Twisting the Concept of 'Elite'

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The Toronto Star

Twisting the Concept of 'Elite'

Clearly, a compulsory item future U.S. presidential candidates will have to commit to memory will be the number of houses they own.

Sadly, however, there may be no other repercussion from Republican John McCain's inability last week to remember that he owned seven.

Conservative pundits were quick to suggest that attempts by Democratic rival Barack Obama to make an issue out of McCain's wealth would backfire since, they said, Obama is the real elitist who's out of touch with ordinary Americans.

This involves some twisted logic.

The simple truth is that McCain's seven homes - regardless of how many of them he can recall at any given moment - are a reminder that he and his beer-fortune-heiress wife Cindy belong to a tiny elite of fabulously wealthy Americans.

And while voters don't necessarily care about the details of McCain's housing abundance, they might be more interested in his avid support for - and intention to extend - the Bush administration's massive tax giveaways to this elite little club.

As the non-partisan Tax Policy Center has calculated, McCain's plan would further cut taxes on the top 0.1 per cent - Americans earning at least $2.8 million a year - by an annual average of $192,000. Obama's plan would see taxes for this crowd rise on average by $788,000 a year.

A fundamental problem in the last few decades - both in Canada and the United States - has been the relentless campaign waged by the financial elite to overturn postwar social and economic policies that provided significant gains for the middle and lower classes in the decades following World War II.

The campaign has been phenomenally successful. As a result, the poor have lost ground, while the middle class have barely held their own or made small advances - by working longer hours or having two-income families.

Only the rich have thrived. And they have truly thrived. A group of international economists, including McMaster University's Michael Veall, has tracked the spectacular gains of the top 1 per cent of income earners, who now, in both Canada and the U.S., enjoy over 15 per cent of national income - a level not seen since the days of the idle rich in the Roaring '20s.

Yet even as the rich have redirected income towards themselves, they've managed to remove the issue of economic inequality from the agenda. Part of the strategy - honed by media-savvy conservative think-tanks and commentators - has been to redefine the notion of elitism to refer to those who belong to the liberal elite, and do things like drink lattes, maintain an international outlook and speak articulately.

Accordingly, Democrat Al Gore, with his commanding grasp of issues in presidential debates, was accused of being an elitist. Similarly, Democrat John Kerry was branded elitist for being able to speak French.

In the same breath, Conservatives somehow presented George W. Bush, a rich kid who'd barely held a job before running for president, as a populist and down-to-earth guy who'd be fun to have a beer with - presumably because he was inarticulate and barely functional in even one language.

Whether McCain drinks beer, latte or Ovaltine doesn't alter the fact that he supports Bush's massive favouritism towards the real elite - the powerful financial one that runs his country. That alone should prevent McCain from adding to his housing inventory the large white edifice on Pennsylvania Ave.

Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig is a columnist for the Toronto Star. She first came to national prominence in 1989 for uncovering the Patti Starr Affair, where a community leader was found to have used charitable funds for the purpose of making illegal donations to lobby the government. McQuaig was awarded the National Newspaper Award for her work on this story. The National Post has called her "Canada's Michael Moore". Linda is the author (with Neil Brooks) of Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality, published by Beacon Press.

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