What Do Rich People Want?

Gambling giant Las Vegas Sands Corp's Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson reacts during a news conference in Macau, China Decembe
Gambling giant Las Vegas Sands Corp's Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson reacts during a news conference in Macau, China December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

In legend, F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked to Ernest Hemingway, "The rich are different than you and me." To which Hemingway supposedly replied, "Yes -- they have more money."

For once, the author of The Great Gatsby -- that classic novel of corrosive wealth -- got the best of Hemingway. An important pilot study of the wealthiest Americans suggests that, when it comes to their political beliefs and influence, the rich are very different indeed. And the ways in which they are different have deep implications for "you and me" in 2016 and beyond -- including who defines what kind of country we should be.

In 2013 three professors -- Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt -- published their survey of the policy preferences of the top 1 percent of Americans and, within that privileged cohort, the top one-tenth of one percent. Their findings illuminate central truths about how extreme wealth alters how one sees the world, and who sits at the table when public policy is determined.

Start with two intimately related facts. First, two-thirds of the wealthy surveyed -- those with an average wealth of $14 million -- contributed to political campaigns. A striking 21 percent of those went one step further, "bundling" other people's contributions to give to candidates.

Second, almost half had contacted a public official in the last six months -- including 40 percent who reached out to one of their senators, and 37 percent to their congressman. Most remarkable, almost 1/4 contacted a congressman from another district or a senator from another state.

This is not what average citizens do. Licensed by money, the wealthy can.

The reason why is no surprise. Though the wealthy tend to be more socially liberal than the country as a whole, among the majority such concerns do not rank high. The issues they care about most are economic and relate, sometimes intimately, to a level of affluence which sets them wholly apart. On those issues, the wealthy tend to be quite conservative -- twice as likely to be Republicans as Democrats -- and hold views directly at odds with popular opinion. At least within the GOP, guess who wins.

This explains the Republicans' social dichotomy and, more broadly, its current crack-up. In order to advance an agenda of tax cuts and other benefits for the wealthy, the party's donor classes have tacitly supported hard-right social policies and rhetoric which stokes the resentment of struggling middle class and blue-collar whites.

Thus the party follows the agenda of evangelicals and other social conservatives. In terms of money or inconvenience, this costs the rich nothing at all -- after all, any daughter of wealth who wants a ready and safe abortion can get one.

Similarly, it costs them nothing for the GOP to suggest to struggling Americans that their problems originate with other people -- liberals, bureaucrats, Democrats, immigrants and minorities, starting with our own president. The list of straw men is endless, and includes everyone save themselves. But on economic issues, it is the wealthy -- not the mass of Americans, no matter how great their numbers or their needs -- who call the tune.

What strikes home is the degree of difference between the wealthy and the rest. The single greatest concern of the wealthy is budget deficits. They propose to reduce them not by paying higher taxes -- far from it -- but by cutting programs like Social Security and health care. This, of course, is directly opposed to the preferences and needs of the majority of Americans. And it is this disparity, in part, which is fracturing the Republican Party -- dividing its donor class from its resentful blue-collar base.

This is illustrated by another priority of the wealthy: limiting government regulation, including of the financial sector. No matter that the Great Recession of 2008 decimated so many Americans or, for that matter, that most of us favor government action to offset climate change. For most of the wealthiest Americans, these are not pressing concerns.

And what about facilitating access to college and job training for the new economy, including for workers displaced by the impact of free trade? No go. 70 percent of Americans believe that we should help ensure that anyone who wants to go to college can -- but only 28 percent of the wealthy. 57 percent of the populace believes in worker retraining and education ; among the wealthy, support drops to 30 percent. Though the survey shows that the wealthy are well aware of income inequality, their definition of self- interest prioritizes their own privilege.

Finally, this: the top 1/10 of 1 percent -- those worth on average $40 million -- is far more conservative than the top 1 percent as a whole. And all too often their predilections turn our politics into a fun house mirror of reality. As one example, it is the oversized influence of the uber-wealthy which recasts tax cuts for their exclusive benefit as an engine of job creation for everyone else -- a demonstrably false argument which conceals the damage done to our fiscal, social and economic health.

Another survey -- this by Professors Page and Martin Gilens of Princeton -- delivers the bottom line: wealth matters more than votes. Examining nearly 1800 policy issues, they found that the desires of business interests and the wealthy profoundly affected the final outcome, the preferences of most citizens hardly at all. Their conclusion is succinct: "In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule."

