Who would want to be a millionaire? Not even millionaires - nor billionaires, for that matter - are apparently spared life's anxieties. Afflicted by status envy, by fears of losing what they have earned or inherited, the ''super rich'' are prone to self-doubt, to insecurity, to worrying about their children - just like the rest of us.
And in the US, the wealth of which exceeds in multiples that of its nearest economic rivals, reside 1140 billionaires and exist 5,560,000 millionaire households; that is, households with more than $US1 million of assets, excluding real estate and retirement savings.
That's a hell of a lot of insecurity.
''Sometimes I think that the only people in this country who worry more about money than the poor are the very wealthy,'' says Robert Kenny, a psychologist and joint architect of a survey of America's rich conducted by Boston College. ''They worry about losing it, they worry about how it's invested, they worry about the effect it's going to have. And as the zeros increase, the dilemmas get bigger.''
The college's Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy recently sought the views of millionaire philanthropists, probing their deepest fears and their wildest aspirations. They drew responses from 165, 120 of whom have assets of at least $US25 million ($23 million). The average net worth of the respondents was $US78 million.
The centre plans to release the results over coming months but recently lifted the lid on its questionnaire to give The Atlantic a peep into the minds of the super rich, what the researchers cited as ''an extraordinary sample of confession, memoir and apologia''.
''Taken together, the survey responses make a compelling case that being fantastically wealthy … is not a great deal more fulfilling than being merely prosperous,'' the magazine concluded.
Additionally, it said, they ''turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work and family. Indeed, they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizeable fortunes … [One] heir to an enormous fortune … reports that he wouldn't feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.''
Despite such anxiety, recent evidence suggests that the super rich are odds-on to keep their fortunes: wealth in America is becoming ever more entrenched and the rich really are getting richer, while the poor get poorer and the middle class work their butts off and borrow more just to tread water.
A taxation system emaciated by political opportunism has left the US with tax rates so low as to undermine the work of government, strangling revenue and magnifying inequality.
Among the mass of data that bears testimony to America's withering notion of opportunity and prosperity for all is a simple comparison that illustrates how the shift has benefited the rich at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Each year, the Internal Revenue Service (America's tax office) constructs figures for the top 400 income earners in the country. In 2008, when the great recession was biting hardest, the top 400 earned on average $US270.5 million each - 20 times what they made in 1955 (which was $US13.3 million, in 2008 dollars).
The mind-blowing reality beyond that growth is that the 400 highest-earning Americans in 1955, after exploiting all possible deductions, paid 51.2 per cent of their total earnings in federal income tax. Fifty years later, in 2008, the top 400 paid just 18.1 per cent in tax.
So pronounced is the disparity that the top 1 per cent of American taxpayers now takes almost a quarter of all income - double their share of 25 years ago. And they control about 40 per cent of America's wealth, compared to 33 per cent then.
''One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats,'' Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote in Vanity Fair.
''That response would be misguided. While the top 1 per cent have seen their incomes rise 18 per cent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall … All the growth in recent decades - and more - has gone to those at the top.''
It is easy to plot the path to this phenomenal prosperity - and to its flipside, or sorry consequence.
In the days of the postwar president Dwight Eisenhower, America's top income tax bracket hovered around 90 per cent. It was eased to 70 per cent in the mid-1960s and remained there until the election of Ronald Reagan signalled the advent of ''Reaganomics'' and the notion that cutting taxes would ignite private enterprise, boosting investment and driving output that, in turn, would deliver jobs and wealth to all.
The top marginal tax rate was slashed to 50 per cent, then to 28 per cent. Reagan's successors - George Bush snr and Bill Clinton - pushed the rates back up, citing fiscal necessity, but George W. Bush cut again, lowering the top marginal rate to 35 per cent, while reducing the tax on capital gains to 15 per cent for assets held for more than a year.
The latter further accelerated the accumulation of wealth at the summit, because the rich, increasingly, were deriving their income from capital gains - by trading shares, bonds and other assets.
Sam Pizzigati, of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, has drilled deeper into IRS data to draw clearer distinction still.
In 1992, Pizzigati says, the top 400 earners drew 26 per cent of their income from pay cheques and 36 per cent from capital gains. ''In 2008, by contrast, only 8 per cent of top 400 income came from salary - 88 of the year's 400 didn't even have jobs - and 57 per cent came from capital gains.''
David Cay Johnston, of Syracuse University, New York State, drew on IRS data to show that the incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of American taxpayers rose by 75 per cent in the 30 years to 1980, during a massive expansion of the middle classes.
''Since 1980, when Reagan won the presidency promising prosperity through tax cuts,'' he wrote recently, ''the average income of the [90 per cent] has increased a meagre $US303, or 1 per cent. Put another way, for each dollar people in the vast majority made in 1980, in 2008 their income was up to $US1.01.'' Meanwhile, every dollar that the top 1 per cent was earning in 1980 had by 2008 become $US2.
The inequity that the system has bred has become the elephant in the room of political wrangling over what to do about America's deficit woes and expanding IOU with the rest of the world.
Congress must soon agree to increase the nation's debt ceiling (the statutory limit for government borrowing) beyond the current $US14.3 trillion or risk the nation defaulting on its bills, an event that could be cataclysmic for the world's financial system.
But in return Republicans - with some conservative Democrats - are insisting on a quid pro quo, measures that would shrink the nation's budget deficit (expected in 2011 to hit a record $US1.6 trillion).
The polity agrees that the federal government must ultimately put its balance sheet back in order as the recovery takes hold, though new evidence portends a US economic engine again on the verge of stalling.
