A professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business recently went viral for tweeting the news that approximately one-quarter of her students believe the average American worker makes six figures annually:
That news shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the nation’s capital. Washington often feels like the “District of Cash,” so flush with spending other people’s money that it has little bother with the concerns of real-world Americans.
Consider the current Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen. In recently perusing her financial disclosures, I noticed she had to file an amended form last year. In one case, Yellen misstated the amount of a speaking honorarium by $100—an oversight that could represent a mere typographical error.
But Yellen had to amend her disclosure for another reason: For a series of five speeches she gave to the City National Bank in January 2019, she had to admit that she wasn’t paid $112,500 per speech, but “only” $90,000 per speech.
The change to her financial disclosure brought two questions to mind. First, who makes an error like that? Put aside for a moment the fact that Yellen now manages an immense bureaucracy, including agencies that pump out thousands of pages of regulations every year, and an Internal Revenue Service that can scrutinize the finances of every single American.
If someone paid me $450,000 to give a series of speeches, I would remember every last detail about those speeches—down to what I ate traveling to and from the event. I would bet most Americans would, too. But when filling out her original disclosure form, Yellen and her team apparently couldn’t even figure out whether she gave four speeches (which would average $112,500 per speech) or five (which would average $90,000 per speech).
What exactly did City National Bank expect for their $450,000? As the Wharton professor recently noted, that sum roughly approximates what an average worker makes in a decade. For City National Bank to give Yellen such a large sum simply to give a few speeches represents either a colossal waste of shareholders’ money—or an attempt to buy access to someone who at the time had just left her post as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Nearly six years ago, Hillary Clinton drew jeers, and rightly so, for meekly defending her $675,000 fee for three speeches given to Goldman Sachs by claiming “That’s what they offered.” But Yellen’s financial disclosure form shows that policymakers’ tin ear towards the way ordinary Americans live hasn’t remained confined to Clinton.
It isn’t just confined to Democrats, either. Several years ago, I made an offhand comment to a Capitol Hill staffer about a work conference I had to attend at a luxury resort. The staffer responded that he had always wondered how conservative organizations can justify to their donors having fancy conferences at four-star hotels.
He had a point, one that I pondered before and since. I understand that donors, many of them wealthy, likely wouldn’t attend events held at the local Motel 6. But as someone who takes pride in his thriftiness, the nature of the cocktail-and-gala circuit often seems unsettling, particularly in the case of organizations that are supposed to advocate for smaller, more effective government and lower federal spending.
Nearly a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote on the impact of wealth—not just its practical effects, but the corrosive nature and entitlement mentality that often accompanies it:
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.
With the Washington metropolitan area home to some of the richest counties in the land, the disconnect between wealthy elites—of both parties—and the people they represent will only grow, with potentially disastrous effects on the nature of our society and the fate of the democratic experiment.