There are 614 billionaires in the US and 2,755 billionaires in the world. Together they have over $13 trillion worth of wealth. The average net worth of an American, removing the wealthiest, is around $120,000.
The billionaires in the US alone, control $5 trillion. According to Forbes, the top 1% has 15 times the wealth of 50% of all Americans. And a Federal Reserve study, reported that the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. owned over 38.5% of the wealth in the U.S.
Many find the economic inequality obscene and their first inclination is to tax the wealthy. However, when take that same person and present them one billionaire, many people’s opinions change; as though they’ve suddenly become talented, hard-working and determined overnight.
A recent study showed that when people consider billionaires (as a whole group), like “the 1%,” people are almost unanimously more likely to want to tax them. However, when taking any 1 billionaire in isolation, they’re more reserved and tend to idolize them.
One study recorded the difference in people’s emotional responses to billionaires: as a whole and individually. If presented as a group, many had a negative response; if presented as an individual, people were sympathetic.
For instance, one group read a list of salaries of the CEOs at the top 300 most profitable companies in the world. The language included objective statements about how these CEOs made 15x more than 50% of Americans. Understandably, this illicit a strong, negative reaction. However, when presented with an intimate story of CEO who built the company from the ground up, people had a different, and often sympathetic, reaction.
More compelling still, people felt that the individual CEO should be earning more money whereas those who just read the CEOs salaries in bulk felt almost none of them deserved it.
A similar study measured the difference with magazine covers. In one variation, a magazine featured an inflammatory headline and images of several billionaires. In another, same magazine, but only one billionaire. Interestingly, people were much more sympathetic.
That personalization goes a long in how we perceive the economic inequality.
It’s why even taking an extreme example like Kylie Jenner is an interesting case. As a whole, the Kardashians might illicit a negative response, but considering the youngest of the Kardashian/Jenner clan wound up creating her own business independently (successfully) and is now worth more than any of her family. Put it that way, it’s admirable.
Billionaires are fascinating. Their drive, determination, and gumption are enviable. Until it’s presented as an exclusive club, then we get annoyed. It’s easy to empathize with an individual, not so much with a group.
As a group, they tend to think negatively of the 1%, but individually, people are more likely to be sympathetic. There is an economic inequality in the US, but it’s worth knowing what our emotional response to stories about the wealthy individually and as a group will be. That way, we can be mindful of how we’re thinking. are