why wealth inequalty debates shouldn’t really be about the math

The problem with wealth inequality isn't that it exists, it's how easily the 1% are running up the score and how angry they are that they're not being uniformly worshipped.
sad fat cat
Illustration by Bill Mayer

Being rich, especially when you’re a member of the much talked about 1%, has its problems to work though and they’re completely legitimate, according to therapists for the wealthy who took to the pages of The Guardian to explain that for one percenters, coming out as rich is a lot like coming out of the closet for gay people. No, that’s really what they really said, no paraphrasing or embellishing for comic effect on my part here. As it so turns out, today’s wealthy suffer from an interesting new strain of what some call affluenza. With rising income inequality being by far the number one concern of many economists, they’re feeling guilty about their wealth and find themselves both isolated from people who won’t dismiss their problems as non-existent simply because they’re flush with cash, and unjustly vilified by the media and political activists for their financial success and good luck rather than celebrated as before. In short, as we are instructed by the immortal words of the late Notorious B.I.G., mo’ money, mo’ problems indeed.

Some of the wealthy are even starting to lash out, demanding what they feel is the proper level of respect from the White House, and fuming about not being given the proper recognition as a vitally important job creating class by the general public, even after they’ve damaged the global economy and had to rely on cheap loans to survive. One venture capitalist even compared the plight of being rich in America today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. For the nearly all of us, it sounds like temper tantrums of entitled, spoiled children. We have bills to pay and ends to meet every month, they always have money in the bank and paid for their mansions in cash. What in the name of Cthulhu’s sweaty jock strap do these fat cats want from us? To fawn over them or praise them for having money? To nod sagely as they worry whether their beach house would be too ostentatious for the visiting plebes? Why couldn’t they just look at their account total and be happy with what they have? If they feel so bad about being wealthy, why not just donate the sum they deem excessive to pay away their guilt? Where do they get the gall to complain?

It seems that after three decades of being publicly praised as a mighty creator class by supply-side economics proponents, the wealthy have forgotten that American’s relationship with them hasn’t always been so rosy. While since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution stories about how hard work can turn one into a tycoon have been immensely popular, the actual tycoons weren’t, thanks to their mistreatment of workers and blatant bribery of elected officials. They responded with the same red-bating they do today, declaring that only communists could protest inequality and if their workers didn’t like how they were being treated, they are free to go work elsewhere, and if they can’t find a job, well they can start their own businesses, as if that’s a panacea. The simple fact of the matter is that the wealthy don’t have the same interests that those not as well off as them do, and they have the resources to divert the attention of those who govern us from making things better for everyone to making things better just for them. They’ve left us so very far behind that we simply can’t catch up, and the result feels like a professional hockey team is on the ice with high school athletes and is running up the score for its own amusement.

Now, the public doesn’t think that all rich people are evil. It’s true that we’re biologically wired to reject extreme inequality and unfairness, but we also understand that no matter what we do, a certain class striation will always exist and that’s actually a good thing. We want people to make something of themselves, to aspire to greatness and financial security. And we also take why a certain someone is wealthy into account, which is why a seasoned expert surgeon taking home some $500,000 a year, or an engineer who designed and built something groundbreaking and popular are praised as deserving of every penny, while some hedge fund manager who cashed in after the economy took a nosedive is painted as a vulture fattened on human misery. Almost every time income inequality is debated, it’s through a prism of the haves vs. the have-nots and filled with cries about class warfare, but that’s the wrong way to approach the problem because there are two debates to be had. The first is what society finds worthy of huge rewards and why these people are being rewarded. The other is whether there’s truly equality of opportunity that the current have-nots can seize to become wealthy, or at least firmly financially secure.

Right now the situation seems to contentious because the answers to both concerns seem very unsettling. Those with the most cash are hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and scions of wealthy families. Almost a quarter of the Forbes 500 basically got on that list simply by being born to the right family, and nearly half got a big chunk, or all of their startup capital from family members. Only a third are really, unarguably self-made and that number has been decreasing over the last decade. There our judgment of who deserves this wealth also plays a role, since a number of people on that list are engineers and inventors who got a serious leg up from family, but they’re often skipped over when debating inequality. Likewise, with the skyrocketing cost of college alongside employer demands for long stretches of unnecessary, overpriced education that doesn’t actually get them what they want anyway, and stagnant wages, makes it seem like instead of climbing corporate ladders on our way to financial stability, we’re locked in a race to the bottom, offering ourselves at a hefty discount not to just get knocked off those ladders.

That said, should we actually make colleges optional for the 73% of jobs that don’t actually use the degrees those who hold them receive, promote and boost vocational schools to handle the job training employers want as a perfectly viable career path, encourage community college to public state university routes for those still undecided about their careers, and generally put the workforce more in tune with the workplace, we can help people feel like they have a better path to financial security. Meanwhile, if we regulate Wall Street’s fiscal snake oil into nonexistence to limit the terrifying financial shenanigans of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, on top of adopting a policy of refusing any bailouts should they fail, and sticking to it, we can stem one of the top sources of malicious, toxic income inequality today. And for the wealthy who still feel the pangs of their affluenza badly enough to need treatment, their therapists should tell them to either contribute to charity if they’re so guilty about their wealth, start a company to do the sorts of incredible projects we’d all support, like Tesla or SpaceX, or just deal with the fact that when they whine about having too much money, the rest of us just aren’t going to react well to it.

# politics // income inequality / money / society / wealth

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