Insularity and Self Interest; the Mass Delusions of the Power Elite

by Cosmo Houck

In mind of the Occupy Wall Street protests going on nationally, and in light of clearly biased reporters convinced of their own objectivity, I thought I’d relate a conversation I had a year or so ago.

I have an aquaintance who I very much respect, and generally think of as a well-informed and intelligent individual. This person also makes quite a large salary (in excess of $250,000), and in a profession where they routinely come into contact with people who make even more money, and who possess a great deal of power.

I forget precisely what we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation (probably taxes) but I mentioned, out of hand, that anyone making $100,000 a year was reasonably wealthy. Not mansion and jet plane and Ferrari welathy, to be sure, but comfortably far better off than the median income in the United States ($50,303 in 2008). To be sure, there are areas of the country with higher costs of living, and that as a result also possess higher mdeian incomes, but I haven’t found anywhere yet where $100,000 is anything less than better off than a lot of other people.

$250,000, then, is rich. There is no doubt about that-at least as long as rich is a relative term, and dependent upon how you’re doing compared to everyone else.

Which brings up the core of my point, and one that is admittedly old news: people judge their wealth relative to the people they spend time around, and largely have no remote idea what the distribution of wealth nationally actually looks like.

This was highlighted in my conversation by my aquaintance’s heated assertions that their family was solidly middle class, and, in fact, struggling in the poor economy as much as anyone else. And besides-how dare I!-this aquaintance was around wall street traders and powerful people all the time who make millions; clearly, in comparison to them, my friend was positively impoverished.

This was the gist of the conversation, but I also wish I could capture the cloying condenscension at my naivete; ah, the young looking at actual income distribution, with no concern for the financial struggles of people making lots of money in the Real World.

That sense of condescension I’ve seen manifested throughout criticisms of the ongoing protests. It’s also become more and more problematic that people who are wealthy do not conceive of themselves as wealthy, largely; confined to interactions with people who make as a much money as they do, they are so divorced from the problems that the great majority of people face that they actually feel victimized and persecuted. Nevermind the millions of unemployed, the lack of new jobs, or the fact that the people who triggered the financial collapse faced no consequences of consequence.

I opined some time ago that I thought that in a common disgust at the corporate and political edifice in this country liberals and libertarians might see their interests converge; I think to some degree these protests have represented that. People have criticized a lack of coherent policy prescriptions, but those people are missing (to me) what is appealing about the protests. More than providing answers, they hold the potential to shine a lens on the chronic insularity and self interest of this country’s power elite which has led to the debasement of core American values like the maximization of equality of opportunity.

Oh, and all those Wall Street traders might be pyschopaths.