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David Sirota
David Sirota
12 Dec 2014
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The Treasury Secretary's Misperceptions About Wealth


By Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's reckoning, being a millionaire does not constitute living high above the ranks of ordinary people. Lew said last week that back when he was in the private sector enjoying six- and seven-figure pay packages, "My own compensation was never in the stratosphere."

Lew made that pronouncement as he sought to defend President Barack Obama's embattled Treasury undersecretary nominee Antonio Weiss from charges that as a financial executive, he is out of touch with the interests of regular people. Lew was seeking to cast his own lot with the ranks of ordinary Americans at a time of growing economic inequality.

But in doing so, Lew shed light on a uniquely American phenomenon — the tendency of extraordinarily rich people to cast themselves as everyday members of the middle class.

Earlier this year, for example, Hillary Clinton made headlines when, in response to a question about her personal fortune, she claimed her family was "dead broke" when they left the White House. That statement followed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top aide casting those making $500,000 a year as merely upper middle class.

According to IRS data, 99 percent of American households make less than $388,000 a year, and 95 percent make less than $167,000 a year. The true middle in terms of income — that is, the cutoff to be in the top 50 percent of earners — is roughly $35,000 a year.

While Lew claims his private-sector compensation was not "in the stratosphere," the data suggest otherwise.

According to New York University records, Lew was usually paid between $700,000 and $800,000 a year as the school's vice president, while also receiving a $440,000 mortgage subsidy. Lew also earned $300,000 a year from Citigroup, with a "guaranteed incentive and retention award of not less than $1 million," according to an employment agreement obtained by Businessweek.

That agreement said that the seven-figure award would be terminated if he left for another job, but with one exception: He would indeed get the cash if he accepted "a full-time high-level position with the United States government or regulatory body." Lew was given a $940,000 bonus from Citigroup in the same week the bank received a $300 billion bailout from the federal government.

Then again, Lew is a pauper compared to Weiss. The Treasury nominee reported more than $15 million in compensation in the last two years at Lazard. Like Lew before him, Weiss would receive a massive payout from his firm if he gets a job in government.

Of course, there remains a bit of a debate about what constitutes "rich" in America. A recent New York Times poll showed 27 percent of Americans believe a family of four can be considered "rich" if its annual income is between $100,000 and $200,000, while another 20 percent say "rich" is defined as making between $200,000 and $300,000 a year.

That said, there appears to be consensus that compensation like that paid to Lew and Weiss constitutes "rich" — two-thirds of the country told the pollsters that making more than $300,000 means a household is wealthy.

While Lew's comments leave him open to charges that he is out of touch with economic reality, he is not alone, as surveys show many Americans also have misconceptions about income distribution.

A recent study by Harvard University and Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University found Americans grossly underestimate the divide between CEO and average worker pay.

Such misperceptions were recently spotlighted by comedian Chris Rock in an interview with New York magazine. Of inequality, he said: "People don't even know [about it]. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets."

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." Email him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



1 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;...The greatest problem of this country is not the pitiful few numbers of rich trying to pass as plebians. The really insurmountable, over riding, and terrible problem is all the plebians wanting to identify with the rich though they have spit, and will always only have spit.
That quality that made our victory in international war possible and made our long period of shared affluency possible was class consciousness. With class consciousness, revolutionary forces threatend, and only then was sharing the wealth a better idea than empoverishing the poor. Today, the rich are again teaching class consciouness, and they are even teaching the means by which they will be dispossessed of our commonwealth. But in the churches the rich can find a common interest in the preservation of privilege.

Even while most in the churches have nothing, and very much pay for the privilege their organizations enjoy; still they identify with the rich. They are correct to not look to Jesus for Justice. Jesus was no labor leader. He did not deny justice for all as an obligation, but neither did Jesus look at life as Just. Many of our churches absolutely deny the right of people to justice on this earth. All of the churches deny civil rights as a matter of course and this only follows from the fact that they enjoy privilege taken out of our civil rights.

The word Christian means Slave of Christ, and these people are the worst possible candidates for freedom. They follow order, and follow belief even while their belief is only a mask of certainty over the skull of ignorance. Still there is no doubt that even against the facts of their faith, they admire, and identify with the rich. Can they not know that wealth for a few means poverty for many? The know that poverty means misery, and misery brings many into their fold.

Sir; it is a cruel joke when the rich plead poverty as they do whenever the tax man is around. That these rich people can feel poor when they are so far beyond poor is evidence of a psychological problem: They will never feel rich; so they will never have enough money. But for us; for those who see how desparately we need our commonwealth in order for us to be a democracy and be a great nation, the number of poor, primarily in the churches who support the wealth of the wealthy, and believe they are only a grace of God away from wealth- present an incredible impediment. Only look at your history and see how many governments were flushed while their churches, like turds, floated to the top. Law and religion are like the poor who will always be with us. It is simply a shame that so few rich feel rich, and so many poor feel for the rich.

Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sun Dec 21, 2014 8:48 AM
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