Remember Leona Helmsley? Among other notable items on her resume, she once justified cheating her country by observing that "only the little people pay taxes." And it was the tone that told the tale, as much as the substance, the same tone as in that more recent reference to "the nail ladies." Romney's chutzpah on the tax return front has brought this issue into focus -- and presumably, come debate time, Obama will nail him. But meanwhile there has been more and more coverage of this issue ever since Warren Buffett and his secretary let the cat out of the bag so dramatically, and made the ethics of the thing so obvious. For example, there is this dramatic display and this little gem.
But my question is -- with the ethics of the thing so obvious -- how do these very wealthy people (loving friends and family members, no doubt) justify it to themselves, in their heart of hearts, how do they convince themselves that it's OK? Because that's what most of them do. Sure, there are some cynical Gekko-esque crooks and predators out there who just take everything they can get. But most people -- including very rich people -- like to feel right with themselves.
Perhaps some light can be shed on this question if we put another one alongside it: How do Republican proponents of all these new voting requirements justify what they are doing when they know that Pennsylvania's Mike Turzai revealed the truth about their motives -- nothing to do with voter fraud. The aim is to suppress the Democratic vote, largely in relatively poor minority communities. If any shred of doubt as to motivation remained in anybody's mind, it could not withstand the example of the voting commissioners of Ohio systematically restricting early voting in Democratic areas while allowing it in Republican areas -- and that was, until the pressure got too great, with the support of the Republican Secretary of State. So, somehow, these people -- in this case, not just decent family men and women, but many committed Christian patriots as well -- how do they justify disenfranchising voters in those districts in particular?
A bit of history (just a bit, I promise): When we think of the right to vote, we pay so much attention to women's suffrage and civil rights movements we sometimes forget that the original and most characteristic restriction on voting rights in the Western bourgeois democracies was the property requirement. In Europe, such requirements were widely enforced until after 1848. In the U.S., until Andrew Jackson's democratic movement and right up until the Civil War, voting in most states was restricted not merely to white men but to white men with property. How interesting, then, to discover that among the ideas floating around on the radical right (which has pretty much taken over the Republican Party) is -- you guessed it, a return to the property requirement on voting.
And you thought they only wanted to gut the New Deal and repeal Roe v Wade?
Here are the original principles behind the property requirement:
(Skimmer alert: what follows is NOT my opinion. It is a DESCRIPTION of an opinion I oppose)
First, the "stakeholder" principle: The idea here is that property owners are the owners of the nation. They literally own the material stuff that constitutes the nation. They have a stake in the welfare of the whole property that is the nation. Therefore they will be responsible voters.
Second, the "proof of rational responsibility" principle: The idea here is that property is evidence that owners possesses the rationality needed for successful self-government. If you don't own anything much, if you haven't accumulated "assets," if you live from day to day dependent only on a salary and a lease or welfare or charity and you continue to live that way over time -- then, ipso facto, you are not doing a very good job of governing your own life. So why should the nation entrust its well-being to your judgment?
That's why bourgeois democracies were called "bourgeois."
Now I'm not saying that all the rich people who don't pay their fair share of taxes and all the politicos maneuvering to deny the vote to certain communities are consciously thinking: "Let's take away the vote from everyone with a net worth below X and at the same time make them pay a higher tax rate than the rich." But I am saying that -- if only in their "ideological unconscious," as they used to say at the Frankfurt School -- they do have a sense that the random hordes who populate "those neighborhoods" in evil Chicago and LA and New York don't really, well, -- belong to my America. And the root of that feeling --besides the outright racism that is also involved in many cases -- is the property principle, which implies that America doesn't really belong to them.
Imagine being one of the 1%, the super rich -- what do they see as they make their way through an average day in this world? They see it as literally made up of entities that they and their friends own. Walking in and out of their towering buildings, driving past their huge factories and malls, how do they actually see things? This goes deeper than mere belief, its at the level of apprehension, even perception. If you own a couple of the great office buildings in lower Manhattan, say, and you take off for the Hamptons from the Wall Street Pier 11 heliport late on a Thursday evening and your eyes wander appreciatively over the glass and steel cliff sides of your properties and through the windows of the still-lighted offices you see the little brown "cleaning people" (compare "nail ladies") busy with their vacuum cleaners and Windex spritzers -- and you muse half-consciously about the whole situation, what you think is that, if not for you, those people would have nothing.
You perceive them as dependents and in your heart of hearts what you expect from them is gratitude. And not just the little brown cleaning people. There are the people in all the small businesses in the canyon streets on the retail levels of the great buildings that you and your friends own -- those jolly (though often anxious) Asian proprietors of all the delis and cleaners and newsstands and their families and other little employees, but also the chains -- from Pret A Manger to Duane Reade -- and all their little employees. They are also your dependents. But not only them. There are the people that open doors for you, guard you, serve your food, groom and massage you, tend to your residences and vehicles, and care for your children. All such people are dependent on you and others like you because -- by the millions, all over the world, in places you own that you've never even seen -- their very lives depend on the productivity of what you own. And then there are the consumers of the products you provide, the cars and refrigerators and clothing and food and fuel -- and, well, everything they need to live.
The very existence of those things is owing to what you, and others like you, do with what you own. So everybody should be grateful -- every time they turn on the dishwasher or pile in the family van for a trip to the movies, they should be mindful of who provides. And that doesn't even begin to touch the gratitude you've got coming, if the little people would only stop to think about the museums and libraries and university and hospital buildings that you have bestowed upon the world. There is your name inscribed on plaques beneath the vaulting classic columns which, by implication, extends your claim to the whole of Western civilization -- and justly so when you stop to think about it. After all, what would the Renaissance have amounted to without the Medici and their kind? I mean, come on people, how could you possibly be whining because I only pay 13 percent of my billions in taxes?
What trickles down to the level of what used to be called the petit bourgeoisie, the base of the Republican Party, is the felt experience of proprietorship. Sometimes coupled with straight-up racism, this explains why the "take back our country" trope works so powerfully. What these smaller owners see when they look at the 1% is a possibility for themselves. What they see when they drive by "those neighborhoods" they are willing to disenfranchise is people who look like they don't own anything and have no stake. They might have some abstract legal "right" to vote -- but not the deeply rooted right to vote that only comes from the exercise of responsible proprietorship. And besides, what does not having a photo ID in this day and age testify to if not an absence of that responsibility?
That's what they're thinking. That's why they can justify voter suppression and let the super-rich rig the tax system. It's all about owning.