Why Americans Don't Hate the Rich

The poor you will always have, the good book says, but as for the rich man, he will wither away like a delicate flower in the midday sun. The first prediction has certainly been borne out, but the second part (James 1:11) had not yet come to pass by the Panic of 1907, when Theodore Roosevelt warned of a coming reckoning against the "malefactors of great wealth." Nor by 1990, when former Nixon aide Kevin Phillips predicted that Americans would rise to extract revenge on "the rich who got the benefits of the go-go years" of the 1980s. As late as 2001, no less an authority than, uh, NEWSWEEK wrote in the wake of 9/11 that "the arrogant wheeler-dealer ordering a $600 bottle of wine with dinner … has vanished utterly as an icon," which remained true until approximately 2002. Well, listen up, you rich guys, this time we really mean it. The president himself is repelled by your rapacious greed, your kids are ashamed to admit that their mom is a banker, even your girlfriends are sick of your whining about your bonus, and you're going to have to learn to live on $500,000 a year like a normal person. Oh, and by the way, nice watch. Is it Cartier?

In America, the country that invented the modern model of wealth—i.e., derived neither from inherited landholdings nor royal patronage—mocking the rich is historically one of the most durable cultural memes, matched only by envy of them. In different eras over the past two centuries, one or the other has predominated, but only rarely has the American public evinced the kind of outrage that gives rise to serious political change. Historically, that has happened only when Americans suspect that the rich haven't been playing by the same rules as the rest of us, so today's crop of Wall Street millionaires—celebrated for their frugality, honesty and wise stewardship of the economy—should have nothing to fear, right? Except that the day after the administration proposed capping executive pay in financial companies that have been bailed out by the government, the letters published in The New York Times ran six-to-one in favor of the idea. That included one warning that ending bonuses for overpaid bankers might drive them into occupations, such as driving taxis, where their incompetence could get other people killed. While some economists worry that a cap of $500,000 a year is too low to attract experienced executives, ordinary Americans may actually regard it as excessively generous. A study published last August by political scientists Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs found that on average Americans think CEOs of large corporations should be able to get by on $200,000. That would represent an average pay cut, by Page and Jacobs's calculations, of 98.57 percent from the actual figure of $14 million.

Also last week, the Web was crackling with posts and counterposts on The Bag Lady Papers, a blog on The Daily Beast Web site by Alexandra Penney, the former editor of Self magazine who claims to have lost almost all her money to Bernard Madoff. On the night she realized that she wasn't rich any longer, she Googled the Hemlock Society, looking for a painless way to die. She gave up on that idea, but had to weather another crisis when she went on the wrong night to get two-for-one pizzas at Domino's.

Yes, sometimes rich people do come across as clueless, self-involved twits! Yet for all the schadenfreude in the air, no one was sharpening the guillotines, with the possible exception of Berkeley economist and former labor secretary Robert Reich. On his blog, Reich wrote hopefully that the debacle of Tom Daschle's cabinet nomination might be a signal that public disgust with the antics of the overclass had begun to boil over. Yet who but a Berkeley professor could imagine blood running in the streets over a nominee for secretary of health and human services? What we haven't seen, muses Lee Eisenberg, author of the financial-planning-guide-cum-Wall-Street-jeremiad "The Number," is anger at rich people as a class. "I'm surprised there isn't more of it," he adds.

Populist sentiments have waxed and waned over the decades, peaking during times of economic distress for farmers and workingmen, especially the 1890s and the 1930s. Yet by and large most Americans have tried to stay neutral in the war between the classes, particularly in contrast to European countries of comparable wealth. What Americans lack is what the European working classes gleefully exhibit: resentment of the rich personally, as distinct from unhappiness with policies that affect how income and wealth are distributed. The press considered it a major gaffe last fall when Barack Obama gave a tentative endorsement to the idea of using the tax system to help redistribute income—although the record shows that he won the election. In fact, according to Page, for the first time since the 1930s a majority of Americans are in favor of taxing the rich—heavily, if necessary—to redistribute income. But that doesn't mean they want to kill them. So far, at least, they prefer to laugh at them. The vagaries of the economy over the next several years will determine if Jay Leno can continue to fill in American society the role the French delegated to Robespierre.

