Philip Maddocks: Legislators troubled by pay gap between super wealthy and super rich
There is a growing concern among lawmakers that the zealous attention given over to the plight of the million or so Americans who work full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has blinded many Americans to the egregious wage disparity between the super wealthy and the super rich.
Many point to the $26.7 billion in bonuses workers at Wall Street firms pocketed, arguing that that total is enough to cover the cost of more than doubling the paychecks for all of the 1,085,000 Americans who work full-time at $7.25 per hour. So shouldn’t that make the concerns of the super wealthy at least twice as important as those of lower-wage employees?
"Somehow we seem to have lost any semblance of perspective on this issue. The super wealthy are real people with real beach homes who deserve our attention and our assistance. It’s not just an issue of fairness. It’s an issue of caring for our fellow man," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who is at the forefront of the effort to recast the Republican party in a more compassionate and inclusive light.
"A lot of voters felt that President Obama not only cared more about them than Mitt Romney did, but that he cared more about Mitt Romney than Mitt Romney did," said Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who is up for re-election. "That should be a wake-up call to Mitt Romney, and it should be a wake-up call to Republicans. We need a positive approach that gives people – particularly super wealthy people - reason to believe we want to support policies that are good for them."
And from there, Ms. Collins argued, Republican will be able to draw contrasts with the policies of the Obama administration, which she says has done little to bring the wages of Wall Street executives in line with executives at the big tech companies like Apple, Google, and Oracle.
Ms. Collins’ words reflect how income inequality at the top has taken on unanticipated prominence as the campaign year begins.
Inspired by the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s "war on poverty" declaration, and terrified by looming midterm elections, lawmakers from both parties are suddenly vowing to address the wage needs of all American workers, not just those in the bottom 4.7 percent.
"Compassion," said Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat who is up for re-election, "begins with inclusion. We should be there to help anyone, regardless of their race, their sex, their religious belief, or their tax bracket."
Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said the habit of seeing wage inequity as only a problem of the working poor is "stale and old thinking and doesn’t really address the magnitude of the problem."
Mr. Rubio on Wednesday stood in the frescoed room that used to be Johnson’s office in the Capitol, pointing demonstrably with a gold-tipped laser pointer at a mounted bar chart comparing pay differences between minimum-wage workers, the super wealthy, and the super rich.
Mr. Rubio explained that the difference in pay between the $15,500 a year a minimum wage worker makes and the $20 million JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon was paid for 2013 is about $19.9 million, which pales in comparison to the $80 million gap between Mr. Dimon’s pay and the compensation awarded Google’s former chief executive and current chairman, Eric Schmidt.
"Not to play down the plight of the minimum-wage worker, but $80 million to me sounds like a lot bigger problem than $20 million – and no one seems to be talking about it," Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee and a leading voice in the push for greater equity at the top as well as the bottom, said the government social safety net has "failed the super wealthy miserably."
Mr. Ryan has spent much of the last year traveling to stricken areas across the country where the super wealthy have seen their wages stagnate in comparison to the super rich. After meeting with local leaders in these upscale enclaves and working on ways "to address their unique needs," the Wisconsin representative said he is more convinced than ever that this is the defining issue of his generation.
"Say what you will about the minimum wage, it has at least served to level the pay at the bottom. Right now, there is no mechanism like that at the top and it is tearing at the very fabric of our economy," said Mr. Ryan, who will address the issue in a television interview this week and is planning to participate in a summit at the Brookings Institution on social mobility among the one-tenth of 1 percent.
"It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road," Mr. Ryan added. "And it’s time to ask ourselves, if we don’t take care of the super wealthy, who will?"
Philip Maddocks writes a weekly satirical column. He can be reached at email@example.com.