Wealth concentrates political power

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I was not the only reader mystified by William Perry Pendley’s attempt to use Enstrom Candies and owner Doug Simons as a cudgel to beat on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Pendley framed a quote—“you didn’t make that widget”— by the right-wing’s favorite target to suggest that Democrats hate and misunderstand America’s entrepreneurs.

In fact, the quote was not about local business owners like Doug Simons, so let’s leave him out of it, except to mention that his company pays entry-level workers above Colorado’s minimum wage, and he is not a billionaire. Neither am I, but I am a retired entrepreneur whose multimillion-dollar company, now owned by former employees, is celebrating its 33rd year.

While I founded the company, I never made all of those widgets, either. We grew because others brought their energy and skills to an enterprise and culture that valued their contributions. Some of those employees later went off and founded their own outfits.

Huge tax breaks and subsidies for large corporations and wealthy investors were not available to me as a small-business owner. But instead of paying taxes on excess profits, I had the option of investing in my business, paying employees more, providing good benefits, matching their charitable donations and giving them flexible time off. Like a family business that stays rooted in its community, this a model of entrepreneurism that rewards the owner and is good for workers and communities.

Ocasio-Cortez was objecting to a Darwinian economic system that ordains the super-wealthy as the custodians of political power. Her critique, (which you can hear at https://youtu.be/2yOcUqe01So?t=1920), starts with the idea that the wealthy know better how to spend resources for the common good because, well, they have accumulated so much money for themselves.

When she says, “No one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars,” it’s not “to villainize and to say billionaires are inherently morally corrupt.” If an economic system — whether capitalism, slavery, colonialism or feudalism — is based upon concentrated control of resources, it “always ends in billionaires” and a concentration of political power that perpetuates the system.

Democracy poses a counter to this concentration by giving the public a voice in deciding what is good for itself and the nation. The right’s scare mongering about “socialism” is not merely in opposition to government redistribution of resources. More fundamentally, it is about perpetuating a system that serves the few in the name of the people.

But instead of enacting broadly beneficial policies, anti-tax interests also align against public investment, “welfare,” voting rights, organized labor, raising the minimum wage, and regulations to protect health and the environment.

Their favored all-purpose tax cuts do not spread wealth so much as accelerate its upward flow. In January 2021, the 660 billionaires in the U.S. saw an overall wealth increase of more than 38% just since the start of the pandemic. The top 15 fortunes grew more than 58%. Meanwhile, for decades, real wages have barely budged.

Extending more economic power to regular people means more families can support themselves and live in healthy, safe and just society. This is especially important at the fine line between financial independence for the working poor and the need to seek out public assistance or suffer housing and food insecurity. A higher minimum wage is one such tool.

For example, MIT’s Living Wage Calculator draws upon geographically specific data to estimate a minimum subsistence wage. For a single adult in Mesa County it is $24,664 after taxes; the figure for the Ogden/Clearfield area is just $740 less. Yet in Ogden, where Utah’s minimum wage is $7.25 versus Colorado’s $12, typical annual salaries do not meet this basic threshold for five occupational categories, compared to only one in Mesa County. Even more significant, according to the calculator, the pay differential between metro areas is substantial across the board in all but one of 22 categories, with Mesa County workers earning more.

Already, President Biden’s newly announced infrastructure and tax plan is being greeted with the standard lines from behind the billionaire curtain: Families will be hurt, factories and industries wrecked, and Main Streets boarded up.

The majority of Americans don’t buy the rhetoric that giant corporations and rich investors are our salvation. If only our dark money politicians could see the light.

Grand Junction native Charlie Quimby is a writer, community volunteer and retired entrepreneur.

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