PENNING: If you resent the rich, occupy the Capitol

Jan 12, 2012


But a common refrain, if any, seems to be that they resent the wealth gap in our country. That’s why they use terms like “1 percenters” to describe the wealthiest of Americans — who have so many advantages over the rest of us, the “99 percenters.”

While the OWS members are protesting across the country, as their name implies, they are particularly upset with the wealthy who work on Wall Street — a euphemism for the high-finance industry that many blame for our country’s current economic stall. Indeed, there is much to be angry about there, with executives at numerous financial firms profiting mightily even as the work they did caused the collapse of industries and retirement portfolios.

President Obama, never shy to seize opportunities, has been using the refrain “corporate jet owners” in speeches to gain leverage with voters in an election year. He is tapping into resentment of the rich and uses “corporate jet owners” as a symbol of this anger.

Never mind that many, if not most, corporate jet owners earned the money to pay for the jets, use the jets for business purposes, pay sales tax when buying the jets, fuel tax when operating the jets, and employ many people who build and fly the jets. A single corporate jet owner may provide more economic boost than any single White House policy of the past three years.

But Obama persists. He called out “corporate jet owners” again last month, right before he hopped on taxpayer-funded Air Force One for yet another vacation in Hawaii. He has set a record for presidential vacations in his first term.

The president also lent his support to the Occupy Wall Street movement in a bald attempt to tap into the energy of this group of potential voters for later this year.

One would hope that he spent some vacation time pondering the fact that a sizable number of members of his administration — from Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner right through the ranks of cabinet officers and advisors — came from the very Wall Street firms whose protesters he seems to endorse.

Meanwhile, members of Congress don’t seem to be feeling the economic pinch as much as the rest of us.

Recent studies, reported in the New York Times and Washington Post, show a widening wealth gap between Congress and the average American. The median net worth of House of Representative members is at $913,000, compared to $100,000 for most Americans. The base pay for House members is $174,000. There are 250 House members, nearly half, who are millionaires.

In other words, if you want to find “1 percenters” to resent, you can skip Wall Street and head to the Capitol.

The notion of “rich Republicans” is a fallacy. Wealth has no partisan preference among members of Congress. In fact, some of the wealthiest are Democrats.

Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House and a Democrat, is worth as much as $196 million, according to the New York Times article. She never mentions her own flights on private jets to her district in California when she criticizes corporate CEOs. John Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, in spite of his criticism of rich people not paying enough taxes, docked his $7 million yacht in neighboring Rhode Island because it has no sales tax on pleasure boats.

So what are we to make of all this? First, in fairness, remember that the study reports the median wealth of Congress members, so there are certainly some who are of more modest means. We should not let the wealth gap feed a partisan divide, since there are rich politicians and private citizens of both parties.

Also, given the fact that it costs a great deal of money to run for Congress, many of these millionaire public servants may have had wealth prior to being in Congress. We should not resent people merely for being wealthy. In fact, given their wealth and opportunities for a life of leisure or business pursuits we should admire people of passion and talent who decide to serve in Congress.

However, there have also been reports this past year that members of Congress take advantage of their privileged knowledge of government committees to make timely and beneficial stock purchases. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating this breach of ethics.

Also, we should be concerned that people who represent us can’t relate to the economic realities we face when they make proclamations and policies that will ultimately affect us more than them.

Most importantly, we should be skeptical of politicians who claim to be for the “little people,” when in fact they are merely exploiting the wealth gap rhetorically to remain at the top end of it.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist



While I agree and sympathize with much of what Tim Penning writes, I'm struck with several inaccuracies and misconceptions he uses to back up his opinions. This has the effect of weakening his argument and creating skepticism. A few examples: Tim states that President Obama has set a record for presidential vacations in his first term. Wrong: data compiled in August 2011 shows that record belongs to George W. Bush. Comparing the first 31 months of each administration, Reagan=112 days, Clinton=28 days, Obama=61 days, Bush=180 days. In fact, in 8 years, Bush took a total of 967 days of vacation, or 32% of his time in office.

Another common misconception he uses is that a "sizable" number of cabinet members came from Wall Street firms from Timothy Geitner on down. Not true, if you do a little research. Fact - Timothy Geitner has held primarily government jobs, notably head of the Federal Reserve of New York, and has never actually worked for a Wall Street firm.

He also quotes from NYTimes article from December 2011 about wealth among members of Congress. I wonder why Tim chooses to highlight Democrats Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, when the article also discusses Darrell Issa, R-CA and others. Fact - Of the top 50 wealthiest members of Congress, the top two are Rep McCaul, R-Texas at $294 million, and Rep Issa at $220 million. In 2011, 32 of the top 50 wealthiest Congress people were Republican, including our own Fred Upton at 44th place. The wealth is shared by many in Congress, and the fact that 400 individual Americans hold more wealth than over 150 million Americans, highlighting the creation of extreme wealth inequality in this country in the last 30 years, is a valid reason to be concerned, but let's not vilify Democrats alone.

I could go on, but I think I made my point. Regardless of your political convictions, as a community columnist, Tim,
it would serve the community better if you utilized more facts, and less "opinion". By the way, I did chuckle when I read your remark about President Obama being "never shy to seize opportunites" - of course this is exactly what successful people do, certainly those who become POTUS!


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