My 11th grade honors English teacher was fond of the New England poets, Frost, Dickinson, Millay, etc. One day we read we read the poem “Richard Cory,” by the Maine native, Edwin Arlington Robinson. I encourage you to read it at the above link, or even better, watch someone else read it and gauge their reaction.
How did you feel after reading the poem? I can say that in our classroom, in 1985, there was an audible chuckle after the last stanza:
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
I remember Mr. Fyhr’s response to my front-row laughter, perhaps the loudest in the classroom: “Mr. Weir, are you a sadist?” I thought that term referred to men who like to spank or be spanked (which one was unclear to me at the time), so I blushed and said, “No, sir” and was quiet for the duration of the class.
This was 35 years ago. Until today I had entirely forgotten about this incident. But today I question that past me. How is it that I, a sixteen-year-old boy, had views regarding a fictional wealthy man when I, at the time, knew no wealthy person in real life? Why did I take some pleasure in a depiction of a rich man’s demise? And why was this poem assigned?
These questions come to me after reading Dr. Rainer Zitelmann’s new book, The Rich in Public Opinion: What we Think When We Think About Wealth (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020). This is an important contribution into public perceptions regarding the wealthy and how these perceptions vary according to a wide range of variables (country, age, education level, sex, income, etc.)
The book is in three parts, the first being a review of the literature concerning prejudice and stereotyping in general. Zitelmann focuses in on a model of how we evaluate members of out-groups, along the two dimensions of competence and warmth. There is a good treatment on theories of envy and how it can be measured. He also discusses a psychological “compensation” tendency by which members of a high-competence out-group are ascribed low moral attributes, or are thought to be less happy or satisfied, as a way to resolve our own cognitive dissonance. He also discusses how these tendencies can manifest themselves as schadenfreude, that delicious German word meaning “sadness-joy,” where we sometimes take pleasure in the harm that comes to to others.
Zitelmann notes that, although there has been a fair amount of research looking at downward-classism (public perceptions of the poor), there has not been an adequate treatment of upward-classism (public perceptions of the rich).
(One work I wish he had noted is The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (1954) by Ludwig von Mises. It would have been interesting to read Zitelmann’s thoughts on this early contribution on the subject.)
The second part of the book reviews in depth the results of a survey Zitelmann commissioned, looking at perceptions of the rich. This survey involved the same questions asked in Germany, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. (The complete text of the survey is in an appendix.)
There are numerous tables and charts here, and many interesting findings, though the prose in this section does tend to be a forced march of passages like:
Thus, 28 percent of low earners but only 12 percent of high earners thought people who are rich mainly have good luck. Moreover, 33 percent of low earners but only 15 percent of those in the highest-income group…
This is the meat of this section, but it is hard to digest in large doses. I think it might have worked better to have the survey summarized in a set of infographics and tables, and omit the verbal recapitulation.
The survey questions also yielded information on the prevalence of certain patterns of thinking, including scapegoating, zero-sum thinking, and what Zitelmann calls the “employee mindset,” where by a person thinks of compensation in terms of hours and exertion, rather than supply and demand, and holds this as a norm against high executive compensation.
There were several notable findings in the survey, including:
- Americans and English perceptions of the rich were far more positive than in Germany and France.
- Although in other countries (Germany, France and UK) the tendency was for younger respondents to view the rich more favorably than the older respondents did, in the U.S. the trend went the opposite way, and the young were the ones who looked most disfavorably on the rich.
- Most respondents, across the board, were not personally acquainted with a millionaire. But of those who were, the traits they ascribed to wealthy people were far more favorable.
Part three, in a sense, suggests how that last bullet point might have come about. It looks at representations of the rich in newspapers and magazines, in online forums, and in movies. It essentially finds that the portrayals are quite close to the perceptions measured in the survey, in other words, biases against the rich.
Weighing in at 410 pages, plus 673 endnotes and a lengthy bibliography, The Rich in Public Opinion should be the standard reference on the subject for years to come. I join with Zitelmann in hoping that his survey approach can be extended to look at a wider range of geographies. This is a thought-provoking book, and I’ll certainly be referring to it in the future.
(This review was based on complimentary review copy of the book.)