THE PITCHFORKS ARE COMING...FOR US PLUTOCRATS
By Nick Hanauer, July/August 2014
Memo: From Nick Hanauer
To: My Fellow Zillionaires
You probably don’t know me, but like you I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic* capitalist. I have founded, co-founded and funded more than 30 companies across a range of industries—from itsy-bitsy* ones like the night club I started in my 20s to giant ones like Amazon.com, for which I was the first nonfamily investor. Then I founded aQuantive, an Internet advertising company that was sold to Microsoft in 2007 for $6.4 billion. In cash. My friends and I own a bank. I tell you all this to demonstrate that in many ways I’m no different from you. Like you, I have a broad perspective on business and capitalism. And also like you, I have been rewarded obscenely for my success, with a life that the other 99.99 percent of Americans can’t even imagine. Multiple homes, my own plane, etc., etc. You know what I’m talking about. In 1992, I was selling pillows made by my family’s business, Pacific Coast Feather Co., to retail stores across the country, and the Internet was a clunky novelty to which one hooked up with a loud squawk at 300 baud. But I saw pretty quickly, even back then, that many of my customers, the big department store chains, were already doomed. I knew that as soon as the Internet became fast and trustworthy enough—and that time wasn’t far off—people were going to shop online like crazy. Goodbye, Caldor. And Filene’s. And Borders. And on and on.
Realizing that, seeing over the horizon a little faster than the next guy, was the strategic part of my success. The lucky part was that I had two friends, both immensely talented, who also saw a lot of potential in the web. One was a guy you’ve probably never heard of named Jeff Tauber, and the other was a fellow named Jeff Bezos*. I was so excited by the potential of the web that I told both Jeffs that I wanted to invest in whatever they launched, big time. It just happened that the second Jeff—Bezos—called me back first to take up my investment offer. So I helped underwrite his tiny start-up bookseller. The other Jeff started a web department store called Cybershop, but at a time when trust in Internet sales was still low, it was too early for his high-end* online idea; people just weren’t yet ready to buy expensive goods without personally checking them out (unlike a basic commodity like books, which don’t vary in quality—Bezos’ great insight). Cybershop didn’t make it, just another dot-com bust. Amazon did somewhat better. Now I own a very large yacht.
But let’s speak frankly to each other. I’m not the smartest guy you’ve ever met, or the hardest-working. I was a mediocre student. I’m not technical at all—I can’t write a word of code. What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now?
I see pitchforks.
At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.
The most ironic thing about rising inequality is how completely unnecessary and self-defeating it is. If we do something about it, if we adjust our policies in the way that, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression—so that we help the 99 percent and preempt the revolutionaries and crazies, the ones with the pitchforks—that will be the best thing possible for us rich folks, too. It’s not just that we’ll escape with our lives; it’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer.
The model for us rich guys here should be Henry Ford, who realized that all his autoworkers in Michigan weren’t only cheap labor to be exploited; they were consumers, too. Ford figured that if he raised their wages, to a then-exorbitant $5 a day, they’d be able to afford his Model Ts.
What a great idea. My suggestion to you is: Let’s do it all over again. We’ve got to try something. These idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying my customer base. And yours too.
It’s when I realized this that I decided I had to leave my insulated world of the super-rich and get involved in politics. Not directly, by running for office or becoming one of the big-money billionaires who back candidates in an election. Instead, I wanted to try to change the conversation with ideas—by advancing what my co-author, Eric Liu, and I call “middle-out” economics. It’s the long-overdue rebuttal* to the trickle-down economics worldview that has become economic orthodoxy across party lines—and has so screwed the American middle class and our economy generally. Middle-out economics rejects the old misconception that an economy is a perfectly efficient, mechanistic system and embraces the much more accurate idea of an economy as a complex ecosystem made up of real people who are dependent on one another.
Which is why the fundamental law of capitalism must be: If workers have more money, businesses have more customers. Which makes middle-class consumers, not rich businesspeople like us, the true job creators. Which means a thriving middle class is the source of American prosperity*, not a consequence of it. The middle class creates us rich people, not the other way around.
On June 19, 2013, Bloomberg published an article I wrote called “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage.” Forbes labeled it “Nick Hanauer’s near insane” proposal. And yet, just weeks after it was published, my friend David Rolf, a Service Employees International Union organizer, roused fast-food workers to go on strike around the country for a $15 living wage. Nearly a year later, the city of Seattle passed a $15 minimum wage. And just 350 days after my article was published, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed that ordinance* into law. How could this happen, you ask?
It happened because we reminded the masses that they are the source of growth and prosperity, not us rich guys. We reminded them that when workers have more money, businesses have more customers—and need more employees. We reminded them that if businesses paid workers a living wage rather than poverty wages, taxpayers wouldn’t have to make up the difference. And when we got done, 74 percent of likely Seattle voters in a recent poll agreed that a $15 minimum wage was a swell* idea.
The standard response in the minimum-wage debate, made by Republicans and their business backers and plenty of Democrats as well, is that raising the minimum wage costs jobs. Businesses will have to lay off workers. This argument reflects the orthodox economics that most people had in college.
The thing about us businesspeople is that we love our customers rich and our employees poor. So for as long as there has been capitalism, capitalists have said the same thing about any effort to raise wages. We’ve had 75 years of complaints from big business—when the minimum wage was instituted, when women had to be paid equitable amounts, when child labor laws were created. Every time the capitalists said exactly the same thing in the same way: We’re all going to go bankrupt. I’ll have to close. I’ll have to lay everyone off. It hasn’t happened. In fact, the data show that when workers are better treated, business gets better. The naysayers are just wrong.
Most of you probably think that the $15 minimum wage in Seattle is an insane departure from rational policy that puts our economy at great risk. But in Seattle, our current minimum wage of $9.32 is already nearly 30 percent higher than the federal minimum wage. And has it ruined our economy yet? Well, trickle-downers, look at the data here: The two cities in the nation with the highest rate of job growth by small businesses are San Francisco and Seattle. Guess which cities have the highest minimum wage? San Francisco and Seattle. The fastest-growing big city in America? Seattle.
Wal-Mart is our nation’s largest employer with some 1.4 million employees in the United States and more than $25 billion in pre-tax profit. So why are Wal-Mart employees the largest group of Medicaid recipients in many states? Wal-Mart could, say, pay each of its 1 million lowest-paid workers an extra $10,000 per year, raise them all out of poverty and enable them to, of all things, afford to shop at Wal-Mart. Not only would this also save us all the expense of the food stamps, Medicaid* and rent assistance that they currently require, but Wal-Mart would still earn more than $15 billion pre-tax per year. Wal-Mart won’t (and shouldn’t) volunteer to pay its workers more than their competitors. In order for us to have an economy that works for everyone, we should compel all retailers to pay living wages—not just ask politely.
We rich people have been falsely persuaded by our schooling and the affirmation of society, and have convinced ourselves, that we are the main job creators. It’s simply not true. There can never be enough super-rich Americans to power a great economy. I earn about 1,000 times the median American annually, but I don’t buy thousands of times more stuff. My family purchased three cars over the past few years, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. I bought two pairs of the fancy wool pants I am wearing as I write, what my partner Mike calls my “manager pants.” I guess I could have bought 1,000 pairs. But why would I? Instead, I sock my extra money away in savings, where it doesn’t do the country much good.
Dear 1%ers, many of our fellow citizens are starting to believe that capitalism itself is the problem. I disagree, and I’m sure you do too. Capitalism, when well managed, is the greatest social technology ever invented to create prosperity in human societies. But capitalism left unchecked tends toward concentration and collapse. It can be managed either to benefit the few in the near term or the many in the long term. The work of democracies is to bend it to the latter. That is why investments in the middle class work. And tax breaks for rich people like us don’t. Balancing the power of workers and billionaires by raising the minimum wage isn’t bad for capitalism. It’s an indispensable tool smart capitalists use to make capitalism stable and sustainable. And no one has a bigger stake in that than zillionaires like us.
1830 words (adapted)
Source: PoliticoMagazine of July/August, 2014
plutocracy - Geldherrschaft
zillion - -zigtausend
* unapologetic - unmissverständlich
* itsy-bitsy - klitzeklein
* Caldor, Filene’s, Borders - Online-Unternehmen mit großen Verlusten
* Jeff Bezios - technology entrepreneur adn CEO of Amazon.com
* high-end - Spitzenklasse
* rebuttal - Gegenbeweis, Widerlegung
* prosperity - Wohlstand
* ordinance - Anordnung, Verordnung
* swell - prima, großartig
* Medicaid - is a social health care program for families and individuals with low income and resources in the US
1. Describe Nick Hanauer and say why he considers himself being successful.
2. Explain his metaphorical phrase of seeing pitchforks in the future.
3. What does Hanauer mean by "trickle-down" vs. "middle-out" economics?
4. What advantages would "living wages" have over "poverty wages"? Take into account his suggestion of what Wal-Mart should do.
5. Hanauer is a proponent of a high minimum wage which all retailers should be made to pay their employees. Do you think that this will work for small businesses, too?
6. Do you agree or rather disagree with what Hanauer suggests? Substantiate your opinion.