I'm the 0.0001%. Here's my confession.
Income inequality in the US celebrates its 53rd birthday this year. Having declined steadily after World War II, 1968 began a half-century winning streak.
Few are cheering, though, because concentrations of wealth are dangerous. People controlling huge amounts of money can use their buying power to push us all around. Hence billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett are much in the news on the receiving end of public opprobrium.
I’m happy about that. It keeps the pitchforks pointed away from me and my even greater piles of dough. Mark and Bill are comfortable, to be sure, but the really rich are in another league. There are about 500 of us with spending power to make Zuckerberg’s eyes bulge. He may have $56 billion, but it’s mostly on paper in Facebook stock, and it took him decades to acquire. His entire net worth is merely pocket money to people like me: we spend that much every two weeks.
I don’t normally talk about the vast sums at my disposal. I’m more often leading the mob denouncing the rich. But I wanted to get it off my chest, and I feel I can confide in you not to spread it around.
How I put food on the table
I’d better start with the basics: I’m a politician. My job is to oversee public services like roads and police.
You may think mine a mostly passive job — the humble public servant faithfully channeling the Will of the People and doing his best to effect it in a difficult political environment.
But the truth is I’m an entrepreneur just like Zuckerberg. To advance my career I must find a problem people worry about — or can be persuaded to worry about — and then convince them I’m a better bet to solve it than the other candidate. I scour Twitter for the outrage of the week. I look for industry missteps I can claim to solve by hiring regulators.
Like other entrepreneurs, there are no limits on where I can look for problems to “productize”; I don’t have to stick to just the roads and the police. If I did I’d be out of a job quickly because my field is brutally competitive and the low hanging perils long picked. To keep your nights filled with terrors, I must reach. Unlicensed florists operating on the very streets your children walk down! Reckless dispensation of plastic straws! The pet rescuer menace!
Thundering about these public dangers in the news is great fun. “Six million seniors are being deprived of meals!” I’ll scream. “Democrats want to give undocumented immigrants cars!” All the attention and theatrics of being a professional wrestler, without the bruises.
So What Keeps Me up at Night?
If your first guess is finding real solutions to the problems I campaign on, God bless you, you’re my kind of voter. But you’re way off. Big problems like poverty or terrorism have no solutions, certainly none that I can legislate into being. And unlicensed florists were all along less of a threat than you might think. Either way, I don’t need to deliver solutions.
In fact, running out of poverty would be terrible news for me, just like running out of cavities would be for Colgate. If by next election I’ve enacted some nice-sounding programs and the problem is worse than ever, I’ll be in great shape to be reelected and get a larger budget.
Now, I know that sounds cynical, but I’m just explaining the economics of my job. When I realized that’s how it worked, I thought it was bad, too.
But I discovered my constituents don’t want these problems solved, either. Try telling an activist friend that a public problem they care about has been solved. Explain to a third-wave feminist that the wage gap is just bad statistics. Or to someone terrified of climate change that it’s not as bad as they’ve heard. Or to a war hawk that the Taliban surrendered in Afghanistan long ago.
Will they be pleased? Not at all. More likely they’ll get angry and shut you down lest you undermine their Great Cause.
I’m giving my customer what he truly wants: a purpose in life and an ally by his side.
My real worry is money. Even if my nice-sounding programs are mere theater, theater still takes money to perform, and that’s where my job gets most competitive. While everyone wants solutions — at least nominal ones — everyone hates paying taxes to fund them. If I don’t find a way to make my programs at least look free, the candidate on the next stump will.
Bouquet of Ruses
I admit I’m rather proud of my many ways of picking your pocket and framing someone else for the deed. I deliberately mislabel taxes “contributions” as if they were your generous impulse. I make your employer and the corner gas station owner collect the taxes from you so they look like the villains.
I demonize your neighbor as “the rich,” hint darkly that his savings are ill-gotten — a dangerous concentration of money that threatens your family. I accuse him of not paying his “fair share” and encourage you to vote to raise his taxes. Meanwhile, I prod him to do the same to you. Once I’ve set you against each other, I stand back and cluck. Tsk, looks like class warfare between you two! Such a shame, here in the Land of the Free. Maybe you need another program to help with that.
I use an ingenious device called a bond measure, through which I get you to sell your kids into…well…bondage to pay for your potholes or your train set. I’ll beseech you to think of the children while secretly counting on you not thinking too hard.
To keep you thinking correctly, I’ve cultivated a modern-day clergy with PhDs in economics to develop a theology of money — inscrutable justifications for my techniques. They’ll demand you pay 2% higher prices for everything, every year, lest commerce itself come to a halt. They’ll convince you that printing trillions of new dollars is a vital public service. That is, when we do it. It’s still a serious crime for you.
Politicians Gone Wild
Once I denounce the billionaire’s money as a public hazard, I’m in a bit of a corner, because I need ever higher stacks of stacks of cash to fund my good deeds. I must argue that “public” money amassed by an elected servant of the People is completely different somehow. I’ve convinced most of you muggles that money I spend trickles down to benefit you, whereas Charles Koch’s money absconds offshore and vanishes somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle.
Some question whether my concentrations of money are really so benign. Families of the tens of thousands of Middle Easterners I’ve killed recently might be among the skeptics. The millions of Americans I locked up for victimless crimes probably have their own opinions, too.
But look how many people I’ve helped. Millions began one day to depend on me for a paycheck, a social security check, food stamps, or housing and now find that they can’t stop. We have as tight a partnership, they and I, as a heroin dealer has with his customers. I can count on their loyalty to vote for me and turn out in the streets to protest my rivals.
I confess I promised them more than I can deliver. I told 160 million workers and their families I’ll support them in retirement. I promised universal healthcare to 275 million Americans when they’re older and sicker.
I lied. Taxpayers would need to fork over $1 million each to make good on those promises. They don’t have it. They don’t have $100,000. They don’t have $10,000. If they had anything like that kind of money, they would never have been susceptible to my promises.
When my past promises caught up with me, I told you more lies. School budgets, I said, were savagely slashed. Victory in the war on terror is just around the corner. Greed crashed the economy. The military is underfunded. Wicked corporate lobbyists made me pass that law. You’re jobless after 15 years in my schools because racism. I had to bail those companies out because they’re too big to fail. The problem is we just didn’t spend enough.
And then I campaigned for another program that didn’t work and you can’t pay for. Vote for me, I said, and I’ll give you free college tuition. Medicare for all. I’ll save species. I’ll restore our jobs. I’ll overhaul our energy grid. I’ll stop the planet from heating up. I’ll make every American a homeowner. I’ll end poverty.
God help me, I just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t resist writing another bad check, making another promise I had no earthly prospect of fulfilling.
There, my friend, is my confession. And having come clean with you, I’m starting anew. I’m finally going to drain the swamp and spend your money responsibly and sustainably — on real solutions to real problems.
Among the reforms I’ll make…hey, isn’t that Greedy Billionaire Jeff Bezos? His concentrated wealth endangers you and your children!
That’s why you’ll be sending me another $2.75 trillion, so I can keep you safe from billionaires.