With help from the government, a very friendly tax code, and their own coffer-powered influence, big American companies have emerged from the recession flush with cash, less burdened by debt, and with a greater share of the country’s income. As a consequence, Angela Blackwell suggests, people with enormous money and influence often don’t feel connected to the rest of us.
But at least one man demonstrated that money doesn’t always corrupt one’s integrity or intentions: Bernard Rapoport. A “capitalist with a conscience” with an authentic connection to the struggles and values of everyday Americans, Rapoport died this month at 94. A friend and long-time supporter of Bill Moyers’ work on public television, Rapoport gave millions to help low-income children in Waco,Texas. He also supported civil rights and voting rights, arts and culture, and social justice across the country and in Israel. He urged the politicians he supported to raise his taxes, and felt morally obligated to argue against his own privilege.
In this essay, Moyers pays tribute to the man he admired, and the vital causes they shared.
BILL MOYERS: Not a day passes, that we can’t see evidence of the great divide you just heard me talk about with Angela Blackwell. All you have to do is look at the news.
The Wall Street Journal reports that big American companies have emerged from the deepest recession since World War II more profitable than ever: flush with cash, less burdened by debt, and with a greater share of the country’s income.
But, “many of the 1.1 million jobs the big companies added since 2007 were outside the U.S. So, too, was much of the $1.2 trillion added to corporate treasuries.”
To add to this embarrassment of riches, corporate taxes today are at a 40-year low.
Then look at this report in the New York Times, last year, among the 100 best-paid C.E.O.'s, the median income was more than $14 million, compared with the average annual American salary of $45,230.
Combined, this happy hundred executives pulled down more than two billion dollars.
And according to the Times, “these C.E.O.’s might seem like pikers. Top hedge fund managers collectively earned $14.4 billion last year.”
That’s Wall Street—the metaphorical bestiary of the financial universe. But there is nothing metaphorical about the earnings of hedge fund tigers, private equity lions, and the top dogs at those big banks that were bailed out by tax dollars after they helped chase our economy off a cliff.
So what do these Wall Street nabobs have to complain about? Why are they whining about reform? And why are they funneling cash to super PACs aimed at bringing down Barack Obama, who many of them supported four years ago?
Because, says Alec MacGillis in “The New Republic” -- the president wants to raise their taxes.
That’s right. While ordinary Americans are taxed at a top rate of 35 percent on their income, Congress allows hedge fund and private equity tycoons to pay only 15 percent on their compensation.
The president wants them to pay more, still at a rate below what you might pay, and for that he’s being accused of – hold onto your combat helmets -- “class warfare.” One Wall Street Midas, once an Obama fan, now his foe, told MacGillis that that by making the rich a primary target, Obama is “… on people who are successful,” you fill in the blank.
And can you believe this?
Two years ago, when President Obama first tried to close that gaping loophole in our tax code, Stephen Schwarzman, who runs the world’s largest private equity fund, compared the president’s action to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. That’s the same Stephen Schwarzman whose agents in 2006 launched a predatory raid on a travel company in Colorado. His fund bought it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just seven months.
Last year alone, Schwarzman took home over $213 million in pay and dividends, that’s a third more than 2010.
So Angela Blackwell was on the mark when she said this is a wealthy country, she also nailed it when she said one reason so many are not doing so well, despite that great wealth, is because the decision makers, and the people who have the money and influence, don’t feel connected to the rest of us.
So you can understand why I’m going to miss Bernard Rapoport, who died this month at age 94. B was my friend for half my life, and a long-time supporter of my work on public television. But more important, he was a capitalist with a conscience.
His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia who landed in Texas, where B was born dirt poor. Poverty there either broke your heart or bit your ankles. And like a man with a bulldog at his heels, B scrambled up and out. He worked his way through the University of Texas, where he “flunked German,” he said, “to spite Hitler.”
At age 24, he met his future wife Audre on a blind date – they were engaged the next day. Together they invested $25,000 to start a life insurance company, which they later sold for half a billion dollars. B would have given it all away, except for an uncanny ability to make money faster than he could dispose of it.
He and Audre gave millions to help low-income children in Waco, the heart of Texas, where they lived modestly and where he died. Millions more to our beloved alma mater, the University of Texas; supported progressive causes and politicians, civil rights and voting rights, arts and culture, and social justice across the country and in Israel – from an eye clinic serving predominately Arab patients, and a high school for children of Israeli families who wanted to co-exist with Palestinians.
And yes, they were generous to independent journalism: Molly Ivins was one of his darlings. And so was the tough little magazine The Texas Observer, that fearless watchdog that takes on the oligarchs who run the state.
Not once, not once, did he ever suggest to me a story to cover or criticize one we did. It was hands-off all the way.
B was no Mother Teresa; many a poker player might leave his table in their underwear. But he stayed close to his roots, urged the politicians he supported to raise his taxes, and felt morally obligated to argue against his own privilege.
There weren’t many Texas tycoons who believed society not only has the right, but the need, to check and balance their appetites.
It was the only way democracy and capitalism could work.
B read more books than anyone in business I have ever known, and he would send us one that especially moved him, usually about how democracy works, or doesn’t, or on the contradictions of wealth and power.
He fretted as his energies began to fade, and toward the end he called almost every Saturday morning, and always beginning the conversation with the same question: “Moyers, what can I do to make this world a better place?”
You did plenty, my friend. You did plenty.
That’s all for this week. We want to call your attention to an upcoming special report. On Friday, April 20, our colleagues at Public Television’s Need to Know, in partnership with the Nation Institute, investigate whether U.S. Border Patrol agents have been using excessive force to curb illegal immigration.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: He's not resisting. Why are you guys using excessive force on him?
JOHN LARSON: As you arrived there, what was the very first thing you heard?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: I heard Anastacio screaming and asking for help.
ASHLEY YOUNG: He was being tased for several seconds and wasn’t moving.
MALE VOICE: Ah! Por favor!
ASHLEY YOUNG: I think I witnessed someone being murdered.
BILL MOYERS: That’s Friday, April 20th. Check your local listings.
Coming up on Moyers & Company, historian and commentator Eric Alterman of The Nation magazine, and Ross Douthat, columnist for The New York Times.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, remember Angela Blackwell said Americans don’t like to talk about race, so what do you think goes unsaid? Share your thoughts on a special spotlight section of the website or link from there to our Facebook page.
That’s it for now. See you next time.