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
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT