Suddenly, or so it seems, inequality has surged into public consciousness – and neither the 1 percent nor its reliable defenders seem to know how to cope.
Some of the reactions are crazy – “it’s Kristallnacht,” “they’re coming to kill us” – and the craziness is quite widespread.
Notice how many billionaires, plus of course The Wall Street Journal, rallied around the venture capitalist Tom Perkins (who compared public criticism of the 1 percent to Nazi attacks on Jews in a letter to the editor of The Journal in January).
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But even the saner-sounding voices evidently have a hard time wrapping their minds around the notion that anyone might find 21st-century finance capitalism a bit, well, unfair.
A case in point: a recent New York Times op-ed by Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Brooks is deeply worried about changing popular attitudes toward wealth: “According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who feel that ‘most people who want to get ahead’ can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000,” he wrote on March 1. “As recently as 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied. In just a few years, we have gone from seeing our economy as a real meritocracy to viewing it as something closer to a coin flip.”
And what does he think is the reason for this sea-change in attitudes? Why, it must be about growing envy of the rich, which is a terrible thing.
But the polling data doesn’t say anything about envy: when people say that they have lost their belief that hard work will be rewarded, they aren’t saying that they are envious of the rich; they’re saying that they have lost their belief that hard work will be rewarded. To the extent that people have negative feelings about the 1 percent, the emotion involved isn’t envy – it’s anger, which isn’t at all the same thing.
Envy is when you have negative feelings about rich people because of what they have; anger is when you have negative feelings about the rich because of what they do.
Think about it: Did the Occupy Wall Street protests focus on how the 1 percent lives? Does muckraking journalism obsess over lifestyles? Yes, everyone knows about the former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s car elevator, but it was the dorkiness rather than the luxury that made it a story. Actually, considering just how much the lives of the superelite have diverged from those of ordinary Americans, it’s kind of amazing how few articles there have been salaciously describing parties in the Hamptons and all that.
No, what’s really driving most of the ire is the sense that many of the rich didn’t actually earn their position, that they grew rich at the rest of America’s expense.
And what has happened since 2007 that might justify such a belief? Um, how about all those .01 percenters who were boasting about what a great job they were doing, but turned out to be leading us into a catastrophic financial crisis?
What about the much-admired leaders who assured us that Wall Street was doing great stuff, and turned out to be totally clueless?
Or what about the remarkable fact that since the crisis, profits have soared, while workers’ incomes have stagnated?
People aren’t envious, they’re angry – and with good reason.