Fat cats and corporate jets
Why is it so unrewarding for politicians to bash the rich in America?
Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition
THE corporate jet gets a lousy press. In the James Bond classic, “Goldfinger”, the eponymous villain is sucked out of the window of just such an aircraft. In 2008 the bosses of Detroit’s moribund car companies did themselves no favours when they flew in their gleaming jets to Washington, DC, to beg Congress for bail-outs (they drove the next time). And in his present face-off with the Republicans over the federal debt ceiling, Barack Obama is bashing the jets again, because to the man in the street the corporate jet is a perfect proxy for a fat cat. “I’ve said to Republican leaders, you go talk to your constituents and ask them, ‘Are you willing to compromise your kids’ safety so some corporate-jet owner can get a tax break?’.”
Needless to say, Mr Obama is now accused by the aircraft manufacturers of scapegoating a successful industry that employs more than a million Americans and by the Republicans of launching a populist “class war”. But this raises a question. If an authentic populist movement exists in the United States today, it is not composed of impoverished class warriors braying to squeeze the rich until their pips squeak. It is the tea-party movement, whose crusade to slash taxes and pare government to the bone far outweighs whatever distaste it might feel towards those magnificent fat cats in their flying machines.
Why is bashing the rich such an unpopular form of populism in America? The normal answer falls back on culture. Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution notes that Americans are repelled by the notion of inequality in worth or status. That men are created equal is, after all, “self-evident”. They are, however, far less perturbed by unequal wealth, a form of inequality that is the inevitable product of the free-market system in which most still profess an abiding faith. According to Tom Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of Politics and Society at the University of Chicago, surveys still show Americans to be more sympathetic than Europeans to the idea that unequal pay encourages people to work hard, for example, and less sympathetic to the idea that governments should try to smooth such inequalities out.