As usual, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right: There should be no billionaires

Ocasio-Cortez argues that billionaires have no reason to exist. She's right, both morally and economically

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 22, 2019 3:40PM (EST)

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (Getty/Don Emmert)
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (Getty/Don Emmert)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's ability to harness the news  cycle hasn't died down one bit now that the newly-elected New York congresswoman has settled into office. Most of the AOC coverage over the past week continues to be TMZ-ified, focusing on Aaron Sorkin's stuffed-shirt scolding of younger members of Congress and exaggerating Ocasio-Cortez's supposed conflict with other Democrats.

The congressional freshman from the Bronx continues to calmly and unapologetically use her fame for good, however. She used this weekend's news cycle to continue highlighting the evils of wealth inequality, and to draw attention to serious policy fixes for the problem.

On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez attended a symposium where author Ta-Nehisi Coates asked her if it was moral to have "a world that allows for billionaires." Ocasio-Cortez swiftly said it was not. She hastened to note that individual billionaires, such as Bill Gates, may well be good people. But "a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong."

AOC continued to hammer this point home later the same night on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert, explaining (yet again) that her proposed 70 percent marginal income tax rate would only be on money made above the first $10 million a year -- and that a similar marginal tax rate reached 90% when Dwight Eisenhower was president.

"Do we want to live in a city where billionaires have their own personal Uber helipads," she asked, "in the same city and same society as people who are working 80-hour weeks and can't feed their kids?"

Right-wing media sprung into action to try to discredit her, of course, by implying that a woman who graduated summa cum laude with an economics degree is a bimbo and with  Twitchy using a screenshot to make the usually genial Ocasio-Cortez somehow look like a ballbuster. But it's getting increasingly difficult to maintain the myth that the enormous wealth inequality in not just American society but the entire world somehow reflect a system that's fairly rewarding people for their talent and labor.

On his own, the barely literate imbecile with no redeeming qualities who sits in the Oval Office claiming to be a billionaire (even if he probably isn't) creates a one-man argument against the premise that wealth flows from merit. But the numbers increasingly back up Ocasio-Cortez's argument that our system unjustly concentrating massive amounts of wealth in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of society with little to show for all their hard work and  social contributions.

On Monday, Oxfam published a report showing that a mere 26 individual billionaires now have as much wealth between them as the least wealthy half of the human population. Which is to say, these 26 people have more money combined than 3.8 billion of the world's population.

The idea that those 26 people are somehow being fairly rewarded by that massively unequal equation defies all common sense, especially as most billionaires have built their wealth on the labor of people who only take home a fraction of the value they add to the companies they work for.

It's not just a matter of sour grapes. The billionaires saw their wealth rise by 12 percent in one year — the same year that saw the poorest half of the population lose 11 percent of their wealth, a loss that people who are already struggling to afford food, shelter and basic necessities simply cannot tolerate.

It's not just that there seems to be a direct correlation between how much money the rich make and how little everyone else gets.  There's also evidence that vast inequalities stifle economic growth, and that redistribution of the sort that Ocasio-Cortez proposes can kickstart the economy. Money in the hands of working people is spent, and stimulates the economy, much more than money being hoarded by the wealthy few, after all. Inequality also breeds crime and other forms of social instability.

But mostly, this is a moral issue, and one of Ocasio-Cortez's remarkable gifts as a communicator is her ability to speak about this issue in moral terms. Most people, of all wealth and income levels are hard workers. The fact that only a select few are amply rewarded while most others go wanting is both unfair and immoral.  And the worse the problem gets, the more unavoidable this unfairness becomes.

Nearly 60 percent of Americans now support the marginal tax rate program Ocasio-Cortez has proposed. This includes a remarkable 45 percent of Republicans, despite all the work right-wing media has done to demonize Ocasio-Cortez and anything related to her.

The problem conservatives must face is that the very inequality they are defending is a rhetorical obstacle in itself. Most people recognize that it's unfair that rich people make so much more money than the rest of us, and does not necessarily prove they have worked harder. Getting people to sign off on the idea that they simply are less worthy than their wealthier fellow citizens is not an easy lift, which is why Republicans prefer to stick to culture-war distractions, like fear-mongering over immigration or abortion.

Since Ocasio-Cortez first mentioned the 70 percent tax rate on CNN, a number of mansplaining journalists have written harrumphing pieces explaining that the "real" problem is tax loopholes or capital-gains tax rates set too low. This approach fails to understand the nature and purpose of Ocasio-Cortez's political rhetoric. Any tax plan that raised marginal rates that high would almost certainly have other provisions to close loopholes or tax investments more fairly. But before we can get to that point, there must be more political momentum to change the tax system.

By focusing on marginal tax rates — which are easier to explain to the general public than most other taxation strategies — Ocasio-Cortez can help build a moral and social argument against economic inequality. Blunt statements, like saying that it's immoral that billionaires exist at all, can help people reimagine a world where resources are distributed more equitably and ordinary people who work hard and drive economic growth can see their effort reflected in their paychecks.

Because the truth of the matter is that she's right: We shouldn't have billionaires. Any system that has a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals, by definition, is not rewarding hard work and social contributions fairly, or anywhere close to it. We don't need to embrace full-on socialism communism, and Ocasio-Cortez is swift to say that. But the floor needs to come up and the ceiling needs to come down. Most people know that's true, whatever their official "politics" may be, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to deny it.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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