Why the Super Rich Have Turned So Bitterly Against Obama

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Ezra Klein talks to Chrystia Freeland about why the super rich dislike Obama so bitterly:

Klein: My experience is that the very rich are open to higher taxes in the context of a deficit deal….But they don’t like the idea that their money should be redistributed simply because they have too much of it….And so that’s part of the tension: They don’t like why Obama is raising their taxes. And they certainly don’t like the lack of admiration he’s showing while trying to do it. They see it as punishing their success.

Freeland: I completely agree. I think Obama and the economists around him have a very sophisticated understanding of both globalization and the technology revolution and the impact they’re having on the world economy and the way they’re creating these winner-take-all spirals. The positive scenario, which I think is a bit pollyannaish, is all you need to do is improve the education system and change the skill set and all will be well. And even that takes a lot of investment and a lot of time. But there’s actually the possibility that in order to have a healthy middle class, you’re going to need to have a more redistributive society, at least for awhile. I think that’s something the American super-rich don’t think about much. One guy who’s a liberal Democratic guy, who has worked in Washington for Democrats, who I quote in my book, he said to me, maybe this is how the world is. Maybe the 1950s were an aberration and the way the economy naturally works is this wide difference in distribution.

I’d add something to this. I think it’s quite possible for rich individuals to agree, in the abstract, that things have changed over the past 30 years in a way that’s benefited the rich tremendously as a class. But that doesn’t mean they agree, in concrete terms, that they themselves have benefited from anything in particular. And they don’t like being made to pay a price for something they feel they aren’t personally responsible for.

A Wall Street lawyer who makes $500,000 per year probably would have made half that much in 1980. The extra pay is solely due to broad economic and political trends, not because the 2012 lawyer works harder or knows more. That’s easy to concede in the abstract. But it’s quite another thing to suggest that the 2012 lawyer should therefore pay higher taxes to make up for this. That doesn’t feel like fairness, it feels like punishment. And that’s how they view it.

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