Americans' contradictory attitudes toward wealth are ingrained in the national culture. Sigmund Freud, steeped in fin de siècle Middle European pessimism, memorably compared the unconscious significance of money to that of excrement, an idea that found very few takers on this side of the Atlantic. The first European settlers to New England were Calvinists, belonging to a stern creed obsessed with the fate of their souls. Believers in predestination, they anxiously sought the outward signs of inward grace, signifying their "election" to heaven. One of these was worldly prosperity; wealth was a valued indicator that the possessor enjoyed God's favor. The other salient feature of American society is that it lacked a landed aristocracy. This meant, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in "Democracy in America," that "there is hardly anything left but money which makes very clear distinctions between men or can raise some of them above the common level."

And lacking a hereditary upper class, Americans have typically looked at themselves in the mirror and asked, why not me? The belief that anyone can become rich in America has its roots in an extraordinary statistical fact noted by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers." A list (compiled by Forbes magazine) of the 75 richest people in all of history, going back to Crassus (No. 8) and Pharaoh Amenophis III (No. 12), shows that an astonishing 14 of them (including John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, Nos. 1 and 2) were Americans, born mostly of humble origins between 1831 and 1840. That made them just the right age to take advantage of the tremendous creation of wealth in the years following the Civil War. The example of those men, and those decades, has colored American attitudes toward wealth ever since. It persists today, according to Page and Jacobs, who found that "large majorities of Democrats and low-income Americans agree with Republicans and more affluent people that it is still possible to start out poor, work hard, and become rich." People who expect to join a country club someday are, obviously, less likely to want to burn it down now.

Without a nobility standing in their way, rich Americans have been able to use their money in all sorts of creative ways. Wealth spelled luxury, of course, but that was not the only benefit it could bring, or even necessarily the most salient. Money brought social power to the Astors and Vanderbilts, political influence to the families of Rockefeller and Joseph Kennedy and the ability to pursue worthy philanthropic goals to men like Carnegie. More recently, wealth has emerged as the key to dating a supermodel. Rich men have always attracted women to them, of course. But in the past few decades wealth has taken on an aura of sexual glamour that would have scandalized the upright likes of Rockefeller or J. P. Morgan. This was a development heralded in 1990 by the notorious New York Post headline quoting 26-year-old calendar girl Marla Maples about her lover, Donald Trump: BEST SEX I EVER HAD. Not even Trump himself could have believed that the act could be separated from Maples's knowledge of what was in the pockets of the pants left on the floor. That same year a national poll found that 76 percent of Americans considered rich people smarter than average, and 61 percent said the wealthy were better-looking. (The same poll also found respondents considered them less sympathetic to the poor, more likely to be racists and less honest than other Americans.) It was the best publicity for the idea of getting ahead in business since 1925, the year that advertising man Bruce Barton published a bestseller titled "The Man Nobody Knows," which depicted a hard-driving Jesus Christ as "the world's greatest business executive."

Hence the cult of the businessman, which was stronger in the U.S. than almost anywhere else. The rule in America, says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, has been that "if you make your wealth yourself, honestly and through your own intelligence, you will be admired and envied." It mattered, too, that Rockefeller, Carnegie and their cohort were mostly industrialists or merchants who dealt in tangible goods that benefited the entire country, including even the workers they arguably exploited. There are still fortunes to be made in the humble business of shaving a dime off the price of a pair of pantyhose, as Sam Walton demonstrated, and in late-night toil in the computer center, as Bill Gates and his successors have shown. Even people who have no idea what computer programmers actually do understand that Microsoft provides something the world needs. That is not quite so obvious in the case of investment bankers, Goldin says, which works to their disadvantage in the current crisis: "There is little understanding that people on Wall Street produce anything of value. There is a sense that they're not doing any good for anyone else."

Of course, they do; the fact that what began as a banking crisis has led to layoffs at Microsoft and Macy's demonstrates that the financial system is essential to the workings of the "real" economy. Whether the people who run the banks deserve to be paid as much as a shortstop who drives in 120 runs a year is another question. Page and Jacobs's research suggests that most Americans don't think so. Their study found that Americans' predominant attitude toward wealth could be characterized as "conservative egalitarian": they understand the need for disparities in income to motivate and reward people, but believe that those differences should be reasonable. By a margin of 68 percent to 28 percent, they rejected the idea that the current distribution of wealth is "fair." By a margin of … well, the question hasn't been asked this way, but presumably Americans who read the Bible are looking forward to the day when the words of James come to pass, and "you rich men [shall] weep and howl for your miseries that shall come on you." You can look up the rest of the passage (5:1-6), but trust us, it makes living on a paltry $500,000 a year look pretty good by comparison.