Rich Lowry: Middle-class Joe cashes in

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden arrives to speak with reporters outside a restaurant, Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

The American middle class just got a lot richer.

Joe Biden, who invariably and tiresomely refers to himself as "Middle-Class Joe," made $15 million the first two years after the end of the Obama administration.

This hardly qualifies as a rounding error in the portfolio of any billionaire mogul, but for the average American, a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

According to one estimate, it takes an annual income of $420,000 to be in the top 1 percent of earners. Biden made 26 times that in 2017. He used to be remarkable among top politicians for not being very wealthy, but even in the old days of straitened circumstances, he and his wife were making about $400,000 a year, enough to make the top 1 percent in Delaware.

This doesn't discredit any particular Democratic policy proposal, but it shows that in inveighing against the 1 percent, many top Democrats are attacking a group that they are happy to be part of, and for the same reasons as anyone else in the 1 percent.

Most everyone wants to get paid what they're worth (more, if possible). Most everyone wants to have more comfort and security rather than less. Most everyone wants a bigger house rather than a smaller one, and more homes rather than fewer. Most everyone wants more wealth to pass along to their family.

The Bidens bought a $2.7 million vacation house on the beach, surely not an extravagance compared with the vacation homes of Biden's donors, but a luxury far out of the reach of the vast majority of Americans. If Biden has felt any guilt over it, he has yet to show it.

We shouldn't begrudge Biden, or anyone else, getting what the market is willing to pay him, and spending it on things he enjoys. But what's true of Biden is as true of other denizens of the 1 percent, a category that includes people across all sorts of industries and professions.

What distinguishes the buck-raking of a politician like Biden is that he is simply cashing in on his fame, rather than adding any true value the way an entrepreneur does, or providing important services like a doctor or an accountant.

Writing books (often with the help of a ghostwriter) and showing up and giving speeches is perhaps the easiest money in America, and it is uniquely the path to wealth of politicians.

This road is so paved with gold that even Sandinista-friendly avowed socialists can make a bounty, as Bernie Sanders has without apology, indeed with a prickly defensiveness. "I didn't know that it was a crime to write a good book, which turned out to be a bestseller," he huffed at a community meeting earlier this year.

It's also not a crime to use tax loopholes to keep from paying more than necessary to the IRS, as Biden can attest. The Wall Street Journal reports that the former vice president, a longtime critic of tax loopholes exploited by the rich, himself used a loophole that Democrats have long tried to eliminate to save about half a million on his tax bill.

Biden is by no means the lead scourge of the wealthy in the Democratic field. He's been outflanked on this issue by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who herself made nearly a million dollars last year. At a recent fundraiser, he said that rich people shouldn't be demonized. Of course, Biden was talking to a room of fellow rich people.

On CNN the other night, he was back as usual to calling himself Middle-Class Joe. It's probably too much to ask him to give up that shopworn self-image. Still, he and many of his colleagues would be truer to how they live their own lives if they began to more fully embrace and promote the idea of their fellow Americans getting rich.

Rich Lowry Courtesy photo

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. comments.lowry@nationalreview.com