“I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”
With those words, Bernie Sanders acknowledged that he has joined the ranks of the “millionaires and billionaires” he has vilified for most of his career.
In 2018 there were 10.23 million U.S. households with a net worth of between $1 million and $5 million, not including their primary residence. Another 1.4 million households are worth between $5 million and $25 million. And about half of all Senate Democrats in 2018 were millionaires.
Now Sanders is destined to pay more to the government. In his biography of Harry Truman, David McCullough noted that the 33rd president was shocked by how little money was left to him after he had to pay 67 percent of his earnings in state and federal taxes.
Sanders’ experience of sudden wealth ought at least to temper the edges of his class-war politics. Getting rich is not a form of theft. As often as not, it’s the result of a service. And wealth and philanthropy tend to correlate. Of America’s 10 richest people, four have given away at least $1 billion and/or 20 percent of their net worth to charity. In terms of charitable donations by individuals as a percentage of GDP, the United States is by far the most generous, giving $410 billion to charity in 2017. The average American gives nearly twice as much to charity as the average New Zealander, the runner-up among giving nations.
A Sanders supporter might concede this while rejoining that great wealth is inherently corrupting and unnecessary, and that great inequality is dangerous to democracy. That’s the thinking that now animates the movement on the left to get rid of billionaires, or at least cut them down to size with taxation.
Yet it’s never been clear why it’s immoral to be a billionaire but not a mere millionaire – other than, perhaps, the envy that those whose income is in the 95th percentile (college professors, for instance) tend to feel toward those in the 99th (finance people). Is there a principle that distinguishes the relative goodness of five, six or even seven zeros versus the badness of eight or a full nine?
In the U.S., billionaires don’t take wealth, as Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, or Chinese officials do. They create it. And in creating it, they create jobs, opportunities, services, choice, equity, efficiencies, and sometimes even beauty. This is why capitalist societies are invariably more attractive and dynamic than non-capitalist ones.
Is this an argument for unregulated capitalism? Is it a claim that billionaires have a superior claim to virtue? Does it suggest that the rich should have greater title to our political life than the rest of us? No.
Does it mean we can only find earthly fulfillment through profit-maximization rather then joy-optimization?
But the idea that people can be judged as individuals based on the economic class to which they belong is one of the foulest in history, matching if not exceeding in its murderous consequences the legacies of racism and colonialism combined. When Sanders inveighs against billionaires he is engaged in stereotyping that is no less bigoted for being aimed at so few.
After leaving the U.S. Senate, the late George McGovern – Sanders’ precursor in many ways – decided he would try his hand in the world of business by operating an inn and restaurant in Connecticut. It didn’t go so well.
“My business associates and I,” he wrote in a memorable 1992 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “also lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc. While I never have doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: ‘Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape.’ It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators.”
The op-ed began with a line from Justice Felix Frankfurter: “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” For McGovern, wisdom came at the price of bankruptcy. For Sanders, maybe it will come with the rewards of wealth.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.