraction of their ill-gotten gains as they buy newspapers, endow historical societies and academic chairs, build museums of art, and most importantly, buy up the clergy.  Napoleon wasn't kidding when he said the only purpose of religion was to keep the poor from murdering the rich.

Me? I don't see the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats.  Their brainwashing has been too organized and sophisticated.  In the 1980s, I saw crooked bankers steal farms from people who had struggled with the problems of making a living from agriculture for four and five generations and the most organized response was Willie Nelson concerts.  Besides, killing the rich doesn't usually redistribute wealth anyway.  Wealth creation is MUCH more complicated than that.  And while societies that can keep a lid on their economic criminals are historically far more prosperous than the corrupt ones, violent revolutions usually just replace one gang of crooks with another.

Even so, it is a good thing to read that a rich guy at least PRETENDS to be concerned about wealth inequality.  But no, I don't think he's going to change many minds.  The thought and habits of the Leisure Classes are embedded VERY deeply.

The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats


This is, in other words, an economic approach that can unite left and right. Perhaps that’s one reason the right is beginning, inexorably, to wake up to this reality as well. Even Republicans as diverse as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum recently came out in favor of raising the minimum wage, in defiance of the Republicans in Congress.

One thing we can agree on—I’m sure of this—is that the change isn’t going to start in Washington. Thinking is stale, arguments even more so. On both sides.

But the way I see it, that’s all right. Most major social movements have seen their earliest victories at the state and municipal levels. The fight over the eight-hour workday, which ended in Washington, D.C., in 1938, began in places like Illinois and Massachusetts in the late 1800s. The movement for social security began in California in the 1930s. Even the Affordable Health Care Act—Obamacare—would have been hard to imagine without Mitt Romney’s model in Massachusetts to lead the way.

Sadly, no Republicans and few Democrats get this. President Obama doesn’t seem to either, though his heart is in the right place. In his State of the Union speech this year, he mentioned the need for a higher minimum wage but failed to make the case that less inequality and a renewed middle class would promote faster economic growth. Instead, the arguments we hear from most Democrats are the same old social-justice claims. The only reason to help workers is because we feel sorry for them. These fairness arguments feed right into every stereotype of Obama and the Democrats as bleeding hearts. Republicans say growth. Democrats say fairness—and lose every time.

But just because the two parties in Washington haven’t figured it out yet doesn’t mean we rich folks can just keep going. The conversation is already changing, even if the billionaires aren’t onto it. I know what you think: You think that Occupy Wall Street and all the other capitalism-is-the-problem protesters disappeared without a trace. But that’s not true. Of course, it’s hard to get people to sleep in a park in the cause of social justice. But the protests we had in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis really did help to change the debate in this country from death panels and debt ceilings to inequality.

It’s just that so many of you plutocrats didn’t get the message.

Dear 1%ers, many of our fellow citizens are starting to believe that capitalism itself is the problem. I disagree, and I’m sure you do too. Capitalism, when well managed, is the greatest social technology ever invented to create prosperity in human societies. But capitalism left unchecked tends toward concentration and collapse. It can be managed either to benefit the few in the near term or the many in the long term. The work of democracies is to bend it to the latter. That is why investments in the middle class work. And tax breaks for rich people like us don’t. Balancing the power of workers and billionaires by raising the minimum wage isn’t bad for capitalism. It’s an indispensable tool smart capitalists use to make capitalism stable and sustainable. And no one has a bigger stake in that than zillionaires like us.

The oldest and most important conflict in human societies is the battle over the concentration of wealth and power. The folks like us at the top have always told those at the bottom that our respective positions are righteous and good for all. Historically, we called that divine right. Today we have trickle-down economics.

What nonsense this is. Am I really such a superior person? Do I belong at the center of the moral as well as economic universe? Do you?

My family, the Hanauers, started in Germany selling feathers and pillows. They got chased out of Germany by Hitler and ended up in Seattle owning another pillow company. Three generations later, I benefited from that. Then I got as lucky as a person could possibly get in the Internet age by having a buddy in Seattle named Bezos. I look at the average Joe on the street, and I say, “There but for the grace of Jeff go I.” Even the best of us, in the worst of circumstances, are barefoot, standing by a dirt road, selling fruit. We should never forget that, or forget that the United States of America and its middle class made us, rather than the other way around.

Or we could sit back, do nothing, enjoy our yachts. And wait for the pitchforks. more

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