The results are in. The Trump tax cuts resulted in most families saving so little that majorities continue to insist they see no difference in their paycheques. But one very small group made out spectacularly.
According to figures put together by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, detailed in their soon-to-be-released book, The Triumph of Injustice, and reported in the New York Times on Monday, last year the 400 richest Americans “paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group”. One impact? Income inequality is at record levels while wealth inequality in the United States is approaching that of Third World countries.
This, however, is still not enough for the richest Americans. Like the starving Oliver Twist, they want some more. They continue to prioritise their wealthy-to-extremely-wealthy bottom line over our welfare and what we stand for as a country.
Even as President Donald Trump melts down in public, tramples longstanding alliances, destroys the integrity of our political and regulatory systems, denies the reality of climate change and inflicts cruelties on the poor and desperate on a seemingly daily basis, the big money remains most concerned about their own bottom lines and the possibility of either Senator Bernie Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
One prominent Democratic donor told The Washington Post he would refuse to vote if Warren was the nominee going up against Trump. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg claimed a Warren victory would be an “existential” crisis for the social media giant. Wall Streeters and corporate superstars rant about Sanders and Warren so much, they sound all but unhinged — billionaire private equity investor Stephen Schwarzman recently complained: “Maybe Bernie Sanders shouldn’t exist.”
Some of our complainers sound as if they stepped out of a Gilded Age satire. Wall Street Journal columnist John Stoll found yacht and boat manufacturers — already bleeding financially as a result of the Trump tariff wars — stumping for Trump because higher taxes could “slow demand for high-dollar boats”. (I’ll remember that while I’m pondering my soaring bills for healthcare, housing and my children’s college education.)
The reason is for these rants? Both Sanders and Warren are proposing not just significantly increased taxes on wealth, but crackdowns on big-money influence in politics and big-businesses power over all of us. On Monday morning alone, Sanders, still off the campaign trail while he recovers from a heart attack he suffered last week, called for banning all corporate contributions to funding the Democratic National Convention and presidential inauguration events, while limiting individual donations to $500 for the latter. As Sanders pointed out, Facebook and a number of other companies gave more than $1 million to the party’s 2016 convention.
As for Trump’s 2017 inauguration, it smashed records at $106 million. Also, on Monday morning, Warren released a plan to end financial conflicts of interest among the judiciary, a complement to other proposals to crack down on corporate lobbying and overall government and business corruption. Both senators have said they would crack down on private equity and break up Facebook.
Beginning in the 1980s, short-term shareholder value became the be-all and end-all, something that almost certainly not so coincidentally befitted the people in charge, who received the bulk of their ever increasing pay in that form. (Yes, Sanders has a plan to fight that, too.) That money allowed them an ever greater influence in our culture, economy and politics, celebrated as people of unique genius and insight. It’s a selfish, shortsighted way of thinking but one that’s been ascendant for the better part of 40 years. The result? Those Trump tax cuts.
While it’s understandable that someone with few or no dollars to spare will ponder which candidate is better for their personal finances, it’s reprehensible that this is the position of these wealthy whiners. They’ll be fine with less in their bank accounts or even one or two fewer zeros off their net-worth statement. They can afford to think about the moral and long-range implications of their choice. What should concern them is a would-be strongman in the White House. Unstable, boastful, erratic ignorant rulers are not a sign of a country climbing to greater heights but of one descending to ever deeper depths.
• Helaine Olen is a columnist for The Washington Post