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Should we vilify the rich?

By John D. Sutter, CNN
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
An Occupy Wall Street protester in 2011 stages a play as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
An Occupy Wall Street protester in 2011 stages a play as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tuesday is the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street
  • John Sutter: The date should give us pause about how we characterize the rich
  • He says the rich should be allies in the battle against economic inequality
  • Sutter: Instead of making the rich villains, we should persuade them to be heroes

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

New York (CNN) -- We've turned the rich into caricatures.

They're greedy "fat cats" with cigars dangling from their snarled lips.

"How dare the president call us fat! We're just big-boned," says a decidedly obese cat in a 2011 political cartoon by Stuart Carlson.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

"It hurts my feelings deeply," another fat cat says.

Other cartoons show them holding moneybags marked "$."

You know, just so it's obvious.

It's easy to mock the wealthy -- especially the ultra-super-rich, whose incomes have weathered the recession better than anyone else's, and who are taking home a chunk of the total economic pie that is obscene and unfair. Watch documentaries like "Born Rich," by Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson, and it's impossible not to laugh, or vomit, as you see how detached many 1-percenters are from reality.

One brags about her "really fun" family helicopter.

"I don't remember the evening all that clearly, but I've definitely spent several thousand dollars on a bar bill, probably," a gambling heir says, referring to a night of drinking in the Hamptons, outside New York. "These things happen."

Things happen.

Yep.

This is all in good fun, but on the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which failed to achieve its goals of promoting economic policies that would shrink the rich-poor gap, it's worth asking ourselves: Is it fair to paint the super-rich as a homogenous set of villains? Or, more to the point: Is it productive?

Last week, I put that question to former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who is (and has been) one of the country's foremost advocates for narrowing the gulf that has emerged between rich and poor. His new documentary, "Inequality for All," is to economic justice what Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" was to global climate change: It's a powerful, if slightly wonky, outline of the problem, complete with charts, PowerPoint-type presentations and a spirited call to action.

Other recent films on America's wealth gap, "Park Avenue," for instance, hold no punches in the way their efforts paint the wealthy as detached jerks who are buying off politicians to support their needless and greedy habits.

But Reich doesn't want to make villains out of the wealthy.

"I think that's wrongheaded and it doesn't lead to any constructive solutions," he told me in an interview with a few reporters in New York.

His film aims to show how economic inequality hurts everyone.

"The rich would be better off with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy," he told me, "than they (are) now with a large share of an economy that is anemic -- that is basically not growing at all, largely because you don't have many people with much money to be able to sustain the economy and buy enough."

"I think the rich would do better with a society that was less polarized," he added, "with an economy that's less polarized and more collaborative, than they do now with a society that is very (much) at loggerheads."

The trouble is convincing them of that.

Reich's film might be a start. One rich person it features is Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist from Seattle who sold a company to Microsoft in 2007 for $6.4 billion and was "the first nonfamily investor" in Amazon, which, you know, is worth big bucks.

But, unlike many money-mover types, Hanauer supports policies that economists say would help narrow the rich-poor gap and increase economic mobility.

He says it's in his interest.

In the doc, Hanauer talks about how he has tons of money to spend, and he does buy nice things, but he doesn't spend that much more than a middle-class person.

"I have the nicest Audi you can get," he says, "but it's still only one Audi."

If dozens of middle-class people had his money, they'd buy dozens of cars, and dozens of everything, which would create more industry and more jobs.

His businesses would have more customers.

The economy overall would grow.

Reich calls this the "virtuous cycle."

Right now, we're stuck in a pattern he says is "vicious" -- where cash is ending up only in the hands of a few, and money is slipping through the fingers of those who would actually need it, and who actually would spend it in the economy.

To reverse course, it would help to have the support of the rich -- those greedy fat cats we all love to hate. To convince them, though, maybe that means we need to stop thinking of them as villains -- and, instead, challenge them to be heroes.

The wounds of the financial crisis are still fresh, five years out.

But this anniversary should give us pause.

We've turned both the very rich and the very poor into villains.

Now the task is to think about how we can patch up and move forward.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

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