During the 2012 Republican National Convention, the GOP hit on a novel strategy for winning over voters. Because their presumptive nominee was the warm-blooded vertebrate equivalent of low-sodium pretzels and day-old O’Doul’s backwash, party leaders decided a good way to rouse their base was to lie their asses off about Barack Obama.
After “I Have Binders Full of Women!” and “George W. Bush? Who’s That?” didn’t score as well in focus groups as they’d hoped, they settled on “We Built It!” as the theme for their convention. It was a call to arms based on a Barack Obama quote that had been wrenched out of context, intentionally misrepresented, infused with rancid nougat at Slugworth’s chocolate factory, and luged down the throats of an unsuspecting populace.
Here was the original (admittedly inartful) Obama quote, from a July 2012 campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.”
The political landscape being what it was, Mitt Romney’s campaign, his supporters, and other conservatives isolated the most offensive-sounding part of that quote (“If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that”) and circulated it widely.
Those watching the speech or reading it in context could have inferred, however, that what Obama really meant was that these businesses didn’t build the roads, bridges, and other infrastructure they relied on to make their businesses thrive. Someone else—specifically the government—did. The Obama campaign later released its own ad confirming that this was the correct interpretation.
But because Romney and his cronies fixated on the part of Obama’s speech they thought would be most damaging to the president, they missed the meat of his argument—namely that success is not just due to individual initiative but is rather dependent on a collective effort, whether that takes the form of government assistance or the combined ingenuity and drive of business owners’ employees. In fact, just prior to Obama’s famous “you didn’t build that” remark, he’d said this:
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. … I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”
Contrast that with Romney’s take—captured on video during a posh private fundraiser—about the country’s so-called makers and takers:
“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Those are two diametrically opposed world views—one hopeful and respectful of the vast majority of Americans, the other cynical and insufferably elitist. Needless to say, Obama’s perspective is not only far healthier for society as a whole, it’s also correct—whereas Romney’s view is divisive, dismissive, and just plain wrong.
Unfortunately, Republicans—while, ironically, pitting white middle class and white working poor people against racial minorities, immigrants, and other working poor people—have made inroads for years by complaining that Democrats, who merely want a fairer system for everyone, are engaged in nefarious “class warfare.”
Superficially, their arguments may seem convincing. After all, it’s true that the very wealthy still pay the lion’s share of total income taxes—even though their effective tax rates have fallen since Ronald Reagan made trickle-down economics the de facto U.S. policy back in the 1980s.
As Ronald Wright wrote in A Short History of Progress (paraphrasing author John Steinbeck), “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
For my purposes, I’d amend this quote to say, “Social democracy never took root in America because the poor and middle class see themselves as temporarily embarrassed billionaires.”
The problem with plutocrats like Romney, Donald Trump, Charles Koch, and others is they think (or at the very least pretend) that their success is due almost entirely to their own efforts—when, in fact, they’ve largely made their billions off the backs of the government, their employees, and their customers.
Without those reviled 47% (or 99%, or 99.99%) the Kochs and the Trumps of the world are nothing. They’re chronically blind to their privilege and can only see less-wealthy people as parasites trying to steal from them. In the case of Trump—who was born on third base and throughout his business career has seemed determined to steal second—this pathology is particularly pronounced. But even if you’re not a silver-spoon dumbass—if, say, you really did start with very little and built your business from the ground up, like Mike Bloomberg or Bill Gates—you didn’t make a billion dollars. Not remotely. And our tax structure should reflect that.
Having been buffeted and battered by decades of GOP rhetoric on “class warfare” and lazy welfare recipients, then, I cheered when I heard a great quote from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event in January. Playing devil’s advocate, author Ta-Nehisi Coates asked Ocasio-Cortez, “I’m Joe Billionaire. I made widgets. I sold those widgets. I made billions of dollars, you know, selling those widgets, making those widgets. Therefore, those billions of dollars are mine. Why am I the enemy of health care?”
“Well, you didn’t make those widgets, did you? Because you employed thousands of people and paid them less than a living wage to make those widgets for you. You didn’t make those widgets. You sat on a couch while thousands of people were paid modern-day slave wages, and in some cases real modern-day slavery depending on where you are in terms of food production. You made that money off the backs of undocumented people. You made that money off the backs of black and brown people being paid under a living wage. You made that money off the backs of single mothers—all of these people who are literally dying because they can’t afford to live. And so no one ever makes a billion dollars; you take a billion dollars.”
Why this isn’t simply regarded as common sense is beyond me, but for many Americans, at least, the idea that billionaires “make” a billion dollars while everyone else “takes” from them is ingrained in the subconscious—so much so that the idea of a progressive tax system that derives most of its revenue from taxing the wealthy is seen as an “unfair” manifestation of class envy by most Republican officeholders and roughly half the country.
