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Phillip Tutor: Sen. Shelby and the 'people with no money'

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By almost any measurement, Richard Shelby is an accomplished fellow.

As Alabama’s senior U.S. senator, he’s the chamber’s fifth-ranked Republican and on his sixth term. Seats on several of Congress’ most coveted committees boost his Washington clout. In Tuscaloosa, where he lives, the 83-year-old Shelby’s fingerprints are omnipresent symbols of political status. In these parts, McClellan’s Center for Domestic Preparedness will forever be linked to Shelby’s funding efforts, and rightly so.

Here’s how The Washington Post described him a few years ago: “The senator’s largesse with taxpayer money is legendary and has been spread across scores of other Alabama communities over many years.”

Shelby is a kingmaker.

He’s also rich.

Each year, Roll Call, a Washington-based newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, publishes a wealth index that ranks members of Congress. It’s a spreadsheet of millionaires and gilded politicians. Shelby is nowhere near the top of the list. But with a net worth of $4.18 million, according to the newspaper’s research, Shelby ranks No. 22 in wealth in the Senate and No. 72 among all members of Congress. (Shelby’s Senate financial report for 2016 shows a wealth range in excess of $12 million.)

Consider that when you read what Shelby said this week during Congress’ tax-reform debates:

“People with money save money, create jobs, create risk,” he said. “People with no money — I’ve been there — create nothing. You’re trying to live, to survive.”

People with no money create nothing, he said.

There’s journalistic danger in cherry-picking comments without adding proper context, so let’s give Shelby a modicum of doubt. Among the options the GOP-controlled Congress is considering is a reduction in the U.S. corporate tax rate and lowering the 39.6 percent income tax rate for people earning $1 million or more. Those of us who have no idea what a million dollars smells like can only count our Monopoly cash and buy lottery tickets.

When asked by The Hill, another D.C. political newspaper, about these debates, Shelby said, “I never thought anybody should pay over 25 percent.”

If only he’d stopped there.

Instead, Alabama’s congressional kingmaker said poor people “create nothing” because they’re living check to check. Their money pays for food and diapers, not job-creating investments. They’re just surviving, remember. Put another way, America’s tax code needs to ease up on rich people so they can use their wealth for the public good that in turn will trickle down to the working stiffs among us.

The Era of Trump, in which men are valued by their wealth and the billionaire president emerged from a gold-covered Manhattan tower, has recast Washington Republicans in President Donald Trump’s image. He owns them. Enough of America’s “people with no money” bought Trump’s corrupt, truth-free campaign message to usher the reality TV star into the White House, but he cares nothing for them. In deeds and words, he measures people not by their humanity or heart, but by their bottom lines: Are they rich? Are they successful? Are they famous? Do they generate positive approval ratings? Are they four-star generals?

They are the valuable ones.

The rest of us pick at the crumbs.

For what it’s worth, I doubt that Shelby’s verbal backhand was intentional. He’s not Trump. In emails Thursday with his D.C. office, I asked Shelby to clarify his remarks. He wrote: “Many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck and do not have the opportunity to save or invest any of their income. I have been there, and I understand the worries involved in preparing for your future. Congress is working to help hardworking Americans in that same situation by delivering real tax reform and allowing people to immediately take home more of their paychecks.”

That’s all fine and good, but there’s still no reason to question people’s economic value. It’s dehumanizing. What’s more, money-less Americans aren’t a monolithic collection of freeloaders or food-stamp abusers. They’re middle-class families and full-time workers, part-time employees who want more hours, full-time students, single moms who work and parent, college grads swamped by debt, the unemployed jettisoned as trash through corporate layoffs, the infirm whose medical bills are mountains they can’t climb, and, yes, the lazy. They don’t create jobs. They don’t invest in public projects. They don’t save their millions because they don’t have them.

They “create nothing.”

Washington’s Republican-speak renders them useless, salvageable only if job-creating millionaires are given tax breaks to further the fallacy that trickle-down economics is a savior for middle- and low-wage earners. Go ask people in Greene County or Wilcox County, or parts of Calhoun County, about that.

Shelby knows better, or should. Poverty and economic inequality ravage our rural areas. Thousands of Alabamians are “people with no money” who’ll never own pricey property in Tuscaloosa or file seven-figure tax returns.

“I’ve been there,” Shelby says.

If only he’d stopped there, too.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.