Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT