[edited to correct typos]
A story in the Boston Globe by Britt Peterson on Feb. 19, 2012 explored "Why it matters that our politicians are rich" (available here on Boston.com). A key point--the four remaining GOP presidential candidates all are millionaires, with most making more than a million a year and worth multiple millions, while the median net worth of members of Congress is "$913,000, compared with $100,000 for the rest of us." Id. That should worry us because, as the article reports, studies have shown that rich people become more focused on their own well-being, less empathetic with the suffering of others, more likely to view their own wealth as due to merit (and others' lack thereof to reflect lack of merit), and ultimately "more callous, self-absorbed, and self-justifying than the people they represent." Id.
In 2009, Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner, all then of Berkeley (Kraus is now at University of California, San Francisco), published research that divided up sample groups by family income as well as self-reported socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to explain success or failure as a result of individual merit or fault; lower-class people, on the other hand, felt less control in their own lives and were more likely to blame events on circumstance. In other words, higher-status people were more likely to feel that they’d earned their high place in society, and that poorer people hadn’t.
More recently, similar research—involving not just surveys, but heart-rate measurements —has found that higher-status people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people of lower-class backgrounds.
The result of these differences, say researchers who work on money and social class, is that people who are confident in their status have a completely different worldview from those who lack that confidence: more self-involved, self-justifying, and even, as the dehumanization study suggests, crueler. And the higher up the spectrum you get, the stronger the effect . . ..
Power itself can trigger similar changes. . . . Gaining a sense of power, then, even if it happens through random selection in a lab, alters you on a very basic level, making you “less attentive to others, more free to act, and more free to act in a way that doesn’t take account of other people,” said Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management who has been studying the effects of power for a decade. Id.
That sense of personal merit (and lack of responsibility in others) can lead to disastrous policy choices. The "ownership society/personal responsibility" mantra of the Bush presidency justified heaping tax breaks on large corporations and their owners/investors at the top of the income distribution while preaching deunionization, privatization, and safety net withdrawal. It permitted a method of bailing out "too big to fail" banks from the financial crisis they caused by profiting immensely from risky speculation (made possible by deregulation) in ways that didn't require a clawback of the rentier profits received by the "ownership class," resulting in privatization of gains/socialization of losses. In essence, the "ownership society/personal responsibility" mantra provides justification for class warfare on the middle class and poor who happen not to be as well-off as the rich.
Similarly, Congress' inability to empathize with ordinary Americans has led to significant numbers of Congresspeople (particularly members of the GOP) who support privatization of Social Security, reduction of benefits under Medicaid and Medicare and unemployment insurance at the same time that they continue to argue for zero taxation on the unearned income of the rich. And each of the GOP presidential candidates reflects that overarching goal of reducing taxes on the ownership class. See, e.g., Gingrich's "optional 15% flat tax" (zero tax on unearned income); Cain's 999 transitioning to a national retail sales tax proposal (a flat consumption tax that would be heavily regressive and leave rentier profits of the wealthiest essentially untaxed); Santorum's tax proposals (even less protective of the poor than Gingrich's), Romney's tax proposals (including zero taxation of estates, extraordinarily low taxation of corporations, etc.). Rather than supporting a repeal of the "carried interest" loophole that allows private equity fund managers like Romney pay ridiculously low tax rates on their very high compensation income, these candidates and politicians support continuing the tax policies of redistribution upwards that have led to the decline of the middle class as the "ownership class" gathers for itself all the productivity gains of the economic system.