Their identifies shifted, from hippies who were supposedly engaging in smoking pot, listening to rock-and-or-roll, and jumping one another’s bones, to the “welfare queens” of the 1980s who were supposedly having tons of kids just so they could get more welfare. These “bad eggs,” the thinking went, were keeping society from protecting the “deserving poor” – little kids caught in bad situations, hard-working families (supposedly in Appalachia), and women working 40-hour weeks wiping rich old mens’ mothers’ asses.
As political strategy it was brilliant. White, working poor families are now almost uniformly Republican, supporting a party that is really out to screw them, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, killing Obamacare and opposing a minimum wage.
Today, as we approach the validation moment of the Obama Thesis, we need to focus on the “undeserving rich.” And there are a lot of them. Donald Trump is their avatar, a big, lumbering jerk who inherited a fortune from his father and now considers himself the candidate of the “self-made man.”
Worst of all, those second-and-third generation rich men and women, like Trump and the Waltons, who think they earned what they have when they didn’t and that this gives them a right to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. These feudalists just piss me off, and I suspect they do you, too. Maybe if we just give them Dukedoms and Earldoms, and Countdoms, or make them Marquesses, they will go away.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some deserving rich. There are some very, very deserving rich. Bill Gates is deserving. Warren Buffett is deserving. Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg are good people, too. There are also men and women of smaller wealth, many, many millionaires who do all they can to make the world a better place and who see their money as a responsibility. Guys like Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, who watches the birds, tweets, supports the troops and tells all who will listen that he’s no great man, just a bit luckier than most. Guys like Mitch Kapor, who took the money he made from Lotus Development and used it to buy time, with which to do real good in the world.
The public policy question should be, how do we separate the deserving rich from the undeserving rich? The fear is that we screw all the rich.
It’s fear of this that has always caused Republican class warriors to scream “class war” at liberals for a decade, and men like Tom Perkins to compare a rise in the marginal tax rate with the Holocaust. For some among the Undeserving Rich, this is part of a strategy. Say we’re going to raise the estate tax so idiots like Hank Steinbrenner don’t inherit their billion-dollar football teams and they will claim you’re attacking “small business” with the “death tax.” Say we’re going to raise marginal tax rates a little bit and they talk about its impact on the only near-rich.
The game is always the same. Touch me and someone else will get it. So a wealthy person who deigns to help people is called a “traitor to their class” and told to pay for all solutions out of their own pocket. A middle class person who tries to help is said to be sacrificing their own future for the undeserving poor. A poor person who tries to help? They’re in it for themselves.
There are two short-term policy solutions to the problem of the Undeserving Rich. Raise the estate tax, and make it confiscatory above a certain level – say $1 billion. Raise the tax on capital gains so it equals the tax on income. This would provide billions of dollars for deficit reduction, for improving infrastructure, and for delivering the skills business needs to potential employees.
This will also do a lot for the deserving rich. It will move some of the undeserving rich toward doing what makes them more deserving in order to avoid the taxes. If you’d rather have your name on a lab or music hall see it go to the general welfare, fine, build a building. Go for it, Ozymandias. Second, of course, is it will limit the stage time of wealthy families, and assure that some of the second-and-third generation rich can fall down to the level of the rest of us.
As vital as it is to tell the poor that, by dint of brains and hard work you can rise to comfort and security, it’s just as vital to tell every wealthy SOB that, by dissipation, laziness, and general assholery, your kids can fritter it all away and wind up on the street. That is not really possible anymore.
Even for a family with a grub stake of a few million, it’s not easy to fall back. Hand it out to evenly to the kids and some of them might wind up acting like trash, but you won’t find them in the trailer parks until their kids, who were also raised wrong, grow to adulthood.
What we need from the rich, more than anything else, is a sense of responsibility toward the rest of us. They shouldn’t be allowed to jump borders with impunity in order to keep their vast wealth from doing any good for anyone. They should not be lording it over us, or ignoring their responsibility to the rest of society. They should be forced, as Adam Smith intended, toward being inclined to the common good.
Otherwise they’d might as well be Donald Trump. And we don’t want that.