People may recall in the 2008 presidential election the huge fuss that occurred when in a casual conversation with a voter, candidate Barack Obama made a vague statement to the effect we need to share the wealth. That voter was the infamous ‘Joe the Plumber’ who then had his fifteen minutes of fame as he became a right wing hero, a so-called common man who opposed socialistic policies, although Obama is far from being a socialist as any rational person would concede.
But as inequality has skyrocketed in the US, calls for redistribution have gone mainstream. French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, that has been on the best-seller list for some time now and been the basis for much discussion in the media (see Kathleen Geier’s review) calls for greater progressive taxation.
But what must really hurt the right is that pope Francis Pope has been pushing this message too, most recently telling the UN secretary general that that body should encourage the redistribution of wealth. A commentator on Fox News has responded by calling him a “robe-wearing politician”.
But then we also have a CNBC survey that finds that 51% of America’s millionaires think that inequality is a serious problem in the US and of those, two-thirds support higher taxes on the wealthy and a higher minimum wage to close the gap.
But that is the only good news in the survey. The rest of it seems to show the same sense of smug self-worth and superiority over the poor that characterizes current opinion among the wealthy. They feel that they achieved it all on their own. “Only 1 percent cited luck as the top reason for their wealth.” Paul Krugman takes apart that comforting self-image, which is the basis for much of the efforts opposing raising the minimum wage and advocating cuts in benefits.
But why is there even this slight breach in the ranks at the top when it comes to viewing rising inequality? One possible reason is that the people who qualified for survey were those who had at least $1 million in investable assets and these constitute the top 8%. Such people, while undoubtedly wealthy, are not as detached from the rest of society as the top 1% or the top 0.1%, the groups that Piketty identified as the ones who have benefitted mmost from the rising inequality. They do not live in the same insulating cocoon as the others and do come into contact with ordinary people in the course of their daily lives. They likely do their own shopping, do not travel in private jets and limousines, live in homes that are not fortresses, and socialize with people who may not be poor but earn much less than them. As such they may be sensing the rising anger in the country about inequality and feel a greater vulnerability if that gets out of control.