I think it is good when very wealthy people have a certain amount of guilt about economic inequality. I congratulate them on being human. But I don’t give them any extra credit. And that is at the core of my disappointment watching Jamie Johnson’s documentary The One Percent. Johnson is the heir of Johnson & Johnson. He seems to have realized that his position in life owes much to luck and little to any greatness of character or brilliance.
The film contains a number of interesting interviews. The best is with economist Milton Friedman. There were two aspects of it worth note. First, Friedman shows very clearly that his economic ideas are nothing more than religious faith. He argues that progressive taxation is socialism. This goes along with his work with Augusto Pinochet in Chile. As all of Friedman’s “free market” proposals failed, the reason was never the ideas themselves. It was always that the country wasn’t free market enough. This is a typically libertarian view that we saw very often after the financial collapse of 2008: the problem wasn’t deregulation, it was that there was still some regulation that was stopping the markets from working perfectly.
The second notable part of the interview gets to the heart of the problem with the whole film. Johnson really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His arguments come down to nothing more than, “Don’t you think that maybe the rich are too rich?” Friedman pointed out that while the rich may have gotten much more wealthy over the last 30 years, the poor have at least seen some improvement in their standard of living. Johnson countered anemically that the gains should have been more equally shared. Why? He doesn’t seem to have an answer. The truth is that many of the poor have seen their standard of living decrease. But the more important point is not that the poor are better off, it is how much better the poor would be doing if, for example, we still had strong unions in this country. To Friedman it is just a given that if the rich got less there would be no innovation, no productivity growth. But Johnson could not counter him on this because he didn’t understand what he was talking about.
Early on in the film, the Johnson family financial adviser Brian McNally tells Johnson, “You’re making a fool’s argument.” And that’s true. Jamie Johnson seems to think that maybe dividends should be taxed as regular income and maybe we should have an estate tax. But he doesn’t begin to get to the core of the problem. And that core is exemplified by the privilege of Mr. Johnson himself. Normally, no one would take seriously a documentary filmmaker who is so ignorant of his subject. And he certainly wouldn’t have been writing a column for Vanity Fair. So even without his money, he is way ahead in life.
But at least Johnson is vaguely aware of the pure luck that is his life. One of the interviews in the film demonstrates the more typical beliefs of the rich about their wealth. Roy O. Martin is the owner of Martin Lumber Company. He is certain that God chose him. He also has a very curious understanding of Jesus’ claim about rich people and the eye of a needle. Rich people of Jesus’ time were the most moral people, Martin explains. Therefore, Jesus is saying that being rich is not enough to get into heaven, not that they can’t get into heaven. Even though that is explicitly what he says.
I can see that this film does some good in terms of pointing out income inequality. And it does highlight some of the biggest problems. But this issue is much deeper than tax policy. And I hate to see very real problems trivialized by a filmmaker who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m glad that Jamie Johnson feels guilty about his wealth. That makes him a human being. It doesn’t make him a knowledgeable truth teller.
Here is the whole 80 minute video, which is not totally without worth: