A decade ago, protesters enraged by corporate greed and the bailouts that followed the 2008 financial crisis coined a phrase — “We Are the 99 Percent!” — that quickly went viral. It was a captivating slogan that spoke to the anger many felt about rising inequality and an economic system that seemed blatantly unfair. It was also misleading, not because the slogan exaggerated the economic disparities in America but because it understated them.
As various studies have shown, much of the wealth in recent decades has flowed into the pockets not of the richest 1 per cent of Americans but of the 0.1 per cent, including a band of billionaires whose net worth has grown by a staggering $1.8 trillion since the start of the pandemic.
At the same time, the idea that the interests of all but the very rich — that 99 per cent — are harmoniously aligned is a fantasy, glossing over the economic and racial divisions that cleave the rest of society. This was starkly apparent during the pandemic, when families in some neighbourhoods gathered in bread lines while others fled to second homes and ordered gourmet meals online — food delivered to their doors by “essential workers” paid a fraction of what the typical lawyer or software engineer earns.
In his new book, Matthew Stewart focuses on the wealthiest one-tenth of Americans, a “new aristocracy” whose aggregate wealth is four times greater than that of everyone else. A minimum of $1.2 million in assets is required to enter this exclusive club and Mr Stewart writes that the threshold will almost certainly rise by the time his book is published. It’s a club to which white people are eight times more likely to belong than people of colour.
But what ultimately unites its members is less the size of their bank accounts than a mind-set, Mr Stewart contends. At its core lies “the merit myth,” a shared belief that the affluent owe their success not to the colour of their skin or the advantages they’ve inherited but to their talent and intelligence. Under the spell of this conviction, Mr Stewart argues, the privileged engage in practices — segregating themselves in upscale neighbourhoods, using their money and influence to get their children into elite colleges — that entrench inequality even as they remain blithely unaware of their role in perpetuating it.
A former partner at a management consulting firm, Mr Stewart is interested in tracing how the “thoughts and desires” of his own professional class exacerbate inequality, a welcome if not entirely original idea. Unfortunately, Mr Stewart’s portrait of the 9.9 per cent draws on few first-hand interviews with members of this class. He relies instead on examples culled from sources like Slate and on made-up characters such as “Ultramom,” a cartoonish figure who deploys her knowledge of branding to promote the virtues of her “Ultrachildren” in the race for coveted spots at a hyper-selective preschool.
Such caricaturing may resonate with the popular anger at elites. But it fails to lend much insight into what Mr Stewart calls “the mind of the 9.9 percent,” or for that matter, to demonstrate that such a uniform thing exists. Is it fair to place salaried professionals in fields like medicine and law in the same category as hedge-fund managers who pocket seven-figure bonuses? How might the aspirations and beliefs of the 9.9 per cent vary by occupation, or by region and political affiliation? And how has the growing rage at financial elites altered how affluent Americans see themselves?
The latter question was examined by the sociologist Rachel Sherman in another recent study, Uneasy Street, which drew on interviews with 50 well-to-do New Yorkers. Far from unaware of inequality, many of Ms Sherman’s subjects were acutely conscious of it, to the point that they refrained not only from showing off their wealth but from talking about it. Sherman interpreted the silence as a form of status anxiety, reflecting uncertainty about how to feel morally entitled to one’s privilege.
The comparison that wealthy people have often drawn to affirm their moral worth is with the lazy, undeserving poor. Some of the people Mr Sherman interviewed compared themselves favourably to another class — the undeserving rich, dilettantes who inherited their money rather than earning it and who ostentatiously displayed their wealth. Distinguishing themselves from these “bad” rich people did not mean Ms Sherman’s subjects were ready to give up their own material advantages.
In The 9.9 Percent, Mr Stewart notes that in 1963, the median household would have needed 10 times as much wealth to reach the middle of the 9.9 percent. Today, it would need 24 times as much wealth. Mr Stewart is surely right to view this as a problem and to question why it has generated so much less outrage and concern than the obscene fortunes of the superrich. But the growing chasm between the 9.9 percent and the rest of society only underscores why pushing beyond reductive stereotypes to explain how affluent professionals think about, and justify, their wealth and privilege is important. Doing so can help illuminate both how deep the economic disparities in America have become and how inequality is validated and sustained.
©2021 The New York Times News Service