Forbes 400 List Reveals Why the Greedy Rich Fully Deserve Your Contempt -- And Jesus’s
Last week, as you were treated to Mitt Romney’s contempt for nearly half the country, Forbes Magazine published its annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
The list reveals that Bill Gates is still the top dog, boasting a whopping $66 billion fortune. Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, various members of the Walton family, and the Koch brothers are all in the top 10. Mark Zuckerberg hung on, despite the evaporation of a big chunk of his wealth. Spanx founder Sara Blakley, who brought women a whole new world of restrictive undergarments, is on the list.
Nothing extraordinary in all that. But this year’s Forbes list has a big lesson for us: It shows just how jaw-droppingly rich the top 400 have become compared to everybody else.
Forbes reports that in the last year alone, the total net worth of the 400 people at the top skyrocketed $200 billion. The average net worth of a 400-lister jumped from $3.8 billion to $4.2 billion, the highest figure ever recorded. Two-thirds of the individuals got richer in the past year. Forbes, not exactly a cheerleader for income equality, concluded: “The gap between the very rich and the merely rich is widening.”
And how did the rest of us do while the uber-rich were getting richer? Not so well, according to the Census Bureau. Adjusted for inflation, America suffered a 1.5 percent drop in median household income last year.
The redistribution of wealth toward the top is clearly getting worse. In fact, despite the financial crash, the Occupy movement, and the obvious failure of trickledown economics, the Census Bureau reports that the gulf between the rich and the rest of us is at an all-time high.
Maybe that’s why the rich and their apologists are getting a bit defensive lately. Like a drug addict turning every cushion upside-down in search of lost change, the 1 percenters are scrounging up every timeworn myth, lame justification and absurd rationalization they can think of to convince us that the rich are super-smart, hard-working job creators instead of greedy parasites refusing to pay their share in taxes and play by the same rulebook as everyone else.
This line gets harder to sell every minute. Mitt Romney’s candidacy has done wonders to expose not only the general contempt of his class toward ordinary people, but also just how many special privileges the rich enjoy. Romney has accumulated great wealth not only because of his job-destroying and predatory business activities, but also because he gets a special break that allows him to get away with paying the capital gains tax rate of 15 percent.
And that’s one big reason that the rich are getting richer. Romney and his ilk claim this is good for the economy – the old “trickledown” myth. But as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera points out, that canard is easily exposed: “In 1986, when Ronald Reagan was president, the differential between capital gains and ordinary income was eliminated — and the economy soared.” Interesting, isn’t it? Nocera adds that the capital gains rate was higher during the Clinton years than in the George W. Bush years, yet the economy miraculously did better under Bubba. Doesn’t sound like a low capital gains tax rate that lines the pockets of the rich is what the doctor ordered, does it?
Let’s take a closer list of who is on the Forbes list. Financiers make up a big chunk. Around 40 percent inherited their wealth. The vast majority, some 65 percent, came from circumstances ranging from very comfortable (Mark Zuckerberg went to the fanciest schools) to downright plush (Donald Trump inherited his dad’s company). A mere 35 percent came from backgrounds that could be described as middle- to lower-middle-class.
Most of the folks on the list got great breaks in life. And yet in a recent survey conducted by Salon, only 2 percent of people in this Happy Billionaires Club said they would be willing to pay more in taxes (Warren Buffet, Todd Wagner, James Simons, Leon Cooperman, Mark Cuban, John Arnold, Herbert Simon, and George Soros). Which is proof that not all of the rich are unpatriotic and rapacious. But they are lonely voices in a storm of greed.
Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries and funder of conservative causes, summed up his opposition to the idea of forgoing special tax breaks: “I believe my business and non-profit investments are much more beneficial to societal well-being than sending more money to Washington.”
Ordinary Americans are plainly getting screwed, and the vision of America as a land of opportunity is increasingly becoming dimmed. And yet a recent article in Fortune magazine, “Stop Beating Up the Rich,” shamelessly calls for an end to what author Nina Easton describes as “diatribes against the 1%.”
“America stands out among Western nations for its grudging, and often fawning, admiration for the wealthy classes it produces,” explains Easton. (It’s hard to argue with that. Score one point for Easton). She continues: “With the road to riches seemingly wide open, Americans favor aspiration over resentment, envy over animus.”
The key word here is “seemingly.” It seems like anybody can make it, because the press makes much of those Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. Unfortunately, as economist Joseph Stiglitz frequently points out, those stories make the news for a simple reason: they are rare. And becoming rarer all the time. By Easton’s own admission, “today American upward mobility (especially for men) lags behind Canada's and some European nations.”
Easton goes on to complain that the Occupy movement, the most recent incarnation in America’s traditional disdain for cheating, hording fatcats, is wrong in its 99% v. 1% frame. ”Sadly, it is a confusing and flawed prism,” sniffs Easton, “marred by hyperbole, half-truths, and unnecessary pessimism about what it means to succeed in America.” She goes on to whine that “if Americans really understood who the 1% are, they would be more likely to stop the name-calling and shift the debate to the dire task at hand -- getting millions back to work.”
All righty then. While we’re trying to get back to work, we’ll try to forget that Wall Street’s reckless casino games crashed the economy in 2008, destroying millions of jobs. And we’ll see if we can ignore the fact that corporate-friendly policies pushed by the greedy rich have made decent wages and job security a thing of the past for many. And we’ll pretend that all the people at the top of the pyramid are ordinary folks who had the same chances as everybody else and made it through hard work and grit. And we’ll make an effort to discount the fact that it is the super-rich who should be thanking us, for our job creation, and our tax dollars that build their roads, educate their workforce, provide the research needed to make their products – and, oh wait! -- lots of them don’t make or do anything, they just bleed money out of the real economy and deplete the government of revenue with their special tax breaks!
While we’re at it, we’ll see if we can forget the famous teaching of Jesus, uttered after a rich young man came to ask how he could be saved. Very simple, said Jesus. You just sell your worldly possessions and become a follower of my teachings. But the young man was overly fond of his worldly possessions, and turned away. To which Jesus said:
"Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).
That Jesus. He sure did beat up on the rich, didn’t he?