Elizabeth Warren, Democratic aspirant to the Senate seat held by Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, recently came out with what’s now become a widely publicized comment, subsequently picked-up by YouTube and Move On websites:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Her comment rests on the assumption that the rich aren’t paying their fare share in taxes. In a previous post I’ve shown that the top 1 percent do pay 38 percent of the federal tax; however, this isn’t the bottom line. It’s what they don’t pay in taxes, given limitations on payroll taxes on social security, or sharply reduced tax brackets, once 70% before the Reagan era, now 35% max, etc. And then there are the investment loopholes and off shore tuck-a-ways a la places like the Cayman Islands and Swiss banks.
Concurrently, many of the middle class at substantially lower income levels pay at a high 28% clip. That includes my wife and me. The unpleasant truth is that the rich have exponentially increased their economic disparity with the middle and working classes to the point where the future threatens something resembling the two class set-up common to many South American countries of some rich and many poor.
We now learn that 20 million of our fellow Americans live in poverty. Forty-three percent of our unemployed, those age 50 and above, have been out of work more than a year. Unemployment among minorities, the fastest growing segment of our population, approximates the squalor of the Great Depression. The average indebtedness of a college graduate, a good many unable to find meaningful work, stands at $25,000, all of this at a time when corporate profits have soared 12% over the last decade, despite the 2008 down turn.
Sounds like Jacques Rousseau, but in the fine print of Warren’s spirited quote lies the idea of the social contract, that those with means have a responsibility for those who lack. The perquisites of the wealthy rest on the labor of the working poor and middle classes, as Warren points out.
Here in Lexington, KY, local government, facing severe budget limitations, is impinging on health care benefits for its employees, who are being asked to pay a larger share; for families, that’s some $600 monthly. Get real! As prolific social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich astutely observes in her 2001 classic, Nickel and Dimed, “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”
Ehrenreich writes of employees in the minimal paying service industries, or of the working-poor, but her observations are no less valid for the vast majority of middle class families, too.
It was essayist John Ralston Saul who famously observed, “Everyone has an equal right to inequality.” Let the rich, the banks, the corporations try on the other fellow’s shoes, and I can promise you bellowing howls and light-year speed in concocting remedy.