The problem with the rich is that they don’t think they’re rich.
Commentators sympathetic to the dire plight of the comfortably well-off argue that the common perception of what constitutes “rich” is skewed. But while it’s true that the cost of living has jumped, rendering some high-sounding incomes less lofty than they were before, a big increase in income inequality testifies to the fact that a great economic divide has yawned open.
Inequality measurements according to the well-known Gini coefficient show the U.S. to be in a pretty severe state of family income inequality. Between 1997 and 2007, America’s number jumped from 40.8 to 45, putting us about even with Uganda, Rwanda, Macedonia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile Germany’s Gini coefficient is a scanty 27; South Korea’s, 31.4; the United Kingdom’s, 34; and Israel’s, 39.2. We even top China (41.5) in income inequality by this measure.
On top of income inequality itself is a failure of communication between those who have plenty and those who live paycheck-to-paycheck (or who live, in these days of double-digit unemployment, worse than paycheck-to-paycheck). Those who’ve led relatively privileged lives, even if they’re fretting about funds at this moment, have virtually no contact with the truly poor; the very rich have even less.
It’s often remarked that the wealthy don’t understand or sympathize with the poor and the struggling simply because of sociological distance. Especially if they have made their own fortune, rich people tend to imagine that everyone should be able to pull themselves up economically simply through hard work. For their part, the poor typically perceive the rich as living in a shiny cloud-high paradise to which they can’t aspire.
Neither point of view is entirely accurate. But the disconnect runs so deep that when someone like Warren Buffett expresses concern for the high tax burden on his working-class employees, it’s such big news that even the President takes note.
Making all this worse is the fact that rich people themselves often don’t understand how well-off they are. Because it is a burden to manage a lot of money, the wealthy, even the very wealthy, often feel they’re not that much more privileged than anyone else—they just have different kinds of problems. Well, yes—the rich are different. Just listen to F. Scott Fitzgerald on the subject: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”