Brian O'Neill: It's an unlikely challenge to feel sorry for 1 percent

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Is money tight? Will you spend part of your Sunday clipping coupons while dressed in a sweater because you've turned down the thermostat so low you don't have to refrigerate that Hamburger Helper glop you need to stretch across another lunch and dinner?

You don't know how lucky you have it.

I hesitate to share this because the news is so alarming, but others have already let the fat cat out of the Gucci bag. In a shocking piece last week for the Mother Jones Political Mojo blog, Erika Eichelberger collected evidence of widespread discomfort among the nation's richest 1 percent.

Their problem? Too much money.

Back in 2012, Mother Jones reported how big banks were hiring psychotherapists "to help their extremely wealthy clients deal with the complications that come with being extremely wealthy.''

Yes, gentle reader, it seems mountains of cabbage can make you nuts. Just last month, billionaire investor Tom Perkins put his exquisitely shod foot in his mouth when he wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal comparing criticism of the 1 percent to Nazi attacks on the Jews.

Mr. Perkins later apologized on Bloomberg TV for the crass comparison, but he still worries that "job creators'' are demonized and "threatened as a class.'' Take a recent crack he heard about the ridiculousness of buying a Rolex watch. He distressfully showed his own watch, saying, "I could buy a six-pack of Rolexes for this.''

Who couldn't sympathize? Imagine the angst Mr. Perkins must experience as he travels from his fabulous digs in San Francisco to his Elizabethan mansion in southern England, worried that any moment along the way some jealous member of the hoi polloi might set upon him and, you know, try to make him feel bad.

Why, you couldn't even offer Mr. Perkins the condolences you'd provide to everyday humans. If you said, "Oh, you poor man,'' neither of you could keep a straight face.

That's lonely. And this whole widening income-gap thing keeps making the mega-rich feel worse. Sure, it may seem unfair that the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of America's income gains between 2009 and 2012, or that the bottom 60 percent of all Americans have less than 3 percent of the country's wealth -- but try to see this from the penthouse view.

Jamie Traeger-Muney, a psychologist who counsels multi-millionaires, told Politico, "I think that with Occupy Wall Street there was a sense of the heat getting turned up and a feeling of vilification and potential danger.''

Maybe not waiting-for-a-bus-late-at-night danger, or losing-your-home danger or getting-the-heat-cut-off danger, but something more nuanced to bear:

"There is a worry among our clients that they are being judged and people are making assumptions about who they are based on their wealth,'' Ms. Traeger-Muney told Politico.

Making assumptions? Who are these scoundrels? Oh, the humanity.

I hope this isn't happening in Pittsburgh. I like to think our one-percenters are regular Joes and Josies, as comfortable at a Steelers tailgate party as they'd be at a Sotheby's auction. But it's worrisome that there'd be no clear way to help if they were troubled.

The usual method -- taking up a collection to help a stricken soul -- would only make them feel worse. Heirs have it hardest among the super-rich, Ms. Traeger-Muney said, particularly since the financial crisis in 2008.

"It feels like their worst nightmare coming true: the idea that they're now responsible for other people's unhappiness and lack of wealth, when they didn't ask for [more money than most of us could imagine in the first place].''

Wow. That's their worst nightmare? Really? I once had one where the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who each had only one arm and looked like David Janssen for some reason, were beating me with bowling trophies as Wet Willie's "Keep on Smiling'' blared and they sang along.

But I guess I don't know true anguish.

So how can the common man and woman help? Telling the one-percenters where they might stuff their excess money is a no-go. Nor will mere compassion do. (Save that for the downsized.) What the likes of Mr. Perkins seek is undiluted reverence.

That may be hard to swallow, but I suspect it pairs well with Hamburger Helper.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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