I was speaking to an investment banker who said he believes taxes on the one percent are way too high. We got to talking about how partisan gridlock defined much of Obama’s presidency.
“If it were me,” he told me, “I would say, ‘Hey, we’re all reasonable people. We’re going to sit down in this room and we’re not going to come out until we come up with something we can all agree to.’”
Forget the fact that Obama probably thought of that. Forget the fact that Mitch McConnell vowed that the GOP’s number-one priority was to make Obama a one-term president. “We’re all reasonable people” is the part of that exchange that still fascinates me. Nobody’s going to expect an investment banker to want to pay more in taxes. But what, in his resistance to doing so, made him so certain he was one of the reasonables?
In 1965, the average CEO’s pay was 20 times greater than what the average employee at their company took home. In 2016, it was 271 times greater.
Before 1980, the top one percent controlled 22% of America’s wealth. Today, they control almost 40%.
Since 1980, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled, that of the top one percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has septupled—while the average pretax income of the bottom fifty percent has hardly budged.
In spite of all this, many members of the top one percent like this man I was speaking to are still insisting that their taxes are too high. Meanwhile, they’re funding candidates more—not less—than they used to, in part so they can tell them the same thing. In 1980, the top 0.01 percent of earners accounted for 15% of all campaign contributions. In 2012, that number was 41%.
With each passing year that one percenters do this, they grow, by definition, decreasingly reasonable. A top one percenter who insists their taxes are too high is—if you wanted to put it into numbers—three times crazier today than they would have been in 1980. In their defense, we as humans don’t walk through the world with the hypothetical decades-ago version of us as a yardstick for how well we’re doing. It’s the job of a politician to legislate with those facts and figures in mind.
Most elected Democrats don’t, though. You could chock it up to corruption from campaign contributions, and that’s obviously a big part. But I think there’s something else going on: something much more innocent and quite possibly more powerful, too. Most politicians see themselves as reasonable. Reasonable politicians don’t antagonize any one group. They know enough corporate CEOs and investment bankers to understand that they aren’t Gordon Gekko caricatures, and don’t believe in villainizing them as if they were. They bring everyone to the table. They seek compromise.
Which brings us to the old school political reverence for compromise in the first place, the shoe-leather belief in getting all stakeholders to the table and pounding something out that won’t be perfect, that won’t satisfy any single interest all the way, but it will exist. This is how we move forward, according to most presidential biographies and Parks and Rec episodes. As an American ethic in general, there’s something about that that matters. There’s something about that that I don’t want to lose, and I fear we’re losing.
Problem with income inequality is, the large corporations and top 1% that comprise a growing number of those stakeholders invited to the table aren’t, as we covered, lightening their demands even as they control an increasing share of the wealth. Meaning that, while the compromise skillfully brokered by the savvy and studious politician who believes in that sort of thing will come out somewhere in the middle, with each passing year that the rich get richer and the middle class deteriorates, ‘the middle’ is less and less reasonable place for a solution to land.
So I think we see this riff where it’s Democrats that are increasingly strident—like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who take a stand for income inequality, and then the hundreds of others who don’t really make a splash at all. Who can blame them? Reasonable people round up other reasonable people and they sit down in a room to resolve the big problems of the day. Let’s say a decent number of those folks in the room—high earners, yes, but thoughtful ones, experienced ones, reasonable ones—take issue with a policy. A policy that strikes them as radical. Reasonable people take that into account. Of course they do.
But—and they’d never know this—to the vast majority of the population, to the ones that have been flailing under the status quo, what’s radical is this group of well-heeled problem-solvers refusing to address their problems properly, paired with their blind confidence that they already are. People are different, but who knows. Some might skip over the policies themselves and direct their anger towards this comically confident group. They might line up behind the first charismatic rich person who technically should belong to the group, but has been kicked out and scorned because has the guts, in their view, to tap into their escalating intuition that these people don’t care about them. Maybe they’ll discredit the news they report and spread their own version just to spite them. Doing unreasonable things—because if there’s a group of people running things that thinks they’re so reasonable and exclusively surrounds themselves with other people who also think they’re so reasonable, you gotta tell them that they aren’t, right? You should probably find a way to tell them that they aren’t. Something really big. Something that catches their attention.