The lie at the heart of conservative orthodoxy on wealth inequality is perhaps best illustrated by the following chart from the left-leaning, labor-affiliated Economic Policy Institute. It clearly shows that wages for nonsupervisory workers (i.e., the people who do most of the work) have virtually flatlined since the 1970s, whereas net productivity has skyrocketed over the same period.
So if our nation’s total wealth has increased dramatically while wages have failed to keep up, where has all that wealth gone? Increasingly, it’s gone to multimillionaires and billionaires. Did they build that? Well, some of it, sure, but they’ve taken an outsized share and haven’t spread the wealth in anything approaching an equitable fashion.
Why? Well, one reason is likely our increasingly regressive tax system, which encourages greed. Imagine you’re really rich. (I’m sure you can do it if you try.) If the tax rate you pay on every dollar earned over, say, $2 million is 70%, the thought of scooping those dollars up and putting them in the bank, investing them in the stock market, or buying up more property than you need is going to seem less appealing than if you’re paying a 35% rate on those same dollars. So what will you do? Well, it’s impossible to say for certain, but isn’t it at least somewhat more likely that you’ll redistribute that money in the form of business investments, including wages for your best-trained and most valuable employees?
While you may still consider hoarding the cash, it makes far less sense to do so if you’re forced to pay a 70% tax rate than if you’re paying just 35%. So with a higher marginal tax rate, you’ll be far more likely to plow the money back into your company—making your employees happier and more productive, while boosting the health of your business—or to give more to charity.
Is that unfair? Not remotely. Because as a business owner, yes, you deserve a big payday for coming up with an innovative product, taking a risk, contributing to the health of our economy, and creating jobs. But do you deserve to be a greedy asshole who works his employees half to death and pays them as little as you possibly can? If you think so, you just might be a Republican.
Assume for a moment that the economy really is like a pie.
Here’s what happens, according to Republicans: Business owners, including billionaires, supply the recipe and the oven, wealthy investors supply the electricity and raw materials, and then a throng of poor people show up at their doorstep, to eat the pie the noble “makers” have created almost solely through their own grit and ingenuity.
But here’s what really happens: The economy actually consists of millions of pies. Yes, billionaires provide the recipe and oven, investors the electricity and raw materials, but workers do the rest—expending their time and effort churning out pies by the truckload. Billionaire owners and millionaire investors then take those pies and hoard them in a warehouse, eating them at their leisure, while workers are given as little to eat as the owners and investors can get away with giving them.
So who are the “makers” and the “takers” in this scenario? Well, Romney’s outlook on this was always blinkered: Both classes contribute their share, and both take some of the benefits. But over the past 40 years—as evidenced by the above chart—the “takers” have increasingly been members of the billionaire leisure class.
That’s why we fight these attitudes, why we need to sharpen our rhetoric, and why I was so heartened by Ocasio-Cortez’s blunt assessment of our economy and the billionaire class. Over the past four decades especially, we’ve been conditioned to think hard work, talent, and perspicacity are all you need to become fabulously wealthy. Well, if the continued existence of Donald Trump hasn’t dispelled that notion forever, perhaps we could look to wage stagnation, the increasing impotence of the minimum wage, the onerous yoke of student debt so many of our workers still struggle under, skyrocketing health care costs, out-of-reach housing costs, and many more burdens that have conspired to keep poor and lower-middle-class people poor and middle-classed.
Many, especially younger, Americans have sensed in their guts that the system has become rigged in favor of the already wealthy and against them and their peers. Many who voted for Donald Trump sensed it, but they tragically mistook snake oil for a viable cure. The rise of politicians like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—who have offered prescriptions such as Medicare for All, a wealth tax, student loan relief, etc.—is another indication that people are getting wise to the ongoing billionaire grift.
I sense an even stronger “fuck you” moment coming, and maybe the coronavirus that’s currently raging—and the recession that appears to have already resulted from it—will be an inflection point. Incidentally, the glorious 0.1% seems to have lost its magic productivity wand in the wake of today’s shelter-in-place policies. (Has the millionaire “maker” canard ever been exposed this starkly before?)
The country’s current grim economic prospects could turn Republicans’ increasingly flaccid “class envy” rhetoric into a rapier-sharp “righteous class anger” rallying cry that Democrats could ride to victory in November.
Either way, like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, we need to be less timid in our rhetoric. No matter what we say or do, Republicans will call us socialists until they—and, hopefully, Texas—turn blue. They’ll never stop harping on “class envy” and “class warfare.” But we can make their pronouncements seem more and more empty by moving the Overton window with regard to policies designed to ameliorate wealth inequality, and by showing workers that they really should be better compensated for the value they contribute to our economy. All it takes is political will.
Of course, the GOP will call this “wealth redistribution,” as will many Democrats. “Redistribution” has never been an ideal term. I prefer “giving more back to the people who actually created it”—even if they do consider themselves temporarily embarrassed billionaires.
For now, though, I’ll take “no one ever makes a billion dollars; you take a billion dollars.” Because we built it ... and they know it.