Ever since Nancy Reagan started the trend, first ladies have sat with “special guests” who serve as poster children for the particular themes that presidents emphasize as they address Congress and the nation each year. It’s a cynical practice, but an effective one, and President Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress was no exception, as Michelle Obama sat with a Jewish banker from Miami who performed what can only be described as an inspired act of tzedakah. Leonard Abess, as the world now knows, divided the $60 million bonus he received for selling his bank among all 399 people who worked for him, and another 72 who had retired. The payments, some amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, were distributed by senior employees, while Abess stayed in the background, not seeking attention until it sought him.
It’s the kind of story that sent even obstructionist congressional Republicans to their feet, so eager is anyone these days to find a banker worthy of applause. But the irony should not be lost in the midst of this easy adulation. What Abess did voluntarily is what the Obama administration wants government to do, and it is the very thing that Republicans say they mightily oppose. Abess dramatically redistributed his wealth.
Redistributing wealth can sound like a musty Marxist phrase, but it is in fact what government does to soften the rough edges of capitalism. The concept is behind President Obama’s plan to allow the Bush tax cuts on the very wealthy to die a natural death, bringing the highest tax rate back to its previous level of 39.6%. Critics like to say that ending a tax break is akin to a tax increase, but that’s ridiculous. Legislation is enacted with time limits for a reason — to reassess whether it should be continued. Clearly, given the budget deficit he inherited, Obama is wise to end the break and demand more from those who can afford to give.
This isn’t stoking class warfare. It’s promoting civic responsibility. While most economists agree that some degree of income inequality is both necessary and inevitable, the yawning gap between the very rich and everyone else has reached a point that even a capitalist like Alan Greenspan has warned may be unsustainable in a democracy.
That’s because a political system such as ours is based on trust — trust in fellow citizens, in government, in the flow of credit and in the ability to advance. And trust in others depends on a foundation of economic equality. When it seems that resources are not distributed fairly, those at the bottom and the top will not see each other as facing a shared fate. And we’ve seen where that has led during these last eight years, to a nation where sacrifice has been demanded only of some Americans, certainly not all.
When asked what motivated him to give away such a fortune, Leonard Abess reportedly said he wanted to reward his employees. And, he added, “I sure as heck don’t need [the money].” Perhaps it’s easier to give away $60 million when you have many more millions to your name. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the wealthy of this country, and those who represent them in the halls of power, made a similar gesture? The surest way to rescue a nation on the brink of economic and civic calamity is to turn the “deficit of trust” that the president spoke of the other night into a surplus of shared responsibility.