Please…Call us ‘People of Means’
New York to world’s richest man: Fuhgeddaboudit
by Thomas Adcock –Copyright © 2019 • Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK CITY, near America
A prosperous dolt named Howard Schultz scored his most notable life achievement in 1995 by inventing the Mocha Frappuccino, a briskly profitable confection peddled throughout his empire of Starbucks coffee houses. A quarter century later, now comes Mr. Schultz asking voters to believe that his caffeinated brainstorm, and the billions of dollars accrued, qualifies him to be president of the United States.
Bad timing, Mr. Schultz. The polity seems at long last awakened to a dominant fact of our national life. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln—our sixteenth president, assassinated in 1865 by a zealot for African slave labor as a means of enriching whip-cracking white plantation masters of the South—America has a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy. And we are rather sick and tired of it, thank-you.
We have voted dolts into the White House before, and we certainly have one residing there today, but this man Schultz is especially lumpish. His pride in registering a personal net worth of $3.5 billion (€3.09 billion), according to Forbes magazine, comes with the ubiquity of overpriced Starbucks outposts everywhere on Earth. Every time one of his army of low-wage baristas pours a cup of ridiculously expensive coffee, he becomes even richer.
Howard Schultz is dimly aware that the term “billionaire” has become something of a pejorative.
Or as he recently put it in a CNN television interview, a “catchphrase.” The Mocha Frappucino magnate did not elaborate on what, exactly, might be caught by such phrasing. But never mind. More importantly, he implores us to stop it already with the B-word, the one that reveals his caste as walking, talking advertisements for immediate creation of an excess wealth tax. In defense of his kind, he said, “I would rephrase that. Call us ‘people of means.’”
Likewise displeasedwith the “billionaire” tag is Elon Musk, the technology entrepreneur of three nationalities (Canadian, U.S., South African) whose net worth is north of $20 billion (€17.63 billion), according to Business Insider magazine. The B-word, according to a Twitter post from Mr. Musk in July of last year, is “almost always meant to devalue and denigrate.”
Neither man “of means” would know embarrassment in findings of the latest wealth gap report from Oxfam International, the consortium of non-governmental organizations. No more so than their B-word brethren who jetted into Davos, Switzerland in late January for the World Economic Forum. Global élites in attendance were given copies of Oxfam’s report; as expected, the contents were little discussed, if read. Which comes as no surprise to Anand Giridharadas, the American journalist and scholar who famously described the annual Davos gathering as “a family reunion for the people who broke the world.”
Highlights from the report:
• The world’s billionaires, now numbering a record 2,208, saw their aggregate net worth increase by 12 percent over last year—rising at a rate of $2 billion (€1.76 billion) per day.
• As noted one year ago, the currently improved fortunes of billionaires continues a long international trend: Between 2010 and 2017, billionaires’ wealth increased by an average of 13 percent annually.
• Meanwhile, the bottom half of humanity saw its wealth decline by 11.1 percent each year.
• One year ago, forty-three billionaires had approximately the same combined wealth as half the people of the globe. Today, a mere twenty-six lay claim to the same.
• According to new evidence from the World Bank, the rate of poverty reduction has been cut in half since 2013, notwithstanding one of the purported purposes of Davos. Today, 50 percent of the world’s population subsists on less than $5.50 per day (€4.85).
Here in U.S., home of the world’s mightiest economy, a billionaire in the White House who rarely pays his vendors tells us we’ve never had it so good. Donald Trump’s fictive view, swallowed in whole or part by upper- and middle-class America, stands contrary to the following:
• According to a study by the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank, 44 percent of U.S. households do not have an available $400 (€352.73) with which to pay for emergencies such as car repairs or medical crises.
• Unceasing efforts by so-called conservative members of Congress have weakened the tepid Affordable Care Act of 2010. The nonpartisan Urban Institute expects 9 million Americans to lose all or a substantial portion of A.C.A. coverage this year, with premiums for those remaining set to rise by 18.2 percent. In addition, twenty conservative state attorneys general have filed a lawsuit in a Texas federal court seeking to invalidate the A.C.A. as unconstitutional.
