Features » December 18, 2006
We Are All Waiters Now (cont’d)
Isn’t that a fair trade-off? The plutocrats are still plutocrats, but they pay us a pension. “But you’re destroying the ‘contributory’ nature of Social Security.” I beg to differ. It’s still contributory for us, up to 39 percent if my math is right. And there’s a surcharge for “them,” the top 1 percent or so, who will now put it in the Social Security Trust instead of their narcissistic foundations.
Yes, they may have to give up some of their works of charity, but then life is unfair. People in the top 1 percent already know that. Besides, they can always move up to Canada, or somewhere. Of course they would have to pay higher taxes. The day will come for America’s very rich when nowhere in the world is safe.
But can we really tax the rich?
We are too scared to tax the rich. And the more money the rich take from us, the harder they are to tax.
It’s not that they “buy off” the politicians: they don’t completely. It’s not, as sociologists believe, that people think, “Oh, in America, I could be rich, and I don’t want to pay the tax.” Sociologists claim someone making $50,000 a year, or $25,000 a year believes: I can be like Gates or Soros. Or my kids will be.
It’s burned into our brains that Americans believe this.
I have a question: In your own life, do you know anyone out there in a suburb with a mortgage who believes this? I sometimes go out to barbecues and parties with clients, and I think of “businessmen” and guys in sales and ask myself, “Do they believe that?”
No, not for themselves. Or their kids. Usually they’re disappointed in their kids. Over age 40, people know they aren’t going anywhere. Under 40, from what I can tell, the young are even more bitter.
Yet they’re terrified to tax the rich, and far more terrified on the whole than their ancestors of the New Deal and post-New Deal used to be. So why, if they have everything to gain from taxing the rich, are they so terrified?
Because the more money the rich take from us, the more it changes our moral character–we lose the courage it takes to engage in self-government.
I borrow an old idea of the French, writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Tocqueville, Guizot and many others: They believed that the particular “constitution” or form of government–monarchy, aristocracy, etc.–literally shapes our personality. Citizens have one type of personality under Louis XV, a different under George III. In 1760, I could turn to my French peasant wife and say: “Oh, the Bourbon monarchy has no effect on me.” But in a sense it would affect my whole personality. Or let’s say it’s 1939, and I’m hypothetically living under Stalin. At this point, if I am a normal, weak human being, I might secretly hate Stalin, but I’d be also quite willing at times, despite myself, to rat on a friend, or even turn in my wife.
Though I’d like to think not, I’d probably take on the personality that lets me fit in to Stalin’s way of doing things.
Now it’s 2006, and I’m an American. We don’t have monarchy, or aristocracy–but it’s not a democracy. Most of the time, as in the latest election, most of us don’t vote. Most of us don’t know the names of our local candidates for Congress.
Even if you do know the names, don’t think you’re better than the rest. You are still living under a form of government where most people don’t vote. Even if you’re different, our collective disconnect with our own government has some bearing on your moral character as well.
Aristotle would not call us a democracy. Or a republic, really. I believe Aristotle and the Greeks would describe the America of this century as a plutocracy. The top 1 percent has nearly all the wealth. That’s our form of government.
I take on the personality that lets me fit into a plutocracy. I’m not the owner of a business or a farm. I’m not a member of a labor union. I’m a servant, or a salesman. I sell myself to people in one way or another. In a plutocracy, everyone is a salesman. Everyone is a waiter. We live off not wages we negotiate but on commissions and tips. In this new economy, we don’t even see how our character is changing, or how we are constantly selling ourselves for bigger tips: “I hope you like me.” But it’s turning us effectively into waiters in restaurants. There’s a problem with waiters, which George Orwell notes: They identify with the diners, and they vote for the right. Orwell hated waiters. He liked the back of the house. That’s where the minorities and foreign workers are.
The white males in the country–and I use this as a term of art to include people of all races–are working tables in the front.
Unlike Orwell, I like waiters. It’s partly because in the America of 2006, I have had to adapt my own personality to the plutocracy we’re in. But as much as I try to sell myself and please others, I wonder what it’s doing to me, and so many others. If we’re spending all our time trying to figure out how to please the rich, how to seduce them into giving us money, how to say, “I’m Bob, I’m your waiter for the evening”– if we even stoop to touching our customers on the shoulder, so we can get an even bigger tip–we aren’t likely to be the people to confront them politically.
Many a sociologist has it wrong: It’s not that I expect that I or my children will live like the Super Rich. It’s rather that I have to like the Super Rich–I have no choice but to like them if I want a big tip.
It’s a variation on a point that sociologist Richard Sennet makes. We bow, we scrape, but now we do it in the corporate world as a “team.” People learn to be flexible, which means “likeable.” As we get more income inequality and more “service” jobs, all our business majors really learn is how to be flexible and likeable–to sell ourselves, to seduce, so we can be Donald Trump’s apprentice.
These are nasty habits for citizens to develop. Even the left, even the far left, is like this: So far as I can tell, activists spend all their time courting the foundations, and like waiters in restaurants, stroking, touching people, so they can get a bigger grant. In terms of the moral character, we on the left are no better than the politicians are.
Of course you dear reader are not like this. “I’m more like Orwell,” you think. Yes, there’s a model for our time. Be a writer; that’s worse than being a waiter. They spend their lives playing up to editors, being flexible, wallowing in self pity as others get ahead. While writers have always been like this, the danger of a plutocracy is that we’re all like writers now.
We need to put down the de Toqueville. It’s not like that any more. It’s not the America of Jefferson: We aren’t small farmers. Or the America of Lincoln: We aren’t the free-labor, free-soil types. Or of FDR: We aren’t the industrial workers organizing for higher wages. It’s the America of the Bush family, of big country clubs and estates: It’s the America where even the so-called “middle class” are more or less waiting tables.
So we adapt our personality. If we vote to soak the rich, they may cut back their tips! I lose out. It’s because I don’t believe in mobility (mine or yours) that I dare not soak the rich.
Besides, if I try to soak the rich, what good will it do me? Let’s suppose I confront them. I put in a government that raises their taxes. There’s no guarantee I’m doing any good for me. That is, there is so much inequality, the money may go to the poor. Or just as likely, it may go back to the rich. If the government raises my taxes, how do I know they will spend it on me, in the middle? That’s why it is easier to raise taxes in Germany or Sweden, or even Canada. People know: If they spend it, they have to spend it, like it or not, on people like me.
So the more inequality, the more unnerving it is to raise taxes. It destroys the presumption that those in the middle will get it back. Whatever the motive, the result is the same. People are afraid in a plutocracy to raise taxes on the rich. The more money people in the top 1 percent have, the more impregnable they are to progressive-type taxation.
It seems odd that a majority in polls want to help the rich end the estate tax. Why? The simplest explanation is probably this: They don’t know what the estate tax is, or who it affects. That’s what makes it hard in our time to explain any re-distribution scheme. For me as a lawyer, it has been scary to read the studies on juries–over and over, they find most people on juries can’t follow the simplest instructions. Only 50, sometimes 25 percent comprehension. That’s why the Democrats lose out on their complex public policy solutions that only Paul Krugman can understand. In some way it has to be simpler. Maybe there has to be a break-down, one by one, for every American, with his or her name on it: “Put in your work record to see how much more you’ll get.” Surely, we ought to be able to come up with a My Space for taxpayers.
Every day, before we go off to work, each one of us could visit. “It’s all mine at 67, if only I can hang on.”
Thomas Geoghegan is a Chicago-based labor lawyer. He is the author of six books, including Whose Side Are You On?, The Secret Lives of Citizens, The Law in Shambles and, most recently, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?