When the plutocrats have lost even Politico...
by David Atkins
The Politico article on the collective hysteria of the plutocratic class doesn't contain anything particularly revelatory, but it's interesting per se in that even the reliably center/center-right news site is treating the temper tantrums of the obscenely rich with some scorn and derision:
At one level, the reaction seems dramatically out of proportion to anything any politician is actually proposing. And recent comments from the super-wealthy can seem baffling — and infuriating — to the vast majority of Americans who occupy much less rarefied air and now have myriad social media forums to castigate what they view as deeply out-of-touch whining from the plutocrat class.No kidding. They should be worried. All but the worst of the Objectivist Randroids know at some level that they're being compensated wildly out of proportion to their contributions to the economy. Some, myself included, would even argue that much of the modern financial industry is directly counterproductive to broader economic health. They also understand that their obscene wealth isn't the anodyne result of growing the pie, but constitutes a direct theft of the pie at the expense of everyone else.
Nothing Obama proposed in his relatively mild State of the Union address would do much to impact the lives of the nation’s top earners. Raising the minimum wage wouldn’t do it. Nor would extending unemployment benefits or instituting universal pre-kindergarten.
Even the president’s toughest lines on the issue of inequality were hardly the kind of fire-and-brimstone condemnation that Franklin D. Roosevelt heaped on bankers’ heads in the 1930s.
“After four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” Obama said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”
That was pretty much it.
Obama made no call to raise taxes further on the rich, who still enjoy rates dramatically lower than they were through most of the booming 1980s. He did not summon Occupy Wall Street protesters back to the barricades or threaten new actions to bust up big banks.
Meanwhile, de Blasio has no power to raise taxes unilaterally on the rich despite his fiery campaign rhetoric.
On a practical level, the wealthy are jumping at shadows.
“None of the issues currently on the table would have a large effect on the very rich,” said Justin Wolfers, economics professor at the University of Michigan. “If there is anything driving this rise in rhetoric, it’s that the president pivoted to talking about inequality, which some interpret as taking from the 1 percent and giving to the 99 percent.”
People who counsel the wealthy for a living say there is both an unease with growing income disparity and a fear of even greater persecution.
“I think that with Occupy Wall Street there was a sense of the heat getting turned up and a feeling of vilification and potential danger,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, a psychologist whose Wealth Legacy Group focuses on counseling the affluent. “There is a worry among our clients that they are being judged and people are making assumptions about who they are based on their wealth.”
Much of the current anxiety is also driven by the precarious nature of the recovery from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
The U.S. economy is showing signs of picking up speed with job creation and consumer confidence on the rise. But there is still an enormous sense of national pessimism about the future, as evidenced in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that showed 68 percent of Americans believe the country is stagnant or worse off since the president took office in 2009.
And the recent stock market swoon, the bad December jobs report and gyrations in emerging market currencies could convince some wealthy Americans that their pessimism is well-founded and that another economic downturn is not far off — and might carry even greater risks for the rich.
“People are very anxious about the decline in the stock market and feel that this may be just a hollow shell of a recovery, and we may see in the next few years that things really haven’t changed,” said Louis Hyman, a historian of capitalism at Cornell. “They are afraid the critics are right and that inequality really is a driver of all this, and are afraid of what that means for them.”
And most of them have enough experience of history to know that when things get unequal enough in a society with a big enough middle class, the results range from broad progressive economic reforms to bloody revolution.
The only historical alternatives to those left-leaning scenarios are total economic collapse and decentralization leading to feudalism, or fascist military coup. Most of even the top 1% outside of the Koch far right aren't particularly keen on those outcomes, either.
Instead of having a collective meltdown, it would behoove the top tenth of one percent to head things off at the pass by promoting and accepting some New Deal 2.0 style economic reforms, including a collective basic income, higher minimum wages, single-payer healthcare, and the like. They would wind up with a little less money, but they'd still be extremely well off. Not to mention the psychological benefits of knowing they did the right thing, and discarding the specter of violent revolution.
It's a pretty easy call, actually--unless you're a narcissistic wealth addict using money to keep score instead of secure comfort and happiness.