David Sirota provides ten case studies of rich people who seem to be so completely oblivious to the raging and widening inequalities in the US and the resentment it breeds that the apocryphal story of a princess (wrongly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette) who upon hearing that the poor had no bread helpfully suggested “Let them eat cake” immediately comes to mind.
One of Sirota’s examples is billionaire Charles Munger who, in a 2010 speech to University of Michigan students, said that the unemployed, the homeless and the impoverished, whose lives are being torn apart by the recession, should stop whining and instead should “Suck it up and cope.” Yes, those very words. Sirota also said that Munger “first lauded bankers as people who “saved your civilization” and then urged all Americans to bow down and “thank god” that the bailouts preserved the financial industry’s profits.”
I have to warn you that reading those ten case studies of out-of-touch elites (and their enabling journalistic sycophants like the New York Times financial correspondent Andrew Ross Sorkin) will cause your blood to boil. I couldn’t get through it without wishing that the Dickensian tumbrils would once again roll up to take these people to their well-deserved fates.
The New York Times even had a piece on how hard it was for someone to live in that city on less than $500,000 per year, never mind that the median household income there in 1999 was about $38,000. As Sirota says, “when you see a newspaper article during the recession about how difficult it is to live on far more than the average American’s income, you can be forgiven for thinking you are reading either (a) the Onion, (b) the in-house newsletter of 18th-century Versailles or (c) an old clip of NBA guard Latrell Sprewell infamously saying a $7-million-a-year contract was an insult because “I have a family to feed.””
So why aren’t the masses right now readying their pitchforks? Instead why are so many of them, especially in the tea party, venting their anger at public school teachers, police, and firefighters, while saying that we should give the rich even more money? This has been a perplexing problem for which the media must take some share of the blame. But Matt Taibbi provides a valuable insight. He says that it may be because the paths of the very rich and the rest of us no longer cross.
All of this is a testament to the amazing (and rapidly expanding) cultural divide that exists in this country, where the poor and the rich seldom cross paths at all, and the rich, in particular, simply have no concept what being broke and poor really means. It is true that if you make $300,000 in America, you won’t feel like you’re so very rich once you get finished paying your taxes, your mortgage, your medical bills and so on.
For this reason, a lot of people who make that kind of money believe they are the modern middle class: house in the burbs, a car, a kid in college, a trip to Europe once a year, what’s the big deal? They’d be right, were it not for the relative comparison — for the fact that out there, in that thin little ithsmus between the Upper East Side and Beverly Hills, things are so f—– that public school teachers and garbagemen making $60k with benefits are being targeted with pitchfork-bearing mobs as paragons of greed and excess. Wealth, in places outside Manhattan, southern California, northern Virginia and a few other locales, is rapidly becoming defined as belonging to anyone who has any form of job security at all. Any kind of retirement plan, or better-than-minimum health coverage, is also increasingly looked at as an upper-class affectation.
It also works the other way — the poor have no idea what real rich people are like. They apparently never see them, which is why the political champions of middle America are at this very minute campaigning in congress to extract more revenue from elderly retirees and broke-ass students while simultaneously fighting to preserve a slew of tax loopholes for the rich, including the carried-interest tax break that allows hedge fund billionaires to pay about half the tax rate of most Americans.
To most people, the undeserving rich guy is the ex-police lieutenant down the street who’s been collecting a six-figure pension for years after spending two decades writing traffic tickets before retiring at 43. Seeing that guy lounging in the dugout pool you paid for with your constantly rising property taxes is enough to piss anyone off, which is why it’s not hard to understand where a lot of that Tea Party anger is coming from.
But if you want to see a real a——, you have to somehow get invited to things like the $5 million birthday party of another guy on Sirota’s list, private equity creep Steven Schwarzman. After throwing his elaborate fete for himself, Schwarzman — who is said to make $400 million a year, and made $600 million when his company went public — compared Barack Obama to Hitler for even considering rolling back his carried-interest exemption, which, again, allows him to pay 15% taxes while some of the rest of us pay twice that or more. “It’s a war,” he said. “It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland.”
If you think your local Andy Griffith is a greedy pig because he retired in his forties and built an addition to his garage with your tax money, try hanging out with a guy who eats $400 crabs, throws himself $5 million parties where he is serenaded by Rod Stewart and Patti Labelle (who sang “Happy Birthday”), and then compares the president to Hitler when word leaks out that he might have to pay taxes at the same rate as a firefighter or a kindergarten teacher.
So will this state of affairs continue forever?
What we do know is that often a single event can rapidly catalyze public opinion. In the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, the British public had tolerated for decades the stories of the hacking into phones of celebrities and politicians and the wining and dining and bribing of police to not pursue these charges. It took the revelation of the hacking of the voicemail of a murdered 13-year old school girl to cause the sudden eruption of outrage that threatens the once invincible Murdoch empire.
It is hard to predict what kind of single event might cause the US public to suddenly realize that the very rich view them with utter contempt and have been treating them as suckers for years.
I think that a hard rain’s gonna fall. I just don’t know when or what will trigger it. But when it comes, “Suck it up and cope” may well replace “Let them eat cake” as the symbol of arrogant cluelessness.