Friday, February 13, 2015

"Envy": How policymakers and pundits belittle us with language, to protect the super-wealthy and stop progress

Above: New Deal policymakers invested heavily in American infrastructure. In this 1936 photo, we see WPA workers paving a road in New Orleans--just a small part of the 650,000 miles of roadwork they completed all across the nation between 1935 and 1943. President Franklin Roosevelt understood (as did other presidents, like Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower) that to make America stronger, the wealthy would have to pay more. In advocating for higher taxes on the wealthy, Roosevelt said, "Our revenue laws have operated in many ways to the unfair advantage of the few" (from The New Deal: A Modern History, by Michael Hiltzik). Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the New Deal Network.

When Mitt Romney was running for president he criticized President Obama for discussing income inequality, saying, "I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare." Romney said income inequality should only be discussed in "quiet rooms."

A few weeks ago, when President Obama unveiled his plan to improve America's deteriorating infrastructure by taxing corporations that have been raking in record profits, shipping American jobs overseas, and engaging in a multitude of gimmicks to avoid paying taxes, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan called it "envy economics."

Reflecting on his recent policy advice to Hillary Clinton, economist and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said, "It’s not enough to address upward mobility without addressing inequality. The challenge, though, is to address inequality without embracing a politics of envy."

An investment professional went for "envy" gold in 2011, writing in Forbes: "Envy and hatred of the rich is the last popularly accepted prejudice in America. With the current U.S. president leading the charge, the envy shows no signs of abating anytime soon. The bigots among the 99% of people who seek to control or destroy the top 1% of U.S. income-earners and wealth-owners are targeting a minority... The viciousness of the anti-wealth bigots contributes heavily to expanding the size and scope of government and piling more tax burdens on the 1% minority." I hear a violin playing in the background? Those poor, poor billionaires. Life is so wretched when you only have twenty thousand million dollars of wealth to exist on. I mean, how does one bear that kind of a burden?

Above: CCC boys at work in Louisiana. Between 1933 and 1942, the federally-funded CCC created, developed, and improved state & national parks all across the country. Today, with a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog, and the political right blocking federal spending, the National Park Service has been forced to try to raise entry fees, which will disproportionately impact the middle-class and poor (entry fees are regressive). Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network. 

Whenever higher taxes on the super-wealthy are proposed, the "envy" rhetoric rolls out: "Oh, you're just jealous of the wealthy" or "Why are you trying to punish success?" This tactic is used to belittle us, and to cast us as errant and envious little children--children who are not mature enough to understand the complexities of the "adult world." Sometimes they even categorize us as "takers," too jealous of the "makers" to see straight. And now we see that even Larry Summers (who is not necessarily opposed to higher taxes on the wealthy) has adopted the "envy" rhetoric, albeit without the same sneer as a Paul Ryan-type.

But the fact of the matter is, is that the rich have been getting richer while everyone else has dealt with stagnant wages for decades. So it only makes sense, for example, that the 6 Walmart heirs, who have more wealth than the bottom 40% of the population, pay more...a lot more. It's not about envy, it's about common sense and, as Richard Kirsch of the Roosevelt Institute writes, it's about reality:

"What most Americans understand is that they are struggling financially because the wealthy have rigged the economic and political system to benefit them at the expense of the rest of us. That's not envy; it's reality...For example, wages are stagnant because corporations engaged in concerted strategies to limit the proportion of profits shared with workers, including busting unions rather than negotiating with them, shipping jobs overseas rather than paying higher wages to American workers, and aggressively using campaign contributions and lobbyists to undermine labor standards (minimum wage, overtime protection, etc.) and labor laws. Corporations spent their huge profits on stock buybacks and CEO pay rather than on better compensation for workers."

In any event, you jealous little children, don't ask multi-billionaires or Corporate America to pay one extra cent in taxes! Instead, you will agree to pay higher property tax, sales tax, state income tax, local income tax, state fuel tax, federal fuel tax, bridge tolls, traffic fines, DMV fees, national park fees, college tuition, food prices, and more...even if your wages are stagnating while corporate profits are soaring. That's how you'll display your maturity to the "adults in the room," and stop being envious.

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