Have We Become Too Obsessed with the Rich?

The rich make for a convenient punching bag, but there are better ways to address inequality

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Four years ago, after the economic collapse of 2007, I used to complain that we didn’t talk enough about the rich. Today, I would argue that we’re not talking enough about the poor. Neither presidential candidate has been speaking much about poverty. Instead, the discussion of inequality has zeroed in on the wealthy elite, from Obama’s “You didn’t build that” to Romney’s tax returns and off-shore investment shelters. Although the rich make for a convenient punching bag, obsessing about them may not be the best was to actually address inequality.

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The appeal of talking about the rich is obvious: that’s where all the action is. While most Americans are only slightly better off than their parents, the wealthy have seen their fortunes soar, while newspapers eagerly anticipate which New York city apartment will be the first to breach the $100 million barrier. From books about a new upper class to self pitying billionaires, we hear daily of our global elite plutocrats, and how they may be destroying our nation. “Why let the rich hoard all the toys?” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently asked.

So why did the conversation shift from the unemployed to the plutocrats? I think it’s because our sense of shared sacrifice has faded. In the early days of the economic crisis, Americans were angry at the finance industry, but also at one another. Many, it seemed, had abdicated their responsibility: from regulators who weren’t doing their jobs to congress who turned a blind eye, from bankers who had become fantastically wealthy off speculation that bordered on gambling to neighbors who had borrowed more than they could afford. There was plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of work to do to pick up the pieces.

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But as that work progressed over the last two years, another story began to emerge. While the sacrifice was shared, the recovery was not. Yes, American incomes increased in 2010, but an astonishing 93% of the gains went to the top 1%. Then the rich even began to join the conversation, with Warren Buffett suggesting a rule that everyone who makes more than $1,000,000 should pay a minimum of 30% in taxes and Bill Gates agreeing to higher taxes and encouraging philanthropic causes.

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But taxes are not enough unless the money is put to use specifically on programs that help the poor and middle classes earn more and protect their wages. While the rich may be the engines of inequality, the pathway to equality is paved by policies that empower the poor and middle classes. So perhaps it’s time to stop talking about the rich and dreaming up social policies addressed at them and begin to pay more attention again to everyone else.