I heard something unusual the other day. A friend recounted how several of her friends in recent days had said, in essence, "I hate rich people."
"Do you hate rich people?" she asked me. My instant impulse, I'm ashamed to report, was to say, "Yes."
But then I re-examined this impulse, which, it seems, others are having, too. I concluded I don't hate rich people as a group. Some are wonderful human beings and others are selfish and oblivious - pretty much like the rest of humanity. Some give many millions to good causes. And how do you define "rich," anyway? Compared to many I'm "rich." I have a steady job (at least for now), benefits and a house in a nice neighborhood where the schools are good.
But what's at the heart of that impulse I had is, I think, anger. And I have a hunch I'm not alone, especially if some people are now saying, out loud, that they hate rich people. Five years ago I never heard that. Maybe back then everyone figured they might be rich one day, too. Although if they'd been paying attention, they'd have known inflation-adjusted median wages in the U.S. have been stuck since the 1980s - except for the rich, who have steadily gotten even richer.
Today some 15 million Americans are out of work (not counting millions who've given up finding a job). And 42 percent of them have been jobless more than six months, the highest proportion ever recorded. November's jobless rate went up, to 9.8 percent. The economy created only 39,000 jobs last month.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported last month, U.S. businesses reported record profits - better even than in pre-boom 2006. Profits have grown for seven quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.
Some companies are using their cash to buy back their own stock, so their stock prices rise. But they still won't put people to work.
Add in the fact that CEO pay is now an average of 350 times the pay of average workers, up from 40 in 1970s. And don't forget: In 2009, the 25 best-paid hedge-fund managers averaged $1 billion each and paid lower marginal income tax (about 17 percent than typical families.
Of course, all this may be just a minor boomlet of grumpiness among a handful of people. But I don't think so. Note this headline in last week's New Yorker magazine: "What Good is Wall Street? Much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless." (The article was more nuanced than the headline.)
I think we're heading into a New Gilded Age, in which Americans are developing much higher animosity toward the hyper-rich than we saw through much of the 20th century.
That may partly be that some of them seem oblivious to problems around them, or unwilling to help. They hire private security officers to patrol their wealthy neighborhoods, while complaining about high taxes they pay on their huge homes - taxes that help hire police for all neighborhoods. A co-worker this week described how a wealthy relative with several vacation homes and multiple cars kept complaining about how they'd really had to cut back.
If a chorus of economists were standing next to me now, they'd chant a reminder that wealthy people's spending creates jobs and helps lubricate the economy. That's true.
So if you're a "rich person," especially if you run a company, should you be worried? Who knows? The wealthy still seem to have Congress in their pocket. But maybe now is the time to start heading off rising animosity. I know that some wealthy people truly do care about their country and their community. So prove it:
CEOs could decide it's an act of patriotism to start hiring workers. Why not challenge fellow CEOs to a patriotic campaign to fill jobs, akin to Warren Buffet's push to get billionaires to give half their wealth to charity?
For non-CEOs or those who can't hire for some reason (and it had better be a good reason), why not help local governments, which are in deepening distress. Here's one idea: Create a nonprofit fund to be tapped by governments or land trusts to buy land for parks or other land conservation needs. Prices are low, and strapped developers who bought acreage on spec need to unload it. Yet without money to buy it, it does not help the public good, or the desperate developers, for that matter.
Figure out how to use your millions to help keep Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other school systems from laying off hundreds of teachers. Maybe it's via a nonprofit; maybe it's direct grants. Smart people can surely figure that out.
Ditto, for public libraries.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Newsom is an associate editor at the Charlotte Observer. She can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.