Rainer Zitelmann was aware when he started his research project examining public perceptions of the wealthy, that many people thought he was wasting his time.
As the German author and academic writes in the preface of his 23rd book, ‘The Rich in Public Opinion’, the sceptics discouraging him were expressing the commonly held view that while negative prejudice against the rich may exist, the wealthy have nothing to worry about – given that definition, they are far better off than most people.
But as he tells thewealthnet over Zoom in May, the wealthy can also be seen as a minority, and hatred towards them becomes particularly topical during a global crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic now unfolding.
“When bad things happen, throughout history, people look for scapegoats,” he says, describing the 20th century as “full of examples of rich people, including capitalists, kulaks and other groups who were the victims of deadly persecution”.
The first international study into attitudes towards rich people and the resulting book explores how perceptions of the wealthy differ across four major developed nations – the US, UK, France, and Germany – and the forces which fuel the hostility Mr Zitelmann found apparent.
The study, conducted by the Allensbacher Institute and Ipsos MORI, defined a “rich” person as anyone with assets worth at least 1 million dollars, euros, or pounds, excluding their primary home.
Mr Zitelmann found that a combination of social envy, zero-sum thinking, and scapegoating combined to malign this group, with perceptions of the rich far poorer in the mainland European nations than in the UK and US.
The four nations compared
For the purposes of the study, Mr Zitelmann created what he dubbed the ‘social envy coefficient’.
In essence, this measured the extent to which a respondent would like to see desirable things taken away from others, despite the fact that this would not make themselves or others better off.
For example, a social envier would agree with the statement, ‘When I hear about a millionaire who made a risky business decision and lost a lot of money, I think it serves them right’. Respondents were divided into enviers, ambivalents, and non-enviers depending on a series of responses to such questions.
Levels of social envy were highest in France, followed by Germany, the US and UK, with social enviers much more likely to dislike wealthy people.
Mr Zitelmann points out that results were skewed somewhat by extreme hostility among young Americans towards the rich.
“There is a big difference between the way older and younger Americans think,” Mr Zitelmann says.
Forty percent of young Americans (aged 18 to 29) agreed with the statement ‘Rich people are good at making money, but they are not usually decent people’, while just 15 percent of the oldest (60-plus) US cohort agreed with this same sentiment.
“Young Americans are very extreme and hold [negative] stereotypes about rich people. This is not so in Europe. There is little difference [between age groups] and younger people are in fact a little more pro-rich than older people.”
Mr Zitelmann said the 2008/09 financial crisis may have played a part in how young Americans view the rich negatively, given they came of age during a recession largely blamed on “greedy bankers”. However, this did not account for the more positive attitudes of their European contemporaries.
“I think that is not the whole story – this requires more research.”
Europeans (French and Germans) were also much more likely to be "zero sum" thinkers in relation to wealth, and more likely to agree with statements like "The more the rich have, the less there is for the poor".
Likewise, these nations were more likely to blame wider societal problems on the wealthy: 50 percent of Germans and a third of French people agreed with the idea that the rich are "to blame for many of the major problems in the world". The corresponding figures in the UK and US were 21 and 25 percent respectively.
The 'evil banker' trope
Those working in financial services – especially bankers – were perceived particularly poorly by the study’s respondents.
In the UK, ‘senior bankers’ ranked near the bottom of in a list of occupations that “deserve” to be wealthy.
Just 5 percent of under-30s thought bankers deserved their wealth, while 19 percent of those aged 60-plus thought they did. Entrepreneurs fared best, with about half of both these age groups believing business founders deserved to be wealthy.
Germans had an even poorer perception of bankers, with only 6 percent of all respondents saying they deserved to be rich – thought 54 percent of Germans thought lottery winners deserved their wealth.
What can be done?
Those charged with assisting the very wealthy in preserving their legacy often look to philanthropy, or perhaps impact investing, as a means of maintaining the family’s image.
Mr Zitelmann said while such endeavours may be worthwhile in their own right, charitable giving was useless as a PR strategy.
Results from the study showed only a small minority (14 percent in Germany, for example) believed rich people donated to benefit others, and were much more likely to think they did so for tax relief purposes, or to improve their reputations.
Mr Zitelmann cites Bill Gates as a current example of this in action. Mr Gates has been the subject of widespread conspiracy theories claiming he was involved in the “creation” of Covid-19.
“There was never any person in history who has given so much money both for medicine and to fight poverty," Mr Zitelmann says.
“Do people see him positively because of this? No, on the contrary, there are all these conspiracy theories about how he made the [coronavirus] and wants to profit via the vaccine.
“I think it’s great if people donate, but if they should think that this is something that will improve their image, they are 100 percent, absolutely wrong.”
Part of the solution to this issue of prejudice, Mr Zitelmann argues, needs to be solved via advocacy and the promotion of capitalism as a force for good.
He said perceptions of other minorities have improved throughout history as the groups “learnt to stand up for themselves”.