Rich America

Mansion - William Helsen As I have pointed out too many times, in the good old days the focus of personal finance literature was more or less exclusively on how to become rich. For the past few years tips on how not to become poor have been at least as popular. But getting rich is still, and probably always will be, a fundamental goal.

Indeed, it does not take much imagination or rhetorical skill to make a convincing argument that a nearly universal desire to become rich is the driving force behind the economy. As Gordon Gecko tells us, “Greed is good.”

The cynical left-wing view (I am trying to keep from calling it socialist) is that this race to be rich is a fraud. It is the greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, even if the efforts of the would-be rich have productive effects for society as a whole.

And when the liberal elite fails to get much traction from efforts to pit the non-rich against the rich, they often blame the foolishness of ordinary folks for not understanding that they will never be rich. Indeed, the failure of the common man to vote in what the liberal intellectual elite consider to be the common man’s interest is a recurring source of frustration and confusion for the left. (Of course, the fact that so many of the rich do not support the right is not confusing at all. They are enlightened.)

But it turns out that the views of ordinary Americans on being and becoming rich are not nearly as simple or as unrealistic as some might think. Recent polling data from Gallup bears this out.

To begin with, a majority of Americans would like to be rich. 63% of those who did not identify themselves as already rich said that they would like to be. But 35% said that they would not want to be rich. And 1% had no opinion. Huh? One American in three does not want to be rich? Do they not understand how much happier they would be if they had more money?

In fact, they do not. When asked if they thought the rich were happier than they were, only 11% said yes. 57% said they thought the rich were just as happy and 27% thought they were less happy. Combined with the results on the desire to be rich, this is remarkable.

The easy majority of Americans would like to be rich, but the overwhelming majority of those do not think it will make them happier. So why bother? Well, it could be argued that most Americans do not bother. There is, after all, a difference between stating a preference for being rich and doing anything about it.

Last December Gallup asked if Americans believed the country was split between “haves” and “have-nots.” 41% thought so, which is actually down since the beginning of the Great Recession. But they also asked people which group they considered themselves to be in. 58% self-identified as have. And that has been a fairly consistent result over time. Gallup has asked people to classify themselves 8 times in 22 years and gotten between 57% and 67% choosing have.

Most Americans may not consider themselves rich, but they are comfortable. The basic human needs of food, shelter, and medical care are not worries. Ours is a nation of cars, cell phones, flat screen TVs, and individual bedrooms. Becoming richer would be great, but for many it is not exactly urgent.

Moreover, Americans have a fairly realistic view of their likelihood of becoming rich. Although the great majority would like to get there, only 28% thought it was very or somewhat likely to happen. And this was strongly skewed by age, with younger people thinking they had a higher likelihood than oldsters.

All of which contradicts the clichéd explanation of why non-rich Americans are never very enthusiastic about soaking the rich folks. It is not that they expect to be rich someday themselves. Indeed, the age demographics are flipped. Younger Americans, who currently tend to vote for the Blue Team, are more likely to expect to be rich in the futureblow up jumpers.

I believe that raising taxes on the rich is not particularly popular for two reasons. First, there is the simple question of fairness. Tax rates of 40% or higher do not seem just to most people, no matter how rich the payer is. Second, and I think  the left is utterly blind to this, most Americans just do not want the government to get any more money.

[Photo – William Helsen]

No Comments

  • By Dan, June 5, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    I can see why the left are confused. Most Americans don’t want to raise taxes but yet still want to have all their government services and entitlements. I think the Tea Party is the perfect example of this. Hates taxes and supposedly government as well. Yet, don’t dare take their entitlements away. If anything, the left is blind to how people want to have their cake and eat it too.

  • By JT, June 6, 2012 @ 2:47 am

    The left has a terrible time with big numbers. The Buffett Tax wouldn’t even begin to close the deficit, nor would marijuana taxes, or “closing loopholes.” All three remain incredibly popular talking points, with all three being especially popular with younger people.

    There are three places to extract serious money: war, entitlements, or increased taxes on everyone. I’m not particularly surprised that slicing war spending and entitlements or increasing taxes on everyone isn’t popular.

  • By CalLadyQED, June 7, 2012 @ 3:44 am

    Just b/c people think the rich aren’t happier than they are, doesn’t mean they don’t think THEY will be happier if they are rich.

  • By John W, June 7, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    Re entitlements, please differentiate between “paid-in” entitlements and “free-loader” entitlements. There is a big difference.

  • By Neil, June 11, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    @John W – not really. Every entitlement is “paid-in” whether as a dedicated premium or as part of the general tax bill. But due to poor planning, current collectors didn’t pay in enough to justify what they’re taking home.

    So “paid-in” is really the same as freeloading, plus a sense of moral high ground that stems from being bad at math.

  • By Dan G, June 12, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    I was just wondering, have you ever actually TALKED to a liberal to get their viewpoints, or are you going on assumptions based on biased information you’ve received through conservative channels?

    Also, let me simply ask this question: If economic activity, meaning transactions for goods and services, is the goal in a capitalist society, then which tax cut is going to result in greater activity: that which gives $3,000,000/household to 10,000 households who already have enough money to purchase whatever they need or want, or that which gives $1,000/household to 30,000,000 households who are barely able to make ends meet?

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 19, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    Dan G:

    I live in Massachusetts. I have trouble finding conservatives to talk to.

    Tax cuts are not giving money to anybody. If there is a difference in economic impact of cutting taxes on the better or worse off Americans, it is small and less important in the long run than questions of fairness.

    Nobody is arguing that the tax code should not be progressive. The question, often purposely obscured by the left, is how progressive. I actually would favor making it a bit more progressive than it is now. 40% as a top rate wouldn’t upset me, provided it was offset by expanding the 0% bracket at the low end. 72% as the top bracket, as it was pre-Reagan, would upset me.

  • By jim, June 23, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

    JT, liberals talk about Buffet Tax, marijuana and closing loop holes more than warranted as a % of GDP. I don’t think liberals generally claim any of those are cure alls for the country. Conservatives talk about NPR funding, planned parenthood costs and 99 week unemployment benefits far more than those topics warrant as well but they aren’t claiming any of them would fix the deficit either.

  • By jim, June 23, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    “40% as a top rate wouldn’t upset me”

    Apparently Frank is a socialist according to mainstream American current definition of socialism.

    40% top rate is more in line with Democrat platform than Republican.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 27, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

    Not saying I’d vote for 40% if I was in Congress, only that it wouldn’t upset me. I used to pay 39.6% and later I paid 35% and my life was equally as happy. But if the top rate was raised to 72%, as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, I would be very upset.

  • By Susan, January 22, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    72%?????? I wouldn’t be happy with that, and I’m a left-leaning Australian who is never even likely to be earning in the top bracket!

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