The ultra-rich are having a hard time.

First, local baron Tom Petters, who does not look good in an orange jumpsuit, was charged with bilking billions. Then Bernie Madoff made Petters look like a piker. Now comes John Thain, who passed out billions in bonuses just as his company, Merrill Lynch, was taken over by Bank of America. The bank has taken $45 billion in bailout money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- including $20 billion a week ago -- to acquire Merrill Lynch and keep it from tanking.

Hey, all our assets are hurting.

In some countries, this is when the limos get set on fire by mobs who feed the capitalists to the crocodiles. But in America, it is the peaceful absence of riotous mayhem that says something very important about us.

Despite all the screaming on talk radio, most of us actually agree about how this country should operate and what the government should do -- or not do. Amazingly, there seems to be a deep consensus among the public about the mess we're in and the need to do something to protect the average family from being hurt in the fallout of the economic meltdown.

But don't take it from me.

Take it from two professors who study this stuff, including Lawrence (Larry) Jacobs, the politics and government guru at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Jacobs and Benjamin I. Page, a professor at Northwestern University, have studied seven decades of public opinion research to find out why our limos remain flame-free at a time of economic distress and insecurity.

Their findings are outlined in a book titled "Class War?," which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in April. Sub- titled, "What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality," the book argues that despite the corruption at the top, Americans -- including most of the wealthy -- believe government should help the needy, especially with challenges such as poverty, ill health or unemployment.

Conventional wisdom -- flogged by the Hannity-Limbaugh crowd -- says Americans oppose taxes. Jacobs and Page say it's not true.

"Majorities of Americans are not unconcerned about rising economic inequality," the book says in its preface. "Most are well aware of it and quite concerned."

The professors commissioned their own poll and found 72 percent of the public, a landslide, believe differences in income in America are "too large."

That consensus translates into support -- among both parties and all income levels -- for taxes to pay for programs to help the disadvantaged.

You'd never know it from listening to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But decades of opinion research show that Americans are what Jacobs and Page call "conservative egalitarians."

"Most Republicans are concerned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor," Jacobs says. "And most Democrats are more conservative than they are portrayed.

"The result is a conservative practical egalitarianism: a belief in limited government where we value self-reliance, but also strong support for practical help to level the playing field and make sure everyone has equal opportunity."

People who raise these issues often are accused of "fomenting class warfare," says Jacobs. But the reason America is blessedly free of actual class warfare is that we agree on something fundamental about our country: Government should lend a hand to the needy.

"Despite all the outrageous things that have happened, we don't have people in the streets," Jacobs says. "That's because it's not true we are deeply divided. The Commentariat may say so, but it's not true."

"Class War?" argues that Americans have been united since the Great Depression around a broadly accepted idea, whether rich or poor, Democrat or Republican.

We believe in free enterprise. But we also want "practical programs" like raising the minimum wage and raising taxes to fund better schools, that will help lift all boats.

So next time someone accuses you of fomenting class warfare, tell 'em baloney. And remind them about all those hungry crocodiles.

It turns out the safety net doesn't just protect the needy. Its existence may also safeguard the most privileged from the anger of the streets. • 612-673-4400