Billionaires take lead in conservatives’ self-pity parade

Obama could have “changed the direction of the American economy”, just as FDR did during the Great Depression.

"If Obama had done the sensible thing and followed Roosevelt's example, then the billionaires' anger would be at least be comprehensible without reference to the pattern of hyperbolic conservative self-pity," says author [Reuters]
"If Obama had done the sensible thing and followed Roosevelt's example, then the billionaires' anger would be at least be comprehensible without reference to the pattern of hyperbolic conservative self-pity," says author [Reuters]

America’s billionaires are up in arms! Sure, they’ve made out like bandits, while tens of millions of Americans are still suffering – out of work, in bankruptcy, or owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Along with the rest of the 1 per cent, they’ve captured 93 per cent of income gains in the US in the first year of lopsided economic recovery. But that’s not the point! The point is: They’re the most oppressed people in the history of the world! What’s happening to them in America today is reminiscent of Nazi Germany under Hitler!   

Believe it or not, that’s the message coming from a veritable parade of self-portrayed victims at the pinnacle of the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent, who are very angry at President Obama supposedly saying mean things about them. These men are so spectacularly wealthy that it’s literally impossible to understand them in the context of other people’s economic lives, to make sense of what they’re saying. They’re like elephants in the midst of a leper colony, complaining about a gnat bite in a dream they just remembered. 

They’ve also been treated so well by Obama that it’s likewise impossible to grasp. He could have gone after them immediately after taking office, breaking up the big banks and pursuing criminal charges against those responsible for destroying the economy based on multiple interlocking forms of fraud. Obama did none of that. There’s simply no understanding their hatred of him in purely objective terms. 

But their self-pitying portrayal as victims is another thing altogether. It’s not just commonplace, it’s virtually mandatory among the ranks of American conservatives today – particularly when there’s little or no basis in fact. Indeed, it’s sometimes even quantifiable, as I explained in a column occasioned by Herman Cain’s slow, self-pitying exit from the presidential race.  

Increasing taxes slightly

For example, there’s a widespread belief in certain evangelical Christian circles that 146,000 Christians a year are martyred worldwide, when the real figure is almost certainly less than five a year (possibly even zero) – which would yield what I dubbed a “conservative victimology ratio” of 28,600 to one. Likewise, voter fraud cases are similarly scarce, but conservatives imagine they number into the millions – and voter suppression in various forms actually does keep millions from voting. Using a variety of different approaches and examples, I came up with victimology ratios ranging from 30.4 million to one down to 22,010 to one. 

So, with this staggering magnitude of conservative self-pity in mind, is it any wonder that a parade of some of the richest people in human history has recently formed to denounce President Obama for oppressing them, persecuting them like Jews in Hitler’s Germany, even forcing them out of the country? These are some of the toughest businessmen who’ve ever lived, but Obama has apparently hurt their tender feelings, and they want the world to know what a meanie-bo-beanie he really is! At the same time, many of them are busy bullying those who work for them into voting Republican – even showing up at rallies and contributing money as well – all practices that violate the spirit of American democracy, if not the letter of the law. 

Mind you, Obama hasn’t actually done anything to them. He’d like to raise their taxes slightly – back to what they were under Bill Clinton, a period of time when their incomes skyrocketed, growing much more rapidly, as a group, than they did under Bush (the top 0.01 per cent lost $44 million under GW Bush compared to what they would have made if income growth under Clinton had been duplicated). But Obama hasn’t even done that. He could have tried to nationalise and then re-sell the bankrupted “too big to fail” super-banks and Wall Street firms who drove the economy over the cliff – the same way that the FDIC treats ordinary banks when they fail. But he didn’t even try to do that. Never even mentioned it. 

Indeed, Obama could have fundamentally changed the direction of the American economy, just as FDR did in a much too similar situation during the Great Depression. As economist Dean Baker recently noted, “Obama took office with the economy in a free-fall”. His popularity was sky-high, while the opposition was completely discredited by its support for the policies that lead to the disaster. Thus: 

“President Obama could have seized this opportunity to try to turn the economy in a fundamentally different direction. 

