“In America, the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” John Steinbeck’s quote is as relevant today as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Nowhere was this comment more appropriate than during the 2008 election, when Barack Obama met a plumber called Joe.
Joe the Plumber was an imaginary millionaire. Joe worried that Barack Obama’s proposed tax increases for those earning over $250,000 would make him poorer, and discourage him from expanding his business. Except Joe didn’t earn over $250,000. Under Obama’s proposals, Joe was in line for a tax cut. In his head, Joe was being squeezed until his pips squeaked; in reality, he was getting a fillip from the government.
It’s now 2011 and, on the face of it, the imaginary millionaires are still in the ascendance.
According to a poll by Gallup, below, 49 per cent of US voters think that the government should not redistribute wealth via higher taxes on the rich, while 47 per cent think that the government should do so.
A majority of Americans, however, think that the current distribution of wealth is unfair, by 57 per cent to 35 per cent.
In other words, US voters want a more equal society, but do not want the rich to pay for it – directly. A majority of US voters are, however, more than happy for the rich to fork out extra for social welfare. As social welfare is increasingly the largest burden for the US government, US voters are implicitly calling on the government for the rich to pay more to help the less well off. That sounds to me like redistribution of wealth. Barack Obama was briefly on the ropes in 2008 when he said he wanted to “spread the wealth around”. In the next election, a statement like that might not go down as badly. Perhaps Steinbeck was wrong. Americans are a bunch of socialists – they just don’t know it yet.