Friday, March 20, 2009

The worthiness of the rich

This kind of a column would have been unthinkable just a year ago. Here's the LA Times pointing out the growing public skepticism about the legitimacy of vast wealth inequality:
For decades, the wealthy have been held up as people to be admired, victors in the Darwinian economic struggle by virtue of their personal ingenuity and hard work. 

Americans consistently supported fiscal policies that undermined middle- and working-class interests partially because they saw themselves as rich-people-in-waiting: Given time, toil and the magic of compound interest, anyone could retire a millionaire.

That mind-set has all but been eradicated by the damage sustained by the average worker's nest egg, combined with the spectacle of bankers and financial engineers maintaining their lifestyles with multimillion-dollar bonuses while the submerged 99% struggle for oxygen. 

(The price of admission to the top 1% income-earning club last year was roughly $400,000.) That may account for the near-total absence of public outcry over President Obama's proposal to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans -- except of course from the wealthiest Americans.


The shift in sentiment should surprise no one. As the management sage Peter Drucker once predicted, "In the next economic downturn there will be an outbreak of bitterness and contempt for the super-corporate chieftains who pay themselves millions. In every major economic downturn in U.S. history the 'villains' have been the 'heroes' during the preceding boom." Drucker was speaking in 1997, two downturns ago.


There's a social value in suppressing income inequality. In a country with only a slightly less ingrained tradition of civility than the United States, the AIG affair would provoke rioting in the streets. 

"We live in a country with tranquillity and good feelings toward each other, and that's precious," says Robert Shiller, a Yale University economist and coauthor of Animal Spirits, a new book about the psychology of economics. In the current crisis, "there's anger and a sense of injustice taking hold, and it's not in the interest of wealthy people -- you don't want people on the poor side of town to be angry with you." 


Thanks to the financial crisis... the claim of the rich to play an indispensable role in the American economy will be treated with more skepticism than in the recent past, and their ability to preserve their loopholes and other advantages in the tax code will diminish

Will the economy suffer as a result? The experiment is about to begin.
As Michael Ledeen likes to say, Faster Please!

No comments: