The Confused and Destructive Logic of the Wanna Be Richies

Posted by Bob Lord

First, some context. There are at least three perspectives from which to look at elections. One is the Chris Hedges view, which holds that elections are a sham and that corporate America will control no matter who is elected. Another is that elections do matter, but that the majority of voters are functionally illiterate at this point, such that their votes are as likely to be opposed to their own interest as in their own interest. The last is that elections matter, and that the majority of voters make decisions they belive are in their best interest. Although I fear Chris Hedges is correct in his view, this post is written from the most hopeful perspective — that some modicum of reason motivates voters and that there is at least some difference between the parties. 

Obviously, the one percent can't win elections with just their own votes. Even with election fraud and the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities, they can only leverage their own votes so far. Throw in the gun nuts, the bible thumpers, the racists and the gay haters, and they still fall a good bit short of an electoral majority everywhere but the South. The constituency they need to get past 50% is what I call the Wanna Be Richies. Most of us have some desire to better our financial position, but that doesn't make us Wanna Be Richies (WBRs). WBRs share an aspiration to great wealth so strong that they think (and vote) as if they are truly rich. Incredible as it may seem, there are 40 year-old plumbers out there who vote Republican because they hope to own their own wildly successful plumbing business one day and don't want their kids to be faced with a "death tax." Unfortunately, the voting pattern of WBRs borders on the irrational, and is allowing the truly rich to pummel the rest of us with policies that are inflicting increasing misery on the masses. 

Situationally, WBRs are akin to school age athletes. Whether it's golf, tennis, basketball or any other sport, the chances of making it to the top are slim. You can go to a playground in Houston and find hundreds of guys who are 99.99% as talented as the NBA stars who make millions. In golf, you can find guys (and gals) who actually are more talented than the touring pros, but don't quite have the mental toughness to make it. For every successful PGA tour player, there are hundreds of highly talented golfers who didn't quite make it. The odds are barely better for Wanna Be Richies. In the Republican version of the American Dream, you can rise from ordinary circumstances, build a business, and amass great wealth. In reality, for every success story you heard about at the Republican convention, there are many, many failures.

 Most aspiring young athletes understand the odds that are stacked agasint them. Many try to hedge their bets by pursuing a Plan B while chasing their dream. That's often not easy. It's logical for a young athlete to stay in school and get good grades in case things don't go as hoped, but schoolwork and sports compete for the same precious commodities — time and energy. True, you can't play golf in the evening, but try tackling Chemistry problems after beating range balls all afternoon. 

WBRs, however, have a built in Plan B available to them. They can pursue their dream of great wealth, but hedge their bet in the voting booth, recognizing the risk they may never make it. This approach is incredibly logical from a risk / reward perspective, to the point that not taking it smacks of irrationality. Logically, the WBR should analyze her election choice in terms of the risk of making the wrong choice versus the reward of making the right choice. In this regard, there are two "right choices" and two "wrong choices." The WBR who votes "rich" makes a right choice if she makes it to the top, but a wrong choice if she falls short. Similarly, the WBR who votes "not rich" makes a wrong choice if she makes it to the top, but a right choice if she falls short. The risk / reward analysis is straightforward. The optimal scenario is voting rich and making it to the top. The unfavorable outcomes are voting rich and falling short or voting not rich and making it. The obvious safe bet is voting not rich. By doing so, the WBR gives away the upside of having unfairly low tax rates if she makes it to the top, but protects against the downside of haivng a more difficult life if she falls short. 

The logic of the WBR playing it safe by voting not rich is compelling, yet it is the path seldom taken. The odds are against the WBR making it. If the WBR does make it but has to pay somewhat more in tax, the cost is trifling. After all, she'll still be rich. She'll still be secure financially and be able to do more or less anything she wants in life. So the upside of voting rich is minimal and it's the least likely outcome. In blunt, real life terms, what should you care more about: having a net worth of fifty million instead of forty million, or being able to afford health care and your kids' college educations if things don't go quite as hoped. 

There are two cruel realities here, one for the WBRs and one for the rest of us. For the WBRs, the cruel reality is that their most likely outcome is that they will do well but not that well, say somewhere between the top 20% and the top 5%. Ironically, that's the group that will be hammered the worst (tax-wise at least) by the policies of Romney, Ryan and their ilk. For the rest of us, the cruel irony is that the WBRs have enough votes to swing many elections, and their irrational behavior may doom us to poorer lives and less happiness. 

Note: I've become more and more obsessed with inequality as the only struggle that matters in the end. Six years ago, when I decided to run for Congress, it was on my radar, but backseated to others. I understood it well intellectually, but, as a successful lawyer, admittedly didn't appreciate it as much as I should. But it's importance in my mind rose early on in my campaign, thanks in no small part to my discussions with union members and their leaders. In responding to questions regarding health care, I always worked in my belief that if all Americans had been allowed to participate in the gains in wealth and income since Reagan took office, health care would not be nearly as horrific a problem as it is today. Since returning to the practice of law, including tax law, I've studied the effect of tax law on income and wealth distribution, and made inequality the primary focus of my leisure reading. So you'll likely see a lot more harping on this subject from me. I truly believe it has re-emerged as the quitessential struggle, and nothing else really matters if the forces of good don't win that struggle.  

3 responses to “The Confused and Destructive Logic of the Wanna Be Richies

  1. Great post, Bob. Here’s a reading suggestion if you haven’t found it yet: http://www.amazon.com/Reactionary-Mind-Conservatism-Edmund-Burke/dp/0199793743 Really explains the mindset of conservatives who supposedly vote against their own interests. They’re really not, when you put it into the perspective of radical reactionary politics.

  2. TypePad HTML Email
    Your comment is spot on. As a lawyer, I’ve had clients who inherited modest estates, say $500,000, who are incredibly relieved to hear – for the first time – that the estate tax does not apply to their inheritances.

  3. Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    Your analysis is great as far as it goes, nut I think it assumes ‘perfect information’ in the voter. Many voters just don’t understand the basics of tax policy, or where the levels are. Thus many people are probebly in my position, with a fairly good probablility of inheriting a decent amount from a relative — actually it is my wife who will get the inheritance. It should be six figures, but not seven, and I know this means the ‘death tax’ nonsense is irrelevant. But how many people think that they will be hit with it at my level, don’t know the tax only kicks in on money above — is it $6 million?

    Similarly, I’m sure you’ve discovered a large number of people who don’t understand how tax brackets work. These people — perfectly sincerely — think that if a bracket starts at $100,000 and they go from $99,999 to $100,001 that they pay the higher amount on the whole income, not just on the extra dollar.

    Of course the Republicans — who create more by the time tested tactics of mushroom raising (keeping them in the dark and covering them with *ahem* manure) — do their best to encourage this ignorance.

    In fact, it might be a simple, universal rule — whatever the issues, however you feel about their policies, always start by supporting the side that favors evidence over assertion, knowledge over ignorance, and facts over comfortable — or paranoia-inspiring — fantasies.