Chris Christie may be fat, but he ain’t Santa Claus. In fact, he seems unable to decide if he is New Jersey’s governor or its caporegime, and it may be a comment on the coarsening of American discourse that his brash rudeness is often taken for charm. In February, while discussing New Jersey’s newly amended income-tax law, which allows the rich to pay less (proportionally) than the middle class, Christie was asked about Warren Buffett’s observation that he paid less federal income taxes than his personal secretary, and that wasn’t fair. “He should just write a check and shut up,” Christie responded, with his typical verve. “I’m tired of hearing about it. If he wants to give the government more money, he’s got the ability to write a check—go ahead and write it.”
Heard it all before. At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist view that firing teachers with experience was sort of a bad idea), I pointed out that I was paying taxes of roughly 28 percent on my income. My question was, “How come I’m not paying 50?” The governor of New Jersey did not respond to this radical idea, possibly being too busy at the all-you-can-eat cheese buffet at Applebee’s in Jersey City, but plenty of other people of the Christie persuasion did.
Cut a check and shut up, they said.
If you want to pay more, pay more, they said.
Tired of hearing about it, they said.
Tough shit for you guys, because I’m not tired of talking about it. I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing “Disco Inferno” than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar. It’s true that some rich folks put at least some of their tax savings into charitable contributions. My wife and I give away roughly $4 million a year to libraries, local fire departments that need updated lifesaving equipment (Jaws of Life tools are always a popular request), schools, and a scattering of organizations that underwrite the arts. Warren Buffett does the same; so does Bill Gates; so does Steven Spielberg; so do the Koch brothers; so did the late Steve Jobs. All fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.
I’m not going to argue that King makes a great logical argument in favor of higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy. (And that’s OK; the Krugmans and Buffetts and DeLongs and Bakers of the country have that covered.) But he does at least three other worthwhile things here.
First, he leads by example. He and Tabby give away $4 million a year, and not to Deerfield Academy, either, but to local fire departments and such.
Second, although rich and influential himself, he’s using that wealth and influence to force people who don’t want to have this converation to have it anyway, which, in reverse, is what they’ve been doing to us for the past 35 years. Since the Reagan era, a lot of conservatives have implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, taken the position that anyone who disagrees with them on the merits of their policy goals shouldn’t even be allowed to be part of the conversation. To a frightening extent, particularly on economic policy, they’ve achieved that goal: It is not impossible, but it is very, very difficult, to get views other than the orthodoxy of the wealthy expressed, and issues covered, in 21st century America’s corporate-controlled mainstream media. And this fact alone is causing needless human suffering, because what this country needs to do right now to fix the particular set of economic problems we face is actually quite well known not only among economists but among a large subset of the subset of Americans who regularly pay attention to politics and policy. And yet those positions, compared with, say, pro-austerity arguments, get vanishingly little public-sphere display even as austerity is demonstrably making things worse. So it is heartening, to say the least, to watch King — who, while he may describe himself as “baby rich,” actually has what most of us would consider “f— you” money — wade into this argument and say: No. No, we’re NOT going to stop talking about this, because we’re right and you’re wrong and so the least you sorry, selfish sonsabitches can do is sit here and listen to us for a few minutes.
Second, he demolishes a particularly stupid argument against higher rates in a way that, because it’s simple and because it’s Stephen Effing King saying it, a lot of people are going to see who otherwise wouldn’t.
Third, he restates forcefully and without apology a truth the Randian apologists desperately wish didn’t exist: We’re all in this together:
Mitt Romney has said, in effect, “I’m rich and I don’t apologize for it.” Nobody wants you to, Mitt. What some of us want—those who aren’t blinded by a lot of bullshit persiflage thrown up to mask the idea that rich folks want to keep their damn money—is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America.* That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged.
*A subject I addressed recently here.
Stephen King won’t win this war singlehandedly. No one will; that’ll take all of us. But it is a war, even if most of us didn’t choose it and had no idea it was coming. And it’s nice to know that in a war against the side with all the weapons, the side that gets to make most of the rules, we at least have a few folks like Warren Buffett and Stephen King on our side.