Orwell is back-some are more equal than others
In the midst of heated debates between the president and Congress over slashing government spending, three men sat down to a nice dinner with a couple of great bottles of wine in an upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant. Normally, such an event would not raise eyebrows in D.C., where restaurants are pricey and members of the Washington politocracy dine out regularly. But on the night of July 6, with the prospects of reaching a budget agreement hanging by a thread, there was nothing ordinary about this dinner.
One of the three men at the table, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the author of the Republican budget plan adopted by the House of Representatives in April. His plan proposes to gut Medicare by providing seniors with vouchers to buy private insurance, rather than paying for their health care directly, and to take health care away from tens of millions of middle-class and moderate-income Americans.
At the same time, the Ryan budget reduces corporate tax rates on the highest-income Americans from 35 percent to 25 percent. Thus, under Ryan’s plan, the wealthiest 5 percent of individuals and households are not only spared the need to sacrifice, they benefit from the sacrifices of America’s seniors and middle-income working families.
Ryan’s dinner raised my eyebrows that night at the restaurant, where I was enjoying a special birthday dinner with my husband. Ryan and his companions occupied the table directly across from us, and soon after arriving, they ordered two bottles of the most expensive wine on the menu, a $350 French grand cru Burgundy. At first we joked about it: What could you buy with $700? But thinking a little more about it raised uncomfortable questions about how many hours a person would have to work at different salary levels to earn $700 in a week.
To clear $700 in a week, a person would have to earn close to $50,000 a year, an amount greater than the income of nearly half of American households. Households earning below $50,000 per year are being asked to shoulder most of the sacrifices in the Ryan budget. Millions of seniors and middle-income Americans will see their standard of living decline significantly if the parameters of the Ryan budget become part of the negotiated spending cuts in the debt ceiling debate.
Ryan and his companions had every right to drink $700 worth of wine. However, to blithely enjoy such extravagance while preparing to inflict so much pain on so many Americans seemed terribly wrong, particularly when one considers that those who can easily afford an evening out with a $700 bar tab will benefit from the sacrifices Ryan’s budget heaps upon average Americans.
This is where I came into the picture.
After finishing our dinner and paying our bill, I approached Ryan’s table and asked the congressman how he could live with himself: drinking $700 worth of wine, the equivalent of a week’s wages for many Americans, while actively working to take away their health care benefits. Ryan’s only response was that he had no idea how much the wine cost. This struck me as ironic, coming from the GOP’s lead budget architect.
One of Ryan’s dinner companions, economist and hedge fund manager Clifford Asness (whom I did not recognize at the time), shouted that he had ordered the wine (which was true) and that he intended to pay for it. I asked Asness if he was a lobbyist, since members of Congress are not permitted to accept expensive meals and gifts from lobbyists. As it turned out, Asness was not a lobbyist, but as a hedge fund manager, he had access to high-ranking political decision-makers such as Ryan. Being confronted about the wine purchase enraged Asness, who subsequently shouted obscenities at me.
I left the restaurant wondering why the reaction was so vehement. And further reaction has continued in the days since, in the form of hateful and threatening e-mails — anonymous and signed.
Clearly, I had upset the natural D.C. order of things by confronting a politician — a public servant — who was in the midst of enjoying a good dinner out at a fancy restaurant. However, I think the strong reaction came from a different place.
For decades, our tax policies have favored the interests of the wealthy over the interests of the poor and middle class. Some would argue that such policies are job-creating, but in the harsh light of our current economic situation, the flaws in these arguments become apparent. Now we are confronted with the need to sacrifice, and those who have benefited the most from the status quo become resentful when asked to give up anything they have gained.
Calling these folks out for drinking $700 worth of wine while negotiating spending cuts that saddle others with all the burdens of “austerity” is what really upsets the natural order of things.
By Susan Feinberg