The impetus behind the Occupy Wall Street movement – a vague sense that the rich are getting ever richer while everyone else suffers – was confirmed by a recent report from the Social Security Administration showing that while total employment and average wages remained stagnant, the number of people earning $1 million or more grew by 18% from 2009 to 2010. Those figures give real substance to the “We are the 99%” slogan, yet Republicans continue to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that if anything those “job creators” deserve an even greater share of our national income. The Tea Party, meanwhile, has launched its own “53%” movement, inexplicably rallying the working class to the defense of the wealthy. The one group rarely heard from in this rancorous debate is the 1%, whose incomes and taxes are its focus. I am one of them, and here is my perspective, which may surprise you.
First let me note that I am not part of the yacht and private jet set, which represents an even smaller subset of incomes than mine. The threshold for inclusion in the top 1% of income earners in 2008, the most recent year for which published data is available from the IRS, was $380,354, enough for an extraordinary life but nowhere near enough for a harbor berth in St. Moritz. Nevertheless, I am – for now – comfortably ensconced in that demographic. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan would save me roughly $400,000 a year in taxes, and President Obama’s tax proposals would cost me more than $100,000, yet I support the latter and consider the former laughable.
Thus you can imagine my amazement this summer when I watched the Republicans in Congress push the United States to the brink of default – and the world to the brink of ruin – over whether to repeal a portion of the Bush tax cuts and raise my taxes by 3.5%. I know a lot of people with high incomes and even the conservatives among them were confused by that sequence of events. Here is a secret about rich people: we wouldn’t have noticed a 3.5% tax increase. That is not only because there isn’t a material difference between having $1 million and $965,000, which is obvious, but also because most of us don’t actually know how much money we are going to make in a given year. Most income at that level is the result of profits rather than salary, whether it comes in the form of bonuses, stock options, partnership distributions, dividends or capital gains. Profits are unpredictable and they tend to vary wildly. At my own firm, the general rule of thumb is that if we are within 5% of our budget for the year, everyone is happy and no one complains. A variation of 3.5% is merely a random blip.
I was not amazed but disgusted when John Boehner and his crew tried to justify the extremity of their position by rebranding the wealthy as “job creators.” While true in a very basic sense, it obscures the fact that jobs are a cost that is voluntarily incurred only as a result of demand. Hiring has no correlation at all to profits or to income – none. Let me keep more of my money without increasing customer demand and I will do just that – keep it. Perhaps I will spend a little more of it, though probably not, but even if I do it won’t help the economy very much. Here is another secret of the well-to-do: we don’t really buy much more stuff than everyone else. It may be more expensive stuff, sure, but I don’t buy cars, or appliances, or furniture, or anything else more frequently than the average consumer. The things I do spend more money on are services such as travel, entertainment, restaurants and landscaping, none of which generate well-paying middle class jobs. There, in a nutshell, is the sad explanation of what has happened to the American economy over the last 25 years of “trickle down” economics.
That’s why I was so pleased when the Occupy Wall Street protests began. I support them wholeheartedly, for several reasons. First, because I fervently believe in the exercise of first amendment rights, and I have been waiting for years for the American people to wake up from the torpor of the Bush years, when they were seemingly cowed into submission to corporate authoritarianism. Second, because I am dismayed by the thuggish tactics of the NYPD. I would have expected as much from Michael Chertoff or Dick Cheney, but not from the Bloomberg administration. Third, there is no question that the increasing income inequality in our society is a bad thing, in the short-term and the long-term, for both workers and for business. It is bad in every way and for everyone, with the sole exception of Wall Street itself. Fourth, I love the hysterical reaction it has provoked from arch-conservatives such as Eric Cantor and Glenn Beck. As George Orwell wrote in “Homage to Catalonia” about fighting fascists, I don’t always need to know what I am fighting for when it is clear what I am fighting against. Fifth, and most important, it changed the national media narrative and sucked almost all of the energy out of the tempest that was the Tea Party.
It is the Tea Party’s effort to recapture that energy, through the “We Are the 53%” movement, that has truly bewildered me. I have spent far more hours than I should have these last few weeks puzzling over the postings on that website, trying to understand who these people are and why they would possibly care about my taxes. I don’t really have an answer to those questions, but I do have a few insights.
To begin with, a fair number of the posters there don’t seem to understand the actual issues, or even the meaning of “53%,” which is supposed to refer to the percentage of people in recent years who actually owed – and paid – federal income taxes. From their own descriptions of themselves as unemployed, underemployed, or struggling to raise families, it seems likely that many of these posters actually AREN’T part of that 53%, but rather, like most of the 47% they complain about, receive full refunds of their taxes each year, or perhaps even more thanks to the Republican-sponsored family tax credits. I suspect they think that because they work, and have taxes withheld, and file a tax return, they are different than the “47%” they decry as lazy layabouts. Of course they are not, but sadly they don’t even realize it.
Next, ALL of the posters there seem quite proud of themselves. No doubt they should be, but they seem to have derived very different conclusions from their life experiences than I have from mine, which could read like an exaggerated version of one of their posts. My family is from one of the poorest counties in the country, in rural Appalachia. My grandfather was a coal miner who left school after 5th grade to help support his impoverished family. My grandmother wasn’t allowed to attend high school because according to her parents women didn’t need an education. I never knew my father. My mother and I subsisted on food stamps for several years. I got my first job at 13, working as a bus boy for $2 an hour, and I have never been unemployed in the 37 years since. I worked my way through college, which I paid for myself. When I started my career I worked 60+ hour weeks every week for nearly 15 years before that effort began to pay off. I employ nearly 20 people, I have no debts, and I have no doubt that I have earned every penny I have.
And yet, I am living proof of Elizabeth Warren’s maxim that no one gets rich on their own. If not for the UMWA helping to secure a living wage for my grandfather, I would probably have had to leave school to help support my family, as he had done. If not for my grandmother’s passionate belief in the value of the education she was denied I would never have aspired to go to college at all, and if not for my mother teaching me to love books, I would never have been able to succeed there. If not for my wife I would never have been inspired to work as hard as I did to see what I could become in life. How many smart, talented children don’t have those positive influences? How many have exactly the opposite?
My good fortune did not end there. It was sheer luck, rather than moral virtue, that I never had the criminal record many of my less fortunate friends did when I was young. It was sheer luck that neither I nor any of my family members ever had a major illness, or accident, or disability, despite lacking health insurance much of the time. How different my life could easily have been! How different the lives of others still could be.
I understand too that but for food stamps, I would have gone hungry as a child, that but for public subsidies and federally guaranteed loans I could never have afforded college. I know that without the internet and airports, both of which were developed with federal taxes, I could not earn an income even close to what I make today. That all seems so obvious to me that I don’t understand how anyone could question it, and those are just a few of the many reasons I am happy to pay my fair share of taxes, whatever that share maybe. Paying a lot of taxes just means you make a lot of money, and it is hard, frankly, to complain about that.
One last observation. Many of the 53% crowd seem quite proud of their Christian faith. I am not religious myself, but I am reasonably certain that Jesus would not respond to the poor and unemployed with shouts of “Get a job!” I vividly remember what it was like to be poor. To be concise, it sucked, and my heartfelt sympathies automatically go out to anyone who has to experience it, especially children who are blameless for their circumstances. Whenever I meet someone who has not been as lucky as I have been, I recognize how easily our roles could have been reversed by the random forces of fate. And despite my lack of religion, I instinctively think “There but for the grace of God go I.” If only those who actually believe in God would think the same thing more often they might not be so eager to cut my taxes