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What the Super-rich Really Think

A new study reveals all.

IT WAS BAD ENOUGH to hear Mitt Romney say that 47 percent of the population won’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Even worse was to see this asinine rant—secretly recorded and then leaked to Mother Jones—receive a warm reception from a roomful of wealthy donors. Rich people may be better educated than the rest of the population, but that doesn’t make them any smarter about how to govern the country. Yet their influence grows as campaign-finance limits scatter like autumn leaves. What do these swells want from Washington, anyway? 

By piggybacking on marketing firms’ growing ability to collect dossiers on just about anyone, social scientists have started to collect reliable answers to this question. Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt last year mined some of this new data for the inaugural paper of a new multiyear research project called the Survey of Economically Successful Americans (SESA), “the first, and so far only, scientific study” of rich households in the United States. Eureka.

The rich placed under the microscope are—very roughly—the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent. (We’ll call them “plutes.”) Keep in mind that the plutes are a more exclusive club than the more commonly invoked “one percent,” which refers to income rather than net worth. The bottom plute threshold is around $5 million, which is much more than most tax filers earning $352,000 (the bottom threshold for the income-based 1 percent) likely possess.

Because SESA is new, its survey responses are thus far confined to Chicago-area plutes. These were matched with responses from the general public (we’ll call them “plebes”) in national surveys conducted around the same time. The methodology isn’t ideal, since Chicago plutes may think differently from New York plutes or Atlanta plutes. But in Chicago (and—I predict we’ll eventually find—elsewhere), plutes confirm F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that the rich are different. And when plute views differ from plebe views, whaddya know—the federal government usually differs right along with them.

The best example of plutethink in Washington is the budget deficit. When SESA asked plutes to identify the most important problem facing the country, a plurality (32 percent) fingered the deficit. By contrast, a 51 percent majority of plebes say the biggest problem is—duh—the economy. Lo and behold, even President Obama is more focused these days on fixing the deficit than getting people back to work. Plutethink also drives the debate—or rather, non-debate—over the minimum wage. Seventy-eight percent of plebes want a minimum wage “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line.” But only 40 percent of plutes do. That isn’t enough to persuade Obama to make good on his 2008 promise to raise it to $9.50 an hour (it’s currently $7.25).

In some ways plutes think just as you’d expect. Many fewer plutes (17 percent) than plebes (52 percent) favor wealth distribution through heavy taxes on the rich. However, about as many plutes (62 percent) as plebes (63 percent) believe U.S. income differences are too large. More surprising still, about as many plutes (66 percent) as plebes (61 percent) think the rich should pay proportionately more in taxes. This consensus across class lines in favor of progressive taxation probably means it’s here to stay.

Granted, plutes prefer the idea of progressive taxation to the reality: They’d like the present top marginal rate to be slightly lower (not slightly higher, as Obama plans if reelected). Still—Paul Ryan, take note—significantly more plutes (65 percent) than plebes (34 percent) would be willing to pay more taxes to lower the deficit. Expect budget cuts and tax increases in any future deficit agreement.

But expect a lot of cuts. Plutes are all about slashing government spending. The only categories they wouldn’t cut are infrastructure, scientific research, and education—not coincidentally, the categories of spending plutes benefit from the most. Plebes, by contrast, want to increase government spending. The only cut they favor is in foreign aid (which plutes favor cutting, too; neither group seems aware that it’s a measly 1 percent of the budget). Better not count on that promised $1 billion, President Morsi!

Extending their libertarian impulses to the Pentagon, plutes make defense cuts a high priority. That puts them at odds not only with their natural allies in the GOP, but also with plebes: By a narrow margin, plebes favor boosting Pentagon spending. This divide reflects the familiar sociological reality that regard for (and interaction with) military culture diminishes as you get richer. The SESA paper doesn’t address social issues, but other studies have shown that people get more culturally liberal on other matters—abortion, gay marriage—as they move up the income scale. The affluent are more enlightened or more degenerate (or possibly both).

In one important respect, the plutes are not different—from one another, that is. Little variation is observed in the views of young plutes versus old, male plutes versus female, highly educated plutes versus less-educated, religious plutes versus areligious, nouveau riche plutes versus old-money, or finance plutes versus manufacturing. Only four noteworthy cleavages exist. Plutes who identify as professionals—doctors, lawyers, etc.—are more liberal than those who don’t, even controlling for differences in wealth. Jewish plutes are more liberal than gentile. Democratic plutes are more liberal than Republican (though most plutes—58 percent—are Republican). And low-end plutes (net worth: about $5 million) are more liberal than high-end (net worth: $40 million or more).

The heart of Romney’s “47 percent” oration was that lower-income people are too dependent on government. Maybe so. But half of all plutes contacted a U.S. senator or representative within the previous year, and fully one-quarter initiated contact with multiple legislators. That calculation doesn’t include other plutes who reached out to the White House or a federal agency. The nation’s capital is crawling with rich people seeking breaks, favors, any edge they can find. If the plutes really deplore those most reliant on Washington, they should stop tut-tutting food-stamp hogs and take a hard look in the mirror.

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Plutes Versus Plebes.”