Fat Cats, Members of the 1 Percent, the Filthy Rich: Just kidding.....
I come in peace and I come with a proposal -- an investment proposal and a course correction -- to restore and secure this great country going forward. You, America's wealthy class, are key to the American Renaissance.
At the moment, you and your kind -- and this is no kidding -- are not held in high esteem by the general public. Rightly or wrongly -- rightly, I would submit -- the public holds your class, those members operating and speculating on Wall Street, responsible for crashing the economy in 2008, which led to the worst economic upheaval since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The public's anger exploded -- understandably, I would also submit -- when their hard-earned tax dollars were used to bail out those irresponsible institutions responsible for the crash.
Acting on that low estimation of your class, my Democratic opponent for the White House, Senator Bernie Sanders, vows once in office to make war -- a "political revolution" -- on the millionaires and billionaires. His combative stance is garnering a huge and energetic following, reflecting the public's deep anger and discontent with the state of things generally and, specifically, with the income inequality now rising to historic heights.
Meanwhile Donald Trump, billionaire and leading Republican contender, is giving your class heartburn -- and picking up populist points -- by talking about raising taxes on "the hedge fund guys" and ending the practice of corporations avoiding U.S. taxes by setting up shell corporations abroad. While I agree with these proposals in general, there are other aspects of Mr. Trump's bombastic approach -- call him "the ugly capitalist" -- that give Capitalism a bad name and strike exactly the wrong chord at this hinge moment in American history.
So: Between a President Sanders and his pitchfork and a President Trump and his turbo-capitalism, you have me: Hillary Clinton, Broker. Rather than mindlessly engage in class warfare or mindlessly pursue more dog-eat-dog Capitalism, can we not sit on our oars a moment and redefine the kind of Capitalism that best serves America and, doing so, make a course correction? We are talking historic here.
Theories and their systems become caricatures of their original objective if not handled wisely and recalibrated. Communism is one example; perhaps Capitalism is another. Certainly the human costs, if not the utility, of dog-eat-dog Capitalism have become too dear. Adam Smith's theory of "the invisible hand" of individual self-interest driving the free market has become, today, the harsh reality of a hand of gargantuan size extracting the lion's share of our nation's profits and assets. History shows that nations dominated by extractive elites, while they may thrive for a while -- think Rome or Spain -- in the long run cannot prevail, either as a nation or an elite.
Now, you may think the term "extractive" too harsh, but how is it not factually correct? How is the fact that the top 1 percent control 40% of the nation's wealth, with their incomes rising 18% in just the last decade -- how is this not extractive? You may call it a talent for optimizing opportunity, but others call it extractive.
So, the question becomes: Can the wealthy elite in America become less extractive? Can America find its way to a more equitable place and make this crucial course correction? To quote a winning campaign slogan, "Yes, we can."
America has always represented the Land of Opportunity. Unique in the history of humankind, a history replete with autocratic rule and faceless masses, America's grand project has been to take two systems -- Capitalism and Democracy -- and create a working construct powered by and in turn empowering both the citizen and the capitalist. Equilibrium is required, or the project breaks down. If the capitalist extracts too much reward and the citizen too little, or if the capitalist dominates the political sphere leaving the citizen powerless, the system is in disequilibrium. On both counts, America is at present in disequilibrium.
So, my proposal and my appeal to you: Rather than extract, reinvest. Reinvest in this grand project -- America's historic Capitalism-and-Democracy machine -- and restore equilibrium.
This machine works best when it works for all, citizen and capitalist alike. Perhaps this machine reached peak performance in the decades after World War II. Granted, it helped that we won the war and could build from an intact industrial base. But it also helped that workers could earn a living wage, could afford to buy a house, could afford to send their children to college, could afford to take the occasional vacation.
That ideal state does not exist anymore. Today CEOs make 300 times what their workers take home, compared to only 20 times as much in the 1960s -- while workers' wages have remained stagnant for decades. Now people on Main Street may work two jobs just to make ends meet, they go into debt to finance a house or send their children to college, they live in nerve-racking anxiety. To maintain this unbalanced system, the wealthy elite has secured the politics it needs, with fleets of Washington lobbyists and, thanks to a compliant Supreme Court, unlimited campaign donations.
How did this breakdown happen? The reasons are various -- some say greed, others say corruption, too much of a muchness. The culture changed, too: In the immediate post-World War II period, Gordon Gekko would have been just a Disney-cute reptile, not the espouser of the "Greed is good" mentality dominant today.
But whatever the reasons for the breakdown, can we not organize ourselves better? In his essay titled "Politics," the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844 posed a test applying to all nations at all times when he asked: "Are our methods now so excellent that all competition is hopeless? Could not a nation...devise better ways?" We need to devise a better Capitalism, one with a human face.
Now, a first reaction from your quarter is to cry "Redistributionist!" -- to fear the loss of one's assets through confiscatory taxation. But, honestly and to put it plainly: Hasn't a kind of redistribution already taken place, with the wealthy elite's leaps in wealth and assets, especially since the 2008 financial crash?
Another notion I hear among the wealthy is that Americans don't work hard enough. But how does that square with the demonstrable fact that, despite their stagnant wages, American workers are more productive than ever? And the notion that Main Street is resentful of wealth, heard in Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run, is off the mark. Americans don't resent wealth; they just want their fair crack at it. We're all capitalists here; nobody is arguing for a barter economy or a command economy run by the state; we all salute the market economy. But I will argue, we can argue, for a market economy that's more equitable, for Capitalism with a human face.
Capitalism with a human face: What is that? What does it mean for you, the wealthy elite? I am no economist, but I am a politician, and being among the people of Main Street, I hear the anger, the anxiety, the sorrow. Imagine living with no financial security, none. This state of things cannot be maintained without reaching a flashpoint, with who knows what consequences. How to prevent that flashpoint?
For one thing, by paying your fair share of taxes. Enough with CEOs paying at a lower rate than their secretaries. Main Street has heard this ad nauseam and, frankly, they're sick of it. Those CEOs should do the equitable thing and fix it. And no more shell corporations set up abroad to avoid taxes at home. That lost revenue means our roads and bridges and railways and airports -- the very infrastructure on which the American economy moves -- fall into disrepair and collapse, sometimes with fatal results. Flying into U.S. airports today, as I hear many of you say, is like flying into a third-world country. Well, let's fix that. And stand for financial regulation -- smart regulation -- not block it. Systems cannot function without rules.
Other reforms, to be specified, would follow from the course correction I propose; my focus here is on the general. None of this is rocket science, it is simple equity. Generally, it means giving up gains that, to put it plainly, are ill-gotten, and remitting those gains to the American people. At the least, it means reinvesting in Brand America -- and why wouldn't you reinvest in the very foundation of your wealth? At most, it means renewal of America's grand project.
All this may strike you as bold, outrageous, even radical. As Emerson said, "Nothing so astonishes as common sense and plain dealing." But I say it because it needs to be said and done and because -- more plain dealing -- no such voice has been heard from your class saying these things and doing something about it. We have waited and waited for a George Washington visionary to emerge from Wall Street or the corporate sector, someone who combines business savvy with a humanitarian feeling for Main Street, who exhorts his peers to be less extractive, pay their fair share of taxes, who could ask the ultimate question, How much is enough? How many homes, how many yachts, how many tchotchkes do we need?
Imagine if Mitt Romney, wealthy financier, had campaigned in this mode. If he had addressed, say, income inequality and declared: "It's simply not right that my class gets to enjoy all the fruits of this great system of ours, while people not so fortunate suffer in poverty, untreated illness, the terrible anxiety of now knowing what the next day will bring. I grieve over that, it's simply not right. And if you elect me, I'll endeavor to redress that balance." And if Romney had said to his Wall Street peers: "As stewards of America's great financial system, we must take responsibility for the recent crash, not duck it. For in campaigning I have met the good souls of Main Street and, I tell you, it is simply wrong that they be injured further by forces within our control. We must see our mission as one that maximizes returns not just to our companies, but to this great country."
That Romney, business- savvy and humane, echoing Teddy Roosevelt, might very well have been elected President (and might have prevented Donald Trump). That Romney might also have been the savior of American Capitalism.
So, I say what Mitt Romney did not say, nor has any Republican candidate said in this campaign so far, and I ask that you work with me for a course correction. While Democrat Bernie Sanders advocates a similar course correction, it is, again, as a declaration of war -- on you.
Finally, I have to ask: As investors, why would you re-invest in the same Republican policies that broke the economy in the first place and, moreover, could do and did little to repair it? Why would you do that? Just asking. And, since Democrats believe in government, if elected I vow to make government work better. Your tax dollars remitted to the U.S. Government should work much, much better.
The idea that we are all in the same boat is a cliché, an old one, but it is profoundly true: We really are all of us -- the 1 percent and the 99 percent -- in the same boat. We must all take care not to capsize the boat in which we are all passengers, we must all do our part to repair our leaking craft. On the horizon lies a New Day for America. All hands on deck!
Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."