Americans again turn against malefactors of great wealth

Who would want to be a millionaire?

President Barack Obama calls some millionaire bankers “shameless.” Sen. Claire McCaskill says they're "idiots."

CEOs face relentless grilling on Capitol Hill, forced to defend their million-dollar-plus salaries, business perks and multibillion-dollar bonus funds.

Corporate chieftains, from auto companies to investment firms, mothball their private jets, cancel retreats at plush resorts, and reimburse stockholders for $35,000 toilets.

OK, a million bucks is a million bucks. Still…

"In every economic crisis, people look for villains," said Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion and a Georgetown University history professor. "And there's a long tradition in America of big bankers and investors as villains."

So far, Kazin and others say, the public backlash against the wealthy seems limited to millionaires directly connected with collapsing banks and other industries.

If the economic downturn continues, though, or gets worse, look for a more broad-based assault on the well-to-do — in movies, songs, cartoons and books, as well as on Capitol Hill.

"The rich make a good scapegoat," said Christian Crandall, a social psychology professor at the University of Kansas. "When you can point to a bad guy, and say 'it was him,' the world makes sense, and that makes you happy. …You do scapegoating to understand the world, and part of understanding the world is to say ‘hey, these guys stole from me.' "

Those being scapegoated seem to sense the prevailing mood.

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