Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s 15 minutes of fame are up. He was a Fox News poster boy when he refused to pay fees for grazing his cows on federal land and greeted federal rangers with the threat of armed resistance. But when he voiced his views on the joys of slavery for “the Negro,” his conservative champions fled from his side.
What is interesting about Bundy, however, is not his tired racism but rather his remarkable sense of entitlement. His cattle have fed off public lands for two decades while he refused to pay grazing fees that are much lower than those he would have to pay for private land (and lower even than the government’s costs). “I’ll be damned if this is the property of the United States,” he says, claiming he won’t do business with the federal government because the Constitution doesn’t prohibit Americans from using federal lands.
As we’ve seen in recent years, this sense of entitlement pervades the privileged. Billionaire hedge fund operator Stephen Schwarzman feels so entitled to his obscene hedge fund tax dodge – the “carried interest” exemption – that he viewed Obama’s call to close the loophole as “a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Tom Perkins, co-founder of venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, considers mere criticism of the wealthiest Americans akin to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
When Republican Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had the temerity to propose a surcharge on the biggest financial houses (those with $500 billion in assets or more), to correct for the subsidy and competitive advantage provided by being “too big to fail,” Wall Street went ballistic. Republicans were told the spigot of political fundraisers would be closed until they recanted their heresy. “We’re going to beat this like a rented mule,” boasted Cam Fine, head of the Independent Community Bankers of America.
Big Oil feels so entitled to its multibillion-dollar annual subsidies, that Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, even denies their existence: “The oil and gas industry gets no subsidies, zero, nothing.” The more than $4 billion that the most profitable companies in the history of the world receive annually from U.S. taxpayers are apparently entitlements, not subsidies.
No one exemplifies this sense of entitlement more than the billionaire Koch brothers, self-proclaimed libertarians who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting think tanks, lobbies and candidates who will protect their right to pollute our air and water while leaving taxpayers to pay billions of dollars to repair damage done. Owners of companies that have serially violated environmental, health and safety laws, the Koch brothers have played a major role in propogating the views adopted by rancher Bundy.
Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, infamously denounced the 47 percent as “takers,” even while revealing that he paid a low 14.1 percent income tax rate. As Bundy dramatized, the real “takers” aren’t the poor and the vulnerable. Indeed, worse-off Americans are so disabused of any sense of entitlement that millions don’t jump the hurdles needed to receive the benefits for which they are eligible.
No, the real “takers” with a stunning sense of entitlement are the biggest corporations and banks, the richest Americans. They view their tax dodges as an inherent right, their inherited estates as a birthright. They treat the public commons as a resource that they should be free to plunder and regard any regulations that would protect those resources as an infringement on their liberty. Corporations are now arguing in court that that the First Amendment gives them the right to evade the law.
But, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted in her speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2012, the entitlements of the elite are increasingly under question:
“People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: They’re right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs — the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs — still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors and acting like we should thank them. Anyone here have a problem with that? Well, I do.”
And, as polls show, so do the vast majority of Americans. Just as Bundy discovered his casual racism was unacceptable, he will learn that his privileged sense of entitlement earns similar scorn.