Commentary: Now, That's Rich

Walk through the center of a big city and you see them. They’re not hard to spot: the way they dress, and that look in their eyes — like they feel you owe them something.

I know that some aren’t personally responsible for their economic situation. There are circumstances beyond their control. Family stuff, that sort of thing. Still, don’t you sometimes wish they would all go off someplace where we wouldn’t have to look at them?

I mean, who wants to be constantly reminded of the polarization in our society? There will always be winners and losers; the free enterprise system, just works that way.

No matter what, the rich will always be with us.

And, doggone it, they’ve got an awful lot going for them.

The other day I was at a social function and a woman sitting next to me told an inspirational story about how hard she worked to get the best treatment and education for her two severely handicapped children. The only problem was the more I heard, the more I realized the main thing she was trying to get across wasn’t what she had accomplished for the kids but the complaint that a “minority person,” as she put it, received for free some of the care she had to pay a lot of money to get.

Then I read an article in the recent issue of Time magazine that published details of the federal budget agreement between President Clinton and Congress. This particular piece, entitled “What Tax Cut?” offered the lament of the fictional Mid L. Manager, who with his working wife, pulls down $160,000 a year and feels the tax package was “a dagger in the back for upper-income wage slaves” because he got no goodies.

“Is Manager wealthy?” the article asked. “He certainly doesn’t feel that way.”

Well, I have some questions of my own for the real woman and for the fictional man: if someone ran for office offering you, the middle class, benefits you’re not getting now — tax breaks, medical care — and promising to pay for them by raising taxes on people making more money than you, would you give that person your vote? Or would you oppose them because you hope someday to be in the tax brackets that would be affected by the increases, and you don’t want to have to pay them in the future? I ask because one of the hardest-to-explain phenomena in our society is the way middle-class people today identify with the wealthy and hold such a grudge against the poor. If this is in part explained by the shriveling up of a generous spirit after a couple of decades of stagnant incomes and decreasing opportunity, all the more reason to blame the people at the top. They promised to create jobs and opportunity if the rest of us would just get out of the way.

That so many middle-class people think what’s good for the rich is good for them is either a tribute to the egalitarian spirit of our nation or (more likely) the result of a con job that allows the wealthy to count as allies the middle class and even the poor.

John Kenneth Galbraith put it so eloquently in his book The Good Society: “The rich have a certain reluctance in defending their wealth and income as a social, moral or divine right, so their only resort is the functional justification.” With the help of supply-side economists and conservative politicians the rich have had great success in making the case that the increasingly unequal share of the income pie they consume should not be troubling to anyone because it leads to savings and investment that trickle down to the rest of us. “The rich and the affluent do not speak in defense of their own good fortune,” Galbraith writes with tongue in cheek. “They speak as the benign servitors of the common good. Some may even be embarrassed as to their worldly reward, but they suffer it, nonetheless, as a service to the general well-being.”

“And the middle class, which is so dominant,” says Galbraith, “then provides cover for the rich.” It was one thing when middle-class, traditional Democrats started to vote against their economic interests in the late 1960s because of Republican positions on social issues like Vietnam and civil rights. But when they supported those who promised tax cuts for the rich in the 1980s because they thought it was in their economic interests to do so, that was a masterful PR triumph for the people Franklin D. Roosevelt used to call “economic royalists.” Of course, F.D.R. spoke at a time when the middle class had its priorities right: it identified with the poor and feared the rich.

Now, a generation that was raised to believe it could “have it all” is finding out that wasn’t true. But they might get a little more if they would wise up and direct their wrath, and their votes, against them that’s got it instead of them that ain’t. That means millionaires, not welfare mothers.