Kling on Inequality

Arnold Kling reflects on the fact that the Clintons made $109 million over the past seven years. (Maybe John Edwards is on to something with that “Two Americas” thing.) What’s remarkable is not the amount of private wealth, however, but the amount of wealth and power that government officials control:

Montgomery County, Maryland, has an annual budget of $3.8 billion. This sum is under the control of a County Council with nine members. On an average per-politician basis, each County Council member controls just over $400 million a year in spending.

To put an annual spending figure of $400 million in perspective, consider this: if you had $8 billion in assets and earned 5 percent per year on those assets, that would give you $400 million in annual income. And few Americans have that much. The world’s wealthiest person is Warren Buffett, with $62 billion (admittedly he has often been able to earn more than 5 percent per year from investments). Bill Gates has $58 billion. Fewer than 40 Americans have more than $8 billion in assets, and their names are largely familiar to us–the Waltons of Wal-Mart, Sergie Brin and Larry Page of Google, and so on.

Can you name the members of the County Council in Montgomery County, Maryland? I can’t name very many of them, and I live there. Still, getting elected to the County Council in Montogmery County, which is pretty far down the ladder in terms of political power in the United States, enables you to control more annual spending than the wealth of Donald Trump or Steven Jobs.

At the Federal level, the Budget is $3 trillion. If you divide that by 535 (the number of of Senators and Congressmen), then on average each legislator controls over $5 billion in spending per year. That is more than even the world’s richest person could spend annually.

Money, moreover, represents virtually all of a private individual’s power, but only a small fraction of the power of public officials, who can not only spend but also regulate, control, command, and punish. It’s good to remember that, no matter how rich or powerful someone is, there are many government officials who control far more financial resources and exercise far greater power.

Perhaps there are three Americas: the rich, the non-rich, and the bureaucrats, who tell those in the first two groups what to do.

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