A stagnant economy has undoubtedly put a lot of financial stress on the middle class. And that is bumming out America’s 1 percenters. “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society,” entrepreneur Nick Hanauer wrote recently in Politico, in an open letter to “my fellow zillionaires.”
Hanauer — an early investor in Amazon (AMZN) who says he has been involved with more than 30 startups — cites the well-documented rise in income inequality during the past 30 years as the ultimate cause of a Mad Maxian dystopia he envisions. "If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us," he writes. "One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there's no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand."
He’s not the only wealthy worrier. Venture capitalist Tom Perkins complained earlier this year about the “persecution” of the rich through high taxes, while magnates such as Sam Zell, Wilbur Ross and John Mack have griped of late about the unschooled masses scapegoating America’s moneyed elite.
Chill out, rich folks
The rich ought to chill out. While the masses may envy their wealth, there’s no evidence of a revolution brewing, or even a well-behaved civil disturbance. Americans are clearly dismayed at the direction the country seems to be heading, but they are also docile in the face of decline and confused about possible solutions. Hanauer fears mobs heading for the castles of Greenwich and Palo Alto, but America’s disaffected these days are more likely to vent their rage behind closed doors as they shake their fists at Fox News or MSNBC and leave cranky comments on websites such as this one. If there’s a populist threat to the plutocrats, it’s years or even decades away.
Here’s the proof: Before the pitchforks, there will be higher taxes on the wealthy — yet there’s meager support for more redistribution of wealth. Polls show that slightly more than half of Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthy for specific causes such as helping reduce poverty, which makes it sound like tax hikes have widespread support and are inevitable. But here’s the catch: An even higher portion of Americans are disgusted with the government, with little trust that it spends tax money wisely. That’s why Republicans can consistently block tax hikes on the wealthy with little payback at the voting booth.
If there’s simmering outrage at this state of affairs, it’s not evident in the public square. The “Occupy” movement against the financial elite enjoyed a moment in 2011 but has largely fizzled. Hanauer argues that the occupiers helped sharpen the focus on income inequality, but The Tea Party is probably a more lasting phenomenon. And the Tea Party's gripes about the wealthy are limited to corporate welfare and crony capitalism that puts government bureaucracy at the service of the rich. As for wealth and income inequality, the Tea Party generally takes a laissez-faire, free-market view: Those who can get rich, should.
Labor unions have represented the workingman’s concerns for a century, but they’re on the wane, too. Union membership has been in steady decline for at least 30 years, with no rebound on the horizon. The United Auto Workers couldn’t unionize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee earlier this year, even with the tacit support of the company itself. Michigan became a “right to work” state in 2013, diminishing the power of unions in their own backyard.
More power for the wealthy
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has enhanced the power of the rich through two decisions during the past several years that have eviscerated limits on campaign donations to political causes and candidates, which favors those with millions to spend to influence election outcomes. Two well-regarded academics, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University, argued in a recent paper that economic elites have gained so much power that “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Hanauer sounds more like President Obama than a self-important plutocrat when he suggests ways to even out the wealth and income gaps. He favors a minimum wage of $15 per hour and chides wealthy business owners who feel they, rather than their customers, make the economy hum. "We rich people ... have convinced ourselves that we are the main job creators," he writes. "It's simply not true. There can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy."
Most economists would agree with that, but Hanauer risks hyping the consequences of a growing wealth gap when he warns that “revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly.” That may be true in repressed states that don’t allow ordinary people to express their frustrations. But in functioning democracies (and even in the United States), there’s plenty of warning when social unrest is percolating. These days, all you have to do is read the blogs and follow the right Twitter (TWTR) accounts. If you do, you’ll encounter plenty of angst — but not much revolutionary zeal.
The economic trends Hanauer identifies are, in fact, real problems. America as a whole will suffer if the fortunes of the middle class don’t improve. There are solutions, however, and they’ll probably materialize in the usual American way — right before disaster strikes. It’s nearly inevitable there will be government spending cuts and, yes, tax hikes, when the government’s finances become unsustainable, which could take a decade or more. When it happens, the politicians in Washington will find ways to spread the pain around and America will muddle through. The rich will have to pay more, but they’ll still be rich. And they still won't have to worry about pitchforks.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.