In an age of rising income inequality, one of the big questions is what impact the growing gap will have on democracy. Francis Fukuyama worries about it in this month’s Foreign Affairs, in an essay that bears the worrying subtitle, “Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?” President Barack Obama, as he signaled again with his budget this week, is putting the issue at the center of his re-election campaign.
The powerful connection between money and politics is also on vivid display in the roller-coaster Republican race, where Rick Santorum owes his surge in part to the generosity of the Wyoming multimillionaire Foster Friess, whose “super PAC” helped keep Santorum’s candidacy alive by running TV ads on his behalf.
I interviewed Friess a few days ago, before he made his headline-grabbing remark about women using aspirin as contraceptives in his earlier days (“The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”) He’s a folksy, white-haired, septuagenarian charmer whose Web site features a photo of him astride a horse and “Foster’s Campfire Blog.” He also has unequivocal views about the proper relationships among the wealthy, the state and politics.
Friess’s most striking observation was about the value of what he called “self-taxation,” as opposed to taxes levied by the state.
“People don’t realize how wealthy people self-tax,” Friess told me when I asked whether, given the country’s economic troubles, it was fair to ask the rich to pay a bigger share. “You know, there’s a fellow who was the CEO of Target. In Phoenix, he’s created a museum of music. He put in around $200 million of his own money. I have another friend who gave $400 million to a health facility in Nebraska or South Dakota, or someplace like that. You look at Bill Gates, just gave $750 million, I think, to fight AIDS.”