First lady Michelle Obama the other day railed at “the few at the top,” who do all sorts of bad things. A few months ago, we began hearing of the “1 percent” who are responsible for the current economic mess. “They” apparently make all their money at the expense of the other 99 percent. Are they the same as last year’s villains, who had not paid “their fair share” while making over $200,000 in annual income?
Do they include the greedy doctors, who, the president once asserted, recklessly lop off limbs and yank tonsils for profits? Is my urologist a dreaded one-percenter? He found out what was causing my kidney stones but probably makes good money. Was a nearby farmer one, too? I bet he makes over $200,000 but, like many other growers in this area, has found a way to produce beef and cotton more cheaply and efficiently than farmers in almost any other part of the world, thereby enriching his county, state, and nation.
I am writing this essay on a MacBook Pro laptop. So I wonder, was the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs a suspect billionaire? Should I be mad or grateful that he made billions by permanently replacing my old scissors, paste, and bottle of Liquid Paper of the 1970s?
Did Johnny Depp really have to earn $50 million last year alone — or Leonardo DiCaprio $77 million? Couldn’t they have settled for $2 million in salary in 2010, and thereby passed on a little bit of the savings to their ticket-buying fans? What kind of system would allow Oprah Winfrey or the late Michael Jackson each to accumulate nearly $1 billion? Is left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore — reportedly worth $50 million — a one-percenter? Why does such an enemy of capitalism need so much capitalist largesse?
Do this administration and its supporters really wish to separate millions of diverse Americans by a moral divide of the “few at the top”? Are liberals like Sens. John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein — among the richest in the U.S. Senate — in that elite group?
How about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, together worth over $100 billion? They are certainly philanthropists. But their charities are predicated on two assumptions: They both apparently trust the private sector more than government to administer their vast estates, and neither sees much of a problem in avoiding billions in inheritance taxes that would one day be due to a now-broke federal treasury.
Is George Soros a “corporate-jet owner”? He nearly broke the Bank of England by shorting the British pound and was convicted in France of insider training. Rather than comply with new federal financial-disclosure regulations, he told some of his outside investors just to keep their money. Is Obama’s former director of the budget, Peter Orszag, a “fat-cat banker”? He left the administration to enter the “revolving door” of Wall Street, where he is now a rich banker for Citigroup.
So do we really want to go down this them-vs.-us road? Using a new financial red line to crudely divide us is a tricky business. Those most likely to fly in corporate jets are precisely the elite who show up at the president’s mega-fundraisers and play golf with him on the world’s most exclusive courses — or visit Martha’s Vineyard and Vail, where the first family sometimes vacations. They don’t all wear pinstripes and Gucci, but may hang out at Occupy Wall Street rallies as actors, rappers, and filmmakers in jeans and baseball caps.
In a larger sense, we should remember a few things about the new orchestrated envy of, and animosity toward, the better-off. Most Americans each day depend on our medical care, our retirement packages, our food, our gas, and our computers from exactly these “few at the top” who seem to enrich rather than prey on society.
The BMWs or Porsches of the one-percenters aren’t that much faster, quieter, or safer than our Chevys and Hondas. Damning the wealthy nonstop is often an embarrassing symptom of one’s own longing for, even obsession with, the perks and attention that wealth brings. And if we really want more tax revenue, there is far more to be had from the nearly 50 percent of American households that pay no federal income tax than from the 1 percent that now pays 37 percent of all the collected revenue.
In short, a confident, successful society neither idolizes nor demonizes its rich, but instead believes that wealth can be created rather than taken from others. And it simply judges the better-off by the content of their characters, not the size of their wallets.
— 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.