When President Obama’s approval rating hit 40 percent, he fumed at “billionaires and millionaires,” “fat-cat bankers,” and “corporate-jet owners.” In his sloppy targeting, Obama doesn’t care much that a billionaire has 1,000 times more than a millionaire — or that his new tax proposals will take a lot more from those making $200,000 than from the few making $1 million.
Instead, the president is in a populist frenzy to rev up his base against “them,” who supposedly “are not paying their fair share.” The president’s argument apparently is not that the top 5 percent haven’t paid enough in taxes. Indeed, they pay almost 60 percent of all income taxes collected, while nearly 50 percent of households pay no income taxes. Obama seems angry that the top 5 percent will still have more money after taxes than do others, and so they should pay a redistributive government still more taxes.
But 21st-century class warfare is a weird thing.
Take the technology that gives most what only the few once could afford. Most Americans now expect as a birthright iPhones, iPods, laptops, DVDs, and big-screen televisions, thanks to cheap overseas fabrication and fierce price-cutting global competition. The typical welfare recipient now owns a sophisticated cellphone; a fat-cat corporate CEO not long ago did not.
For the president, riding on a private jet from New York to Los Angeles is supposed to be a privilege. But a poor person on a discount nonstop ticket can still get there as safely and almost as quickly for about one-thousandth of the cost in fuel and overhead. Once they land minutes apart at LAX, was the Gulfstream passenger all that blessed, the guy in steerage with headphones and a TV screen all that deprived?
The president believes that those who make more than $200,000 are synonymous with millionaires. But such income levels are not good barometers of wealth in a world where graduated taxes can eat up to 50 percent of a salary and high-income areas have sky-high housing costs. Some of the less well-off go to school nearly for free on scholarship packages to state universities. Other students pay $200,000 for a four-year private college — sometimes for the prestige of the degree rather than any quantifiably better education. Nor do we talk about off-the-books labor, where millions earn money without reporting either income or sales receipts — and often while on state subsidies.
In the old days, class warriors were proverbial men of the people who made an effort to match their lifestyles with their rhetoric. Not now. When President Obama rails about “millionaires,” we expect that in a few hours our class-warrior-in-chief will golf with Wall Street fat cats to hit them up for campaign money. We presume that the first family prefers Costa del Sol, Martha’s Vineyard, or Vail to a passé Camp David.
If director Michael Moore or New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg warns us about impending rioting and class strife, we assume both live in huge homes and are multimillionaires. The new class-warfare coalitions comprise mostly the less well-off and the very well-off, one wishing for ever more state help, the other rich enough to not mind bestowing it. No wonder both demonize as greedy and racist tea-baggers those in the middle, who are most likely to feel the cost of ever more government.
The battleground of class warfare has moved from the streets of yesteryear to the TV-studio green room, the golf links, and the seaside hotel retreat. And when we really do see street violence — looting in Britain or flash-mobbing in America — angry youths usually target high-end electronics stores and fashion outlets, not food markets or bookstores. They organize on social networks from their laptops and cellphones, not from soup kitchens, bread lines, or dank basements.
Class warfare is now not about brutal elemental poverty of the sort Charles Dickens or Knut Hamsun once wrote about. It is too often the anger that arises from not having something that someone else has, whether or not such style, privilege, or discretionary choices are all that necessary. Endemic obesity, not malnutrition, threatens America — including the nearly 50 million Americans who are on food stamps.
These are hard times, with high unemployment rates and economic stagnation. But we are not a nation of the malnourished and starving who are preyed upon by idle rich drones who pay no taxes. And a government that borrows $4 billion a day and spends $2 trillion more a year than it did just ten years ago is hardly stingy.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.