At the same time, the popular budget remedy, pushed by free-market enthusiasts, combines trillions of dollars of spending cuts over the coming decade with a fresh round of tax cuts.
And in this, Washington's latest political drama, a chorus of Tea Party-backed Republicans and other fiscal conservatives demands: get government out of the way and leave it to the private sector.
Already, the Bush-era tax cuts, which were due to expire last year, have been extended until the end of 2012 after Barack Obama gave in to the demands of Republicans empowered by big gains in the midterm elections. In return, the President won an extension of dole payments for the long-term unemployed and a cut in payroll taxes for all workers for a year.
But that deal also extended tax breaks on dividends, and lowered the estate tax from 45 per cent to 35 per cent while lifting the exempt value from $US3.5 million to $US5 million.
Now, many Republicans are calling for the lower tax thresholds to be made permanent, while several of the candidates vying for the party's 2012 presidential nomination are championing cuts to other taxes.
The former pizza chain executive Herman Cain wants capital gains tax to be eliminated to ''put the right fuel in the engine, which is the private sector''. And Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman and Tea Party favourite, wants corporate taxes cut, even though US businesses (after deductions) pay just 11.1 per cent of their profits in tax today, compared with 47.4 per cent in the 1960s.
In fact, Washington's tax take is even lower than in the Reagan years: federal tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product averaged 18.2 per cent during Reagan's two terms; during Obama's presidency, federal tax revenue as a percentage of GDP has averaged 14.9 per cent.
Pizzigati argues that ending tax ''giveaways'' to the super rich and giant corporations would alone raise more than $US4 trillion over a decade and start to mend the budget. But he sees impediments, even for left-leaning Democrats who don't want to offend Wall Street donors, whose allegiance is a vital source of campaign cash.
He says this ''goes back to the structure of the Democratic Party: that is, the Democrats get their votes from one group of people and their money from another.''
He adds that when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives, ''there was no way they were going to be able to do away with tax cuts for the rich''.
Meanwhile, the economist and academic Robert Reich, who was labour secretary in the Clinton cabinet, points to another consequence of a new ''gilded age'': while Americans bemoan being beholden to foreign investors who hold US Treasury bonds, about 40 per cent of America's debt is actually owned by very wealthy Americans.
''You hear a lot of worries about foreigners dumping treasuries if they lose confidence in the dollar because of our future budget deficits,'' Reich says. ''What you hear less about are these super-rich Americans, who are just as likely to abandon treasuries if spooked by future budget deficits.
''The great irony is if America's super rich financed the US government the way they used to - by paying taxes rather than lending the government money - that long-term budget deficit would be far lower.''
And here is another irony: rank and file Tea Party protesters, the vast majority of whom exist on ordinary wages, storming Capitol Hill demanding smaller government and lower taxes, unaware that the current fiscal settings are already threatening the government services on which they depend.
A study by the Duke University behavioural economist Dan Ariely found that most Americans were unaware of how skewed wealth had become in the US.
Working with a Harvard University scholar, Ariely invited people to consider the wealth distribution of three anonymous societies. One replicated the current situation in the US, a second showed a more equitable distribution similar to that existing in Sweden and a third charted an exactly equal distribution.
Most of those surveyed believed the ''Swedish model'' was a representation of America: they underestimated how much wealth the richest Americans actually had and overestimated the prosperity of the poorest. Furthermore, 92 per cent pointed to the ''Swedish model'' as the one that they preferred.
Ariely says this ignorance is explained partly by people confining themselves to their own neighbourhoods and not witnessing divisions and differences. He also blames the ''sloganeering'' of politicians that ''redirects people's understanding about what's going on: they basically get people to think about slogans rather than the true underlying level of inequality''.
But the thing Ariely says puzzles him the most is people's aversion to tax. ''If you look at it, there are, basically, a few ways to change … inequality of wealth. Tax is one of them.''
But that truism rarely passes political lips. Lamenting the tenor of this week's televised debate between Republican candidates, the CBS Radio commentator Dave Ross quoted listeners telling him that ''candidates should tell the truth''. To which he answered: ''Yes, but they can't. The truth is: the rich need to pay more taxes and defence spending needs to be cut. If you say that, you lose.''
Some of America's rich, however, are telling Washington they want to pay more tax. Wealth for the Common Good, a network of professionals and business leaders, has teamed with its wealthier alter ego, the Patriotic Millionaires. ''We should pay more; we want to pay more,'' the latter group says. On its website 200 millionaires have signed up.
This month, some of the signatories discussed with The Huffington Post what they had done with the extra millions that the Bush tax cuts had bestowed upon them. One entrepreneur had simply banked the gains. Dennis Mehiel, the founder of the cardboard-box maker US Corrugated Inc, bought a 50-metre sloop. But, he conceded, the purchase did not create American jobs. ''It was built in Italy.''
Dal LaMagna, the founder of the beauty-tools maker Tweezerman, added to his west coast home a dance floor ''which I didn't really need. I just became a Dal LaMagna economic stimulus package in Poulsbo, Washington.''
Philanthropy is a great American tradition and while the tax bills of the super rich have steadily declined in recent decades, their giving - apart from 2008 and 2009 - has steadily risen.
But critics of the tax system argue that philanthropic gifts do not guarantee a more equitable distribution of wealth, and can risk entrenching injustice because the very wealthy are free to direct money into causes and political campaigns that maintain the status quo or harm the interests of the broader community.
Two final ironies: lower tax rates have meant lower deductibility for charitable giving by the rich, while several studies have noted that the lowest 20 per cent of the American population by income actually gives to charity twice as much, as a percentage of their income, as the richest 20 per cent.