My point is not to demonize the most economically successful or fortunate Americans. Some have profited from innovations which benefit our society as a whole. Beyond this I know -- and I am hardly unique -- men and women whose philanthropic generosity, regardless of their political philosophy, is as stunning as their wealth. We read about them; we see the good they do. Indeed, many of our most wealthy citizens are possessed of a rigorous social conscience, either in terms of political convictions or where they donate money -- and often both.

Nor do I ennoble the self-interest of the less fortunate beyond what it is -- a rational response to their circumstances. But those circumstances should matter a great deal to us all: in countless ways, bettering the future for them and their children will better the future of our country.

The problem is that extreme wealth -- however acquired -- too often insulates its beneficiaries from the realities and needs of their fellow citizens. Yet because of our system of campaign finance, the wealthy enjoy a disproportionate influence over the election of candidates and the formation of public policy.

The effect on our politics is destructive to our society writ large. One cannot envision a room full of plutocrats concerned only with lowering their own taxes without recalling Fitzgerald's crowning description of the heedless Tom and Daisy Buchanan, desensitized by a bubble of privilege,: "[T]hey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

In 2016 the mess is considerable. And so the question is simply this: what kind of America do we want Americans to live in?

This is the central issue of our national life. We can debate what makes a society fair. But fairness is hard to find if rising income inequality is abetted by tax cuts for the wealthy empowered by our system of campaign finance, paid for by crippling deficits which shrivel opportunity for everyone else.

This prospect is staring us in the face. The tax plans advanced by this year's Republican presidential candidates -- from the hard-right Ted Cruz to this campaign's Jay Gatsby, the pseudo-populist Donald Trump -- promise huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. The irony is that -- because Republicans fear making a frontal attack on programs like Social Security -- these tax cuts for the top 1 percent balloon the deficit they profess to deplore, while starving programs to help those below them on the economic ladder.

Thus budget experts estimates that Cruz's tax plan -- including a regressive value added tax and major cuts for the wealthy -- would add $3.7 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. Even more startling is the impact of Trump's proposed tax cuts. According to both a liberal and a conservative tax policy group, Trump's program would cost us a whopping $12 trillion in federal revenue in 10 years time, crushing any hope of fiscal sanity and burdening future generations with massive levels of debt.

None of which keeps the wealthy from pouring money into an army of lobbyists and financial advisors deployed to invent new tax avoidance schemes. Thus the top 1 percent of earners, who average $1.24 million per year, have the same effective tax rates as do Americans who earn $150,000.

Obviously, these socially insidious anomalies are turbocharged by the Super-PAC's which funnel millions from America's most privileged citizens to their chosen candidates, driving us toward plutocracy. And the more bashful aspiring plutocrats give millions in "dark money" to their political pets through Super-PACs which conceal their donors. Here the difference between the parties is glaring -- whereas both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders call for repealing Citizens United, the Republicans uniformly and assiduously protect soft-money -- indeed dark money -- from regulation.

There is little point in merely waxing indignant -- until human nature is repealed, rich folks will keep trying to do what they have done since the beginning of time: buy influence. As for candidates, most will feel compelled to play by the rules as they exist, regardless of their personal preference. The more expensive the contest, and the more well-funded the opposition, the more candidates become entrapped in this morally toxic arms race. The question is how the rest of us can limit the damage and, eventually, change the system from an elegant form of bribery to something better.

There is no one answer. But here are a few.

Start by making money in politics not just a voting issue, but a litmus test. Reward candidates who pledge unequivocally to revive public financing and support Supreme Court nominees who won't change the law to suit the wealthy -- e.g. Citizens United. Demand candidates who want to eliminate the rule of Super PACs and soft money, including dark money.

Punish candidates who support economic and social policies which benefit a few while plundering our future. Call out candidates who mortgage themselves and their policies to special interest funding. Give your favorite candidates whatever you can -- no matter which candidate you prefer, the grassroots donations to the Sanders campaign are a salutary example of ordinary citizens empowering a cause they believe in, liberating their candidate in the bargain.

Nor should we give either party a pass. Quite often, Democrats devote more rhetoric than resolve to curbing special-interest money, even as Republicans hide their obscene use of Super- PACs behind the fig leaf of free speech. Until voters call both parties out, the issues they care about are up for sale.

This is not about class warfare, payback, or castigating our fellow citizens. It is about something much better: a country where opportunity is there for the many, not just the privileged few. A country where more Americans are not, in Fitzgerald's memorable phrase, "boats against the current", held back by inequity and societal indifference, but enjoy the one privilege which matters most, to them and to the rest of us: a genuine chance to define their own future.

It seems only fair.

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