Isaac William Martin – Rich People’s Movements

Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

Isaac William MartinRich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press 2013)


A sociological history of the co-option of progressive protest tactics (originally developed to advance the interests of the poor) in support of tax policies that favor the rich.  The title references the classic by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977).  The premise sounds almost ridiculous, but Isaac Martin makes an interesting case.  His account seems fairly balanced, and for the most part seems reliably complete.  If there is a weak spot, it falls on the more recent efforts.  Martin doesn’t seem to provide enough context for why politicians suddenly capitulated to the same sorts of demands that had been made for decades, and he doesn’t necessarily treat all political parties equally.  It is a small quibble in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book.  This is a more thoroughly-researched and neutral academic treatment of a topic that has been addressed in other books like Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire (2012) and Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio‘s Crashing the Tea Party (2011).

Opposites in History

A recurring phenomenon in history is that certain key figures represent a merging of opposite tendencies.  One early figure of this nature is Brasidas, the Spartan officer lauded by Thucydides in his history The Peloponnesian War.  Unlike the most of the terse-speaking Spartans, he was a gifted orator much like his enemies the Athenians.  He died in an attack on Amphipolis  in which he led by making an example of bravery and was one of the few Spartan casualties, though he prefaced the attack with a claim that he would conduct himself in action following the advice he gave to his comrades.  But earlier, he also led covert operations and engaged in deception of cities the Spartans wished to conquer or ally with. Thucydides was actually the Athenian general who led excursions against Brasidas, but he nonetheless praised Brasidas more than almost everyone else in his entire history of the war.  Characterized by his “charm”, that really meant Brasidas excelled at the qualities that his enemies prized, namely oratory.  He also acted quickly with bold, decisive and dramatic surprise attacks.  This quick action was not common among Spartans more known for endless deliberation and caution.  He was an example of one side, the Spartans, succeeding on the terms of the opponent, the Athenians.

John Muir, with the help of many others, remained the primary catalyst for the creation of National Parks in the United States.  He was undoubtedly a pantheist, and perhaps an atheist (as much as would be accepted at the time in his cultural setting).  But reading some of his writings, the overarching tendency is to rely on religious and moral argument.  He especially leans on the tone of fundamentalist christian writing.  Yet his advocacy pointed to a return to a simple appreciation of nature.  This resembled the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the critic of civil society.  In this he merged opposite tendencies.  He used the language of the socially conservative religious status quo to advance a position that was ultimately a radical critique of the foundations of the economic system operating in his society.

Of course, history provides plenty of counter examples.  But it is worth pausing on some of the ways opposites do merge from time to time with spectacular effect.

Lexus Drivers

Something I realized long ago is that when walking or riding my bike around town, there is a very strong correlation between drivers who carelessly–or knowingly–endanger my life through reckless driving and those driving luxury vehicles like Lexus and BMW luxury sedans and fancy sport utility vehicles.  That is not to say that those are the only reckless drivers on the road.  I also noticed a strong correlation between aggressively reckless driving and driving extremely low-cost dilapidated cars or having carloads of many young men in any type of vehicle.  What always seems to stand out the most, though, were the luxury cars that were routinely driven in a way that put my life in danger only to save a fraction of a second travel time for the driver.  It gave the impression that my life was not worth the seconds saved by the driver.

As it turns out, Paul Piff, a social psychology researcher at the University of California Berkeley, has recently studied this very issue.  Not surprisingly, his data backs up what was already quite clear.  The affluent tend to have a feeling of entitlement over others.  They do feel that they are better and more worthy than others, particularly when driving.

“The Age of Entitlement: How Wealth Breeds Narcissism”

“The Money-Empathy Gap: New Research Suggests That More Money Makes People Act Less Human. Or at Least Less Humane.”

“Does Money Make You Mean”

The connection here is pretty clear if you view “money” as a unit of measure of “power” (arising from a milieu of credit and moral debts), and then consider the age-old saying often attributed to Lord Acton, “power corrupts.”  That ties this, by only an slight degree of separation, to psychology research like Philip Zimbardo’s “Standford Prison Experiement” (see also Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil).

There is also the question of so-called “Lexus lanes” that allow drivers to pay a premium for access to special, uncongested traffic lanes.  These more or less reinforce feelings of entitlement.  But that’s also a whole other issue.

It is good to see research like this being done.  It furthers efforts like The Spirit Level that show how inequality produces worse outcomes for everyone.