This post is a letter I’m sending to New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan after he wrote two Wealth Matters columns discussing the horrors of suddenly being worth $350 million instead of $500 million. Here is an excerpt for some context:
BEATING up on the wealthy seems to be the order of day. I suspected that. But a recent Wealth Matters column touched a particularly raw nerve. It looked at how even people with sizable fortunes were concerned about money in this recession and the impact that could have on the rest of us.
Readers rejected the attempt to understand the concerns of the rich. …
The vehemence in these e-mail messages made me wonder why so many people were furious at those who had more than they did. And why are the rich shouldering the blame for a collective run of bad decision-making? After all, many of the rich got there through hard work. And plenty of not-so-rich people bought homes, cars and electronics they could not afford and then defaulted on the debt, contributing to the crash last year.
I think you fail to understand why Americans are upset in your article, All This Anger Against the Rich May Be Unhealthy.
First, if I hear one more whine about how hard the super rich work, I’m gonna fall off my chair laughing until I cry.
You insult construction workers, truck drivers, school teachers and librarians to even IMPLY that those who are rich work any harder than the less rich. Perhaps the rich work smarter, or choose more profitable careers, but please get off that tired, self-righteous high horse.
Consider: I have a friend who worked in education for more than a decade, and her salary never exceeded $40,000. I know a high school teacher who sells real estate in the summer just to provide his family with a reasonable middle class existence. Because these people work incredibly hard raising our children, they should be America’s best-paid citizens, not the worst.
Americans are painfully aware how stupid our compensation system is, especially when they look at CEO and sports-hero pay. Heck, read this story to see how our taxes are helping to make bankers fabulously wealthy. Americans looked the other while they could buy a nice house and felt some upward mobility, but that time is gone.
Second, I don’t think Americans are as mad at the upper middle class, which is experiencing intense economic pain.
I think they’re mad at those who made millions and billions trading OUR money in a phony financial system. Then those rich Americans rubbed it in our face, by flaunting their wealth via 16,000-square foot houses, $100,000 cars, enormous boats, private jets and over-the-top vacations. Worse, those who profess tough individualism ran to the federal government hat-in-hand, begging for bailouts.
Americans are angry not just because of the Bernie Madoff-type scams, either. They’re angry because they were sold a cultural LIE: that we could own big houses with granite countertops and that housing values would go up forever. It’s not nice to promise a great life and then take it away.
And while many of the super rich earned their wealth, there are plenty who became rich through exploitation. Some real estate agents, mortgage company executives, subprime lending company owners and their ilk draw a lot of ire because they essentially mislead or outright screwed our siblings, aunts, cousins, friends, etc.
Third, you need to understand just how uneven the playing field is.
The most important factor is education. In the states I’ve lived, the only way to get a decent education for our kids was to live in a high-priced neighborhood. Consider the options of financially struggling parents:
- Live in a tiny apartment, condo or house – if one can be found. (In some CA neighborhoods, even that is not possible.)
- Live in a city or state that has open enrollment, wait in line in the cold, and then drive your kids across town twice a day.
- Use whatever meager wealth you have to send your kids to private school.
- Move out to the exurbs where the school facilities are new and the teachers still filled with hope.
- “Shop” for better educational opportunities in different cities or states.
Health care is another example of our uneven system. Besides the difficulty and cost of obtaining insurance for our families, try going to a doctor or hospital in a crappy neighborhood. In North Scottsdale, you are treated like a guest at a fancy hotel; in Upland, California, you wait for more than two hours to get ANYONE to see your miscarrying wife. (Upland is a wealthy neighborhood, but the hospital also serves the less financially fortunate in the surrounding area.)
The same goes for road quality, available services, university access and of course, job availability and quality.
Fourth, keep in mind, the financial system exists to serve capitalism, not the other way around.
The system is supposed to provide liquidity for more real ventures, such as manufacturing and business formation. Instead, the markets have become a wealth-making tool for the sake of the already wealthy. We should ask ourselves: Is there a Capitalistic reason for all this financial activity or is it just a way to transfer wealth around while camouflaging exploitation?
Keep in mind, the markets also steal our best and brightest to make up phony “quant” formulas when they could be reinventing physics, solving the energy crisis or finding the cure to cancer.
Look, I could keep going on, but as you wrote, Paul, all this anger at the wealthy is “not healthy.” Neither is losing your home or health insurance, but hey, that’s a small price the super rich are willing to pay as long as it’s not them.
But being a dad blogger, I’m glad you eventually turned your column to focus on children:
(Financial psychologist Brad Klontz) is even more concerned that this obsession with money and blame will affect children. He said the risk is creating a generation that distrusts investing and associates wealth with greed.
That’s rich. Where was the concern before the economic crisis about kids associating wealth with self-worth? During those heady economic days, our kids learned that bigger homes were better, buying property we couldn’t afford made sense and that those who didn’t jump at foolish opportunities would be losers.
If you want to cry about Americans’ growing distrust of the wealthy, fine. But Paul, please don’t tell me you’re defending the rich for the benefit of our children. It’s a cheap parting shot.