America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Wealth

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I’ve been on the road for the past two months, mostly in Bolivia and Peru, where I was pretty off the grid and didn’t keep up with the news. So I arrived home to find a strange phenomenon: Protesters “occupying” Wall Street. And Oakland. And Portland. And many other places as well.

My immediate reactions? One was that the complaints of the Occupiers probably have merit. But I was maybe even more struck by the complex love-hate relationship Americans seem to have with wealth. We want to be rich — but we’re often suspicious of those who already are.

The Wealth of Others
Almost everyone who achieves financial success believes they’ve done so through justifiable means. They believe they’ve earned their money (or deserve it), and they don’t feel guilty for having it. We’re also generally supportive and appreciative of our friends who make it big. (I can think of a handful of folks I know who have managed to acquire wealth, and I’m proud of each of them.) But when it comes to strangers who are rich, that’s when our attitudes seem to change.

(MORE: ‘This Home is Occupied’: An Occupy Atlanta Protest Moves to a Foreclosed Home)

There’s an underlying distrust of the rich in mainstream American society, which seems odd. Isn’t that what most of us aspire to? Most of us want to be rich, yet we resent it when other people manage to achieve their financial goals. We complain that they had advantages that we didn’t, or that they cheated, or that they don’t deserve the money. But what if the same thing happened to us? What if we became rich? How would we feel about such judgment and criticism?

Take my father, for instance. He was a serial entrepreneur, and managed to build two successful businesses during his short lifetime. He worked hard and dreamed big. He wanted to be rich so that he could provide his family everything they wanted.

At the same time, my father bemoaned other people’s success. He didn’t resent everyone who made it big, but he often complained that this fellow was successful because he’d caught a lucky break or that gal earned her fortune because she knew the right people.

Suspending Judgment
There’s no question that some people have lucked into wealth. I have a friend whose family owned a large manufacturing business; as a result, she’s benefited from a huge annual stipend from her trust. This has turned her into a slacker and layabout. She’s frequently out of work, and makes all sorts of excuses about why she can’t find a job. It’s difficult to be around her.

But at the same time, I know folks who have worked like dogs to accumulate their wealth. I know others who have scrimped and saved for decades to build their savings. Do I begrudge these folks for having a million dollars? Or three million? Hell, no. They’ve earned it. They deserve it.

(GALLERY: Occupy Wall Street For Sale)

But there are people who would judge them.

The media demagogues would have you believe that this is a partisan thing. That’s nonsense. Being a Democrat doesn’t necessarily mean you hate the rich, and being Republican doesn’t mean you’re all for the wealthy. My grandmother was the most conservative person I’ve ever known, and she hated the rich. I have a good friend who is as liberal as anyone you’ll ever meet, and he’s pro-business, pro-capitalism, pro-money to the core.

For myself, I’ve decided that I can’t judge a person for being rich. In most cases, I can’t know how a person has achieved their lifestyle. It may be that the guy down the street with the large house and the fancy sports car financed that stuff on mountains of debt. Or it could be that he has scrimped and saved, or has worked long hours to build a business, in order to afford these things.

So, I’m puzzled why we simultaneously love and loathe the wealthy. Is this healthy? Is it normal? Is it just? How do you feel about wealth, both your own and that of others? Do you resent the rich? If so, why? When is wealth deserved and when is it not?