09/17/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Inequality, Nick Hanauer and the Patriot's Moral Code


The July/August 2014 issue of Politico Magazine sports a special report decrying excessive economic inequality, written by plutocrat extraordinare, Nick Hanauer. Living in the north Seattle metro area, and riding high after realizing his stake in the 2007 sale of aQuantive to Microsoft, Hanauer styles himself "a proud and unapologetic capitalist"; albeit an atypical one. As to the particulars of his financial assent from a considerable head start (his family owns a national pillow-manufacturing business), a February 2014 Seattle Times article reveals Hanauer as an entrepreneurial businessman with a progressive social conscience and a renegade venture capitalist's understanding of economics.

Nick Hanauer's preferred financial model is what he and his intellectual collaborator, Eric Liu (a former speechwriter for President Clinton) call "middle-out" economics. As explained in their 2008 book, The True Patriot, "middle-out economics" (their coined term) refers to an approach to economic policy based upon the conviction that national prosperity is far more dependent upon the financial capacity of middle-class consumers than the trickle-down investment contributions of the wealthy. Whatever one makes of the theory, it is difficult to make light of what the authors call the "Patriot's Moral Code," available at the True Patriot Network site.

In the Patriot's Moral Code, freedom from sacrifice is cowardice, freedom from stewardship is exploitation, and freedom from compassion is cruelty. Purportedly, true patriots "measure our nation's progress by whether every citizen has a fair shot to advance on the basis of talent and merit, and by the degree to which we promote the common success of all our citizens." Viewed from this perspective, real opportunity on a level playing field combined with merit (deservedness) is the core of economic justice.

Writing to other 'zillionaires' who are thriving "beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history," Hanauer argues that the problem is not reasonable inequality (which may beneficially motivate people to press for success), but ethically inexplicable inequality. Wielding the provocative metaphor that "pitchforks are coming for plutocrats" unless wealth is distributed more broadly, Hanauer urges his "fellow filthy rich" to wake-up and exercise constructive policy leadership before the U.S. becomes a police state to keep social unrest at bay.

Nick Hanauer's message is part of the mainstreaming of calls for workable political means to address and mitigate growing economic inequality. Widely noted voices making similar calls from various platforms include Pope Francis (Bishop of Rome), U.S. President Barack Obama, Lawrence Summers (former President of Harvard University), Joseph Stiglitz (a Nobel Prize winning American economist), and Thomas Piketty (a best-selling French economist).

Everywhere one turns, respected opinion leaders are articulating concerns about growing economic inequality. Why, then, has there been so little concerted political effort to corral the growing inequality problem? Is the American party and campaign system broken, as some astute observers believe? Could real and constructive change come if a billionaire patrician would step up and do the right thing?

There is no shortage of proffered answers to inequality dilemmas. The diagnostic diversity includes everything from soup to nuts, with alleged solutions ranging across a wide spectrum. Highly variant opinion works to dampen citizen movements and stymie town hall initiatives. Even the language of the debate is up for grabs, as explained by scholars Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen in their recent Columbia University Press book, The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value after the Crisis. In short, if the democratic process cannot remotely approach a consensus as to the root causes of economic inequality, the prospect for sound ameliorative adjustments is even more implausible. The alternative is crisis-stimulated policy making in which the working man's ox gets gored by Wall Street's bull.

Robert Reich, a U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, is working hard to counter economic inequality. Leveraging several polemic books and a sobering docu-drama entitled Inequality for All, Reich spotlights wealth distribution trends for young adults. Enjoying a prominent role in the presentation, Nick Hanauer is portrayed almost as a paternalistic protector of the public interest -- the patrimony of his own well-heeled family notwithstanding. By the end of the feature, Hanauer looks less like a "proud and unapologetic capitalist" than a patron saint of the working man. But a post-movie reality check is in order. Based on other sources, the CEO of Hanauer's pillow manufacturing company contends that the company's $11 an hour average hourly worker pay at its pillow-making plants in several American states cannot be replaced by a considerably higher pay scale without risking insolvency.