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Is it hypocritical for a really, really rich person to object to rising inequality? I’ve been thinking about this in light of the derision the Clintons are facing for charging six-figure speaking fees while pontificating about income polarization and the plight of the poor.
Other high-income, high-net-worth figures have been similarly mocked for expressing concerns about a growing income and wealth imbalance that benefited them. Among the targeted upper-crusters are Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, who said in a recent interview that “too much of the [gross domestic product] over the last generation has gone to too few of the people”; Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, who has advocated higher tax rates on high-earners such as himself and consistently decried rising inequality; and Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist and New York Times columnist who will soon receive $25,000 a month from an institute that studies income inequality.
These economic elites aren’t alone in balking at rising inequality. A rare survey of 1 percenters found that nearly two-thirds believe “differences in income in America are too large,” according to research by Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright. That’s almost identical to the share of the general population that espouses this view.
Given the e-mails I received when I wrote last week about Chelsea Clinton’s lucrative speaking gigs, lots of people see this sort of “limousine liberalism” as, if not outright hypocrisy, at least a sign of cognitive dissonance. The implication is that to credibly care about — and advocate on behalf of — poor people, you need to take a vow of poverty yourself.
I find this view highly problematic.
First of all, when low-income people do jump on the soapbox about raising taxes on the rich or expanding the social safety net, they’re usually accused of class warfare. But more important, the poor, unlike billionaires, don’t get a lot of airtime.
Pretty much every time a rich person sneezes, a banner headline sprouts. Some of this outsize influence over the public discourse comes from the fact that very rich people tend to be more politically active than the typical American. Billionaires have the resources to spritz their agendas throughout the airwaves, and when they ask the White House for a meeting, they can be pretty sure they will be accommodated . But some of their influence reflects the fact that regular Americans, for whatever reason, put a lot of stock in what rich people think, no matter how inane such commentary might be. We listen when Kim Kardashian prattles on about “having it all” and when Tom Perkins mouths off about apportioning votes according to taxes paid. Why? Because, as Tevye the Milkman wisely surmised, “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”
Given this state of affairs, I would much rather the megarich wield their wealth and influence to try to improve conditions for the working class, rather than to further pad their pocketbooks.
Of course, when it comes to inequality, these two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Blankfein’s objections to rising inequality, for example, could be said to represent a sort of enlightened self-interest, as he emphasized that he thinks the yawning income gap is politically “destabilizing” and could lead to legislative gridlock and slower economic growth — all of which potentially affect his own well-being.
But for some rags-to-riches moguls — including Blankfein and Bill Clinton, both of whom grew up poor — objections to economic inequity may also reflect a fear that the system is now stacked against the kinds of people they once were. As social structures ossify and the income ladder becomes more rickety, the son of a postal clerk, growing up in a Brooklyn housing project, might never again be able to rise to become the chief executive of one of the United States’ biggest financial institutions.
Amassing a great fortune can lead to a very different outlook on life. For some, success begets contempt for those not similarly situated, those lazy schmoes who didn’t manage to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. (One recent study of lottery winners, for example, found that a financial windfall typically leads people to become less egalitarian-minded and more approving of the existing distribution of wealth.) But for others, proximity to poor and working-class Americans can be a constant reminder that there but for the grace of God go they. The term I’d use for a 1 percenter who expresses concern about the wages, economic opportunities and safety nets available to the 99 percent is not hypocrisy; it’s empathy.
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She previously worked as a reporter for The New York Times, covering economics and launching the award-winning Economix blog.
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