The Rise of the New Aristocracy

Out of The Atlantic, a lengthy but worthwhile piece on how The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy. If you’ve been paying attention, the concept probably isn’t a new one to you, but it’s still alarming and eye-opening to see it all laid out at once.

Some choice bits:

The sociological data are not remotely ambiguous on any aspect of this growing divide. We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients or line up great internships for our kids.

These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. Our class walks around in the jeans and T‑shirts inherited from our supposedly humble beginnings. We prefer to signal our status by talking about our organically nourished bodies, the awe-inspiring feats of our offspring, and the ecological correctness of our neighborhoods. We have figured out how to launder our money through higher virtues.

Also:

You see, when educated people with excellent credentials band together to advance their collective interest, it’s all part of serving the public good by ensuring a high quality of service, establishing fair working conditions, and giving merit its due. That’s why we do it through “associations,” and with the assistance of fellow professionals wearing white shoes. When working-class people do it—through unions—it’s a violation of the sacred principles of the free market. It’s thuggish and anti-modern. Imagine if workers hired consultants and “compensation committees,” consisting of their peers at other companies, to recommend how much they should be paid. The result would be—well, we know what it would be, because that’s what CEOs do.

And:

Nowhere are the mechanics of the growing geographic divide more evident than in the system of primary and secondary education. Public schools were born amid hopes of opportunity for all; the best of them have now been effectively reprivatized to better serve the upper classes. According to a widely used school-ranking service, out of more than 5,000 public elementary schools in California, the top 11 are located in Palo Alto. They’re free and open to the public. All you have to do is move into a town where the median home value is $3,211,100.

[…]

With localized wealth comes localized political power, and not just of the kind that shows up in voting booths. Which brings us back to the depopulation paradox. Given the social and cultural capital that flows through wealthy neighborhoods, is it any wonder that we can defend our turf in the zoning wars? We have lots of ways to make that sound public-spirited. It’s all about saving the local environment, preserving the historic character of the neighborhood, and avoiding overcrowding. In reality, it’s about hoarding power and opportunity inside the walls of our own castles. This is what aristocracies do.

Also, he got the automatic defensiveness spot on:

In part what we have here is a listening problem. Americans have trouble telling the difference between a social critique and a personal insult. Thus, a writer points to a broad social problem with complex origins, and the reader responds with, “What, you want to punish me for my success?”

In part, too, we’re seeing some garden-variety self-centeredness, enabled by the usual cognitive lapses. […] Human beings of the 9.9 percent variety also routinely conflate the stress of status competition with the stress of survival. No, failing to get your kid into Stanford is not a life-altering calamity.

It’s a lot to take in, but there’s a lot there that needs to be thought about. I’m not entirely sure what the answers are — as the author points out in the article, historically when things get this unequal, the leveling process is violent and destructive. Ideally, we’ll find ways to get back to greater social and economic equality and mobility that don’t require bloody revolution or total economic collapse, but the only ways I can think involve people getting over themselves and not being selfish assholes to each other. That seems naively idealistic in an era where self-centered sociopathy seems distinctly on the rise. Sooner or later (and I suspect sooner), something is going to have to give.

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