A Congress of the Millionaires, By the Millionaires, and for the Millionaires

When the president of the United States delivers his State of the Union message next week, he'll be speaking to the wealthiest Congress in history. What does it mean for a representative democracy when most of its representatives are insulated from the real-world economic experiences of its citizens?

A new report from Open Secrets shows that, for the first time, the average member of Congress is worth more than $1 million. It's hard to say how much more, because the House has adopted the Senate's less stringent financial reporting requirements, but most representatives are, as they used to say back home, "pretty well fixed." More than half of them are worth more than $1 million, according to Open Secrets.

Some members of Congress aren't wealthy, of course. But if the president sticks with his recent theme of inequality next week, he'll be doing it in front of an audience that has disproportionately benefited from the very phenomenon he'll be describing. Some reports say that the president may ask for an extension of unemployment benefits, too. If so, he'll be proposing it to a room full of people who are unlikely to ever feel unemployment's anguish and terror themselves.

To be sure, we have probably never been represented by an economic cross-section of the population. Ever since the first Continental Congress, our deliberative bodies have been made up of citizens who were wealthier than the average. But several things have changed since Paul Revere (himself a pretty prosperous industrialist) made his famous ride. For one thing, wealth inequality today is at record highs. The GINI co-efficient, which measures the maldistribution of wealth, has soared in the last 50 years. Inequality in the United States is among the highest among developed nations.

In fact, inequality is worse today than it was when the first Continental Congress convened -- and that was back in 1774.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession only made things worse. As economist Emmanuel Saez notes, in the years since 2008 "top 1 percent incomes grew by 31.4 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes grew only by 0.4 percent ... the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery."

Policy decisions made by our elected representatives contributed to this distorted outcome -- which for millions of Americans has been a "recovery" in name only, even as wealthy lawmakers and their peers have prospered. And as these developments widen the gulf between the wealthy and the rest of us, that means the average member of Congress will find it hard to empathize with the economic fear and uncertainty that plagues so many of their constituents.

The growing gap between rich and poor is not just a matter of quantity. The nature of their income differs, too. Like other wealthy individuals, the average representative is more likely to earn money from investments -- and investment income is increasingly divorced from the real-world economy of jobs, goods and growth. Most Americans earn the bulk of their income from what they make on the job. But the 0.1 percent -- those in the millionaire range and up -- make most of their money from investment income, according to the Tax Policy Center.

As economist Jared Bernstein says, "Think about these differences the next time you hear a politician explaining why we need to cut taxes on corporate income or capital gains.  Or ... why, as in the House budget, we have to slash the safety net in order to pay for such upper-end tax cuts."

An ever-greater percentage of corporate profit is coming from financial transactions, rather than from the goods and services which make up the 'real-world economy.' Banking profits, which comprised roughly 10 percent of nonfarm profits in 1947, had risen to approximately 50 percent of nonfarm profits by 2010.

Given this ongoing process of "financialization," it's no wonder that Open Secrets found that the most popular investment for members of Congress was General Electric. In its own way, General Electric represents much of what is gone wrong with the American economic system. With help from public officials, it evolved from an American manufacturing firm to a bailed-out financial institution with a long record of fraud and other forms of corporate misbehavior. (See this post for more.)

Lawmakers' favorite investments also included "too big to fail institutions" like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase. Is it any wonder that these institutions haven't been broken up and Congress has failed to restore the protections of Glass-Steagall?

Given their House members' proclivity for passive investment, it's ironic that so many Republicans have taken to attacking Democratic superstar Wendy Davis of Texas because her ex-husband cosigned the loan that got her through law school. Presumably she should have made her money the way Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, one of her top Republican adversaries, did: by marrying a wealthy heiress.

That raises another important point: Self-interest isn't the only thing guiding our representatives. So is a cultural phenomenon we like to call the "147 people" problem. It works like this: People have limited social circles. We can only "know" a certain number of other people. When everybody you know shares a common view of the world, it's hard for new ideas - or for the anguish of people you'll never meet - to be absorbed into your worldview.

We're not interested in bashing all members of Congress. Some of them are fine and selfless public servants, regardless of income or net worth. But their number is far too small.  Wealth is not a disqualifier for public service, nor should it be. But it should never be a prerequisite for government service. Unfortunately, in today's cash-driven political system, it usually is. Only the wealthy can afford the time it takes to get elected. Only the wealthy can write the checks that are typically needed to get a campaign started. And only the wealthy have the connections needed to finance a winning campaign.

We need a democracy that represents the people -- all the people. Today, 239 years after the first Continental Congress, we're not there yet.