Charting liberal hypocrisy is now old hat. From academia to the Sierra Club, elite progressives expect to live lives that are quite different from what they envision for the less sophisticated. No one believes that Elizabeth Warren would wish affirmative action to work for everyone in the way that she herself subverted it. Nor would we expect Warren not to be in the 1 percent that she so scolds — any more than we would assume that Al Gore would not leave a carbon footprint as large as those of thousands of the less environmentally sensitive put together.
First lady Michelle Obama recently lamented that “many young people are going to schools with kids who look just like them.” And she added: “And too often those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color, which too often lag behind.” But that anguish should not mean that the Obamas have put or would put their children in the inner-city public schools the way President and Mrs. Carter did with Amy.
The message from Silicon Valley to Chevy Chase is that the public schools are being abandoned by the wealthy and that the new apartheid is a bad thing — and, by deploring both that fact and those who contribute to it, one exempts oneself from any worry about doing precisely what is being castigated.
It would be otherworldly to expect Paul Krugman, now studying marketplace inequality as a new professor at City University of New York, to not be making 75 times more than a part-time teacher of one class at CUNY — which is one class more than Professor Krugman will be teaching. We are not surprised that Joseph Stiglitz, world-famous economist and consultant on the sources of inequality, is an academic entrepreneur who has made a 1 percenter income by speaking at $40,000 a pop to wealthy groups, governments, and other concerned entities on growing inequality and why a few privileged insiders make more in an hour than the many make in a year.
The Steyer brothers deplore the Koch brothers’ big-money contributions, as they seek to trump them. That the formers’ money in part derives from coal investments matters little given their green intentions. The media are furious over rumor-mongering about Hillary Clinton’s health, but that is an ad hoc concern, not one born of principle about leaving the private health issues of public figures alone, given that they not long ago gladly trafficked in sick rumors about Sarah Palin’s supposed faked pregnancy.
The Bill Gates family lectures about the need for inheritance taxes; but no one believes that any of their heirs will ever be down to his last million. The Sierra Club fights to divert irrigation water for the sake of fish, but would never offer to chip in some of the Bay Area water supply from the Sierra-fed Hetch Hetchy reservoir for the poor smelt or the beleaguered salmon. It makes sense that the Obamas both deplore the 1 percenters and seek to rub shoulders with them at Martha’s Vineyard or Vail.
Nancy Pelosi lectures about the nobility of illegal immigrants, but stays away from the overcrowded emergency room, public schools for her own grandchildren, and mixed neighborhoods. Harry Reid offers us unhinged lectures about the Kochs, but not about his own mega contributors — while the New York Times fires its female executive editor in a manner that, if Chick-fil-A or Fox News did the same thing, it would go after them for big time. The more John Kerry used to call for higher taxes, the more we assumed that he would try to avoid paying them on his yacht — as big-government Al Gore rushed the sale of his cable-TV channel to avoid a new and higher capital-gains tax rate. When we see universities raise tuition faster than the rate of inflation, exploit part-time lecturers, and berate any invited speaker deemed too conservative, then why would we not expect their presidents to enjoy salaries and perks at rates never before seen in American higher education? Guilt-free privilege is not available to everyone.
The list of such hypocrisies could be easily extended to Hollywood elites, New York–Washington, D.C., media talking heads, green gurus, and leaders of the identity-politics industry. So what happened to cause the new egalitarian grandees to replace the old practitioners of noblesse oblige or the limousine liberals of the Kennedy style?
With the advent of globalization, riches are at levels never imagined just 30 years ago. Had Al Gore begun his green hucksterism in the 1980s, he would likely have made $1 million rather than $100 million. The Steyer brothers would be successful financiers who made $10 million in 1980, not $1 billion in 2014. The bottom line is that there is so much money to be made in the global marketplace that the new wealthy envision the power of wealth in a way unthinkable a generation ago.
If in addition to saving the world, the Gates and Buffett families want to raise inheritance taxes for the public good, they certainly believe that they have enough money and influence to change the politics of taxation in a way absolutely impossible in 1984. Elites now convince themselves that they have the dispensation of gods, and that all their money, for the first time in history, has the ability to force millions — name your issue, from gay marriage to solar power — to do what is deemed from on high to be good for them.
The new big money is not typically begotten through sweat and the grime of industry. It is usually made not from steel, oil, timber, or construction but appears as if out of nowhere from high finance, insurance, hedge funds, and Silicon Valley. It comes quicker, cleaner, and bigger. It certainly leaves the impression that the world can be reinvented as perfect, in the way that $10 million on Monday can be worth $100 million on Friday — without its owner’s having to invest in a new fleet of trucks or 100 more tractors, or to open a new mine shaft.
The new liberal grandees are deeply embedded within the technocracy. A graduate label from an Ivy League or other tony private university is not just synonymous with privilege but proof of valuable past networking and a cadre of similar associates who vouch for one’s culture and liberal bona fides. The best and the brightest not only have the abstract wisdom the many lack, but also bear none of the illiberal scars of achieving their certificates of competency. In our new Pajama Boy nation, not having life experience is now a plus; it allows you to sit in pajamas, sip hot chocolate, and pontificate about the world outside your loft without contamination by the mob. And that smugness is seen as a sort of retro cool.
The old explanations for such liberal hypocrisies are, of course, still valid. Lots of money simply means no worries about high taxes, soaring electricity bills, the cost of burdensome regulations, or the need to suffer at airports or on congested freeways. Facebook or Google billionaires do not care whether the California income tax is 10 percent or 50 percent as long as it applicable to others beside themselves. Take half a liberal grandee’s income, and his other half remains unimaginable for hoi polloi.
If you are not out of work and in need of a fracking job, a welding stint on the Keystone Pipeline, or a job irrigating a West Side cotton field, then you have the luxury to express anguish over the absence of transgendered restrooms or the struggles of a three-inch-long bait fish. The liberal distractions of the very rich are simple reflections of the fact that they have been exempted from the existential worries of the masses.
Being liberal in the abstract also provides psychological penance for enjoying the good life in the concrete. A Johnny Depp or a Jay-Z is cool and therefore free to enjoy compensation based entirely on what the free market will bear. But wringing out that last megadollar for a movie or record deal also means that loud liberal commentary is needed to purchase exemption. When elite liberalism is hip and cool, it is thereby free to be even more rarified, elitist, and condescending. Put a zillionaire in jeans and shades, mouthing a harangue on gay marriage or wind turbines, and no one could accuse him of offshoring, outsourcing, or leaving a big carbon footprint.
Elite liberalism is not a paradox as much as it is an entirely predictable result of the presence of lots of the newly affluent who seek to stay affluent, to ensure that most others are not, and to find transcendental assurance that having lots of stuff will save their souls.