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That's Rich -- but Maybe Not for Someone Else
"In America, we've never liked the idea of massive inherited wealth," Clinton said last month in New Hampshire. "Part of the reason why America has always remained a meritocracy where you have to work for what you get, where you have to get out there, make your case to people, come up with a good idea, is that we never had a class of people sitting on generation after generation after generation of huge inherited wealth."
Kevin A. Hassett, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Democrats' attitude toward wealthy Americans could be a liability at the polls. "If the Democrats are sort of willing to lambaste the wealthy and seize their money, then it means they have a fundamental disrespect for private property," he said.
But, according to Gene Sperling, an unpaid adviser to Clinton: "It's not about attacking anybody or class warfare. It's about setting priorities in a fiscally responsible way. It's about asking: Is the most recent tax cut for those making over $250,000 more important to the well-being of the country than universal health care?"
As for how people see themselves, location is key. Is Clinton right that firefighters make the kind of money mentioned in Las Vegas? Yes, sometimes, in some places. According to the Web site FactCheck.org, the base pay of a New York City firefighter with five years' experience is $68,475, but with overtime and holiday work, the same firefighter can make $86,518. A city fire captain can make $140,173 with overtime. Most school superintendents in New York state make more than $100,000.
Online calculators allow anyone to make an instant city-to-city cost-of-living comparison. One such Web site calculates that someone making $97,500 in Washington could live just as comfortably on $67,846 in Ames, Iowa.
The three richest large counties in the country are in the Washington suburbs: Fairfax, Loudoun and Howard. A recent survey showed that 43 percent of people in the core counties of metropolitan Washington live in households with incomes of at least $100,000 a year.
Median household income in America in 2006 was $48,201, which, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1999.
Edward Wolff, a professor of economics at New York University, thinks that the middle class in a major city includes people in households with incomes from $40,000 to $100,000. From there, up to $200,000, people are "upper middle class." They all have difficult financial issues to contend with, from health-care costs to college tuition.
"Financial stress: That's the key ingredient," Wolff said.
People making $200,000 to $350,000, he says, could be considered rich, but they still have to slog to work every day. To be really rich, in Wolff's scholarly judgment, you need not only an income upwards of $350,000 a year -- which happens to be right about the point where today's top marginal income tax rate of 35 percent kicks in -- you also need at least $10 million in accumulated wealth.
"These are people who can basically live off their wealth and don't have to work. You're talking about the top half of 1 percent," Wolff said.
Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said that no one knows the exact parameters of the middle class, but that in general they are defined by what he calls an "aspirational package."
"The middle-class aspirations include a decent home in a good neighborhood with a good school, and the ability to save for college and to make sure that your children have the opportunities to put themselves on a path to match or exceed yours," Bernstein said. "If you're upper class, you think about whether you want to move your horse from one barn to another barn."
Robert Frank, who covers the rich as a full-time beat for the Wall Street Journal, said being rich comes with certain requirements:
"You have to have at least two homes," said Frank, author of "Richistan," a book about wealthy Americans. "You have to have a household staff of some kind, and/or a personal assistant. You send your kids to private schools. You give to charity and attend charitable events. And you travel. You travel globally. You go to Europe at least once a year, and perhaps Asia."
Or even conquer gravity itself, he said.
"The new status symbol for the rich," Frank said, "is going to space."