Democratic Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia wants you to know that, at $174,000 a year, members of Congress are underpaid. Because Jim Moran, like others, doesn't understand actual economic hardship and, frankly, isn't that great at politics either.
Moran is not the only public official to make a dubious claim about salary hardship in the past 24 hours. Larry Schwartz is secretary to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a position that's a sort of like chief of staff in the state. Schwartz was discussing a proposal backed by Cuomo that would freeze property taxes on people at certain income levels. After all, middle class folks like those making $500,000 shouldn't pay exorbitant taxes. Yes, that's right. Middle class. "I would consider someone making up to $500,000 as upper middle-class," Schwarz said, according to The Journal-News. "I wouldn't classify them as rich." OK.
In swanky Westchester county, the area that Schwartz was discussing, the median annual salary is $81,000. Median household income in the state at large was about $57,000 in 2012. In Virginia, where Moran's constituents live, it was about $63,000 that year. (It's slightly higher in DC.)
The numbers we're talking about are not middle class. $500,000 is almost 10 times the median wage in New York. Moran's salary is almost three times the median salary in his home state. And if Moran's argument is that he works more than people in D.C., and so deserves more money, we'll point out that the D.C. minimum wage is $8.25 an hour — meaning that Moran would have to work 21,090 hours a year at minimum wage in order to earn $174,000. There are 8,760 hours in a year. But Moran is underpaid, as are the rest of the members of Congress, a majority of whom are actual millionaires.
Spending, like a gas, expands to occupy the income that contains it. Not always, but almost always. In 2012, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan had a great excoriation of complaints by the wealthy that they could barely pay their bills — bills that for one couple included "car and RSP payments, wardrobe refreshes, utility bills and something to set aside for when the furnace inevitably conks out. Plus the cost of the sushi, pad Thai and butter chicken that we order in three nights a week-because we're all too tired to cook by the time we get home from work." Nolan wept at their plight.
This point was echoed by The Atlantic's Matt O'Brien earlier this week. Among all but the richest of the rich, they don't see their income/volume increasing as fast as it has in the past. Couple that with the anxiety of having to maintain status, O'Brien argues, and things are rough among the middle-to-lower-upper-upper class. They don't feel rich — but, then, they certainly have no idea what it's like to actually feel poor.
The people we're talking about here aren't just rich people. They're political rich people. It's like the members of Congress who insisted they needed their salaries during the October shutdown — Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, who had to make payments on his "nice house"; Rep. Renee Ellmers, who simply needed her paycheck. (Both of whom, we must note, also voted to make the shutdown happen.) The idea of a public servant griping about his service is at best unseemly.
And at worst it's gross. The New York Times ran a detailed report on Friday about the long-term unemployed, shut off of unemployment insurance support in December and frustrated ever since. "I’m out there working these [part-time, retail] jobs, meeting people and trying to make something happen," Ivy-League-grad-and-Masters-degree-holding Abe Gorelick told the paper. "But it is exhausting. It is stressful. It is difficult." The Senate has repeatedly introduced legislation to reinstate the insurance support; the House, where Ellmers and Terry and Moran work, has not adopted the proposal.
Politicians go to great pains to show how down they are with the average Joe, the working man. And perhaps we've underestimated the extent to which they do. After all, if they think $170,000 is too low a salary to get by, or that half-a-million-dollars-a-year is a middle class salary — if they think, in other words, that the wealthy are actually middle class folks — then Congress has indeed done an excellent job in improving the lot of the middle class.