It’s easy to hate the rich but harder to justify it
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A recent article in Vice, “You don’t hate charcuterie, you just hate rich people”, explained how the consumption of cold meats, a favourite of wealthy diners, has a noble working-class history and that we should celebrate this, free of guilt.
Without unpicking the class significance of pâté and cornichons here, the second half of the headline seems to imply that while hating charcuterie is wrong and worthy of reconsideration, hating the rich is just fine. Go ahead, fill your hatey boots.
You might expect this from a radically inclined outlet such as Vice, but the mainstream Washington Post last year ran an article with the headline “Why does everybody suddenly hate billionaires? Because they’ve made it easy”.
If the established media is wondering whether it is alright to hate the rich, on social media it is open season on the one per cent. In fact, on platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, the rich may be the only group you won’t be flamed for hating. But why is this? And is it acceptable?
There are several reasons we — rightly — no longer celebrate “masters of the universe” as we did in the 2000s. Inequality is at historically high levels in the US and UK: measured by the Gini coefficient, income inequality in both countries has grown considerably in recent decades (by how much is a matter of some debate).
While there are powerful economic pressures behind this shift, it is by no means a given that inequalities will grow. Policy matters. France has become less unequal, which may be why the French enjoy their charcuterie without a side serving of reverse status anxiety.
Added to this, we have serious generational inequality. Data from the US Federal Reserve shows that the boomers had a greater percentage of national wealth than Gen-X (my own cohort) and that Gen-X were wealthier than millennials at any given age, though the second difference was far less marked.
Perceptions matter too. America has an ostentatious billionaire class often lacking in self-awareness. It is easy to take a panel of Davos attendees laughing at the suggestion they should pay more tax and say that all rich people are like this. Here we are “othering” the rich and treating them as an undifferentiated group. Yet when I think about my rich acquaintances, they are mostly generous and decent, and pay their taxes. Some run businesses and, arguably, contribute far more to national wellbeing than I do.
Which brings us to polarisation. While meeting decent rich people might make one less likely to tar them all with the same brush, social media makes it considerably more likely we will interact with people who think like we do. Those with negative views of the rich tend to share and reinforce such opinions, often to the extent that people engage in an arms race over who can hate the rich the most.
I am not innocent here. As a student, I briefly owned a T-shirt with the slogan “Die Yuppie Scum”. But its audience was mostly limited to my fellow undergraduates. It is not the same as a wealthy person tweeting something vaguely tone-deaf then being hounded by a mob of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. These gleeful pile-ons celebrate being nasty while you pat yourself on the back, echoing Jon Ronson’s line in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”
Which raises the question: what is abnormal? What makes you rich enough to be a target? A study by the Trust for London, an anti-poverty charity, found that while its focus groups could broadly agree on identifying living standards well above the minimum, it was much harder to agree on what was “excessive”.
Again, this points to the problems with generalising from one’s own experience. You will often see middle-class people on social media calling out slightly better-off middle-class people for some dreadful rich person’s transgression, when both parties would be considered rich by a genuinely poor person — an illustration of Freud’s narcissism of small differences.
The rich should certainly worry about which way the wind is blowing. According to a survey by Pew Research, Americans’ views of why people are rich have changed significantly over the past few years. A growing share of respondents said the main reason people were rich was because they had more advantages than others; between 2018 and 2020 the figure rose from 42 to 65 per cent.
No wonder Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-leaning US congresswoman, struck a chord with the phrase “every billionaire is a policy failure”. Of course, as she suggests, those who dislike the way the US and UK economies are run would do better to hate the game, rather than the player. The US, UK and similarly unequal countries need to address inequality with serious reforms, in everything from tax to housing (Britain) and healthcare (America). The rich would do well to support such policies or they may find the game changing to their detriment, and fast.
Rhymer is reading . . .
Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s counterfactual 2020 novel that asks what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill Clinton? Despite the grabby “Sliding Doors for the Beltway” premise, a highly intelligent read.
Follow Rhymer on Twitter @rhymerrigby
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment.