The power of the rich

By Walter Williams

The truly rich don’t deserve all the political hype we hear – they’re only a tiny percentage of our population and not that important. According to recent U.S. Treasury statistics, the top 1 percent of income earners have an adjusted gross income that starts around $300,000. While $300,000 or $400,000 a year is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a far cry from being rich – it’s not even yacht-and-Gulfstream-jet money.

The truly rich Americans are those with assets like Bill Gates ($46 billion), Warren Buffett ($43 billion) and Paul Allen ($21 billion). All told, there are about 275 Americans in the billionaire club. Having just a couple of million dollars in assets won’t get you much respect as a rich person.

The 99 percent-plus of the rest of us can safely ignore the truly rich. Our attention is better focused on issues far more important to us instead of allowing politicians to divert our attention by getting us worked up over whether the rich are paying their fair share and so-called tax cuts for the rich. The reason we can ignore the rich is because they have little or no power over our lives.

Even if Gates, Buffett, Allen and the 272 other billionaires pooled their assets, what could they make you and me do? Could they force you to bus your kid to a school across town? Could they force you to abandon use of your property so as to provide an abode for some endangered species? Could they force you to wear a seat belt when you drive? Or could they force you into the government’s retirement program? All by themselves, billionaires and millionaires have little power over us compared to the awesome power that politicians and midlevel government bureaucrats have over us. They can force us to do many things that we otherwise wouldn’t do.

“All by themselves” is the operative phrase. The rich can get power over us, but they must first spend their resources to get permission from our elected representatives to rip us off. Wealthy corporate executives can use their wealth and influence to get politicians to rig markets in their favor – like keeping foreign sugar out so they can charge us higher prices and earn more profit.

They can convince politicians to enact laws and regulations and create special privileges that benefit them and their allies at the expense of the rest of us. Donald Trump got politicians to use laws of eminent domain to throw Vera Coking, an elderly widow, out of her Atlantic City, N.J., home to make room for expansion of his casino. Had it not been for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, Atlantic City officials would have succeeded.

We might be tempted to blame the rich. I say no. In the example of Donald Trump, had he privately tried to take Vera Coking’s house, he would have been arrested and sent to jail. He avoids that risk by getting politicians under the color of law to do the same thing. In this case, we should blame politicians much more than Donald Trump.

Finally, there’s one thing that I truly don’t understand. America’s leftists – whether they are heads-full-of-mush college students and their professors, politicians, civil-rights activists or union leaders – just love to beat up on the rich. But there’s something they need to explain.

Why are so many of their heroes rich and super rich? Most leftists, unionists and ex-flower children support John Kerry’s candidacy. It turns out that if Kerry becomes president, he’ll be the richest president in U.S. history and his vice president a multimillionaire. Leftists also idolize and worship the Hollywood rich and other rich people in the sports and entertainment industries. I’d like to know their criteria for which rich deserve our condemnation and which don’t.

As for me, I have nothing against rich people. In fact, I’ve been struggling most of my life to join them.