Politics & Policy

John Oliver’s Cliché

Before repeating leftist pieties about inequality, he might do well to look at the data.

First there was Piers Morgan. Now comes John Oliver, who, much like his predecessor, has managed to leverage his British sensibilities into his own HBO television show, Last Week Tonight — from which he joins in boisterous praise of the Left’s many sacred cows.

Consider, for example, Oliver’s most recent broadcast, last Sunday, in which he devoted a quarter-hour to a diatribe on liberals’ latest bugbear, the problem of income inequality. Oliver’s Piketty-esque conclusion: “America now has a system where wealth is essentially dispersed as a lottery of birth.”

That would likely come as a surprise to Sam Walton, Steve Jobs, or Sergey Brin, none of whom were born gnawing silver spoons. But it should also come as a surprise to John Oliver. The occasional British-television guest was not even 30 when he decided that his future lay across the Atlantic, and in the United States of America he has been rather successful. He played to increasingly large venues in New York City and elsewhere while writing for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (for which he earned three Emmy nominations). A long-term stint guest-hosting for Jon Stewart led to his current show. He also has a recurring role on the hit NBC series Community. Oliver was not to Hollywood born. America has had something to do with his success.

How Oliver would account for his own success given the facts he lays out is unclear. Comparing inequality to cinnamon — a little spices up life, while a lot can do serious damage — Oliver contends that America is at Cinnamon Challenge–levels of inequality. The gap dividing rich from poor is so wide that “if our economy was a Little League game, someone would have called it by now.”

“What sets America apart” from the rest of the world, which is also suffering an inequality epidemic, is that “we have actively introduced policies disproportionately benefiting the rich.” He cites cuts to income-tax and capital-gains-tax rates as examples.

The talking points here are familiar, and as usual they wrongly presume that the financial gains of wealthier Americans are strenuously hoarded, that income tax and capital-gains taxes are monolithic entities, and that “rich” and “poor” are clearly defined economic classes. Oliver’s conceit, which the data do not support, is that income inequality is synonymous with economic immobility.

By contrast, Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, and Thomas Hirschl, a sociology professor at Cornell, found that “12 percent of the population [ages 25 to 60] will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year.” Thirty-nine percent will spend at least a year in the top 5 percent, 56 percent will at some point make it into the top 10 percent, and “a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.” For a more anecdotal illustration of the point, note how long most names remain on Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people. Hint: Go back 25 years, and you will recognize very few.

Wealth is astoundingly fluid. Neither “the rich” nor “the poor” are a static group, contrary to Oliver’s claim that America is “a system where wealth is essentially dispersed as a lottery of birth.” Florida senator Marco Rubio’s description is more accurate: “We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves; of people who have made it, and of people who will make it.” Oliver calls Rubio’s comment “economically, mathematically, [and] grammatically” incorrect.

For Oliver, statements like Rubio’s are evidence of a cult of American “optimism.” “Maybe the reason we seem to accept [income inequality],” he says, “is that even though we know the odds are stacked against us, we all think we’re going to win the lottery.” For this reason Americans oppose the estate tax, Oliver suggests. Even though it is, in his view, a key institution protecting us from the “terrible possibility of a permanent landed gentry,” Americans want to kill the death tax because it will affect them, one day, after they have made their millions. Perhaps that is true. But there are several other reasons to oppose an estate tax besides the Gilded Age fantasy about a now-dead “American Dream” that Oliver is suggesting.

What is Oliver’s remedy? He seems to fit squarely into that category of economic thinkers Margaret Thatcher so memorably characterized on the floor of the House of Commons: He “would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich.” The main thing is to shrink the gap — ideally by sticking it to the rich.

To his credit, Oliver does not come across like Morgan, who was smug, supercilious, and altogether disdainful of the ever-dwindling audience that tuned in to him. But that makes his bad facts, and worse reasoning, even more seductive. Oliver would do well to take a closer look at the data and then acknowledge that it’s not by the random circumstances of birth that he and millions of Americans have succeeded but in large part because of an American system that allows the talented and the hard-working to rise.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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