Saturday, October 17, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times published Paul Sullivan's pity-the-plutocrats article "Too Rich to Worry? Not in This Downturn" ("It turns out the other half -- or at least the tiny slice who live at the top of the wealth pyramid -- are not sleeping any better than the rest of America"). It was, for obvious reasons, widely criticized and mocked (by me, among others). Sullivan received many angry letters and e-mails.

He can't understand why. He thinks, in a deep recession with no end in sight, it's emotionally unhealthy to resent being told that the rich are suffering just as much as people who literally can't make ends meet, or just as much as people who justifiably fear they might soon fall into that state. So he's written a repugnant little follow-up titled "All This Anger Against the Rich May Be Unhealthy."

BEATING up on the wealthy seems to be the order of day. I suspected that. But a recent Wealth Matters column touched a particularly raw nerve.

Actually, handing certain wealthy people huge chunks of money with essentially no strings attached seems to be the order of the day. If that's a beating, then kick my ass, please. But never mind. Let's move on.

... The vehemence in these e-mail messages made me wonder why so many people were furious at those who had more than they did. And why are the rich shouldering the blame for a collective run of bad decision-making? After all, many of the rich got there through hard work. And plenty of not-so-rich people bought homes, cars and electronics they could not afford and then defaulted on the debt, contributing to the crash last year.

Here's Sullivan's vile message in a nutshell. Lots of rich people work hard! (As if many, many non-rich people don't.) Ordinary people made bad financial decisions! (As if it's morally worse to buy crack or heroin than to sell it, which still strikes me as the correct analogy for what happened with mortgages in the Bush years.) The guilt is "collective"! (A couple dozen people agreeing to take on mortgages they can't pay can't bring down an entire global economy. The same number of people at AIG can, or can come damn close.)

But in this recession, anger flows one way.

Er, obviously not -- you seem awfully angry at us peasants who dare to criticize our betters.

Eric Dammann, a Manhattan psychoanalyst, theorizes that a lot of people are angry that the rules of the game seem to have changed.

"There's always been envy and hatred toward the rich, but there was also a strong undercurrent of admiration that was holding these people up as a goal," Mr. Dammann said. "This time it's different because it feels like it's a closed club and the rich have an unfair advantage."

Yeah -- the closed club is the Sure You'll Be Able to Keep a Roof Over Your Head for the Next Six Months Club. All the rich are in that club (even if -- poor dears! -- they may have to sell off that sixth or seventh roof). We'd like to be in it, too.

...In boom or bust, envy is natural, and the desire for a level playing field is understandable. But so too is the desire to do better financially, to the point where it seems at times to be hardwired into our national psyche. "To revile the rich is to revile the American dream," said Robert Clarfeld, president of the wealth management firm Clarfeld Financial Advisors.

Pay attention to this guy -- we'll return to him later.

... A big concern among the wealthy right now, their advisers say, is not populist anger but how it might translate into tax-the-rich legislation on the federal and state levels.

Yeah -- and you know what we resent? The fact that the rich get to to go Washington and put in requests regarding tax policy. We don't. We thought we did when we elected Obama and a Democratic Congress, but it becomes clearer with every passing day that the rich will get any tax and regulatory legislation profoundly watered down.

Oh, and: boo hoo. Your taxes may go up? To the level they were at in the Clinton years? Cry me a river.

... For the wealthy, their public image is a secondary concern since so many of them seek to live anonymously.

"They feel mischaracterized," Mr. LaMothe said. "They know the time and effort they contribute. They fund scholarships and all the things they do routinely, and then to be characterized as not doing their fair share begins to wear on them."

Hey, guess what? Non-rich people do charity work, too. Lots of it. And without getting buildings and institutions named after them, either.

From the outside, the wealthy seem to be one big money-minting group. But how they came upon their wealth differs greatly. And those who did not make their fortunes in finance seem just as angry as everyone else about what Wall Street has wrought.

"They want the problem to be fixed for their own personal benefit but also for the broader benefit of the community," Mr. Woodson said. "They tie their wealth interests to the broader health of the economy."

Really? Then do something about it. You communicate with politicians -- tell them you want something done about the leeches in the financial community who are taking government bailouts and refusing to restructure mortgages, curtail credit-card fees, or do some real lending. Put your gold-plated thumbs on the scale. Use your clout.

Mr. Clarfeld, who manages $3 billion largely for financial services executives, ... is counseling clients to live their lives largely as they've done in the past, though in a slightly toned-down form.

This is the guy quoted above, the guy who says that if you revile the rich you revile the American dream. Now check out his idea of living more or less as you've done in the past, but toned down:

Mr. Clarfeld said he had taken his own advice to heart. He bought his dream car, a Jaguar XKR, before the market crash but then felt uncomfortable about it. "I didn’t like the way it made me feel...

A twinge of conscience?

"... but not enough that I was going to get rid of the car," he said.

Oh. Well, naturally.

So he made light of it with a vanity plate to recall better times: "PRE LEHM."

Wanna see it? Here it is:

Isn't that swell? Here's the message of that license plate: "I made shitloads of money from the bubble -- and I got out in time! Woo-hoo!"

This is supposed to make us resent him less.

And now we get some hardcore concern-trolling:

The line from my last column that prompted the most responses was about how the wealthy weren't sleeping well either. The vitriol in the e-mail showed just how deep the anger against the rich is.

Yet put simply, this is not healthy. After all, if you're wealthy and no one likes you, you still have lots of money. But if you spend your free time obsessing about the rich, you could end up in worse shape emotionally, personally and financially.

Yes, folks, I'm not writing this to defend my stinking-rich friends -- I'm doing it out of concern for you. This is your problem.

... Mr. Klontz is even more concerned that this obsession with money and blame will affect children. He said the risk is creating a generation that distrusts investing and associates wealth with greed.

"People in their 20s have watched their parents lose their money and now they think, 'You can't trust banks, you can't trust anyone,'" he said....

Yeah. God forbid anyone should be skeptical in that way or anything. We wouldn't want a whole generation to believe financial wheeler-dealers are untrustworthy. What a grotesque distortion of objective reality!

This is bloody awful. This is Santelli-esque. I'm glad it's tucked away in the Saturday paper, but is the author going to move up in the journalistic world? Are we going to get more and more of this, as newspapers struggle, and thus decide to go hunting where the billionaire ducks are?


UPDATE: Welcome, Atrios readers. And since I didn't make a few points as well as I could have, let me add what Cautious Man says in comments:

Paul Sullivan has it exactly backwards. A lot of public policy discussions are based on hatred of the "have nots" by the "have mores".

The mortgage crisis? Caused by giving mortgages to poorer people, who then must be hated. "Have mores" who over-financed are held blameless.

Health care costs? "Have mores" don't want the government to expand coverage to the "have nots", who are undeserving of it, anyway. Besides, if more people have coverage, more will go to the doctor, and that will inconvenience those of us who have health coverage now.

And Acorn registering all those low-income people to vote unfairly tilted the election results.

etc., etc., etc.


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