This would have meant first and foremost building on the anger the country felt toward the large Wall Street banks. If he had taken an aggressive stance of prosecuting criminal activity and breaking up large insolvent banks, he almost certainly would have the support of the vast majority of the country. It is unlikely that the Republicans in Congress could have sustained resistance that was centred on protecting the large banks responsible for the disaster.”

Had Obama taken this path, no doubt the billionaires would have turned on him even more swiftly, as they turned on FDR, himself a product of old money dating back to early colonial days even before New Amsterdam became New York. It was precisely Roosevelt’s multi-generational security in the upper class (the Astors were tasteless social climbers compared to him) which helped give him the supreme confidence to laugh it off – even after an attempted coup – and  declare to a crowd in Madison Square Garden that he “relished their hatred”. 

If Obama had done the sensible thing and followed Roosevelt’s example, then the billionaires’ anger would at least be comprehensible without reference to the pattern of hyperbolic conservative self-pity. But he did nothing of the sort. 

Clinton-era tax rates

What Obama has done is say a few words every now and then that get them upset. He calls them “fat cats” or says they ought to pay a bit more to fly around the world in their private jets. And if all the money in the world can’t protect them from that, well, what good is money, then? Money is supposed to make everyone bow down to them. Everyone! And when it doesn’t, they get angry… sputtering and spitting like a child in the grip of the terrible twos. 

Consider the example of Leon Cooperman, a Bronx-born, 69-year-old billionaire hedge-fund manager, who’s the centrepiece of a recent New Yorker article by Chrystia Freelander on the subject of billionaire’s anger at Obama. Cooperman’s regarded as something of a leader in their ranks, because of an open letter to Obama sent last November, in which he accused Obama of “desperate demagoguery” and “setting the tenor of the rancorous debate now roiling us that smacks of what so many have characterised as ‘class warfare’.” 

Yet, truth be told, Cooperman’s letter is actually quite mild, even refreshingly rational in part. “Even though, as a high-income taxpayer, I might be considered one of its targets, I find this reassessment of so many entrenched economic premises healthy and long overdue,” he writes, “And if I end up paying more taxes as a result, so be it. The alternatives are all worse.” Indeed, this is exactly the conclusion that the saner elements of America’s ruling class came to in the wake of Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

“In their own minds, today’s billionaire class represents the tough-minded cream of the crop, the reincarnation of the robber barons of the late 19th century.”

But the very fact that Cooperman admits the necessity of challenging, even altering the status quo only makes it all the more bizarre that he lambasts Obama, who advocates little more than modest tinkering, returning us to Clinton-era tax rates, and accepting most of Clinton’s dismantling of financial regulations as a fait accompli. Thus, the sole foundation for Cooperman’s anger is Obama’s rhetoric – his words, not his deeds. Moreover, he matter-of-factly takes the conservative Republican’s side by blaming Obama’s rhetoric for the polarised, gridlocked condition of the government, rather than the Republican’s actions, not to mention their own openly stated intention to block whatever Obama might propose. 

However, it’s Freelander’s interviewing of Cooperman, woven throughout the story, which proves far more illuminating than the letter itself. Cooperman’s letter makes much of the fact that he rose from very modest means – though it doesn’t show much gratitude for the quasi-socialist programmes and institutions that helped him on the way up. And Freelander adroitly connects this with his anger: 

“Cooperman’s pride in his work ethic is one source of his disdain for Obama. ‘When he ran for President, he’d never worked a day in his life. Never held a job,’ he said. Obama had, of course, worked – as a business researcher, a community organiser, a law professor, and an attorney at a law firm, not to mention an Illinois state legislator and a US senator, before being elected President. But Cooperman was unimpressed. ‘He went into government service right out of Harvard,’ he said. ‘He never made payroll. He’s never built anything.'” 

By Cooperman’s definition, odds are you never worked a day in your life, either. Workers don’t work, only business owners do! Romney’s claim that 47 per cent of Americans are “takers” is downright generous by comparison. It makes one wonder what’s so great about “job creators” if jobs themselves aren’t really jobs! One might say this stretches ideology to the point of imbecility. But it’s perfectly in line with the other forms of conservative victimology that I was able to quantify. 

