Is populism in the air? Don't bet on itby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Americans were outraged when they learned that troubled insurance company AIG had doled out $165 million in retention bonuses -- despite having received more than $170 billion in bail-out money after bringing the company to the brink of collapse.
Some analysts say the public outcry this situation triggered is a sign Americans have had enough of the country's super rich.
But not everyone sees populism on the country's horizon.
St. Paul, Minn. — The recent backlash against AIG executives has many predicting a populist resurgence. They say the have-nots have finally had enough of the haves and that the days of multimillion-dollar bonuses and seven-figure salaries will soon see their end.
The Pew Charitable Trusts' John Morton isn't convinced.
"Americans have traditionally been against engaging in class warfare," says Morton, managing director of Economic Policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "They have been against supporting policies that are seen as attacking those who are successful and wealthy because there is this view that it might be us one day."
As in, one day we'll be the rich ones. And we're certainly not going to change the rules before we get our chance to reap the rewards.
Morton directs the Pew's Economic Mobility Project. He says Americans are well aware of the ever-widening economic gap between the rich and the poor. How they'd prefer to address this gap was something Morton and his colleagues decided to research.
In a recent survey, they asked people if more focus should be placed on reducing economic inequality or on leveling the playing field for all. Seventy-one percent chose leveling the playing field.
Rather than having wealth more evenly distributed or pulling the rich closer in line with the middle class, most said they preferred everyone be given equal shot at success.
"By the way," points out Morton, "the group that rated that highest was the lowest income group in our survey. So at the lowest income group you see people who are not saying, 'Let's tear down the rich and reduce income inequality but rather let's focus on giving us an opportunity to get to the starting line.'"
The majority questioned said the key to prosperity was old-fashioned hard work -- not their parents' economic status or the state of the economy.
"There's this continuing belief," says Morton, "in perseverance, dedication, hard work and ambition and less of a belief that the circumstances of your birth have much to do with where you end up."
Morton says it's great that Americans are so optimistic; they're not, however, always realistic.
It's not as easy as people think to move between the economic rungs of society. For example, 42 percent of children born into families at the bottom of the income ladder remain in that bottom group as adults.
When it comes to economic potential, says sociology professor Kevin Leicht, Americans don't like to get bogged down by statistics. Leicht is the director for the Institute for Inequality Studies at the University of Iowa. He says the American Dream has been translated to mean that anyone can strike it rich. And that's the narrative people tend to stick with.
"I think we're been drawn in by the stories of Silicon Valley millionaires, where the teenager comes up with some piece of software and 6 months later they are worth $30 million," says Leicht. "You could fit the number of people who have done that in the living room I'm standing in."
Forty-five percent of us are convinced that, one day, we'll be counted among the country's wealthiest. In reality, just five percent of us will ever achieve such a feat. Still, the idea what we could make strike it rich is what tends to guide us.
To those awaiting a new wave of populism, Leicht says, "Keep dreaming."
Sure, the public was outraged by the bonuses given to AIG executives. But it wasn't the millions that troubled most people. It was the fact that financial rewards were being given out, even though the company lost more money in the last quarter of 2008 than any other in history.
It's not massive wealth Americans seem to despise, it's incompetence.
When it comes to accumulating incomprehensible hoards of money, most Americans are just waiting for their turn.
- All Things Considered, 03/27/2009, 4:54 p.m.