A peculiar chapter in the 2020 presidential race ended Monday, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, after months of foot-dragging, finally released his tax returns. The odd thing was that the returns appear to be perfectly innocuous. So what was all that about?

The answer seems to be that Sanders got a lot of book royalties after the 2016 campaign, and was afraid that revealing this fact would produce headlines mocking him for now being part of the 1 Percent. Indeed, some journalists did try to make his income an issue.

This line of attack is, however, deeply stupid. Politicians who support policies that would raise their own taxes and strengthen a social safety net they’re unlikely to need aren’t being hypocrites; if anything, they’re demonstrating their civic virtue.

But failure to understand what hypocrisy means isn’t the only way our discourse about politics and inequality goes off the rails. The catchphrase “the 1 Percent” has also become a problem, obscuring the nature of class in 21st-century America.

Focusing on the top percentile of the income distribution was originally intended as a corrective to the comforting but false notion that growing inequality was mainly about a rising payoff to education. The reality is that over the past few decades the typical college graduate has seen only modest gains, with the big money going to a small group at the top. Talking about “the 1 Percent” was shorthand for acknowledging this reality, and tying that reality to readily available data.

But putting Bernie Sanders and the Koch brothers in the same class is obviously getting things wrong in a different way.

Advertising

True, there’s a huge difference between being affluent enough that you don’t have to worry much about money and living with the financial insecurity that afflicts many Americans who consider themselves middle class. According to the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of U.S. adults don’t have enough cash to meet a $400 emergency expense; a much larger number of Americans would be severely strained by the kinds of costs that routinely arise when, say, illness strikes, even for those who have health insurance.

So if you have an income high enough that you can easily afford health care and good housing, have plenty of liquid assets and find it hard to imagine ever needing food stamps, you’re part of a privileged minority.

But there’s also a big difference between being affluent, even very affluent, and having the kind of wealth that puts you in a completely separate social universe. It’s a difference summed up three decades ago in the movie “Wall Street,” when Gordon Gekko mocks the limited ambitions of someone who just wants to be “a $400,000-a-year working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable.”

Even now, most Americans don’t seem to realize just how rich today’s rich are. At a recent event, my City University of New York colleague Janet Gornick was greeted with disbelief when she mentioned in passing that the top 25 hedge fund managers make an average of $850 million a year. But her number was correct.

One survey found that Americans, on average, think that corporate CEOs are paid about 30 times as much as ordinary workers, which hasn’t been true since the 1970s. These days the ratio is more like 300 to 1.

Why should we care about the very rich? It’s not about envy, it’s about oligarchy.

Advertising

With great wealth comes both great power and a separation from the concerns of ordinary citizens. What the very rich want, they often get; but what they want is often harmful to the rest of the nation. There are some public-spirited billionaires, some very wealthy liberals. But they aren’t typical of their class.

The very rich don’t need Medicare or Social Security; they don’t use public education or public transit; they may not even be that reliant on public roads (there are helicopters, after all). Meanwhile, they don’t want to pay taxes.

Sure enough, and contrary to popular belief, billionaires mostly (although often stealthily) wield their political power on behalf of tax cuts at the top, a weaker safety net and deregulation. And financial support from the very rich is the most important force sustaining the extremist right-wing politics that now dominates the Republican Party.

That’s why it’s important to understand who we mean when we talk about the very rich. It’s not doctors, lawyers or, yes, authors, some of whom make it into “the 1 Percent.” It’s a much more rarefied social stratum.

None of this means that the merely affluent should be exempt from the burden of creating a more decent society. The Affordable Care Act was paid for in part by taxes on incomes in excess of $200,000, so $400K-a-year working stiffs did pay some of the cost. That’s OK: They (we) can afford it. And whining that $200,000 a year isn’t really rich is unseemly.

But we should be able to understand both that the affluent in general should be paying more in taxes, and that the very rich are different from you and me — and Bernie Sanders. The class divide that lies at the root of our political polarization is much starker, much more extreme than most people seem to realize.