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JANUARY 7, 2013 5:16AM

The Rich Are Different

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One argument conservatives make against higher taxes for wealthy Americans is that people should be entitled to keep what they earn through their own efforts.  They have no moral obligation to pay more just because they earn more.

This argument also carries over to maintaining benefits programs or “entitlements”, like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, VA benefits, unemployment compensation, food stamps; programs rich people have no use for.  Why should a wealthy person be morally obligated to take care of those who can’t afford to take care of themselves, they ask.

It’s the “effort” part of the argument against higher taxes that’s so pesky and the “entitlement” label conservatives have plastered over “federal benefits programs” that’s so appalling.

When you break it down, the underlying implication is that wealthy people have expended a greater effort to obtain their wealth. They not only work harder but they’ve struggled to get where they are and have the right to hang on to their money because, to paraphrase the old Smith-Barney slogan, they made it the old-fashioned way.  They earned it.

And sometimes it’s true. There are those who start at the bottom rung of the ladder both personally and professionally but they buckle down, they get noticed, they’re rewarded with raises and promotions and eventually they find themselves in the enviable position of being labeled “wealthy.”   

People get rich in a lot of ways but it’s rarely because they’re toiling away, nose to the grindstone, burning the midnight oil night after night as they transform from poor and invisible to wealthy and influential.  Sure it takes a certain amount of effort for example, to go to college and get a degree or maybe an advanced degree while working reasonably hard but the rewards along the way, both financially and professionally, usually make it a worthwhile journey. 

And often those that do make it to the upper echelon of the economy start with advantages that give them a significant head start; they come from well-off families, they don’t have to assume crippling student loan debt, they have connections in their chosen fields.  In other words, they're not starting from rock-bottom.

But the real riches often come in terms of bonuses, generous retirement plans, stock options and investments.  There isn’t much effort involved in watching investments multiply and it’s not earned money either.  It’s gravy.

In the case of the uber-wealthy, people who make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars annually, it's nearly impossible to believe not only that any one person is worth paying that much but that he or she is diligently earning every penny of it, day after day.    

To imply that all wealthy people got there solely through their own efforts without any help and to call benefits programs “entitlements” does two things:  it makes it sound like people who don’t have a lot of money simply don’t work hard enough but they still feel like they’re entitled to something they don’t deserve.

How terribly insulting that is to the millions of people who work hard at low-paying, dead end jobs with no opportunities for advancement, no raises, no stock options, no healthcare or retirement plans. 

A poll probably isn’t necessary to determine that the vast majority of poor people would prefer to be rich and they’d be thrilled to work as hard as necessary to get there.  A poll also isn’t necessary to determine that most people who get some form of government assistance would rather earn enough money through their own efforts so they didn’t need it. 

Most people aren’t poor because they like struggling and worrying and wondering how they’re going to make it to the next paycheck.  They’d rather be worrying about the stock market’s effect on their portfolios.

So why do conservatives want to stigmatize the less fortunate and make it seem like they brought their economic state on themselves? Why are they so adamant that the wealthy should hang on to every last penny, as if going from “rich” to a little “less rich” is a bad thing.

Almost as if they can take it with them when they die, even though most people pass on the wealth to their children, entitling them to carry on. 

When you break it down further, it hardly seems to be about money.

  

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My rich friends earned their money the old fashioned way--they inherited it. I just wonder what ever happened to the notion of noblesse oblige. Rich people are hard to understand. When the whole country is in ruins, their money will be of little help.
Well said. I have a real bias against rich people. Thank you for putting it out there in such clear terms.
How weird to be commenting on OS, and (thus far) with no problems!

It seems clear why the politicians support the coddling of the rich - the rich are (quite legally) bribing them. It's not clear why the likes of the tea-party rank and file also do so.
Well reasoned, intelligently and dispassionately said. Now, then, on with The Class War!!!
Miguela,

I don't know anyone who's truly wealthy so I don't know if I'd understand them or not. I do know that it's hard to relate to something you've never experienced so if you've never struggled or known anyone who has, it makes it more difficult to "get" where a lot of Americans are coming from these days.

Zanelle: I don't have a bias against anyone because of how much money they do or don't have. But I do have a bias against certain attitudes, particularly those along the lines of "It's mine all mine and I'm going to do everything possible to make sure it stays mine!"

Wealth wasn't created in a vacuum; just about anyone who's rich needed poor people to get there.


Myriad,

It is both weird and weirdly wonderful. There's also the issue of corporate welfare which, in terms of cost, dwarfs the programs conservatives are so anxious to dismantle.


Matt,

Thank you. I've got no class though so unfortunately I can't participate in the class war. But I'll cheer from the sidelines for whichever side looks like they're winning.
Margaret, a lot of excellent points here! It is sad to hear programs like social security and medicare called "entitlements" when it is akin to an insurance program that we pay into. In our region one of the major papers has frequently had stories about public servants who have retired on a generous pension and then get a new public job. One recent story was about a NY State school principal who now makes about $380,000 figuring in his pension and new salary with its own benefits. The public sector has become another way for a select few to get into the 2% income bracket!
Hi. Going out on a limb here; commenting is no longer my thing; you said that 'the vast majority of poor people would prefer to be rich'. That is simply untrue. The vast majority of poor people merely aspire and prefer to be HAPPY, which merely means that all they desire is to live with a sense that their basic quality of living standards are met. The poor that I know -which are nearly everyone, these days- don't give a fuck about being rich, getting rich, having the mansion on the hill or the Mazerati, the built in swimming pool, nor the membership at the Country Club.
They are concerned with matters much closer to the bone, like [and this is true]: Gathering enough money to retrieve their dead baby, whom they'd lost and who'd been cremated, from the funeral home, where he's being held as ransom, only to be released upon the reciept of a mere $200.00; finding the mone to pay for seizure medicine, not finding it in time, and having to hear that your little brother just died, at the young age of 34, because he had no money for the medication that would have saved his poor life.
Sorry for all the darkness. I hope I didn't ruin your day.
It has been Orwellian Newsspeak since some guy during the Hoover Administration coined the term Trickle Down Economics. (Generally speaking, money doesn't trickle down, it trickles up, but that sounds like it's opposing gravity so people intrinsically disbelieve it.)

It's just more Blame The Victim, the idea that people are where they are because they want to be. The great thing about believing that is it takes all responsibility away from the people at the top. "We're not engaging in class warfare, we're not stealing from the poor, they're just poor because they don't want to be like us."

It's sort of parallel to what goes on in religion when fundamentalists tell us that homosexuality is a choice. If it isn't a choice, then God made homosexuals, and how do you handle the ethical consequences of that? Far easier to blame the victim.

The trouble in both cases is that it takes lying to oneself, usuallly deliberately, because the truth is too, to use Al Gore's term, Inconvenient.
Good writing. The use of the term "entitlements" is a "Republican" strategy to create negative perceptions about people who receive government benefits. This started, I believe, in the Reagan years, when "conservative" propaganda exploded all over the airwaves with much hubris, devolving to what we have today.

The term economists use, at least the ones free of ideological agendas, is transfer payments. They are transfers of income from one sector of the economy to another, without any exchange of goods or services (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfer_payment). What few understand about transfer payments is that they increase consumption, because people at lower incomes tend to spend a higher proportion of their incomes. Increased consumption spending leads to increased demand for products, which generates increased demand for workers to make the products or provide services.

Of course, this assumes you want to increase consumption. Given production pressures on the environment, increased output accelerates such things as resource depletion and climate change. Still, a more equitable distribution of income and wealth is the best way to minimize human misery, no matter how miserable it makes rich people. Indeed, increasing misery among the rich can be seen as a social good.
Here's something from right next door in Salon, by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor: http://www.salon.com/2013/01/07/entitlement_reform_is_a_hoax/
Designanator,

I've heard stories like the one you tell about the NY principal - and I don't begrudge anyone for taking advantage of a system that allows them to leapfrog ahead so painlessly. Maybe the schools in NY state are doing a superior job of educating their students and this is one way to show appreciation to school personnel. :)

Steve,

I should have added a disclaimer because of course I'm not speaking for all poor people; but what I did mean was that given a choice - rich or poor - the vast majority of poor people would choose rich. Rich also means different things to different people as you point out. Not everyone considers being fabulously wealthy desirable; I sure don't. It can bring with it its own responsibilities and headaches. Probably most people would just like to feel secure and not have to worry about the future.

As for the sad stories - don't apologize. Those types of stories need to be told.
The resources and solutions are readily available. Aforementioned discourse always overlooks the biggest 'make work' project in history which is the U.S.A. tax code. Modern subliminal technique let alone propagandized wedge issues perpetuate synthetic ethos. Hence, wealth confluences with intellect. The preservation of wealth usurps innate empathy. Lead thinker Ayn Rand's polemic remains the contemporary impetus for immorality. Likewise, 'contra-objectivism' is readily devalued as assured failure--a path toward fascistic socialism. Meanwhile the dissemination at futuristic speed of information warps the challenge of wisdom. Information everywhere but a scarcity of common humanism. Critical thinking should have more invention toward 'make work' for the common good--not only for those faultless few who connive bubbles, not only for those you write the code.
Yeah, words and phrases like, "entitlements," "spending," "redistribution of wealth," "social programs cost money," "who's going to pay for it?," "hard work," and many others are coined by republican think tanks (working for the big money) to confuse, dilute, misdirect and deceive.

That one becomes a billionaire in America because of hard work is a flat out lie. We have unregulated capitalism, which leads to corruption and thievery. It is luck that determines success, and positively not hard work.

Few in America made it honorably; the rest, well, they are simply hustlers and thieves--robber barons--and this is a fact that should be incorporated in our culture.

They want to make it about class warfare and redistribution, which is maliciously misleading.

The common wisdom SHOULD be this. You can make/steal all the money you want, any way you want, but you will have to pay your share of taxes. The lucky will pay more to support social programs for the unlucky. This is the social norm in most of the West.

Recently they raised taxes AGAIN on the rich, some of which threatened to leave the country. Asking the French public about that, unanimously, the public said that these rich [expletive] can go [expletive] themselves.

Such a powerful, logical and intelligent post, Margaret. R
You know it just does not make sense- but then again my family (not me I gave it all up years ago) is one of them. They do not understand how we suffer and work hard for every little. They think they are entitled to good times and we are not.
It is a mind set for the so called privileged.
HUGGGGGGGGG
How should we define rich? People working hard to earn $250,000/yr and paying for their kids' colleges, rather than taking loans and grants, aren't rich in my book and should keep most of their money to spend on their family and whatever their choice purchases and charities are. People earning a cool million a year can spare more money for the common good. If someone inherits $50 million, please have them share with the country, but if they inherit $5, let them keep a good part of it to help generatons of their family do well. Also, some rich people are selfish and lazy and some are generous and hard-working. Don't label and lump people in categories too easily.
Kosher,

Always easier to blame the victim. Makes you want to yell "pick on someone your own size"; that was what the Occupy movement was all about I guess but when it's David against Goliath the playing field is different.

John,

Thank you, and thank you too for the interesting clarifications. The term "entitlement" makes my skin crawl. It's pretty insidious don't you think? I wish I were clever enough to make up a phrase that packs more punch then "corporate welfare". This is where the real problems lie. Thanks for the links; will take a look after I finish up here.

J.P. Hart,

You sure know your stuff. I like this though: "The preservation of wealth usurps innate empathy." And this: "...the dissemination at futuristic speed of information warps the challenge of wisdom. Information everywhere but a scarcity of common humanism."

Thoth,

Good to see you. You pretty much told it the way it is. And one word stands out as far as the prevailing attitude goes toward the less fortunate: Malicious. That's exactly right although it would be vehemently denied. Supposedly it's all about taking responsibility for yourself.

Linda,

You are a rare bird. Big hug for you.

jackie2,

Actually I'm not lumping all the wealthy together under one big label of greedy rich people; I'm referring to conservative attitudes and rhetoric that I both read and hear on a regular basis. They're the ones doing the stereotyping.

There are plenty of wealthy people who do not have the mindset toward their money that I was referring to in this post. And I'm most definitely not saying someone who's "rich" shouldn't be able to hang on to most of it. Thanks for making some good points.
Thanks for this. I've been looking for an alternative to "entitlements" to describe what you call instead "benefits programs." Perfect. And you rightly note that inheritance of wealth is itself a kind of private entitlement program. Hard work is one of many contributors to wealth (others include luck, inheritance -- financial, social, genetic --, and the willingess to bend or break ethical and legal rules in one's own interest. On top of all this, advantage tends to beget further advantage, other things equal, while disadvantage tends to beget disadvantage. Sociologists call these Matthew effects. Bravo for pointing out some inconvenient truths about how the world actually works (for some).
Daniel,

Thanks for reading and commenting. As you point out, there are a lot of contributors to wealth and many of them have nothing to do with hard work. It dovetails with Obama's famous but misconstrued line "If you've got a business you didn't build that." He also said, "...if you're successful, you didn't get there on your own." He meant success is built on the work and contributions of a lot of people. It's not a slam against the wealthy or meant in a punitive way.
Well, working hard is really different from working smart. They are rich folks who have been investing for income streams such as real state and mutual funds and in return they will receive the ROI after years of investing. On the other hand, some people regarded money as evil. Yes when it is being used on the illegal way. But how can it be regarded evil when you are helping other people by giving them funds from your earnings? Two years ago I have read an ebook from Kyosaki and was inspired to try it. Just a try but several months after I have seen the potential of investment places to support you until you die or until you children die. A good read!