From Our Future
The Rich in America: Power, Control, Wealth and the Elite Upper Class
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America's elites have for decades now enjoyed and exploited a mainstream political consensus. America is doing just fine, this consensus has held, but just not for everybody. We have some poor, unfortunate souls in our midst, the consensus continues, and decency demands more "opportunity" for them.
Aspiring politicians have always loved this opportunity message. They can spout it and sound compassionate and caring to the voting public. The message's more important attraction: Pols can spout it and not in any way come across as threatening to the deep pockets they count on for campaign cash.
The rich, after all, simply adore the mainstream "opportunity" gospel. Talking about increasing opportunity distracts attention from how rich people and the corporations they run behave, how what the rich do to become and stay rich keeps poor people poor and most of the rest of us struggling.
But this mainstream political consensus has over recent years collapsed. Precious few analysts are still claiming that the nation is doing "just fine." The United States these days is essentially working well only for the rich, and appreciable numbers of Americans no longer just wonder why. They're demanding checks on grand private fortunes and the behaviors that pump these fortunes up.
All this has today's rich worrying. Really worrying. Recent headlines tell the story. From the Financial Times: "Why American CEOs are worried about capitalism." The Guardian: "The kings of capitalism are finally worried about the growing gap between rich and poor." The Washington Post: "U.S. billionaires worry about the survival of the system that made them rich."
That survival, the more thoughtfully strategic among the rich now believe, requires a reworked mainstream consensus that recognizes how deeply entrenched American inequality has become. These rich are trying to achieve that reworking. They're acknowledging our grand economic divides on a regular basis, with every day seeming to bring another example.
We have JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon reflecting on the "fraying" of the American dream in his annual shareholder letter. We have hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio blasting our "broken" economy for "producing self-reinforcing spirals up for the haves and down for the have-not." We have insurance industry titan Evan Greenberg agreeing that our economic status quo has "led to increased stress and declining living standards for many and created enormous wealth for a few."
And that gap can be unsettlingly dangerous, warns the wealthy financier Anthony Scaramucci, who served a brief spell as Donald Trump's White House communications director.
"You don't wanna be the guy living in your McMansion in your barbed-wired security compound," Scaramucci observed in a recent interview, "while your neighbors are struggling."
So what should the nation be doing about the gaps that so divide Americans of ample and modest means? Taxes on the rich, JPMorgan's Dimon and other deep pockets are openly acknowledging, may indeed need to rise somewhat.
But not too much. The Dimons and Dalios would much rather the nation pivot to the sort of solutions the old "opportunity" consensus so diligently and distractingly loved to advance. Subsidies for investments in low-income "opportunity zones." A wider social safety net. Education "reform."
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett earlier this month, for instance, called the Earned Income Tax Credit a safety-net device that supplements the earnings of low-wage workers the "best" way to address income inequality. Low-wage workers "don't need a higher wage, intoned Buffett, "they need more cash in their pocket." And if low-wage workers get that cash, goes the unspoken corollary to Buffett's tax-credit push, maybe they won't be tempted to attack those fortunate souls getting rich off of low-wage labor.
In other words, we as a society need pay no attention to grand fortune. Nothing behind that curtain, the rich would so like us to believe. We'd be better off, billionaire Steve Schwarzman advises, not even using the phrase "income inequality." This private equity kingpin wants us talking about "income insufficiency" instead, so we can focus on that portion of society that rates as "severely disadvantaged."
And if that "insufficiency" focus just happens to let the rich continue to get even richer, that would be, as they say in Silicon Valley, a feature, not a bug. We need the wealth of the wealthy, the rich still insist, to keep our economy rolling.