Published on February 18, 2014

OTHER VOICES: The 1 Percent: We work harder—we really do!

(Crain News Service photo)
Ian Belknap

By Ian Belknap, Crain News Service

CHICAGO (Feb. 18, 2014) — One rainy autumn night maybe 10 years ago, I was driving west on Chicago Avenue and got rear-ended.

No big deal—a hassle, for sure, but it was a low-speed collision, my kid was not in the car, and I was unharmed. The guy who hit me was in a Mercedes E-Class that dwarfed my Toyota Corolla.

I pulled over. Guy pulled in behind me. I waited, thinking he'd approach with insurance info and an apology. I waited some more—staring into my rearview as he spoke on the phone.

I grew tired of waiting, so I got out of my car and stood in the road by the guy's door. In the rain.

A lack of consideration? For sure. A lack of concern for my convenience and well-being? Absolutely.

But when I rapped on his window, he held up an index finger, indicating that I was to wait. For him to finish his conversation. I was to wait in the rain. After HE had struck MY car.

And it was THAT gesture—not the collision, because accidents happen; not that he'd been talking on the phone behind the wheel, because we've all done that—that "hang on a minute" finger, that made him my enemy.

When finally he deigned to open his window, it exhaled leather and prosperity. He threw me a look like I was a panhandler who just burst into his office, and I could see how he felt about my shabby little car and my tacky little aspirations.

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That gesture put me in mind of the current crop of plutocrats seeking to dominate our political discourse. The Koch brothers are well-known to be pouring their limitless capital into all manner of election-rigging and system-gaming—this is an old story.

This same toxic spirit has leached its way into Illinois, however, in a manner as dispiriting as it is distasteful.

State Sen. Bill Brady, a GOP candidate for Illinois governor, said in a recent debate: "When I travel around to manufacturing plants…and I ask them how it's going, (the plant owners) say, 'I can't hire my people back…they're enjoying their unemployment insurance.' So we've got to motivate people to get back into the workforce."

Wow. If true, this would constitute a pretty damning indictment of our workforce. IF TRUE.

In subsequent interviews about this allegation, Mr. Brady has been unable to provide a single name of these ostensible factory owners. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that he made them up—as a matter of political expedience—to shoehorn reality into his wrongheaded policy.

Robber barons

The lies a politician opts to tell can prove as instructive and revealing as any bald declaration of what they actually believe.

This fiction of Mr. Brady's is just such a revealing one. His imaginary friends (they are plural, remember) are Stalwart Captains of Industry who are the victims of phantom legions of the Shiftless and Slovenly, who impede the free market. His imaginary friends sound desperate in the pleas to Joe Lunch Pail, who'd rather sit in his trailer draining beers and watching daytime TV than doing an honest day's work.

It is the same with billionaire Sam Zell's recent idiotic and disingenuous assertion that "the 1 percent works harder" than the rest of us.

If these public statements sound ludicrous, it's because they are. These canards harken back to the robber barons of the Gilded Age, squawking about the Indolent Working Classes Who Sought the Downfall of the Republic!

One can see the moral contours of a culture in the myths it creates; and one can understand the mindset of a caste advancing fictions that undercut and disparage working people.

It is no surprise that the allegiance of plutocrats is with each other, but when we make our choices as consumers and voters, we would do well to remember where our interests lie, and who is likely to serve them.

If you believe that men like Messrs. Zell and Brady have your back, then you believe your neighbors are not facing tough times but are lazy and spoiled. And if that's what you think of your neighbors, I don't hold out much hope for your neighborhood.

Ian Belknap is a writer and performer living in Chicago. He is producer and host of Write Club—live events in which writers compete for cash to contribute to a charity of their choice. This piece originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business magazine, a sister publication of Tire Business.

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