The super rich just don’t get it

Dec 22, 2011

FORTUNE -- Don’t hate me because I’m rich.

So says JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, the highest paid executive among the six biggest U.S. banks. At an investors’ conference in New York, Bloomberg reported that Dimon grew mystified when someone in the audience asked him about hostility toward bankers.

“Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” said Dimon, whose 2010 compensation totaled $23 million.

Dimon just doesn't get it. It’s not that Americans think the rich are "bad." Actually, as investment advisor and blogger Joshua Brown points out, the nation has long been fascinated by the untouchably wealthy. It’s the basis for countless reality shows, from the Kardashians to the housewives; it's why millions tuned in for the royal wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William this year; it's why celebrities keep the paparazzi in business.

And it’s not as if Americans think there’s too many of the filthy rich running around. In a June Gallup Poll on wealth (taken several months before the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement), 42% (the highest number) said the number of rich people in the country was “just right,” compared with 31% who said there were “too many” and 27% reporting “too few.”

And the nation’s wealthiest 1% aren't necessarily the envy of the bottom 99%. In a separate Gallup Poll conducted in late November, Americans (which earn a median annual household income of roughly $50,000) say they would consider themselves rich if they made $150,000 a year. Needless to say, that’s pennies to the nation’s billionaires.

What’s irking Americans isn’t that the rich are simply rich. To underscore the rallying cries of Occupy Wall Street-ers, it comes down to how wealth is distributed. And perhaps more importantly, how it’s gained.

JP Morgan (jpm) is one of a handful of major banks tangled in lawsuits tied to collapse of the U.S. financial market. The latest, filed earlier this month by Massachusetts, alleges that JP Morgan and four other banks conducted unlawful foreclosures and deceived homeowners. And it probably doesn’t help JP Morgan’s good graces with the public that it was among several lenders accused of improperly foreclosing on military family’s homes. JP Morgan settled the case in April, agreeing to pay $56 million on claims it overcharged service members on their home loans.

So the point that Dimon and others seem yet to have caught onto is this: Americans don’t disdain all rich people. They aren't picketing outside Mark Zuckerberg's home or vilifying Steve Jobs for his personal wealth or boycotting New York Yankees games over Derek Jeter's salary. Being successful isn't bad, nor is being rich. What matters is how you created your own wealth.

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