The 1 Percenters Who Act Like Scrooge...and the Ones Who Don't
It's holiday season, and mean-spirited misers abound. GOP legislators have Dickensian plans for the 99 percent, aiming at shredding our social safety nets, undermining our healthcare, and making us pay for the financial crisis created by reckless financiers. Naturally, they decry even a modest income tax surcharge on millionaires, channeling Scrooge-worthy logic to justify their worship of Big Money at the expense of everyone else.
Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase honcho Jamie Dimon, the highest paid executive among the six biggest and most dangerous banks, whines that he doesn't deserve our ire: "Acting like everyone who's been successful is bad and because you're rich you're bad, I don't understand it," said Dimon, whose 2010 take totaled $23 million.
Let us help you understand it. We don't hate you because you're rich, Mr. Dimon. Americans actually tend to admire people who make lots of money and, say, contribute useful things to society and promote the public good. Witness the recent outpouring of love for Steve Jobs. No, we itch for our pitchforks because you are greedy. You want to horde everything at the top and you refuse to acknowledge that you have any responsibility toward your fellow Americans. In fact, the way you make your money makes you look like a public menace. You dealt in risky derivatives and mortgage schemes that helped tank the global economy. You defrauded your investors. Your bank has even had the gall to foreclose on military families. Back in October, thousands of us stood outside your swank apartment on Park Avenue holding signs and telling you in plain English why your statements that bank regulations are "un-American" and such are both stupid and harmful. But apparently the message didn't get through. I guess we'll have to keep coming back until you do get it.
There are plenty of 1 percenters who support Dimon's view of the world, in which crushing ordinary people in the name of greed is something to be applauded.
But not all. And, like Warren Buffett, whose op-ed "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich" sent shockwaves through the country back in August, they are becoming more and more vocal. Philadelphia lawyer and philanthropist Dan Berger, a member of the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, has been hitting the airwaves and writing for months explaining why current tax policy unfairly favors the rich -- and why that's dangerous for everyone. Berger is concerned about the social pathologies and dysfunction created by the concentration of wealth at the top, and worries that we have unlearned the lessons of the Great Depression -- the last time such concentration devastated the country. "We are in a golden age of the cult of wealth," he warns. "Economic, social, and political life by, of, and for the one percent is an old story in the history of world civilization--one which inevitably ends badly."
Over the last decade, incomes for the richest 1 percent of Americans grew faster than that of any other group. CEO pay has soared 300 percent since 1990, while that of the average worker has risen a paltry 4 percent. If 1 percenters can't be convinced that such disparities are morally wrong, Berger suggests they conjure up some "enlightened self interest" in order to grasp what might happen if society becomes further unbalanced. He sees the Occupy Wall Street movement as the mere "tip of the iceberg."
Billionaire hedge fund manager Jim Chanos has also gone public expressing his support for Occupy Wall Street and his objection to tax policies weighted toward the 1 percent: "I have a problem with private capital asking for lower tax rates on certain forms of income that I believe are income, not returns on capital, than say teachers, soldiers, fireman and policeman.” Chanos explained to AlterNet why 1 percenters who can't see why Americans are angry are seriously out of touch: "They say we live in an 'aspirational society,' but many of those in the 1 percent accuse the Occupy Wall Street movement of class warfare and bemoan the fact that the president dubs them millionaires and billionaires. Well, I'm pretty sure most of the 99 percent would still aspire to be called the same thing!"
The aspirational dreams encoded in our American DNA have been increasingly crushed by policies and practices that channel money toward the top and leave students saddled with debt, workers struggling to support their families and elderly people unable to live in dignity. But new coalitions are forming, and the tone-deaf wealthy may find a public louder in its demands and more savvy in its strategies for challenging the status quo. While notorious 1 percenter Newt Gingrich spreads a message only Scrooge could love that it's time to roll back child labor laws, another 1 percenter, Eliot Spitzer, reminds us that ordinary people have something quite powerful in our possession that we could use to shift the balance away from people who would exploit us: Wall Street.
That's right. Spitzer argues that We the People actually own Wall Street -- through mutual funds, public pension funds and endowments at public institutions. "If the public exercised its huge ownership capacity by influencing board member selection, compensation and political donations," Spitzer writes, "then these companies would be fundamentally altered." Perhaps they could be forced to actually play by the rules, he suggests, and stop preying on the very people who make their businesses possible.
And perhaps Mr. Dimon would finally get the message if the public took control of his bank -- and sent him packing. Without a golden parachute.