When President Obama dipped his toes into the tax the rich waters in his budget speech, he started off by assuring the insecure affluent that we don’t “begrudge those who have done well. We celebrate their success.” Setting aside Obama’s imperial pronoun decision to employ the royal “we,” is this really an accurate portrayal of how most people feel about the rich?
To be fair, he did make the speech in midday when most workers are, well, too busy working to watch presidential speeches. So perhaps he was referring to his probable 1:30PM EST audience: the retired, the unemployed and news junkie copyeditors with monitors that face away from prying eyes (lucky me!). For the sake of argument, though, we’ll assume Obama meant the general U.S. population.
From research and polls, it seems that the president may be overstating the giddiness most Americans feel about those at the top. The rich, loosely defined as the top 2 percent—around 2.4 million households—who take in $250,000 per year or more, is a pretty broad category. Though housing, food and transportation costs in a city like New York mean the cost of living is roughly double what it is in Chicago, for example, a couple or individual making $250,000 still banks nearly five times the median household income in the U.S. ($50,303) and four times the median household income in New York City ($63,957).
Anyone with a quarter of a million in earnings this year who complains, “I’m nothing compared to Trump!” should just stop it. Most people don’t gauge wealth against an aging narcissist with a bad combover. Wealth is like porn, we know it when we see it. Even though a quarter-millionaire (who likely has savings and investments worth substantially more) doesn’t lead the life of Donald Trump, she’s not garnering sympathy from anyone earning a teacher’s salary either.
So now that we have a working definition of “the rich,” how do the non-rich actually view them? For starters, by a margin of two to one, Americans believe the Bush tax cuts should be done away with for those making $250,000 or more, according to a CBS/NYT poll. As for whether Americans “celebrate” the wealthy, the picture’s a bit fuzzy.
At the height of the recent financial crisis, Forbes reported that 52 percent of Americans said they admired the rich, 29 percent had mixed feelings and 8 percent were sharpening their pitchforks.
More fascinating, at least to me, is how much money people felt they needed in order to consider themselves rich: $120,000 a year. The amount is interesting because it speaks to a certain level-headedness about what most folks want and need—a nice place to live, health care, an education for their kids and a vacation once in a while, which is what that income gets you. No yachts or personal jets or self-indulgent home movie theater-pool hall-disco wing of a mansion that you see on MTV’s Cribs, just some creature comforts and occasional dinners out. [N.B.: In NYC, $120,000 will get you a nice two-bedroom rental and an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation for one week, but your kid’s going to a state school, not some overpriced liberal arts college.]
According to researcher Marjorie Kornhauser, Americans also seem to retain some Puritan attitudes that differentiate between kinds of wealth—millionaires who “make it on their own” are held in higher esteem than those who get money the old fashioned way and inherit it. The concept of making it “on your own,” frankly, is a bit of a misnomer that dismisses social realities like race, social connections, upbringing and an assortment of real game-changers. Black wealth in the United States, for example, is approximately one-tenth of white wealth. In other words, nobody really makes it on his or her own.
So getting back to Obama’s presumption about Americans’ feelings toward the rich, I need no study or poll to ascertain one basic fact. If the U.S. government continues to operate as the wholly-owned subsidiary of Corporate America, which guarantees the income and wealth gap will continue to grow, resentment of the rich and their wealth will grow and eventually spill over to outrage. And rightly so.
What Obama will never admit is that ghettos and hovels don’t merely exist alongside mansions and penthouses in this world. The creation of gross wealth is the precondition for deep poverty, without one we wouldn’t have the other. And that’s nothing to celebrate.
To learn more about how to build an independent alternative to the Dems, check out Socialism 2011: Revolution in the Air.