Obama-hating billionaires

It’s also in line with how Cooperman – and other anti-Obama billionaires – engage in much more vehement anti-Obama rhetoric than Obama ever directs at them. Take comparisons to Hitler, for example. In 2004, was widely demonised because someone submitted a proposed campaign ad comparing Bush to Hitler to their online ad contest. MoveOn itself had nothing to do with the ad, but that didn’t matter to anyone in Beltway or the mainstream media. Nowadays, though, casual comparisons between Hitler and the president barely raise an eyebrow – particularly when they come from billionaires. Cooperman started it at a CNBC conference last year, Freelander noted, causing his wife to call him a “schmuck”: 

“But he couldn’t resist repeating the analogy when we spoke in May of this year. ‘You know, the largest and greatest country in the free world put a forty-seven-year-old guy that never worked a day in his life and made him in charge of the free world,’ Cooperman said. ‘Not totally different from taking Adolf Hitler in Germany and making him in charge of Germany because people were economically dissatisfied. Now, Obama’s not Hitler. I don’t even mean to say anything like that. But it is a question that the dissatisfaction of the populace was so great that they were willing to take a chance on an untested individual.'” 

No doubt Cooperman, as a billionaire, thinks he can have his cake and eat it, too: Compare Obama to Hitler in one breath, and then deny he’s doing it with the next. But he gives himself away by combining the comparison with his repeated claim that Obama “never worked a day in his life”. Well, by Cooperman’s standard laid out above, the vast majority of American presidents – particularly those who didn’t own slaves – never worked a day in their lives, either. Were they all like Hitler? Was Lincoln? FDR? Teddy Roosevelt? 

I don’t mean to pick on Cooperman. As I said above, his letter shows signs of reasonableness that are utterly lacking in some of Obama’s other billionaire critics, not to mention pseudo-billionaires like Donald (“the Birther”) Trump. But that’s just the point: This is what a relatively reasonable Obama-hating billionaire looks like. For the less reasonable ones, you can take your pick: Jack Welch, Sam Zell, Steve Wynn, Rupert Murdoch, David Siegel – they’re all listed in Daniel Gross’s amusing “Field Guide to Angry Old Obama-Hating Rich Men” at the Daily Beast.  

But Siegel – who actually built his fortune on real estate scams – is especially ripe for the picking because he’s written an open letter of his own. It starts off addressed to “All My Valued Employees” – without a hint of irony, and ends up telling them that they’ll all be fired if Obama’s re-elected. Oh, I’m sorry! Did I say that Siegel wrote that letter? Nah, he’s much too important a guy to waste his time writing letters. He plagiarised it, stealing large chunks of an internet-circulated hoax letter from late in the 2008 campaign, partially dissected by Snopes here. Cause that’s what “self-made” billionaires do: They steal stuff. All the time. 

The original letter was a classic example of the “I did it myself” self-made-man narrative that’s so wildly popular with this set. It had lines in it dripping with contempt for the “valued employees” to whom it was supposedly addressed, such as: “while you physically arrive at the office at 9 am, mentally check in at about noon, and then leave at 5 pm, I don’t. There is no ‘off’ button for me”. 

Siegle had the good sense to drop the most obnoxious part of this. His version reads: “Most of you arrive at work in the morning and leave that afternoon and the rest of your time is yours to do as you please. But not me – there is no ‘off’ button for me. When you leave the office, you are done and you have a weekend all to yourself. I unfortunately do not have that freedom.”

Remember, the fellow writing this is so rich, there’s a documentary film about him building the biggest house in America – bigger than the White House itself. But he has no freedom at all! (Why blame it on Obama, then? Don’t ask!) Such talk reminds me of nothing so much as the rhetoric of Southern slave-owners, who never tired of feeling put upon by the world, while complaining about how lazy their good-for-nothing slaves were. Like today’s billionaires, they, too, were anti-tax fanatics, with a very special hatred for a President from Illinois. 

In their own minds, today’s billionaire class represents the tough-minded cream of the crop, the reincarnation of the robber barons of the late 19th century. But judged by their actions, they’re much more like the whiny, out-of-touch French aristocracy on the eve of the French Revolution – or maybe just a bunch of inarticulate two-year olds screaming their lungs out for their mommies to make it all better. 

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

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