Paul Krugman thinks this country isn't addressing its economic problems in large part because Americans simply don't realize how rich the rich are these days:
... most Americans have no idea just how unequal our society has become.Krugman thinks this is because we don't really focus on the excesses of the rich -- with the exception of celebrities, who aren't the richest of the rich.
The latest piece of evidence to that effect is a survey asking people in various countries how much they thought top executives of major companies make relative to unskilled workers. In the United States the median respondent believed that chief executives make about 30 times as much as their employees, which was roughly true in the 1960s -- but since then the gap has soared, so that today chief executives earn something like 300 times as much as ordinary workers.
We may notice, and feel aggrieved about, college kids driving luxury cars; but we don't see private equity managers commuting by helicopter to their immense mansions in the Hamptons. The commanding heights of our economy are invisible because they're lost in the clouds.Krugman is right about the celebrities, but they're not the only people we focus on when we should be focusing on the ultra-rich.
The exceptions are celebrities, who live their lives in public. And defenses of extreme inequality almost always invoke the examples of movie and sports stars. But celebrities make up only a tiny fraction of the wealthy, and even the biggest stars earn far less than the financial barons who really dominate the upper strata. For example, according to Forbes, Robert Downey Jr. is the highest-paid actor in America, making $75 million last year. According to the same publication, in 2013 the top 25 hedge fund managers took home, on average, almost a billion dollars each.
The aim of a lot of conservative rhetoric is to direct ordinary Americans' class anger away from economic elites and toward cultural elites. And it doesn't take much to be defined by the right as "elite." If you don't attend church regularly, if you don't own a gun, if you live in an urban area or a college town (or anywhere that's less than an hour's drive from an ocean and that isn't in the old Confederacy), if you dislike country music or NASCAR, if you ever eat organic food (or, heaven forfend, arugula or kale), if you attended a college that's better known for academics than football or partying, if you're gay or have gay friends ... then you're an elitist in the eyes of many Americans. In fact, you're the embodiment of elitism -- and Wall Street tycoons aren't (because pursuit of profit trumps all the fancy foods their household staffs and favorite restaurateurs prepare for them). In fact, the only way you can be a billionaire capitalist and get caught in the net of what right-wing rhetoric defines as elitism is if you give money to Democratic candidates. (Just being a Democrat makes you an elitist, if you're not a member of a racial minority.)
We saw this, for instance, in 2009, when right-wing broadcasters ran multiple segments on the subject of Barack Obama's decision to order a hamburger with mustard.
This works. It dovetails nicely with right-wingers' habit of blaming our economic problems on the poor. (Remember Rick Santelli pushing back against the concept of mortgage relief, while young wannabe undermenschen on a Chicago trading floor cheered him on?) If the poor are guilty, and the non-True Patriot segment of the middle class is guilty, who has the energy to get angry at the superrich?