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Jesse Kornbluth

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The Rich Won't Speak For Themselves. So I'll Step Up.

Posted: 07/12/11 02:48 PM ET

The Rich --- that is, the 1.4 million taxpayers who earn more than $1.5 million a year and who are currently saving about $121 billion in taxes thanks to the Bush tax cuts -- have been notably silent of late, leaving their messaging to lobbyists, Congress and the media. Those minions have been worth every dollar. By now, almost all of us understand that these extravagantly well-off Americans refuse to be taxed at levels they paid without vocal protest a decade ago.

Do the top one percent of American taxpayers truly believe that the government should shut down if we increase their taxes by what amounts to a rounding error? Are these fortunate few really willing to see Medicare and Social Security reduced for millions just so they can buy one more Mercedes? Are they -- let's put it in moral terms -- honestly that hard-hearted?

Their silence suggests they are just that cold. But why? And why now, when they've never been richer?

I think I know. And I dare to suggest I can speak for them. Not that I am personally Rich. But back in the Reagan years, by a fluke of marriage, I flew the Concorde almost as often as I now take subways. Later, I spent many hours with Michael Milken, the financier who once made $714 million in a single year. And over a long career writing for glossy magazines I played Nick Carraway to any number of Gatsbys.

The first counterintuitive truth I learned about the Republican Rich is that they don't feel it. For them, the Rich are always somebody else. Whether they made their money or inherited it, it's not nearly enough. They're like the family in the D.H. Lawrence short story, "The Rocking Horse Winner" -- no matter how their fortune grows, the walls cry out, "There must be more money." So they don't notice the influx of money, only its outflow. The upkeep of houses, the education of slacker children, the purchase of Birkin bags -- everything costs. A lot. And they can, with stunning accuracy, calculate those costs.

This leads to a second counterintuitive truth. Out here in America, we look up at the country's ever-growing income inequality and feel it has become permanent. But the Rich, for their part, don't consider themselves victors. To an astonishing degree, they feel surrounded and threatened -- potential victims of a plot to strip them of everything they have.

And how will this happen? Not by Socialists storming their Southampton estates, but by taxes.

If the Republican Rich feel overtaxed, it's for a reason you'd never guess -- they believe they work harder and longer than the rest of us. Consider: A hod carrier has only one job, and it ends before sunset. A billionaire has several others. In addition to whatever he does all day, there's exercise. Socializing. Fashion. To the hod carrier, those are extra-curricular activities, completely discretionary. The Rich know better. For them, every public appearance is a kind of performance; everything they do is work. And their work is always on view to other Rich people, who have a personal interest in seeing who's doing better. "If you have less than $750 million," a billionaire told me in 1984, "you have no hedge against inflation." Those who have never considered that problem can't possibly grasp the special burdens of wealth.

But for a real understanding of the Rich's resistance to taxes, we must step into the chamber of pathology. For the ultimate shocker about the Rich is that some of them don't want to pay dividend and capital gains taxes at all. Their minions dance right up to this view when they argue that the Rich contribute more to the economy than any other group. What they really want to say is what some of the Rich I know have actually come to believe: They're role models for the rest of us -- proof that discipline and effort, not entitlements and coddling, are the straight path to success. They see themselves, in short, as national treasures.

Ever since Leona ("Only the little people pay taxes") Helmsley blabbed her way into a federal prison, the Rich have been as careful in their public speech as Derek Jeter. For an unfettered account of their views, I have to look back to 1933, when Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, became convinced he was paying 80% in taxes on his $3 million a year income. Considering that he liked to buy one art masterpiece almost every day, this tax bite would surely put a crimp in his collecting, so he offered half of his $30 million fortune to finance a Wall Street conspiracy that would overthrow the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The "Business Plot" failed, and he is now remembered as the role model he wasn't --- as the creator of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Today's Rich also like to fund buildings on which their names can be carved. But this year, if we look at the Forbes 400 list, we can extract blunter messages: Inherit your money or, if you must earn it, be the head of a large enterprise. Hire aggressive representatives to advance your interests. And if none of that is possible for you, you should act as The Rich do in old movies and nowhere else. Stiff upper lip. Accept your lot. Respect your betters. Starting with the Rich.