It’s not surprising that greater numbers of Americans these days tell pollsters they believe corporate CEOs are grossly overpaid, or that they support an increase in the minimum wage, or agree with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to open an alternative banking system through the U.S. Postal Service.
Ever since Wall Street’s giant mortgage bubble popped wreaking economic havoc with just about every working family in America people have rediscovered that the system is rigged against them. After the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street the bankers continued business as usual racking up huge bonuses and going their merry way. They were never held to account for the damage they did, and they therefore see themselves as victorious and blameless.
And now it seems like each new day brings forth another billionaire or millionaire lecturing us about how working people should just suck it up. The 99 percent should stop “envying” rich people and start “emulating” them, they say. Working people should be grateful they don’t live in India or China where $30,000 a year is a princely sum. And most of all they should stop annoying their “betters” with demands for “hand outs” like unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other “entitlements.”
High unemployment, low wages, a lack of job security and opportunity, and austerity are the “new normal.” The slashing of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the failure to extend unemployment insurance to 1.6 million people are only the latest manifestations of cold-hearted public policy that is only prolonging the slump.
Adding insult to injury we’re forced to endure over the public airwaves the incessant whining and moaning of billionaires and millionaires who believe working people are not genuflecting to them enough or doing so without the desired level of devotion.
Their mentality has religious overtones. The love of possessions is like a disease among them. Many of them are unbalanced people; money and power driven, with an almost godlike self-image.
In January, the San Francisco billionaire, Tom Perkins, penned a letter to the Wall Street Journal where he compared working people’s concerns about inequality to the Nazis singling out the Jews for persecution at the time of Kristallnacht.
He subsequently walked back his Kristallnacht analogy but stayed true to his “message”: criticizing the rich and powerful was “a very dangerous drift in our American thinking” that “parallels” the Nazis’ “progressive war” on its “one percent.”
Putting aside whether Hitler’s war on European Jewry was “progressive,” Mr. Perkins’ utterances do give us a glimpse into a mindset that represents a “dangerous” set of ideas – just not the ones he had in mind.
Not to be outdone, another billionaire, Sam Zell, defended Perkins’ remarks and added that not only were working people being unfair to the super-rich, but also “the one percent work harder” than the rest of society.
Zell has a point I suppose. People like Mark Martoma of SAC Capital who was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for insider trading; JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, who paid a $13 billion settlement to the U.S. Justice Department; and Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre of Goldman Sachs who was found guilty of securities fraud — all must work very hard indeed.
And think of all the other Wolves of Wall Street who made so much money pumping up the fraudulent mortgage securities markets, like Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo and the boys at Goldman Sachs, who just skated by the Great Recession and are now hoarding the benefits of the “recovery.”
In the late-19th Century, a Yale educated minister named Russell Conwell delivered a lecture, called “Acres of Diamonds,” over five thousand times around the country where he reached several million people.
The crux of his spiel went like this:
“I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich. . . . The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly . . . ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. . . .
. . . I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins . . . is to do wrong. . . . let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings. . . .” (Quoted in Zinn 1980 256)
At the time Horatio Alger’s novellas with their “rags to riches” tales were propagandizing working people with the myth that anybody in America could become rich if they just worked hard enough.
In 1913, the Harvard philosopher, George Santayana, in a lecture at UC, Berkeley pointed to the underlying cultural mindset of American elites in the Downton Abbey era. Santayana called America “a young country with an old mentality,” and pointed to an underlying Calvinism that equates wealth with godliness and poverty with sin. “To be a Calvinist philosophically is to feel a fierce pleasure in the existence of misery,” he said.
America’s 21st Century plutocrats who keep exposing themselves by shooting off their mouths express a kind of joy in witnessing the agitation of their perceived social inferiors. It’s old wine in an old bottle, a strain of Calvinism that reflects their membership in an exclusive globalized elite. Rather than direct their contemplation inward at their own miserable souls they project it outward at the 99 percent.
I don’t think they’re cowering at the idea that the masses might organize and take something away from them (they’re too powerful to worry about such a remote possibility). Yet I’m sure they feel it in their bones that their “Acres of Diamonds” worldview is nothing but a myth. At some level they must hold a deep-seated awareness, (as Alan Greenspan admitted to Representative Henry Waxman in October 2008), that their faith in the perfection of markets, like the rest of their belief system, is total bullshit.
There’s also a tradition in America embodied by some of our best leaders, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, which shows that just because someone is rich doesn’t mean one has to be a greedy asshole. There’s another current in elite thinking that still exists in this country that suggests that those who have been fortunate enough to prosper so immensely in this society should give something back to their fellow Americans (and that doesn’t mean funding anti-worker propaganda on PBS).
We just don’t see them on CNBC or Fox Business News.
It’s amazing how these people can whine in public about how they’re being mistreated by people who change the sheets at the luxury hotels they stay in. But if you spend your life surrounded with sycophants who constantly tell you how brilliant you are it’s possible to exist inside a bubble inside a bubble inside a bubble.
Many of these same rich right-wing white guys who complain about not being treated fairly use their political muscle to squeeze their tax burden down to zero and spend lavishly on pet political projects like “stand your ground laws,” initiatives stripping workers of collective bargaining rights, slashing social programs, and so on.
And they get the biggest returns on their investments by financing the campaigns of their surrogate politicians. Their bogus sociological theories are only widely ventilated because they are wealthy and powerful.
Joseph Palermo’s Blog