The wealthy aren't resented; the problem is that the rest of us aren't getting ahead
March 26, 2014 12:00 AM
People don’t hate you because you’re beautiful. People hate you because they are getting uglier.
Use that logic, substituting income for attractiveness, and you’ll have a better grasp of why the 99.9 percent really resent the 0.1 percent.
Populist rhetoric is leaving U.S. billionaires feeling persecuted, vilified and begrudged their hard-won fortunes. Quoth Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, in Politico: “[I]f you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”
His comment echoes the reductio-ad-Hitlerum arguments venture capitalist Tom Perkins made in a recent Wall Street Journal letter to the editor, portending a “progressive Kristallnacht.” (Was there a special session at Davos about Third Reich talking points?)
Yes, anti-inequality rhetoric has grown in recent years. But it’s not the growing wealth of the wealthy that Americans are angry about, at least not in isolation. It’s the growing wealth of the wealthy set against the stagnation or deterioration of living standards for everyone else. Polls show that Americans pretty much always want income to be distributed more equitably than it currently is, but they’re more willing to tolerate inequality if they are still plugging ahead. That is, they care less about Lloyd Blankfein’s gigantic bonus if they got even a tiny raise this year.
Unequivocally, the rich have gotten richer over time, and income has become more concentrated within a tighter tier of Americans. In the 1970s, the top 1 percent of families received about 8 percent of all income, whereas their share is nearly 20 percent today. Americans’ concerns about inequality, however, don’t closely track these changes in inequality.
The General Social Survey, for example, has asked Americans about attitudes toward the income distribution for almost 30 years. Peculiarly, it shows Americans were most critical of income inequality during the early and mid-1990s, when incomes were far less concentrated than they became in later years. Remember, though, that a jobless recovery was also strangling the middle class during that time.
What happened over the next few years of the tech boom is striking. Median household incomes grew, and the incomes of the highest earners skyrocketed, meaning the chasm between the rich and the rest widened. But public criticism of the distribution of income meanwhile fell. In other words, by 2000, inequality had objectively grown, but objections to inequality had shrunk. Not coincidentally, 2000 was also the year that Americans were most likely to agree with this statement: “The way things are in America, people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living.”
In the years since the Great Recession, hostility toward in- equality has again rebounded, probably also driven by concerns that the rich are moving onward and upward while everyone else is left behind.
The link between objections to inequality and perceptions of economic mobility can be traced down to the individual household level, too. Generally speaking, Americans who are pessimistic about their ability to improve their own living standards are more likely to think that “differences in income in America are too large,” “inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful,” and “large differences in income are unnecessary for prosperity,” according to survey analysis by Leslie McCall, a sociology professor at Northwestern.
Calculations based on a recent Pew Research Center survey likewise found that people who believed their family’s income was falling behind the cost of living were more likely to say the government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”
“When growth doesn’t lift everyone, the rich are not seen as deserving and income inequality can symbolize unfairness,” explains Ms. McCall, who wrote “The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution.” As long as the rising tide is actually lifting all boats, people care less if some boats enjoy a bigger lift than others.
One implication of these polling trends is that if the 0.1 percent want to be left alone — or at least not pursued by pitchforks and guillotines — they should probably support policies that promote the upward mobility of other Americans. That would include things such as early childhood education, more generous Pell grants and a higher minimum wage, for example.
While some of these policies might require higher taxes, it’s not clear that marginally improving mobility or raising the living standards of the most destitute would do much to hinder the very richest Americans’ ability to continue getting even richer. So far, little else has.
Catherine Rampell, a former economics reporter for The New York Times, writes a column for The Washington Post.
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