My mother taught me to resent the rich. As a Depression-era child of an itinerant carpenter, she was taught that rich people had everything but virtue and that poor people have everything but money.
I was raised to believe in an amorphous “fairness” that dictated that the rich should pay much higher income tax rates than the lower classes.
Over my formative years my developing brain absorbed two contradictory ideas, one positive and one negative, which seemed to cancel each other out and leave me conflicted.
The positive idea, a traditional American maxim, was that anyone in this country was free to define for himself what success was and to strive without restraint to achieve it. The negative idea was that people of financial means almost by definition had an unfair advantage and thus had an inferior right to retain what they had earned to those who had been less successful.
By the time I was a young adult I had learned to instinctively classify the well-to-do as the greedy few who had probably taken undeserved financial advantages, while I, of course, had received my rewards strictly through my own hard work and talents. I also indulged in a curious pleasure arising from the thought that the lower classes, through taxation, could stick it to the wealthy.
It took me half a lifetime to recognize how deeply ingrained was my prejudice against the wealthy and to confront it, but not before I had passed on some of this malady to my own son.
In recently years English speakers have borrowed the German word “Schadenfreude” to compactly describe a malicious pleasure in the misfortune of another, presumably applied only to those who deserved to suffer. Today most populist politicians at both federal and state levels who are campaigning on “tax fairness” know very well that singling out the rich for higher tax rates will harm job creation without significantly increasing overall federal revenues, and in the case of the state may actually drive revenues out of California. That inconvenient and self-defeating fact misses the main purpose, however. The real aim of this political position is to tap into the subconscious “stick it to the rich” Schadenfreude of many voters who are increasingly frustrated with their personal finances.
When we go to the polls in November we would do well to look into our deeper selves to examine whether Schadenfreude is somehow influencing our personal decisions to support or oppose any particular politician or cause. Let us hope that our final choices are based upon a worthy analysis of the issues and upon our best instincts as good and thoughtful Americans.