Trump’s millionaire administration: A betrayal of campaign promises?

President-elect Donald Trump's picks for his cabinet positions so far have been individuals with unusually wealthy backgrounds, drawing criticism for his reliance on elites.

Richard Drew/AP
Millionaire Steven Mnuchin, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Treasury secretary, arrives at Trump Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 30.

President-elect Donald Trump’s planned administration so far consists of individuals with net worths in the millions and billions.

While it is not unusual for presidents to fill cabinet positions with members of the one percent, critics point out that this runs counter to Mr. Trump’s narrative during the campaign, when he repeatedly attacked Wall Street and promised to deliver changes that will stop elites from gaining at the expense of average workers.

But the selections do fit another image Trump has championed: As experienced business people and political outsiders, he might argue, they know how to navigate and take advantage of the system – making them the best candidates to stop the exploitation.

What would a millionaire administration mean for the American workers that Trump has vowed to protect?

Some say it might widen the influence gap between the wealthiest and the rest.

In this administration, "there aren’t many people who have experience doing the kinds of jobs that most Americans go to everyday," says Nicholas Carnes, professor at Duke University, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "The advice that he’s going to be getting – policies are probably going to be heavily slanted in the interests of more wealthy groups."

Trump has tapped Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive with a reported net worth of $46 million, to be Treasury secretary. Wilbur Ross, chair of a private equity firm with a net worth of $2.5 billion, was chosen for Commerce secretary. Betsy DeVos, a businesswomen Trump picked to be Education secretary, hails from a family worth over $5 billion. 

For other positions, Trump is reportedly considering the billionaire owner of Chicago Cubs and a business mogul who owns several restaurant chains. Put together, Trump's cabinet and administration may worth as much as $35 billion, according to Politico.

Professor Carnes, author of "White-collar government: The hidden role of class in economic policy making," says that according to his research, the "chances for public policy that will really help low-income people are low going forward."

“The research really suggests that politicians who are very well off have trouble staying connected to the needs and views of regular Americans,” he says. “How you think about government and politics is shaped by your own experience in life.”

Bringing in experienced business executives will introduce new perspectives, he says, but it will be a different view from someone in the working class. For example, hourly workers tend to favor raising the minimum wage, but business owners who employ minimum wage workers tend to say the opposite.

“I’m not saying they’re out to get us, I’m saying they’re bringing a different perspective to tax policies,” he says. “When you put rich people in charge, the economic policy will look more like what rich people would want.”

His analysis of policies at every level of government revealed that when politicians are from rich or white collar backgrounds, the result tends to be less worker-friendly, with slimmer social safety nets and regressive tax policies. 

That divide in experience and perspectives might be further reflected by the widening income gap. As an article from the Harvard Gazette pointed out in February, the gap was thrown into sharp relief by the recovery after the Great Recession, which “eventually bailed out Wall Street financiers but left ordinary citizens to fend for themselves.”

Economic inequality affects policies, according to Harvard scholars cited in the article, by creating barriers for some to access opportunities and participate in political activities. As a result, those with higher incomes and better education gain more response and representation in government than middle-income voters.

“I think we will pay many prices. We will continue to have divisive politics. We won’t make the investments we need to provide the majority of kids with a better life, and that would be really not fulfilling,” Lawrence Katz, professor of economics at Harvard University, told the Gazette.

Carnes adds that it is crucial to diversify a "millionaire cabinet." He suggests building a pipeline for more underrepresented people to be part of politics, ensuring that those making decisions and offering advice to politicians come from a variety of backgrounds.

“Whenever we make a complicated decision, we get a good outcome when everyone who is affected comes to the table,” he says.

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