Coming Apart

Straight From the 1%'s Mouth

This weekend's New York Times magazine features an American multimillionaire, a former partner of Mitt Romney's, who boldly asserts that the growing concentration of wealth in the US is a positive development.

Edward Conard's argument is audacious, even shocking. He insists that progress is the work of an economically talented few, with most along for the ride. Wealth is the reward for social contribution. Yet (Conard calculates) 19/20 of the benefits of that contribution flow to the rest of society. Given that ratio, the more grand fortunes that appear in the United States, the faster everybody else will enjoy an improving standard of living.

Put baldly, it's a shocking argument.

Put less baldly, the assumptions behind the argument inform a lot of our political conversation—and much of the sense of victimhood expressed by other very rich people:

For the next hour, the donors relayed to Messina what their friends had been saying. They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed the president and his party for the public’s nasty mood. The administration, some suggested, had created a hostile environment for job creators.

Messina politely pushed back. It’s not the president’s fault that Americans are still upset with Wall Street, he told them, and given the public’s mood, the administration’s rhetoric had been notably restrained.

One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief.

“Most people in the financial world,” a top Obama donor later told me, “do not understand how most of America feels about them.” But they think they understand how the president’s inner circle feels about them. “This administration has a more contemptuous view of big money and of Wall Street than any administration in 40 years,” the donor said. “And it shows.”

Over the next hours, Noah Kristula-Green and I will post some thoughts on the Edward Conard profile in this space.

—More to Come—