Some conservatives complain it's class warfare to harp on income inequality and to say the rich should pay higher taxes. Philadelphia's Dan Berger, an avowed member of the richest 1 percent of Americans, says calling attention to uneven incomes is a step toward averting class warfare.
"The wealthy in this country have the biggest stake because they own the most wealth and property," said Berger, who made his millions as a trial lawyer pursuing antitrust, environmental, and civil and human rights cases. "Since they have the biggest stake, they have the biggest stake in ensuring harmonious political and social relations and conditions in society."
Berger, 64, is a major donor to liberal causes and the Democratic party, which he would like to prevail in its effort to reduce the deficit by raising taxes on millionaires such as himself. To that end, he joined a group called "Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength," which is devoted to lobbying for taxes on its own members -- the super rich.
Incomes for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans grew faster than for any other income group over the past few decades, according to a recent report from economists at the Congressional Budget Office. From 1979 to 2007, the richest 1 percent saw their after-tax income soar by 275 percent. It grew by 65 percent for the next 19 percent, under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and just 18 percent for the bottom fifth of taxpayers.
It's against this backdrop Congress is wrestling with how to shrink the federal budget deficit, with Republicans opposed to tax increases and Democrats against spending cuts to social programs. The Obama administration has said allowing the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 would raise $866 billion over 10 years. Democrats have also pushed proposals to hike rates solely on those earning more than $1 million per year.
Berger said he sees widening income inequality as a moral wrong, but also something the well-off should worry about for more practical reasons. "In enlightened self interest you would think the wealthy would go along with [reducing economic inequality]," he said. "There are a limited number of countries you can pack up and move to in the event things get totally out of control."
He said the unrest manifested as Occupy Wall Street protests across the country represents the "tip of the iceberg" in terms of what could happen if people really get angry one day. "I do see a link between the Patriotic Millionaires and Occupy Wall Street," Berger said. "They dramatized the issue. I think just dramatizing the issue is a step forward."