Many of the most wealthy share something more basic than money an inflated sense of their worth. Rolling Stones Matt Taibbi has provided a typically colorful summary of this posture: Leon Cooperman, [formerly of Goldman Sachs] said he was urged to speak out by his fellow golfers.
His message was a version of Wall Streets increasingly popular If-you-people-want-a-job, then-youll-shut-the-f***-up rhetorical line: Cooperman, 68, said in an interview that he cant walk through the dining room of St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida, without being thanked for speaking up Youll get more out of me, the billionaire said, if you treat me with respect.
We should beware of the more we will get from some of our billionaires. Their sense of entitlement has many sources and has often been especially prominent at pivotal points in our history. One recent origin of the sense of entitlement lies in the politics of the post World War II period. The power of corporate leadership was curbed by tax policy, unions, and regulatory standards regarding the workplace.
During that era some corporate leaders came to accept a more modest role in the economic system and the possibility of a smaller slice of a pie that would grow more rapidly.
Even during the 50s, however, a retrograde core resented the terms of the American century and funded extreme right wing causes like the John Birch Society. Their initiatives received a boost from the turbulent 60s and 70s, with the stagflation and the challenge to US international hegemony. A domestic commitment to reasonably full employment and a modest safety net was inadequate to 60s challenges. It failed to address OPEC, the emergence of economic powers in Europe and Asia, social issues of race and gender, and frustrations within the workplace. These deficits were left for the Reagan counterrevolution.
That revolution emphasized military spending, tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation and attacks on unions. Though economic growth since Reagan has not equaled that of the post WWII period, it did look good by comparison with the stagnant late seventies. And for a squeezed and alienated white working class, a cultural politics that denounced affirmative action and a left that often remained more attentive to cultural issues than to the position of white working class males helped engineer enough support for a new coalition that would reshape the next generation. Both as cause and as effect of these changes, many Americans would revise attitudes toward the rich.
The US has never been characterized by strong class consciousness.
The dream of eventually becoming rich usually trumps political hostility to the rich as a class. In the immediate post Depression and post World War II years, however, the wealthy were subject to closer scrutiny regarding their power and the demand that power and wealth be harnessed to a larger good. Hence a progressive tax code and the laws regarding collective bargaining.
During the post Reagan era, wealth itself came to be treated as proof of ones moral worth. With such a belief came a cultural fascination with the lives of the rich and famous. The revaluation of the rich has depended on more than economic and political turmoil. Not content to let the market speak for itself, many wealthy citizens adopted a new and powerful intellectual assault on the welfare state by reconceiving an older tradition, the philanthropic role of the wealthy.
One justification of wealth has always been that its beneficiaries are exceptionally moral. The primary manifestation of that morality lies in concern for the wellbeing of the deserving poor. However condescending such an attitude, it at least expressed concern with the effects of inequality.
The new philanthropy, as David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has shown, is different: While most Foundations do not engage in campaigns to expand policies that extend a helping hand to our neighbors, a growing number are engaging in campaigns whose result may be the opposite.
[In 1978 former Nixon and Ford Treasury Secretary William Simon may have started this trend when he] declared, Most private funds flow ceaselessly to the very institutions which are philosophically committed to the destruction of capitalism [T]he great corporations of America sustain the major universities [and] the major foundations, which nurture the most destructive egalitarian trends.
The Philanthropy Roundtable was established to channel the contributions of the 1% in more self-serving directions. In 2008 the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation entered into an agreement with Florida State University to provide millions for the schools economics department.
Koch would have the authority to approve who ultimately filled the positions The public is subsidizing [through tax deductions] possibly to the tune of 50% charitable contributions to a public university that give control to a private person to hire professors who will teach what may be a required course that will educate the students about the evils of government.
Such a self-sustaining game, where the wealthy use their wealth to perpetuate that wealth, was tolerated as long as the US middle class could at least limp along, even if only by going deeper into debt. Continued fascination with the wealthy along with the dream of becoming such could sustain it. Hence the popularity of lotteries.
The collapse of the housing bubble, however, exposed not only the machinations of the wealthy but also their use of political means rather than market skills to support their habits. It also exposed the dream of rags to riches as just that, dreams. And so, contrary to Cooperman and friends, Americans today are still hardly hostile to the wealthy.
Class consciousness of a revolutionary sort remains very distant. They do demand that the wealthy play by the same rules as everyone else, that they not prosper through bailouts or monopolies open only to a select few and that their fraudulent acts be treated just as harshly as any common criminals. As traditional in some sense as this view is, it may still open up radical possibilities in todays politics.
John Buell is the author of Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012
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