Politics & Policy

Don’t Fall for the Class-Warfare Rhetoric of Wealthy Democratic Politicians

Sanders at the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in 2015. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
Those who denounce the ‘greed’ of the rich while making fortunes small and large from book contracts and speaking gigs should not be trusted.

According to his latest U.S. Senate financial-disclosure forms, Bernie Sanders made more than $1 million in 2016.

The vast bulk of Sanders’s earnings came from advances from publishers and book royalties: He received $795,000 in payment for Our Revolution, which hit number three on the New York Times Best Sellers list. He was paid $63,750 for his forthcoming Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution, and made $6,735 in royalties from sales of his 1997 memoir Outsider in the House.

Pretty good for a socialist class warrior who, as his detractors point out, owns three homes.

Of course, Sanders’s income from books is small potatoes compared with the $14 million Hillary Clinton was paid for Hard Choices, her memoir of her years as secretary of state, or with the Obamas’ record-setting $60 million deal for a pair of memoirs. He did appear to beat out New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who earned a bit more than $700,000 for his memoir, which went on to sell 945 copies in its first week. (Note to anyone who looks up my own meager book sales: that’s not many copies for the famous governor of a state that contains the media capital of the world.)

For a moment, put aside the question of how many politicians write their own books, or use a ghostwriter. Do any of them ever feel any guilt about accepting a fortune for the relatively mild labor of committing words to paper? Do any of them ever say to their publisher, “You know, I don’t think I really deserve this. You should pay me less money”?

Let it be known far and wide that I support enormous payments to book authors, out of principle and naked self-interest. But Sanders, Clinton, Obama, and Cuomo have suggested that wanting too much money for your labor hurts the country as a whole.

Back in 2012, Clinton lamented that “there are rich people everywhere, and yet they do not contribute to the growth of their own countries.” Obama said in a 2010 speech, “I mean, I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” Andrew Cuomo’s first campaign ad crowed that he “took on greedy bankers.”

And so it goes. Sanders once denounced the “overall culture of greed that is plaguing our nation . . . which loudly proclaims that the goal of human existence is the personal gain of the individual at the expense of everyone and everything else,” saying that it “permeates every aspect of our society.” He almost certainly doesn’t think that asking for and receiving a six-figure payment for his book is prioritizing personal gain at the expense of everyone and everything else. But then, even those who make a career out of denouncing the greed of others tend not to think of themselves as greedy.

And if greed is subjective, then so is conspicuous consumption. Once you’ve earned your money, is it anyone else’s business as to how you spend it? Can you spend too much on a house, a car, a piece of jewelry, a pair of shoes, a baseball card? Isn’t that your business, rather than some politician’s? Earlier this year, Sanders tweeted, “How many yachts do billionaires need? How many cars do they need? Give us a break. You can’t have it all.”

Oh, really? How many houses does the senator need? What makes the purchase of a yacht so much more morally objectionable than Sanders’s purchase of a vacation home with four bedrooms and 500 feet of Lake Champlain beachfront?

“Overpaid,” “undervalued,” “greedy” — these are all value judgments in the eye of the beholder. That wealthy Democratic politicians really enjoy demonizing the mote in somebody else’s eye while excusing and dismissing the beam in their own is not surprising, of course — there’s always been a political benefit to demonizing the rich. But their hypocrisy is at very least good reason to ignore them the next time they try hustling us with talk of class warfare.

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