I’m going to get into this heavily in the print edition this week, but meanwhile, you might want to check out a long, eye-opening and infuriating piece by Chrystia Freeland in the new edition of the Atlantic Monthly on “The Rise of the New Global Elite.”
In it, you will find a stunning contempt on the part of these new plutocrats for the middle class. An excerpt - I’ll have more in the print edition - to give you the flavor:
It is perhaps telling that Blankfein is the son of a Brooklyn postal worker and that Hayward—despite his U.S. caricature as an upper-class English twit—got his start at BP as a rig geologist in the North Sea. They are both, in other words, working-class boys made good. And while you might imagine that such backgrounds would make plutocrats especially sympathetic to those who are struggling, the opposite is often true. For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard—especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers—can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others.
Unsurprisingly, Russian oligarchs have been among the most fearless in expressing this attitude. A little more than a decade ago, for instance, I spoke to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that moment the richest man in Russia. “If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him,” Khodorkovsky told me. “Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.” …
Though typically more guarded in their choice of words, many American plutocrats suggest, as Khodorkovsky did, that the trials faced by the working and middle classes are generally their own fault. When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford. One of America’s top hedge-fund managers made a near-identical case to me—though this time the offenders were his in-laws and their subprime mortgage. And a private-equity baron who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach pinned blame for the collapse on a favorite golf caddy in Arizona, who had bought three condos as investment properties at the height of the bubble.
It is this not-our-fault mentality that accounts for the plutocrats’ profound sense of victimization in the Obama era.
Right, victimization. Hand me my pitchfork and we’ll talk about victimization.
But over at The Economist blog, R.A. notes that few have picked up the pitchforks, and wonders why:
It’s striking how little inchoate public rage has actually boiled to the surface in the rich world. Rising inequality, especially at the top end, combined with stagnating middle class incomes, has been a feature of the world for at least the past ten years. It’s been two years since the biggest bail-outs and the rise toward double-digit unemployment. And the anger is…where? Europeans are demonstrating against budget cuts, but these are rarely explicitly directed at national plutocrats. In America, the language of the angriest is very similar to that of the plutocrats themselves. Indeed, the complaint that today’s elite lack the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats of old, and are therefore risking public anger, seems to badly misread American public opinion. The middle class doesn’t want hand-outs from condescending rich people. They want moralistic language and complaints about deficits.
There’s a reason for this - and that reason is the conservative movement, which over the past few decades has taught the black-and-white lesson:
Rich = talent and virtue and ability to make the right choices.
Struggling = bad choices/lack of virtue/culture of dependency/immorality.
And as R.A. notes - the angriest voices, the Fox News voices, explicitly go to bat for the interests of the plutocrats, demanding a nation with even less noblesse oblige, where the super-rich have even less of a duty to society as a whole.
Well, they’re getting what they have wanted. They should be ecstatic with the results.
Which is to say that as these new plutocrats continue to ship jobs overseas - read the article; because American middle-class workers are overpaid and “need to take a pay cut” - unemployment will remain high.
Those who have gone to bat for the interests of the super-rich should be happy about this, for it is their advocacy which has triggered it.
But perhaps the oligarchs simply need more tax cuts so they’ll create jobs… in Asia. But even as the pragmatic case for cutting top-tier tax rates falls apart, so will the Fox News crowd cling to the ideological case - taxes are bad/immoral/theft.
So consider the society that’s shaping up here.
All of this amounts to tremendous downward pressure on wages. Wages are falling and will continue to do so; this may, in turn, trigger some job growth here - but those jobs will pay less.
At the same time, the conservative pressure to keep on cutting taxes - and spineless Democrats’ refusal to to truly take a populist stance - means that we’re going to try to make up for lost/reduced wages via tax cuts. Your wages have been frozen for three years? Well here’s a couple hundred back in taxes you don’t have to pay. Prosperity! Now go spend spend spend.
But of course, cutting taxes must inevitably mean cutting services. I see our new Republican House overlords are already exempting defense, homeland security and entitlements from cuts; so where will the cuts come from? Why, from programs that benefit those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Penalize the poor - who, in the conservative mind, deserve a bit of punishment anyway.
So this brave new insane society will be one where it’s considerably more uncomfortable to be poor; and if you happen to be one of those “overpaid” middle class workers who ultimately finds yourself slipping down the economic ladder - well, don’t you know it’s your own fault? Why weren’t you an oligarch?
I personally know conservatives who mouth all of this nonsense yet harbor a great rage at the way they have fared economically. That makes no sense at all. They are living in the world they demanded. They think they can regain prosperity merely by taking from the “undeserving” who are draining so many of our national resources. What they don’t get is that those trans-national plutocrats they so admire think they are the undeserving. The new global elite think the faithful Fox News-watching middle class American is himself too greedy, should gladly work for less if he wants to restore economic dynamism to his country.
In other words, wingers - they’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you. One of these days, maybe you’ll figure it out. But by then, it’ll probably be too late to do a damned thing about it.
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