The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Slipping Out of the 1%

with 2 comments

One of the problems with Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns is that he is always right, not as in wing, but as in correct.

In fact, he is always vilified by the radical right, always glorified by the serious left; he picks his topics carefully and writes with a rare knowledge in the media. The man knows what he is talking about.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, columnist for the NY Times

Today, he talks about the very crème de la crème of the rich, not the 1%, but the top one-tenth of the 1% — the group that is truly different from the rest of us, in that they have a whole lot more money, each of them seemingly possessed of some kind of superpower (but none of which covers job creation).
The column is here.

Krugman is a world-class economist. He picks his points carefully and makes his arguments logically. In this column, he is making the point that the most grotesque inequalities in the country involve a small group at the top of the heap. He doesn’t use the word grotesque, but it’s apt.

Temperate as ever, he says simply that their function in society is not worth their disproportionate share of the wealth. That’s not good enough. We should discuss the dynamics of how they got all this money. I think three main groups cover almost all of them:

  1. Fabulous luck — lottery winners, Wall Street traders, movie stars, rock stars and athletes. What else explains such giants as Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, O.J. Simpson and Britney Spears?
  2. Inheritance — a form of luck by accident of birth. This group includes people like Charles and David Koch who managed on their own to multiply their bequeathed fortunes.
  3. Salesmanship — this is the path to power and wealth in business, politics and even in academic, artistic and scientific pursuits.

But mea culpa! Doesn’t this start to sound like resentment? My introspective side has to admit that it’s true. I particularly dislike the people in item No. 3 on my list. The first two are flukes that I could do without. The third group irks me. Salesmanship is nothing more than some combination of brown-nosing, ass-covering, joke-stealing and shameless flattery.

Steve Jobs, called an innovator by Krugman in one of his few minor missteps, was a salesman with an unerring instinct for knowing what digital devices looked cool. There’s nothing new in any of the overpriced stuff that Apple sells, and almost all of it is made in low-wage factories in Asia, but it just looks cool. Jobs, who was neither inventor, innovator or scientist, knew how to sell in the grandest way.

It’s no accident that many top corporate executives are marketing people, a fancy way of citing a better class of Willy Lomans. I have seen the dominance of salesmanship in my two occupations. The daily news stories that make it to the front page are sold by middle-management to the bosses at daily meetings; scientific research is sold in countless slide shows at universities and conferences. No way that the better mousetrap wins; the better advertised mousetrap wins.

Anyway, the one-tenth of 1% is a very small number. With more than 300 million people in the U.S., or 115 million households, the 1% includes more than 1 million households, but the one-tenth of 1% is only 115,000 — barely a neighborhood in Manhattan.

What good would it do to get even with them? It might feel good momentarily, but even if we emulated the ancient Roman emperors and killed them and seized their fortunes, we’d still be in plenty of difficulty. (And, for the record, there’s no hint of such drastic action in the Times column.)

This whole numbers game makes me uneasy as it goes back and forth between left and right. It’s unquestionably cool to be identified with the 99%, and decidedly tainted to be among the 1%, but that dichotomy creates a conundrum for many of our best friends — they are either clearly in the 1% or uncomfortably close. I can easily see Krugman, a nobel-prize-winning New York Times columnist and a tenured professor, earning a salary of several hundreds of thousands a year, plus speaking fees and book royalties. It’s no stretch to see him in the 1%. We know that Elizabeth Warren, perhaps the second-most despised politician among the right wingers (after Obama), has surpassed in her own right the magic number of $506,000 — the amount of annual household income that separates the 1% from the rest of us.

So perhaps the one-tenth of 1% is a way for well-off progressives to avoid the ambiguity and indignity of being aligned in some way with the greedy villains at the top of the heap. Of course, I have no idea of another person’s motives, but I would like to emphasize that good policy and decent politics are not a matter of one’s wealth, success or status. There are many one percenters who, like Obama and Warren Buffett, have declared they wouldn’t mind paying higher taxes in return for a stronger country.

I just don’t like the numbers game — it’s just another dumb sound bite that makes it hard to make sense of difficult issues.

Macy's Sale Day

Shoppers photographed from inside as they surge into Macy's on "Black Friday"

Along with Krugman’s column in the Times today, there was an odd juxtaposition of stories that has a direct bearing on the 99% slogan. I looked and it was everywhere in the news, not only the Times. In fact, Reuters did it best in two side-by-side headlines.

One was for the story about the deep sales with which American retailers kick off the Christmas shopping season: “Crowds hit stores for ‘Black Friday’ deals”.

Along side, was the story about the growing demonstrations in Cairo against the military government that has shot and killed dozens this week: “Thousands rally on ‘last chance Friday’.”

This is a distasteful linguistic equivalence between the way the 99% shops for Christmas bargains in the wealthy, comfortable United States and people risking life and limb to oppose a military dictatorship in poverty stricken Egypt.

For our common culture, I implore the purveyors of news to stop giving nicknames to every other day, especially nicknames composed with the adjective black.

For the good of our economy and our society, and indeed the whole global community, we absolutely must have a progressive tax structure in this country — with the very strongest economy in the world — and a government that puts the lid on the excesses of capitalism. It’s not about which side of the 99th percentile you are.


Written by theunbiasedeye

November 25, 2011 at 4:57 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Ah, if only world leaders had an ounce of the combined minds of Krugman, Friedman, Kristol, etc…
    Which only makes me wonder; like the tragic Cassandra, does anyone outside of the 99% even listen to these guys, let alone believe them?

    Ilene Winn-Lederer

    November 26, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  2. Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva have a paper out that complements Krugman’ s thoughts. The big asked-and-answered question is “Do higher tax rates on the rich produce lower economic growth? (because, duh! they are the “job creators”)”. Answer a big fat NO! No difference. None. They don’t matter at all.

    So, let’s put an end to this “job creator” lie right now. Call it what it is. A fucking lie.

    John Kurman

    November 28, 2011 at 6:25 pm

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