For someone who just predicted an armed revolution is on its way — against himself — Nick Hanauer doesn’t seem too fraught when I catch up with him.
“It’s not like my jet is warming up at the airport, ready to make a quick getaway,” he said. “It was hyperbole to make a point.”
That bit of hyperbole, though, has arguably catapulted Hanauer into the front lines of the nation’s simmering class war. On the side opposite from his own class.
Hanauer wrote an open letter addressed to “my fellow zillionaires,” titled “The Pitchforks Are Coming … For Us Plutocrats.” In it, the Seattle entrepreneur and near-billionaire calls out his own “obscene” wealth — the multiple homes, the yacht, “my own plane, etc. etc.” And then argues that this gilded age, if allowed to persist, will bring certain chaos to America.
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“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us,” he warns his fellow aristocrats. “One day, somebody sets himself on fire. Then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand.
“You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples.”
Written for the July/August issue of the online Politico magazine, the article was like crack for the Internet. It’s by the rich about how the rich are doomed by their excessive richness. One photo shows Hanauer looking nonchalantly plutocratic and tanned in a black blazer outside that seedy McDonald’s at Seattle’s most lawless corner, 3rd and Pine, as some local proles schlump by in the background.
The article has been “2X the most widely read and shared article in Politico’s history,” Hanauer boasted. Nearly a quarter million shared it on Facebook alone. And since Politico is required reading for the nation’s government and business establishment, his hyperbole bomb struck its intended target.
“This whole meme that prosperity trickles down from rich job creators — we’ve been stuck on it for 40-plus years and it’s total BS,” he said. “What’s jarring to people about what I’m writing is that I’m rejecting what we all think we have always known.”
His counter-notion — that the engine of prosperity is actually the middle class — has lately tumbled from the lips of no less than President Obama. Hanauer employs Richard Sherman-level smack talk, using Seattle as Exhibit A, to argue that regulating capitalism fuels the economy.
“Well, trickle-downers, look at the data,” he writes. “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. Fifteen dollars isn’t a risky untried policy for us. It’s doubling down on the strategy that’s already allowing our city to kick your city’s ass.”
Are we a boomtown because we have a high minimum wage and lots of business regulations? I’m skeptical, but Hanauer is right that those policies don’t seem to be holding business back, either. The bigger hurdle for him is that people nationwide remain far more dubious of his proposed solution — government intervention — than they are of the corporate-political axis he blames for causing extreme inequality in the first place.
Republicans still seem on track to win the November elections, I remind him. And they are arguing exactly the opposite.
“If Speaker Boehner was right that higher wages are a job destroyer, then Washington state would barely exist,” he said. “I’m in this for the long haul, to prove him and the other plutocrats wrong. So give it time. In five years, when Seattle has implemented $15 and our economy is booming, then we get to say — why wouldn’t you do this, too?”
So, did any plutocrats call up and say, “hey, Nick, you’re right!”
Not really. Forbes magazine labeled Hanauer “near-insane” — again — while one Wall Street-focused website, Zero Hedge, dismissed his warning as “a self-assurance tract for progressives who want to justify their ‘eat the rich’ hankerings.”
“The Koch brothers have not reached out, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Hanauer said.
Maybe they’re already on their Gulfstream on the way to New Zealand.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org