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October 28, 2008

Spreading the wealth-7: More on the opposition

In the previous post, I said that the arguments in favor of having a more progressive tax system are so obvious that it was an interesting exercise to see why even those who would directly benefit from it still oppose it. I suggested some reasons for this behavior and in this post want to explore some more.

Another group consists of those who are still living in the shadow of the Cold War and have been effectively brainwashed to think that any effort to raise the living standards of the less well-off is 'socialism'. The label socialism has been demonized so much that for such people anything to which that label is attached is automatically a bad thing, even if they do not understand the term and are really poor and would benefit from the proposed plan. Witness how universal, single-payer health insurance is fought by the health insurance-pharmaceutical-physician complex by labeling it as socialism, though the only people who really benefit from not having it are the very wealthy and the health insurance-pharmaceutical-physician complex.

This group of people have completely bought the myth sold to them by the rich that we would all be better off if we let a very few people make and keep as much money as they can by whatever means. It is this group that the McCain-Palin rhetoric is aiming at.

The instinctive siding of such people with the 'plight' of someone who makes $250,000 or more even while they make a small fraction of that and have little or no chance of ever joining those ranks reveals the depth and extent of this brainwashing. They may be finding it hard to pay the rent or the mortgage, they may be fearful of losing their jobs, they may have little or no health care, they may be living in decaying neighborhoods that cannot provide basic services, but somehow they think the very rich and the giant corporations and Wall Street are on the same side as them and deserve to have even more money. Such people are simply not thinking things through.

Another possible reason is that many people share the illusion that some day they too will be rich, and when that happens they want to be able to enjoy the unfettered high life, even though they may be quite vague about how this could come to pass. For some the fantasy may be little more than thinking they will win the lottery. For others, it may be that they have some talent they are proud of and think that they may be 'discovered' by a talent scout and suddenly become a world famous singer or model or comedian or actor or writer or athlete. They do not want to spoil the imagined enjoyment of that future success by supporting policies now that might even slightly reduce the free-spending habits they hope to have when they strike it rich.

The media helps maintain this illusion by feeding this obsession about what rich and famous people are really like. Notice how the interviews with these famous people usually emphasize that they are just like you and me, except for being very wealthy. George Clooney eats corn flakes for breakfast, just like me! Scarlett Johannson likes to lounge around in sweat suits at home, just like me!

At the same time these same media features also indulge in what might be called wealthy-lifstyle-porn, talking about the massive houses, many cars, elaborate parties, and jet-setting lifestyles of the celebrities. The popularity of celebrity-lifestyle TV shows and magazines and the existence of a paparazzi industry to bring us snippets of personal information about these people ("Look! We have photos of Branjelina's babies!") testify to the dream world these audiences are creating for themselves.

All these reinforce the belief that the only thing that separates the very wealthy from you and me is a single stroke of luck. This might well be true. But to base your political decisions on the chance that lightning will strike, that you will hit the jackpot, is foolish. To think that your interests coincide with those few very wealthy people is to live in a dream world.

Tom Tomorrow wrote about this fantasy world that people inhabit and which is encouraged by the celebrity-obsessed media.

A few years back, I was on a road trip with my wife, and somehow, probably from some junk shop along the way, we ended up with the audiobook version of Valley of the Dolls, the classic trashy novel about the lives of the rich and unhappy. After the third or fourth lengthy description of wealthy people enjoying caviar and champagne, I commented that the book was not intended to be about the lives of the wealthy, but rather, about the lives of the wealthy as imagined by the trailer park set: they spend all their time drinking champagne! And eating caviar! (Which brings to mind something I was once told by a prominent contributor to Vanity Fair — that it’s not a magazine aimed at the upper class, it’s a magazine for the middle class to buy believing they are reading a magazine aimed at the upper class. But I digress.)

All these things are designed to give the middle class and the poor the sense of identification with the wealthy. It is quite an amazing thing to see. The reality is that any person with no inherited wealth and who depends on a regular paycheck to meet life's needs has far more in common with the financial situation of a janitor than they have with Paris Hilton.

But as long as they fail to realize who their real allies are, they will continue to be exploited.

POST SCRIPT: Undecided voter=idiot?

The Daily Show tries to understand how people could still be undecided at this stage of the election.


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Comments

You're right about so much here -- the expectation that the poor will one day become rich by winning the lottery is what I often describe as the "New American Dream" -- the poor having given up on the old one of hard work and ingenuity leading to a secure life. Of course, in anticipation of that eventuality, they don't want to give up any of their newly acquired wealth to taxes.

But the one thing that makes this illusion work is the failure of the US education system to prepare people to see through the fallacies.

Posted by Ross on October 28, 2008 11:02 AM

Great skit. I love it when she blurts out that "They're totally different!" She's absolutely right, for the candidates couldn't be further apart on the major issues facing our country today.


It seems impossible that there could be any more undecided voters this late in the campaign.

The fishes told me that they're voting for Nader. ;)

Posted by New Orleans Fishing on October 28, 2008 07:38 PM

A few weeks ago, CNN had a series of character sketches of families being "punished" for earning more than $250,000 per year. (Most in the article earned substantially more.) Several sentences were so ridiculous, I wondered if the article was a troll attempting to incite people. For example (paraphrasing) "After paying tuition for private college and highschool, and their children's tennis and gymnastic lessons, they have little money left over for luxury." and "We're not rich. If we were rich, we'd live on the beach and go on vacation more often." Of course if the majority of Americans had a look at these people's houses, cars, and how often they eat out, they would conclude that they are extremely wealthy and lead highly luxurious lives. This sort of makes your jaw drop when the people talk about not being wealthy, and I'm also shocked at how many people who make this kind of money are in debt, and feel that they can't make ends meet. I always wonder what could make someone in the top 5% say something like that with a straight face. There are a few people in my own family who are like this, making multiple six figures, and complaining about money all the time. They've become single issue voters on lowering taxes and they seem obsessed with not having enough.

Several possible explanations: If you ask, who could these people be comparing themselves to that they feel they don't have luxurious lives, I think the only answer could be TV, where people are almost supernaturally wealthy and have too much free time, and the sitcom families all lead upper class lives despite average jobs. Second, just due to human nature, for many people of all incomes, it's very hard to save when they have money to spend. And since it's way too easy to get credit for long term commitments, natural volatility in circumstances can easily put people in a financial bind. And of course this leads to unhappiness, and the feeling of not being in control. Also, if you ask, unhappiness is why they feel entitled to the luxury spending. Most doctors will tell you that it's only just that they make multiple six figures because they work so hard, which really overlooks the fact that construction workers can burn 6000 calories a day working a lot harder.

Posted by Cindy on November 1, 2008 04:47 PM