Marie Antoinette Syndrome Strikes Again

Pew has once again confirmed what many prior studies have shown: the rich and well-to-do think the poor have it too easy in America:

Those who face the greatest financial insecurity are the most reliant on government benefits; more than half of the least secure group reports receiving at least one type of means-tested government benefit. They also are more likely than the most financially secure to say that “the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.” Among the least financially secure, 60% express this view; no more than half in any other group (including just 34% of the most financially secure) say the government should do more to assist the needy if it means adding to the debt. Similarly, the least secure are far more likely than the most secure to say that “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.”

Financial security also is related to attitudes about business. The least secure group is more likely than those who are better off to say that businesses make too much profit (a 20-point difference with the most secure group).

This goes hand in hand with a December study showing (again) that the rich are getting much richer while everyone else falls behind:

The Pew Research Center crunched the numbers and revealed Wednesday that upper-income families have almost seven times as much wealth as middle-income families and 70 times as much wealth as lower-income families. Pew found that 46% of American families fall into the middle tier, while about 33% are lower-income families. The remaining 21% are upper-income families.

The gap between the richest families in America and those on the middle and lower rungs of the economic ladder is wider than at any other point in the last 30 years — when the Fed began collecting the data Pew used for its research.

More specifically, Pew found that the wealthiest tier of Americans suffered less during the recession than others, and has made up the most ground since. By contrast, “middle-income families haven’t seen any gains,” according to Pew. Lower-income Americans actually have less wealth now than they did at any point since 1983.

I don’t really know why the wealthy seem to lose compassion the better off they are. Perhaps it’s an exercise in self-justification: when you see yourself doing so well compared to everyone else, you have to convince yourself that you earned it, and that everyone else doesn’t have it so bad after all.

What I find astonishing about the mentality is that these folks actually believe that they earned their vastly growing wealth. They have enough financial knowledge to understand that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has nearly quintupled in a single generation, and that housing values have risen in a similar astronomical fashion. They know that wages have declined during that same time.

Do these folks actually believe that if they bought into the stock market in the late 1980s, that their portfolio today is the result of their own genius and the magic of American capitalism? That the fact that their house is now worth four times as much as they bought it for two decades ago is proof of their own virtue? Do they not understand that neither the stock nor the housing markets will continue their geometric progression during the next two decades, or will they blame the inevitable slowdown in asset values on the supposed laziness of the next generation? Do they not understand that these things (particularly their stock portfolios) rose in value directly at the expense of wages, or do they feel justified in taking the gains off the hits experienced by workers in the real economy?

Obviously, they do feel justified. The 2012 campaign was centered around their fundamental mistaken belief that “they built that.”

They did not build that. But they sure do think their victims have it easy.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.