Terrific Piece on Reuters Commentary Page by Helaine Olen on Inequality Spurs Some Musing

Ms. Olen’s piece, framed around President Obama’s ideas for combatting income inequality (you’ll note he did not touch on the major cause–public policy), rang familiar to those of us passionate about this issue, both on the subjects of inequality and the attitude of the people on the far side of the income gap. She sums up the latter point with particular precision:

For the wealthy, the combination of isolation and privileged affluence leads to an increasing social cluelessness and entitlement. The smallest criticism is viewed as a personal affront — as venture capitalist Tom Perkins revealed when he compared criticism of wealthy people such as himself to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo put it:

“There’s a slice of the population, whether it’s the top 1 percent or .01 percent or whatever, that doesn’t just have more stuff and money. The sheer scale of the difference means they live what is simply a qualitatively different kind of existence. That gulf creates estrangement and alienation…”

As for the rest of us? We live with a sense that the fix is in, that there is one set of lenient rules for the plutocracy, and a harsher set for everyone else. That explains the gallows humor about private profits and socialized risk, and the fury average Americans feel when demonized for buying homes they could not afford while the banks and mortgage companies that lent out all that mortgage money have escaped with little more than slap-on-the-wrist fines.

It’s corrosive, this sort of divide. It feeds on itself. People who believe they are permanently destined to look through glass windows at their financial betters are volatile. So too are the people on the other side of the divide — scared that every waspish comment about $4 slices of toast means Robespierre is around the corner.

I’ve written often about income inequality on this blog, so I’ll give that part a rest this evening and just look at the other issue. Loads of people have gotten there before me, of course, such as Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum, and Ms. Olen herself. But, since I finally have some time to write, and since I’m speaking from the experience of losing my job when the bond market froze up, I think I have something to contribute to the discussion.

Referring to French Revolution is a bit classier than Mr. Perkins’ ugly and offensive remarks in a recent letter to the editor published by the Wall Street Journal. He has since sorta, kinda backed away from his words, but I doubt anyone believes he means it.

Perkins’ remarks were only the latest in a long line of let-them-eat-cake statements of contempt for those of us–the 99%, in current parlance–who aren’t as rich as they are. Remember those laugh-a-minute guys from Enron? Then there was Berkshire Hathaway VP Charlie Munger who, in 2010, told an audience that people whose lives had been trashed by the financial crisis his fellow plutocrats ignited should “Suck it up and cope.” Mitt Romney, on the campaign trail 2012 and since, has repeatedly laughed off concern about income inequality as nothing more than the product of “envy.” One could go on, but, well, coals to Newcastle.

Get right down to it, we’re growing sick of being on the losing end of a rigged game, watching Life get harder, meaner, smaller not because we’re stupid or lazy but because those of Mr. Perkins’ class have been able to steer public policy in their favor. They pour millions into groups like ALEC that push state legislatures to pass laws that undermine organized labor, prevent people from voting, and make our communities less safe. Their brethren occupy powerful positions in government, guiding policy to their collective advantage. I don’t remember anyone from the 99% calling for deregulation of the financial markets back in the day.

As recently as a few years ago, we might well have been satisfied if there had been just a little bit of justice. Okay, guys, you trashed the economy, walked away rich and largely unscathed, how about we extend unemployment benefits until things turn around, raise the minimum wage, or provide affordable health insurance? Nope, they said, that’s Socialism. Maybe a small tax increase? You blaspheme! they roared.

Perhaps instead of making the connection to the Nazis, they should follow Ms. Olen’s lead and think further back. They might learn that the longer people are forced to wait for justice, the higher the price of that justice will be.

There’s a particular kind of irony to hearing the bleating from Mr. Perkins and his class kin. For years, we were told they were amassing unbelievable wealth because they darned well earned it. They were obviously smarter, faster, tougher. They took great risks, and wealth was their reward.

Take the last one first. Risks? They don’t know the meaning of the word. Let them trade places with a coal miner, a cop, a firefighter, or a steelworker. Those and other folks who perform in really dangerous, but essential work risk their lives every day. I’ll bet Mr. Perkins’ family never had to worry as he walked out the door that he might not come home alive from the job.

Tough? Well, looking at their collective track record they’re really more bullies than anything else, good at being tough on people who can’t fight back. But let anyone criticize their actions, and, oh dear, call my therapist. You want tough? Tough is the husband and father who’s lost a job and listens to his wife and children cry themselves to sleep from the stress as the weeks run on and he still hasn’t found work.

But even as they wail, they still find ways to rub their contempt in our faces, as when the aforescorned Mr. Perkins showed off a wristwatch estimated to cost $380,000. Think about that: the man has a wristwatch whose price is almost twice that of the median-priced single-family home in the U.S. and more than seven times the median household income. And he complains about a little finger-pointing?

Dude, as Mr. Munger advised, suck it up and cope.



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