• Homelessness continues as a national disgrace. Though precise numbers are difficult to gather, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than a half million citizens are without shelter on any given night in cities across the country—most acutely in New York and Los Angeles.
To the foregoing, I would add a comparison between American middle-class life now and that between years 1945-1980: A single breadwinner back in the day could easily support a family of four, purchase a new automobile every other year, and provide an annual family holiday.
Further in his CNN interview, candidate Schultz was asked to state a socioeconomic philosophy underlying his ambition to become America’s self-financed “centrist independent” president, beholden to neither Republican nor Democratic Party nominating processes. Mr. Person of Means responded in a generic style worthy of a hack from either camp of the country’s conventional partisan establishment—
“I am not in bed with any party, I am not in bed with any special interest,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is one thing: walk in the shoes of the American people.”
Pressed for something specific, policy-wise, Mr. Schultz said he stands foursquare for “honor, country, and duty.” He also mentioned that he does “not see color” in people. Pressed further, he said he favors paper sleeves over polystyrene coffee cups, and international trade protocols to benefit coffee importers. Really, he said that.
With their mothers’ milk, Americans drink down a pathetic mythology about the prospects of wealth. We are taught to believe that our vaunted land of the free and home of brave is teeming with wealth opportunities, for the even the impoverished sorts—so long as they’re willing to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” as it’s said.
To which my socialist Grandfather Ben would say, and often did say, “What a load of codswallop.” He said this of the “self-made man” gag, the very badge of pride worn by Howard Schultz; never mind that he grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s in federally subsidized housing, an crucial aid to bootstrap pulling for People of Modest Means.
I am pleased to note that a rapidly growing segment of the American middle class no longer blindly believes that they, too, will be filthy rich one day. We have seen true light in the otherwise lurid glare of the billionaire ethos oinking daily from the White House, and here in the Emerald City of New York.
Last year, technology mogul Michael Dell purchased a Manhattan pied-à-terre for $100.47 million (€88.31 million). The ugly skyscraper containing part-time digs for Mr. Dell, and those of neighboring People of Means, is one of many recent structures risen along West 57thStreet, once the place where New Yorkers shopped for books or pianos or art supplies; a place now derisively known as Billionaires Row.
People of Modest Means seem now to grok a simple truth stated by my friend Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights lawyer: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice.”
I would imagine that those of us who do not live in West 57thStreet splendor, when not in Palm Beach at high season, have a personal top ten list of despicable billionaires. Here is mine:
• Beginning with the obvious: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, de facto co-presidents of the United States and genuine enemies of the people.
• Jeffrey Epstein, former investment banker and current registered sex offender who hosted orgies in his Manhattan townhouse in the early 2000s for the pleasure of “prominent people” with a taste for underage girls, reports Business Insider magazine. Donald Trump described his good buddy Jeff as “a great guy,” despite a 53-page 2006 federal indictment on charges of raping and molesting thirty-six girls in Florida. Alexander Acosta, now secretary of the Labor Department in the Trump administration who was U.S. attorney for South Florida in 2006, sealed the indictment after brokering a confidential agreement whereby Mr. Epstein pleaded guilty to a single, far lesser state charge of prostitution—and served a short jail term that allowed him home office release six days a week.
• Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas and Hong Kong casino magnate, is sugar daddy to Republican presidential contenders, having pumped tens of millions of dollars into their campaigns. He is a vocal supporter of a right-wing wet dream—nuclear bombardment of Iran—and an ardent foe of labor unions.
• When said aloud, Martin Shkreli’s name elicits shrieks akin to those educed when fingernails scrape a chalkboard. Convicted of securities fraud last year in Manhattan federal court, the young hedge fund wunderkind—Mr. Shkreli is 35 years old this month—currently serves a seven-year prison term, and pays off fines totaling $7.4 million (€6.50 million). He is best known as the chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals Corporation, which under his watch obtained sole ownership of the life-saving anti-parasite drug Daraprim. Once his property, Mr. Shkreli made a literal killing (or killings) by raising the price of Daraprim from $13 per pill (€11) to $750 (€659).
• Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media baron, arrived in the U.S. by way of London. He was determined to refigure American newspapers à la Fleet Street’s editorial menu of sex, violent crime, and racial discord. Among his first acquisitions, circa 1984, was the Chicago Sun-Times; Mr. Murdoch admired the paper for its lively coverage of professional athletics, even as baseball and American football were foreign to him. Journalist Roger Simon recalls Mr. Murdoch telling him, “I don’t understand anything about American sport, but I know the coloreds like it.” Today, Mr. Murdoch’s Fox Television network broadcasts the most-watched “news” program in America, consisting of little more than toothsome blonde ladies in short skirts dishing up Republican propaganda and Trumpist disinformation.
• Robert Kraft — owner of the Boston Patriots football team with a net worth of $6.6 billion (€5.8 billion) according to Forbes magazine—was arrested February 22 during a police raid on a seedy “massage parlor” in Jupiter, Florida. The establishment known as Orchids of Asia Spa was under surveillance by local police who suspected it as a way station for the sex trafficking of undocumented Chinese women and girls. The spa is located near Donald Trump’s posh Mar-a-Lago, a garish resort frequented by Republican campaign donors, including Mr. Kraft, age 77. Hidden cameras recorded Mr. Kraft on the receiving end of fellatio at Orchids of Asia—at the house rate of $79 (€69.44).
• Bernard Madoff is an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, serving a 150-year sentence for securities fraud. He was once the toast of Wall Street, with an A-list clientele that trusted him. Prior to his arrest in 2008, Mr. Madoff had a certified personal net worth of $17 billion (€14.94 billion). Wanting more, as billionaires are wont to do, he perpetrated the world’s boldest Ponzi scheme, garnering a haul of $64.8 billion (€56.95 billion). Ordered to pay restitution of $170 billion (€149.42 billion) to thousands of cheated clients, Mr. Madoff is penniless. Mark Madoff, an associate in his father’s Wall Street shenanigans, hanged himself in 2010. Charles Murphy, a Madoff financial backer, leapt to his death from Manhattan hotel window in 2017. Ruth Madoff, once the socially prominent wife of Bernard Madoff, is shunned by upper crust New Yorkers.
• David & Charles Koch operate the Kansas-based Koch Industries, described by Rolling Stone magazine as a “toxic empire” of firms that fill America’s air and water with pollutants—to the tune of 24 million metric tons per year. Koch Industries’ gigantic profits largely underwrite the Republican Party and a host of right-wing consultancies and causes. Each Koch brother has a personal net worth of $53.7 billion (€47.20 billion), according to Forbes. Charles Koch wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal in 2014, in which he complained, “[O]ur critics would have you believe we’re un-American.” In truth, he said, he and David pursue “principles of a free society,” whereas their political opponents are “collectivists” who “promise heaven but deliver hell.”
America’s Ten Most Hated, plus their comrades in unrestrained capitalism, bridle at the mention of tax increases. Heaven forfend the moderate proposals of Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Ms. Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, proposes a yearly 2 percent levy on physical wealth over $50 million (€43.95 million)—e.g., real property, investment portfolios, bank holdings, precious metals, fine art, valuable cars and furnishings. Senator Sanders of Vermont advances a similar proposal. Both would also apply extra taxation on ultra-high incomes.
On Capitol Hill, Koch-funded lobbyists are already busy bemoaning the hell that Senators Warren and Sanders would deliver. One can almost hear them telling Congress, on behalf of America’s plutocrats: “Not a nickel more!”
People of Means are especially stricken by the ascendant popularity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a petite, mediagenic 29-year-old Latina spitfire in the freshman class of this year’s Congress. Like her mentor, Mr. Sanders, she is a self-titled Democratic socialist.
Fondly known as A.O.C., she declared in a recent television appearance, “I believe in redistributing money from the rich to the poor. It’s kind of a recognition that levels of income and wealth inequality parallel those of the 1920s.” As if that weren’t enough, the Boston University economics major leads a progressive movement back to the future, as it were, with aspirations of serious economic reform echoing the 1930s and ‘40s era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She calls it the Green New Deal. By which A.O.C. and her congressional allies pledge to work toward legislating Rooseveltian goals: government-backed universal heath insurance, a federal employment guarantee, tuition-free colleges and trade schools, well-paid union jobs in renewable energy projects from coast to coast, and—horror of horrors—a 70 percent marginal tax rate on income over $10 million (€8.79 million).
Good god, that little brown lady from he Bronx must be stopped!
Every day in the nation’s capital, Republicans gang up on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in attempts to take the wind from her sails. They ridicule her difficulty in finding housing she can afford in Washington’s sky-high rental market. They call her “ditzy” and “commie” and “crazy,” save what she is —the future of her party, according to Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Trump railed against her left-liberal position in his State of the Union presidential address to Congress in January, inserting the usual tropes amidst his usual pack of lies—
We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence, not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.
On the morning after the address, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez reminded the Washington press corps of an excellent socialist deal the president made for himself during negotiations to create Trump Golf Links, which happens to be located in A.O.C.’s New York City congressional district in the Bronx and Queens. City taxpayers spent $127 million (€111.62 million) to replace an old garbage dump with fairways and putting greens; Mr. Trump contributed nothing. His company manages the property, however, in return for virtually all revenues over the next two decades; in the first year of operation, 2016, the Trump firm collected $8 million (€7.03 million). The firm pays no property tax, the city pays all utilities.
Last month, New York City was on the brink of offering yet another socialist plum to the richest man in the world—Jeff Preston Bezos, founder of Amazon, whose personal net worth is $135 billion (€118.65 billion).
Amazon engaged in the usual corporate whipsaw tactic of pitting cities against one another in a competition over which one would shame itself the most in granting huge tax breaks in return for the company locating one of its tentacles within its municipal borders. New York was allowed to kiss the Bezos ring, for the prize of a new distribution center in a section of Queens, hard by A.O.C.’s district. Mr. Bezos promised 25,000 new jobs, though such promises are never ironclad. Neither he nor his representatives thought to solicit the views of neighborhood residents, home to exactly zero People of Means. Nor did he or his representatives think it useful to consult the agency struggling with a crumbling public transit system running through a part of the city with especially clogged subway lines, a city like no other in its dependence on subways. Nor did he or his representatives think it helpful, therefore, to offer funding for repairs to a transit system that could collapse altogether under an influx of 25,000 new riders every day.
—Incidentally, the city will please build a private heliport for Mr. Bezos’ convenience.
Local grass roots opposition to Amazon was quick and fierce. Neighborhood leaders who haven’t the decency to be billionaires were united in issuing their brush-off, New York-style: Fuhgeddaboudit!
Mr. Bezos and his corporate coterie skulked out of town. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who led private talks with Amazon in lieu of open hearings customary for large commercial development projects, are still wringing their hands. How will they ever mollify those who stood to profit mightily as side beneficiaries to a socialist deal for Amazon?
Billionaire real estate developers are surely singing the blues. So, too, the landlords who once licking their lips at the prospect of jacking up residential and commercial rents. So, too, the bankers.
But dry your eyes, ye People of Means. All is not bleak as it may seem at first blush. For as Robert B. Reich tells us in a new essay, “America is now a hotbed of socialism. But it is socialism for the rich. Everyone else is treated to harsh capitalism.”
Mr. Reich, secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton who is now an author and professor of public policy at the University of California/Berkeley, writes further in the February 12 edition of TruthDig:
In the conservative mind, socialism means getting something for doing nothing. That pretty much describes the $21 billion saved by the nation’s largest banks, thanks to Trump’s tax cuts, some of which went into massive bonuses for bank executives. On the other hand, more than 4,000 lower-level bank employees got a big dose of capitalism. They lost their jobs.
Trump is promoting socialism for the rich…in other ways. Since he was elected, [General Motors] has got more than $600 million in federal contracts, plus $500 million in tax breaks. Some of this has gone into the pockets of GM executives. Chairman and C.E.O. Mary Barra raked in almost $22 million in total compensation in 2017…[but] GM is planning to lay off more than 14,000 workers and close three assembly plants and two component factories…by the end of 2019.
Most Americans are subject to an increasingly harsh and arbitrary capitalism in which they’re working harder but getting nowhere, and have less security than ever.
They need thicker safety nets and deserve a bigger piece of the economic pie. If you want to call this socialism, fine. I call it fair.
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag