Filthy rich but secretly terrified: Inside the 1 percent's sore-winner backlash

Why are the super-rich whining so much? They rigged the game for themselves, but are terrified of being discovered

Published February 18, 2014 6:03PM (EST)

 Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Lloyd Blankfein                                          (<a href=''>lev radin</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Reuters/Steve Marcus/Jim Young/Salon)
Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Lloyd Blankfein (lev radin via Shutterstock/Reuters/Steve Marcus/Jim Young/Salon)

What explains the toxic mélange of entitlement and shame that’s driving the raging 1 percent sore-winner backlash? From Tom Perkins comparing the ultra-rich to Jews during “Kristallnacht,” to tycoon and newspaper-destroyer Sam Zell insisting “the top 1 percent work harder,” to investment banker Wilbur Ross proclaiming that "the 1 percent is being picked on for political reasons," there’s an epidemic of plutocrat self-pity afoot. Just last week ex-CEO of Morgan Stanley John Mack told the media to “stop beating up on” CEOs Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein after they got obscene raises from JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

The sore winner backlash is odd timing. There’s no longer any real movement to hike taxes on their income or their wealth, both of which are at all-time highs. President Obama has said an increase in tax rates is “off the table.” There’s no more discussion of the “Buffett Rule,” named for the Berkshire-Hathaway oracle who famously suggested his secretary should no longer pay higher rates than her boss.

Almost nobody talks about ending the “carried interest” loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay a shamefully low rate on much of what should be considered income; instead there’s a “boom in trusts passing carried interest to heirs,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Yes, they’ve figured out a way to pass that unfair advantage onto their heirs through new estate-tax dodges. Sadly, Occupy Wall Street has fizzled, so they can even enjoy Zuccotti Park unaccosted.

So why all the whining now? I read Kevin Roose’s buzzy “I crashed a secret Wall Street society” piece Monday morning looking for insight. You should read it if you haven’t. It’s a fun hate-read. You’ll come away thinking, if you don’t already, that a lot of these people are monsters.

Apparently the secret fraternity Kappa Beta Phi gathers the titans of Wall Street at the St. Regis once a year for a gala that celebrates their wealth and power and mocks the rest of us. New inductees to the fraternity are charged with putting on a variety show to entertain the long-tenured. The evening features all the standard bad behavior common to male societies, from sports teams to military units to the boys of the Bohemian Grove. Cross dressing? Check.

After cocktail hour, the new inductees – all of whom were required to dress in leotards and gold-sequined skirts, with costume wigs – began their variety-show acts.

Misogyny and homophobia? Check.

The jokes ranged from unfunny and sexist (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and a catfish?” A: “One has whiskers and stinks, and the other is a fish”) to unfunny and homophobic (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Barney Frank and a Fenway Frank?” A: “Barney Frank comes in different-size buns”).

Mocking the loser-outsiders, who paradoxically make their great wealth possible? Check.

One of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”

When Roose was discovered, he was ejected from the ballroom, and the story wound up in his new book, “Young Money,” a portrait of eight entry-level Wall Street traders, which came out today. The Kappa Beta Phi story was excerpted in New York magazine.

What the excerpt captured was the insularity and paranoia of plutocrats who band together to protect themselves from mostly imagined social opprobrium and self-doubt. As Paul Krugman has argued, they aren’t like the titans of yore who made things; they “push money around and get rich by skimming some off the top as it sloshes by.” They’ve gotten insanely wealthy mainly by rigging the rules of the game to privilege the world of finance, and it’s no wonder they’re worried the rest of us will someday figure that out.

The good news from Roose’s work? Among younger Wall Streeters, there’s more doubt than you might expect. The percentage of Ivy Leaguers going into investment banking straight out of college is dropping. Before it faded, Occupy Wall Street had an impact on some of his young subjects, Roose reveals. The bad news is, the people who have doubts about the morality of their enterprise, and about their own privilege, tend to leave, so that those who remain are particularly entitled and/or deluded.

Still, that nagging doubt helps explain the backlash. They project in order to protect themselves. Their self-defense gets ever louder.

Last week Tom Perkins doubled down on his plutocrat paranoia at the Commonwealth Club, insisting the more money you have, the more votes you should get. He later “clarified” his remarks by saying he was only warning about the dangers of the 50 percent of the country that doesn’t pay taxes nonetheless having the right to vote. It was an uglier version of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark. Neither Romney nor Perkins nor their many defenders seem to realize that the people who pay no taxes are either retirees, or low-wage workers who are paid so little they’re not taxed.

These men who rigged the rules of the game to make themselves obscenely wealthy are trying to convince themselves, and us, that they’re entitled to those rewards. If only there were a genuine political movement triggering their paranoia.  Instead, it's preemptive, a product of their buried guilt and practiced entitlement.

By Joan Walsh