Back in the 1980s, the model Kelly LeBrock appeared in a commercial for Pantene shampoo and said, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
That’s a reasonable enough request. But what if she bashed in your face with a baseball bat? Then would it be all right to hate her?
If you answered yes, you’re on your way toward understanding a crucial distinction in American politics.
This distinction centers on economics, not beauty, although it works the same.
“Liberals hate wealth, they say, on grounds of economic injustice,” wrote conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke, “as though prosperity were a pizza, and if I have too many slices, you’re left with nothing but a Domino’s box to feed your family.”
It’s the “don’t hate me because I’m rich” ploy, which conservatives like to use because they know most Americans don’t resent wealth as much as they aspire to it. (Just as the Pantene marketers knew that women wouldn’t be jealous of Kelly LeBrock as much as they would try to look like her — by using her shampoo.)
So anyone who opposes tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans inevitably gets painted as a crusading socialist who simply wants to punish those who are doing a little better.
But the reality is that those tax cuts are having devastating effects on the lives of average Americans by eroding their chances for attaining wealth.
Consider a recent economic chain of events, which begins with President George W. Bush’s policy of cutting taxes for the highest income brackets during wartime without corresponding reductions in government spending. The result has been the biggest federal budget deficits in history, producing a weaker U.S. dollar on global currency markets.
With a weaker dollar comes inflation, and — presto! — those tax cuts for the rich have made the rest of us poorer.
“Americans’ wage gains are evaporating as inflation accelerates,” Bloomberg News reported on June 20. The article also cited the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, which revealed that the median income for the top 10 percent of U.S. households rose 2.3 percent between 2001 and 2004, but fell 0.5 percent for the other 90 percent of households during the same period.
“People at the high end of the income scale are doing a lot better than people in the middle or low end, but there are a lot more people in the middle and low end,” said one economic consultant quoted in the story. “For those people, inflation is eating into their income gains.”
Even as this is happening, the U.S. House last week voted to permanently repeal the estate tax, which applies to only the very wealthiest Americans, who number less than one percent of the population. If the U.S. Senate goes along with the repeal, our already enormous federal debt will increase by $290 billion over ten years.
Those with the courage to fight for the interests of the rich and powerful insist they are motivated by principle, but they refuse to acknowledge the direct costs of their actions. A cycle of debt and dollar devaluation makes our nation weaker, and the resulting inflation makes most of its citizens worth less.
True conservatives understand this. The actor and commentator Ben Stein, who worked in the Nixon administration, warned in last Sunday’s New York Times that the overwhelming federal debt could lead to U.S. Treasury bonds being downgraded to just above junk bond status, as well as ever-increasing interest rates to keep pace with inflation.
“May I respectfully suggest that in this environment, ending the estate tax is not a major sensible priority?” Stein wrote. “May I suggest that having the lowest taxes in 65 years on high-income taxpayers is not really as prudent as it might be if we were not running stupendous deficits, with far worse in the future?”
At a time when the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is growing larger, giving additional tax breaks to the wealthy is adding insult to injury. But when those tax breaks create debt that leads directly to inflation, injury is heaped on to insult. Basic services like health care and education will become more expensive — just as the Bush administration says it is cutting Medicare and college scholarship programs because of … the deficit.
And yet, even when the hard work and mobility of so many are being sacrificed to compensate for the selfishness and excess of so few, no one actually hates anyone for being rich.
The more appropriate question seems to be: Why do the rich hate everyone else?