If millionaires formed a political party, they'd have a lock on government

Darrell Issa (R-CA) (L) talks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol June 19, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

We saw a piece in the Washington Post the other day that intrigued us, a thought experiment by a professor at Duke University.

What would happen if all the millionaires in the federal government -- Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court -- got together and formed their own political party? (Just for millionaires, mind you.)

Turns out pretty much everybody would get an invitation. 

"If millionaires were a political party... they would have a supermajority in the U.S. Senate, a majority in the House, 5-4 on the Supreme Court, and a man in the White House," said Nick Carnes, the Duke public policy professor who crunched the numbers. 

Even though less than 10 percent of the general population is in the millionaires' club, wealthier people are disproportionately represented in the halls of power. In his research, Carnes asks how public policy would be different if Congress, class-wise, looked more like the American public. 

"What if we give the very few who are from the working class lotes of votes, does Congress still pass the same number of policies? And the answer is no." 

To get a better sense of what those priorities might be, Carnes looks to local and state governments. Economic inequality there is lower. In other words, the class breakdown more closely mirrors the general public. "They spend a much bigger proportion of their budgets on social safety net programs, economic inequality is lower." Carnes said. 

A quick look at history shows that affluent people have long held greater power in the US. 

"If you go back to 1901, way before Citizens United, way before the decline of organized labor, Congress is still less than 2 percent working class," Carnes said. "Flash forward to today, Congress is still less than 2 percent working class." 

That's not to say that millionaires in government didn't come to power through legitimate means. But according to Carnes, looking through a single socioeconomic lens can have an impact on how the big issues are decided. 

"When you have political institutions that completely exclude whole classes of Americans, you're going to get a tilted or a slanted take on how the government should be involved in economic affairs."


Richest members of Congress (according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics from 2011)

1. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX)
2. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA)
3. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)**
4. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)
5. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO)
6. Rep. John K. Delaney (D-MD)
7. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)
8. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
9. Rep. Vernon Buchanan (R-FL)
10. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

**No longer serving in the U.S. Senate.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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