17 March 2009

Are Americans THAT Stupid?

I was just reading Jedediah Purdy's new book A Tolerable Anarchy, which is an interesting essay on Americans' evolving notions of "freedom." It's a relatively small book that's chock-full of ideas that I may address later, but something Purdy mentioned nearly made my eyes bug out. He cited an opinion poll taken in October 2000 in which 19% of the people surveyed believed that they were in the top 1% income bracket. Combined, he writes, 40% of the people polled believe they're in the richest 1% or soon will be.

Following my current practice, I tried to track down the original poll data online. I haven't found it yet, but I found this blog article from 2004 that describes the poll finding as an "urban legend." The basis of the writer's debunking effort is the apparent fact that the poll didn't ask participants directly if they were among the richest 1%. Instead, the pollsters asked if participants thought that a tax cut proposed by presidential candidate George W. Bush, and described as benefiting the richest 1%, would benefit them. To that question, 19% said yes. The blogger acknowledges that there's room to interpret the result the way many people have, but also notes that the response reflects respondents' aspirations. Some may have said the tax cut would benefit them if they expected to join the richest 1%. The blogger, however, doesn't address the larger number later cited by Purdy, which includes those who expect to join the richest 1% as a separate category.Despite that, I'd probably agree that, if you asked these people directly whether they were in the richest 1%, probably less than 19% would have said yes.

Nevertheless, the poll reflects some mass failure to grasp exactly how rich the richest are in this country. Since we should presume that the respondents had some realistic sense of their own income, their responses can only mean that they didn't understand just how unequal American society has become through the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years. Ego and greed probably also factor into the response.
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Ernest Hemingway attributed the phrase "the rich are different" to F. Scott Fitzgerald in a fictional anecdote in the original version of the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." The story sets Fitzgerald up for a punch line when the person he's speaking with responds, "Yes, they have more money." Hemingway's point is to debunk the idea that rich folk have some special qualities of character that either explain or result from their wealth. But isn't it possible, in a way that a best-selling literary lion like Hemingway would have a hard time understanding, that "the rich" could at some point have so much more money than the rest of us that they do become essentially "different?" Many Americans don't yet think so, or didn't back in 2000. But there are signs, particularly the outbreaks of outrage at every new announcement of bonuses paid to bailed-out executives, that people are beginning to understand the difference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd say the rich are different in that they don't have to worry about money. Those monthly bills we have worry about - rent/mortgage, groceries, heat/electric, car payments, etc. These things never pass through the minds of the wealthy. The idea of having to sacrifice or give up something we have or want to be able to afford something we need is never a problem for them. The worry of failing health as we get older and will we be able to afford necessary surgery or expensive treatments - another worry the wealthy simply don't have. In fact, their biggest worry seems to be how to accumulate more wealth...