The charge of inciting class warfare has been hurled countless times in our past, especially when the ‘rich” have been targeted and questions raised about the impact of “excessive wealth” and “privilege” on our society.  It’s been a most effective strategy:  Americans have long regarded strict class identification as something sinister and altogether foreign, out of touch with American realities.  Furthermore, while most Americans (especially in the middle classes) may resent or envy the extremely wealthy, they don’t regard them as the enemy, deliberately enriching themselves at the expense of most everyone else.

Times may be “achanging” for reasons not at all obscure.  Inequality has become a hot issue, documented lately in great detail.  Over the last decade the richest 1% of us have latched on to a huge (40%) portion of all the accumulated wealth in the United States.  Compensation packages at the top, moreover, continue to climb, featuring eye-opening salaries, and a dazzling array of perks, including generous stock options, and golden parachutes.  Millionaires are everywhere; billionaires not all that uncommon.

None of this might attract special notice were  it not for the fact that the middle and working classes are hurting and have seen their incomes stall or even decline.  That is most troubling, but perhaps not as much as what also appears to be the growing selfishness and greed of the rich.  As their holdings have increased, they’ve become, strangely enough, more aggressive in protecting their enormous wealth..  Seeking out tax havens abroad, they’ve discovered safe harbors beyond the reach of our tax system.  They have used their influence to obtain specific provisions in the tax code that allow them to shelter large chunks of income and have employed experienced financial managers and lawyers, able to organize and categorize their assets so as to reduce tax liability, especially as it pertains to their estates.

The wealthy have also acted aggressively and at times illegally to further inflate their holdings.  Bernie Madoff’s  massive theft must be included here along with repeated insider trading scandals, dubious flash trading operations on “Wall Street” and the creation of exotic derivatives (that nearly collapsed America’s financial sector and for which few individuals were convicted and imprisoned).  The rich themselves have stood for election and have entered the Halls of Congress.  Or they have heavily financed candidates upon whose support they can depend.  In addition, some have contributed  handsomely to “think tanks” and other research organizations whose findings are likely to ratify existing arrangements along with policies favored by the rich.  An assertive upper class has been not the least shy about advancing class interest.

The rich (with many exceptions) appear increasingly insensitive, little concerned with the consequences of their policy prescriptions as they relate to an increasingly unequal American society.  Outspoken in their support of reduced individual and corporate taxes, they have, on the other hand, little to say about job creation or reducing unemployment.  In advocating for substantial government downsizing and the narrowing of its activities and in calling for austerity measures and government debt reduction, they largely ignore the consequences of such sharp cutbacks upon the lives of tens of millions of Americans.  While Mitt Romney appeared to write off “47%” of the American people the rich seem poised to go even further.

If history offers any clues, the wealthy in America need not worry much about the latest assault against the rich and privileged.  Such attacks always seem to run their course, then fade away.  Nonetheless, we may be entering a period quite unlike any yet experienced.  With the economy unable to lift off, our political system bitterly partisan and deadlocked, lots of Americans fear for the future.  In such a gloomy setting the “wealthy” may find themselves exposed and unexpectedly vulnerable.

If you believe that 99% of us are on one side and the remaining 1%  on the other , and that a near majority of Americans are “takers”, then a combustible atmosphere already exists.  Indeed to some, open class warfare is already underway with the rich seeking to augment their wealth, even if it leads to the further unraveling of the social contract which once bound us all together.  If increasing numbers of Americans reach to this conclusion, real fireworks could result.

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