Our Problem with the Wealthy

It has been a bedrock idea of modern democracy that those who have more should pay more, but throughout history the rich have been remarkably successful in beating back attempts by the poor to dip into their pockets.

To start with, the rich usually have more authority and power. In more recent times, armies of lobbyists and donors to political campaigns, advisors, accountants and lawyers have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the tax laws remain favorable to the rich. Oddly, though, the poor themselves seem at best ambivalent about taxing the rich. Why don’t they clamor for a more equitable tax system?

One reason is that so long as America remains “the land or opportunity,” even when that opportunity is increasingly restricted, the poor feel that money is being taken away from them – or will be taken away, that is, when they finally realize their dream of getting rich. It is hard for them to think of government as ever being on their side. They resent the taxes they do not yet have to pay.

In other words people find it hard to give up their illusions about this country even though it has long since ceased to offer what they want and need.

Another explanation was offered recently by a commentator on The Daily Kos, a liberal internet site. “I felt my own poverty was a moral failure . . . . To make up for my own failures, I voted to give rich people tax cuts, because somewhere deep inside, I knew they were better than me. They earned it. My support for conservative politics was atonement for the original sin of being white trash.”

Not everyone feels such depth of self-contempt, but many do feel inferior, inadequate, or self-blaming for their “failures” to achieve their goals. They avoid blaming the system stacked against them, crediting others with the superior qualities they lack.
Both sets of reasons speak to the fact that people have trouble accepting their own shortcomings and weaknesses, and engage in irrational projections onto others in order to protect themselves from deeper feelings of shame and inadequacy.

We are infatuated with wealth; we dream of it in our movies and TV shows. On the other hand, much work is increasingly dysfunctional, under-rewarded, unsatisfying and insecure. Moreover, those who do not have skilled jobs with good pay and mobility when their companies are restructured or bought out, face chronic poverty. The recent groundswell to shore up the minimum wage speaks to our grudging awareness of this problem.

And then there are those in the middle, with skills that are being gradually replaced by robots and smart machines that are cheaper, more reliable, and don’t get sick or protest.
These trends seem inexorable, but they seem to take place in the half-lit world of the unconscious. They are things we don’t really want to face squarely. To be sure, there are statistics, headlines, and occasional news items that refer to these trends, but we seem to prefer to keep the big picture blurry.