America's idiot rich

The 1 percent is complaining louder than ever. There can be no reasoning with people this irrational

Published May 7, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

Some unknown but alarming number of ultra-rich Americans are now basically totally delusional and completely divorced from reality. This is now an inescapable fact, confirmed by multiple media accounts of billionaire thought and an entire special issue of the New York Times Magazine.

Here's a brief list of insane things that are apparently common knowledge among the billionaire class:

  • That President Obama and the Democratic Party have treated wealthy finance industry titans maliciously and unfairly.
  • That the fact that they are perversely wealthy and growing richer during a period of mass unemployment and staggering debt is a sign that the economy is functioning correctly.
  • That poor people, and not the finance industry, are responsible for the financial crisis and subsequent recession.
  • That the ultra-wealthy are wealthy because they are smarter and work harder than everybody else, and that they are resented for their success.
  • That the ultra-wealthy in general, and finance industry executives in particular, are the victims of widespread prejudice akin to that faced by ethnic minorities.

There can be no reasoning with people this irrational. Any attempt to do so will fail, as Barack Obama, whose main goal is to maintain, not upend, the system that made these people so disgustingly wealthy, is learning. It's growing harder and harder to pretend that the fantastically wealthy have a sophisticated understanding of politics -- or math, or economics, or cause-and-effect.

The Times Magazine has the story of the Obama campaign's difficulty in matching its record 2008 contributions from the finance sector. It contains this now surely infamous passage, a true marvel of that classic rich guy cocktail of self-pity mixed with self-regard:

One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief.

The problem with inequality in America, you see, is apparently that it has led to rhetorical attacks on the winners of the class war. Greg Sargent wrote, in response to this story: "One wonders if there is anything Obama could say to make these people happy, short of declaring that rampant inequality is a good thing, in that it affirms the talent and industriousness of the deserving super rich."

I'm not sure even that would help, because there is already another presidential candidate who likely believes that. In the same issue of the Times Magazine, we have the story of Edward Conard, a retired Bain Capital executive who is about to release a book (presumably against the wishes of his friend and former colleague Mitt Romney) arguing "aggressively" that massive wealth disparity is an unalloyed Good Thing. In fact, Conard thinks "the wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large." (Paul Krugman does not think much of his argument.)

Conard also detests charitable giving and has developed a statistical method for finding a spouse, because he is a sociopath. Because he is very wealthy, he is very used to his ideas being taken seriously -- even economists offer him (qualified) praise. He is utterly convinced that his book will convince every serious person that wealthy finance industry titans not only deserve their wealth, but make society a better place for all. He has basically taken what is a gut feeling among his class and turned it into a philosophy and an argument.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument -- for Republicans -- for nominating Mitt Romney was that he is of this class. The fact that he is more comfortable in a boardroom than a Pizza Ranch is actually a major asset, because the Democrats had, since the Clinton years, gradually won over much of Wall Street, helping them to erode the GOP's massive Reagan-era fundraising advantages. Romney can win that money back. Our friend Ed Conard even created a shell corporation for the sole purpose of secretly donating $1 million to Romney's super PAC. The Sunlight Foundation shows in Figure 5 here that the share of finance money going to Democrats skyrocketed during Clinton's first term, and rose again in 2008. Clinton rewarded his super-rich donors with extensive deregulation -- and they rewarded him by shifting the majority of their donations back to the GOP. (Finance, naturally, likes to chase winners: They give more to whichever party seems to be on the upswing, as Obama learned in 2010 and will learn again this year.)

They are one of those industries that is used to getting exactly what it always wants from Washington, because they essentially own both parties. (As opposed to say, oil and gas, ally of Republicans, or the entertainment industry, ally of Democrats.) So Dodd-Frank made them very, very mad. But not just mad: Confused, hurt, betrayed. There is a psychosocial element to the response, clearly on display in the story of the rich people who wish for a speech about how they are not evil. They are essentially spoiled children who have just been lightly reprimanded for the first time that they can remember.

Obama has not been remotely unkind to Wall Street, even as he's grudgingly adopted a slightly more leftist tone. The grotesque nature of our campaign finance system has effectively made economic populism impossible. Even populist rhetoric not backed up by any sort of action is apparently hurtful to these masters of the universe.

But Conard is wrong. The rich are not intrinsically more virtuous or hardworking than the masses. They are also, decidedly, not any smarter. And they receive their news, and their political opinions, from the exact same organs as everyone else. They may be more likely to read the Wall Street Journal than the New York Post, but both of those Murdoch-owned newspapers carry similar lies on their editorial pages. In other words, they actually believe their bullshit. They honestly believe that mean Democrats invented "Occupy Wall Street" in order to make them scapegoats for a crisis that they feel no responsibility for. People who are in the business of extracting fees and interest from consumers, or moving rich people's money around, unironically think of themselves as "job creators."

The result of their last few decades of job creation has been the decoupling of productivity grown from wage growth and skyrocketing compensation for CEOs and finance industry workers.

But appeals to logic, history and common sense will not get you far with a roomful of very rich guys who feel paranoid and victimized. The Wall Street types asked to become Obama donors wanted assurances that the president would not criticize his opponent's finance industry record. It's not enough that they're ridiculously wealthy: They wish to be utterly above criticism. That's the most important thing to remember: These people, the .01 percent, are mostly childish idiots. Idiot children have now accumulated all of the nation's wealth and they are terrified that someone might try to take some of it away.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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