Yesterday, Politico published a late but promising entry for the most ill-conceived political column of 2010: Roger Simon's argument against "class warfare," which he pegs to the ongoing tax debate in Congress. "Congressional Democrats want us to hate the rich for being rich," he says.
This is the money quote:
Yes, the gap between rich and poor is growing in this country, and too small a percentage of the population owns too much of the wealth.
Donít like the way wealth is distributed? Then you can join congressional Democrats and grump about it, or you can get some wealth for yourself.
It's hard to know where to start here. For one thing, the argument that those House Democrats unhappy with the compromise Obama struck with the GOP — which would extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans — "hate the wealthy" is baseless. Wanting wealthy Americans to pay income taxes at a slightly higher rate is the same as hating them? That's a strange way of looking at things, not least because some of the Democrats fighting the compromise fall into that category themselves (in terms of total household income) and would see their own taxes go up if the cuts expired. (I guess that according to Simon's folk-psychological take on things, they hate themselves for being rich and this spawned a masochistic desire to punish themselves with increased taxation.)
But compared to what goes on in the rest of the column, Simon's "some Democrats hate the rich" cry is genius.
The problem seems to be that Simon really did climb the socioeconomic ladder, but has no conception of how much harder it has become to do so. His dad drove a truck and his mom was a housewife, he explains, but despite his humble origins he was able to gradually make his way in the world.
Here's what happened after he graduated from college (emphasis mine):
I got a job and slowly, without noticing it much, I put money in the bank every week and a small amount accumulated. I bought a black-and-white TV and a used Fiat 850 Spyder. (They were about the same size.) And I began hearing about things like IRAs and certificates of deposit, which seemed like pretty good deals.
Interest accrued. I bought a color TV that had a remote control, and I traded in the used Fiat for a new Toyota, because I learned that Toyotas ran during all four seasons. Every now and then I would see people driving Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Jaguars. I knew they were probably driving to large, nice homes rather than to small apartments, like where I lived.
But I never resented that. Which is why class warfare doesnít work in America and why congressional Democrats are being stupid. In America, the class structure is fluid. You donít have to stay in the economic class into which you were born. People donít really hate the rich, and we donít really want to confiscate their wealth.
It's great that Simon was able to come from a family with one working parent, go to college, and become successful. But it's laughable to think most Americans could do the same thing in 2010.
Tim Noah's expansive Slate series on inequality in America is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. He points out that:
Income inequality in the United States has not worsened steadily since 1915. It dropped a bit in the late teens, then started climbing again in the 1920s, reaching its peak just before the 1929 crash. The trend then reversed itself. Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s. Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have termed this midcentury era the "Great Compression." The deep nostalgia for that period felt by the World War II generation—the era of Life magazine and the bowling league—reflects something more than mere sentimentality. Assuming you were white, not of draft age, and Christian, there probably was no better time to belong to America's middle class.
The Great Compression ended in the 1970s. Wages stagnated, inflation raged, and by the decade's end, income inequality had started to rise. Income inequality grew through the 1980s, slackened briefly at the end of the 1990s, and then resumed with a vengeance in the aughts. In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, the Nobel laureate, Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labeled the post-1979 epoch the "Great Divergence."
He goes on to explain why folks like Simon are deluded:
Why don't Americans pay more attention to growing income disparity? One reason may be our enduring belief in social mobility. Economic inequality is less troubling if you live in a country where any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can grow up to be president. In a survey of 27 nations conducted from 1998 to 2001, the country where the highest proportion agreed with the statement "people are rewarded for intelligence and skill" was, of course, the United States. (69 percent). But when it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spainónot to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australiaóare all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick.
Simon certainly has his heart in the right place — ideally, hard work and thriftiness would be all that is required to become wealthy in America. But more and more, it's not even enough to live comfortably. Simon should have done a bit of research before over-extrapolating from his own personal experience, which simply isn't relevant in 2010.