Sunday, November 21, 2010

Congress Doesn't Represent Ordinary People

Maybe one the reasons our country is in trouble is because the members of Congress do not represent ordinary people. According to the Federal Reserve website, the median net worth for families in the United States in 2007 was $120,000. This was before most people's main asset, their home, tanked in value, so the median net worth in 2010 is probably quite a bit lower. But the median wealth of our representatives is many times higher: five times higher in the House and ten times higher in the Senate. How can these wealthy people understand the needs of the average American? How can we trust them to vote appropriately and end the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2% of Americans, when they are part of that 2%?

The Washington Post blog The Fed Page reported a study done on the wealth of Congresspeople last week:

Times might be tough for most Americans but not for the well-heeled lawmakers in Congress.

The personal wealth of members of Congress collectively increased by 16 percent between 2008 and 2009, even as the economic downturn eliminated millions of jobs for ordinary Americans, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics released Wednesday.

In the House, the study found, the median wealth was $765,010, up from $645,503 in 2008. In the Senate, median wealth grew from $2.27 million in 2008 to $2.38 million in 2009.

The new data come as lawmakers consider whether to extend tax cuts for couples making $250,000 or more - a move that presumably would benefit many of the members. The Obama administration wants to confine the tax breaks to earnings under $250,000, although it has signaled it might be open to a compromise with Republicans on the issue.

Lawmakers are required only to list ranges of wealth in the personal financial disclosures they file each May. The center used averages between the minimum and maximum numbers to estimate each member's holdings; it used a median measurement for each chamber as a whole.

The researchers at CRP also identified 251 millionaires in Congress, including eight lawmakers worth $10 million or more.

The top three on the list were Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), with holdings exceeding $303.5 million; Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), with $293.4 million; and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at $238.8 million.

"Few federal lawmakers must grapple with the financial ills - unemployment, loss of housing, wiped out savings - that have befallen millions of Americans," said Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director.

Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed a few weeks ago calling the United States a banana-republic because of growing income inequality. He was strongly criticized, and he responded with another column, "A Hedge Fund Republic," making his original case even more strongly. His main question is spot-on:

What kind of a country do we aspire to be? Would we really want to be the kind of plutocracy where the richest 1 percent possesses more net worth than the bottom 90 percent?

Oops! That’s already us. The top 1 percent of Americans owns 34 percent of America’s private net worth, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The bottom 90 percent owns just 29 percent.

That also means that the top 10 percent controls more than 70 percent of Americans’ total net worth.

Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who is one of the world’s leading experts on inequality, notes that for most of American history, income distribution was significantly more equal than today. And other capitalist countries do not suffer disparities as great as ours.

“There has been an increase in inequality in most industrialized countries, but not as extreme as in the U.S.,” Professor Saez said.

One of America’s greatest features has been its economic mobility, in contrast to Europe’s class system. This mobility may explain why many working-class Americans oppose inheritance taxes and high marginal tax rates. But researchers find that today this rags-to-riches intergenerational mobility is no more common in America than in Europe — and possibly less common.

I’m appalled by our growing wealth gaps because in my travels I see what happens in dysfunctional countries where the rich just don’t care about those below the decks. The result is nations without a social fabric or sense of national unity. Huge concentrations of wealth corrode the soul of any nation.

And then I see members of Congress in my own country who argue that it would be financially reckless to extend unemployment benefits during a terrible recession, yet they insist on granting $370,000 tax breaks to the richest Americans. I don’t know if that makes us a banana republic or a hedge fund republic, but it’s not healthy in any republic.
If you'd like to see a visual demonstration of the income and wealth disparity in this country, watch this episode of my TV show "A Question of Meaning."

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