Obama and the super-rich

A couple days on the Internet is a lifetime anywhere else, and so I realize that Chrystia Freeland’s phenomenal New Yorker piece “Super-Rich Irony” has already been read, digested, and analyzed by countless cybernetizens for several days now. That said, it is, I think, such a crucial article that I felt the need to post something about it as well. “Super-Rich Irony” demonstrates just how fragile a grip on reality the wealthiest among us have, and the implications of this collective delusion are enormous.

Here’s one particularly illuminating passage:

Although he voted for McCain in 2008, Cooperman was not compelled to enter the political debate until June, 2011, when he saw the President appear on TV during the debt-ceiling battle. Obama urged America’s “millionaires and billionaires” to pay their fair share, pointing out that they were doing well at a time when both the American middle class and the American federal treasury were under pressure. “If you are a wealthy C.E.O. or hedge-fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They are lower than they have been since the nineteen-fifties,” the President said. “You can still ride on your corporate jet. You’re just going to have to pay a little more.”

Cooperman regarded the comments as a declaration of class warfare, and began to criticize Obama publicly. In September, at a CNBC conference in New York, he compared Hitler’s rise to power with Obama’s ascent to the Presidency, citing disaffected majorities in both countries who elected inexperienced leaders.

Later on, a helpful summation of the über-wealthy’s view of Obama:

The President, in Cooperman’s view, draws political support from those who are dependent on government. Last October, in a question-and-answer session at a Thomson Reuters event, Cooperman said, “Our problem, frankly, is as long as the President remains anti-wealth, anti-business, anti-energy, anti-private-aviation, he will never get the business community behind him. The problem and the complication is the forty or fifty per cent of the country on the dole that support him.”

The full article is worth a careful read. But the sheer audacity of these accusations is breathtaking. Here’s Leon Cooperman, a man who makes his money speculating on the financial markets, discussing Obama’s lack of qualifications:

Cooperman’s pride in his work ethic is one source of his disdain for Obama. “When he ran for President, he’d never worked a day in his life. Never held a job,” he said. Obama had, of course, worked—as a business researcher, a community organizer, a law professor, and an attorney at a law firm, not to mention an Illinois state legislator and a U.S. senator, before being elected President. But Cooperman was unimpressed. “He went into government service right out of Harvard,” he said. “He never made payroll. He’s never built anything.”

Again, Cooperman runs a hedge fund. The guy’s enormous net worth has been accumulated via a series of (mostly lucky) life and financial decisions that put him in the right place at the right time. This is a point Freeland makes very well:

Between 1991, when Cooperman founded Omega, and the 2008 financial crisis was the best time in history to make a fortune in finance. Cooperman’s partners who stayed behind at Goldman Sachs are hardly paupers—and those who stuck around for the 1999 I.P.O. are probably multimillionaires—but the real windfalls on Wall Street have been made by the financiers who founded their own investment firms in the period that Cooperman did.

Cooperman was lucky enough to study at Columbia Business School, then he jumped to Goldman Sachs and eventually became a partner there before founding Omega. Was it hard work? I’m sure. Community organizing is also hard work. Making it as an elected official is enormously hard work. So is working at a law firm and teaching at a law school. All of these positions, in fact, have at least as much of a direct and tangible impact on people’s lives as moving futures contracts on a trading floor does.

So to hear Obama’s work qualifications disparaged by Cooperman — many of whose wealthy peers have collectively pillaged the American economy, been bailed out by the very victims of their recklessness, and have continued onward without showing remorse and (more devastatingly) without serving prison terms for the blatant fraud they perpetrated on their clients — should enrage any thinking American. To hear Cooperman tell it, the rich have quietly suffered untold abuse and recriminations under Obama’s Third Reich. And yet, what is this?

His Administration supported the seven-hundred-billion-dollar tarp rescue package for Wall Street, and resisted calls from the Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, and others on the left, to nationalize the big banks in exchange for that largesse. At the end of September, the S. & P. 500, the benchmark U.S. stock index, had rebounded to just 6.9 per cent below its all-time pre-crisis high, on October 9, 2007. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have found that ninety-three per cent of the gains during the 2009-10 recovery went to the top one per cent of earners. Those seated around the table at dinner with Al Gore had done even better: the top 0.01 per cent captured thirty-seven per cent of the total recovery pie, with a rebound in their incomes of more than twenty per cent, which amounted to an additional $4.2 million each.

When I hear the term “class warfare,” I think of men like Leon Cooperman: hallucinating by the bright lights of their own tainted, zero-sum “successes,” they bemoan the centrist policies of the president whose meek statements urging the rich to “pay their fair share” may be the last, best hope of a society lurching towards banana republicanism. And when that breaking point arrives, the very rich will fall alongside everyone else. They’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

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