Keeping up with the Rockefellers

Wherein I present a theory to explain the resistance to economic reform

After my last post about the disparity in wealth and income in this country, I have been giving some additional thought to the causes behind this inequity.  I’m not referring to the question of why wealth has concentrated in the hands of the few- that is the natural consequence of our economic framework and the regressive taxation of the last decade.  Rather, I have been puzzling over why the vast majority of people have not loudly demanded that the wealthy pay a fairer share of the nation’s tax burden.

I have a theory, and I want to briefly describe and explain it.  I call it aspirational identification.

In short, we all want to be rich.  In every aspect of our lives, we are bombarded with images glorifying wealth and luxury.  We are conditioned to desire expensive clothing, jewelry, vehicles, and homes.  Given the opportunity, millions would line up for the chance to participate in degrading game shows with the goal of winning a vast sum of money.  The internet plies us with get-rich-working-from-home schemes, penny stock market trading strategies, and other shortcuts to achieving enormous wealth.

By its very nature, an economic system based on competition encourages us to take risks, in order to earn big rewards.  Some succeed, most fail.  But that aspiration, our deep-seated urge to join the ranks of the wealthy, may go a long way to explaining why the middle- and lower-classes have such a difficult time making an enemy of the upper 1%.  We all want to be like them, and given the choice, we would join their ranks without a second thought.

While the average and even above-average earner cannot truly identify with the elite, our aspirations can.  When we become fabulously wealthy, we want an opportunity to enjoy the wealth, not turn over the bulk of it to the government for redistribution.  Even though most of us will never truly achieve financial plenty on the scale of the 1 percenters, we would like to believe that, should we beat the odds, we will enjoy the full benefits of our tremendous fortunes.

Unlike my previous post, I don’t have statistics or psychological studies to back up this theory; call it a “gut feeling.”  However, I believe it goes a long way towards understanding why it is so difficult to get those who are not wealthy to unite behind the premise that our economic future depends on requiring the super-rich to pay a greater share of the cost of running our nation.


Published in: on October 14, 2011 at 10:28 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Very insightful, I think you are quite right about the power of fantasy. I do think, however, the way generations are raised to think about money and social conscience plays a role as well. Right now we have people in our country gaining entry into the top 1% through ignorance and stupid antics. Kids are learning about our culture through such top notch shows like the Jersey Shore and given the message that anyone can become wealthy overnight- they don’t have to be smart, interesting, talented, or even attractive. People are becoming wealthy through egotism and self-promotion. By simply being in the right place at the right time- and not through intelligence or innovation, but location. We, as a society, have been groomed to focus on our own self-interest. So when people do become wealthy, what do they do with their money? They buy shit for themselves and spend money making more money so they can spend even more money…on glitter and exciting new toys for us all to be envious of and pine for.

    I remember when I was growing up, my mom and I would play the “what would we do if we won the lottery” game. Rather than the usual boats, islands, mansions, horses, etc., we would always start out with the people in our lives and important causes we would invest in first before spending/saving the rest to create financial security. May sound like a boring way to play the game (especially with the unlimited amount of fun toys and gadgets available now), but it also created an important foundation for the way I view the world. Universally, we can usually agree that we take care of our own first- usually meaning family and close friends. Well we, as Americans, need to apply the same logic to our taxes, economy, and world relations.

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