The Frontal Cortex

Lower Uppers and Status Anxiety

I’ve always been impressed by America’s lack of interest in class issues. Having spent a bit of time in England – a country where class is transposed onto every little social interaction – it was a shock to return to America, a place where disparities in income are both more tangible and more ignored. While there are many reasons for this lack of interest in class issues – Americans have historically been fixated on racial and ethnic divisions, we imagine ourselves as country of “unbridled opportunity”, etc. – I wonder if we are reaching a tipping point.

For one thing, Americans are clearly dissatisfied with the economy, even though all the macroeconomic indicators are chugging along. As many commentators have noted, a large part of this unease comes from increased economic insecurity among the middle-class, coupled with a sense that the rich are just getting richer. As I noted earlier this summer while reviewing Daniel Kahneman’s latest study of happiness:

Even if having less money doesn’t make us less happy, we are still upset when we see someone else making more money than us. In other words, it’s not the big screen TV and fancy BMW that give us pleasure, it’s the sense of self-worth and self-esteem that comes with them. (We quickly habituate to more pixels, a refined steering feel and plush leather seats. What we don’t habituate to is the feeling of superiority whenever we accelerate past a Kia.)

Over at Fortune, Matt Miller has a great column on a particular class of Americans who are feeling this status anxiety particularly acutely. And no, he’s not talking about the poor, or even the sorta poor. He’s talking about the upper classes, the people who notice that their friends suddenly have an obscene amount of money;

Not long ago an investment banker worth millions told me that he wasn’t in his line of work for the money. “If I was doing this for the money,” he said, with no trace of irony, “I’d be at a hedge fund.” What to say? Only on a small plot of real estate in lower Manhattan at the dawn of the 21st century could such a statement be remotely fathomable. That it is suggests how debauched our ruling class has become.

The widening chasm between rich and poor may well threaten our democracy. Yet if that banker’s lament staggers your brain as it did mine, you’re on your way to seeing why America’s income gap is arguably less likely to spark a retro fight between proletarians and capitalists than a war between what I call the “lower upper class” and the ultrarich.

Lower uppers are professionals who by dint of schooling, hard work and luck are living better than 99 percent of the humans who have ever walked the planet. They’re also people who can’t help but notice how many folks with credentials like theirs are living in Gatsby-esque splendor they’ll never enjoy.

This stings. If people no smarter or better than you are making ten or 50 or 100 million dollars in a single year while you’re working yourself ragged to earn a million or two – or, God forbid, $400,000 – then something must be wrong.

You can hear the fallout in conversations across the country. A New York-based market research guru – a well-to-do fellow who’s built and sold his own firm – explodes in a rant about ultras bidding up real estate prices. A family doctor in Los Angeles with two kids shakes his head that between tuition and donations, ultras have raised the ante for private school slots to the point where he can’t get his kids enrolled. A senior executive at a nationally known firm seethes at the idea of eliminating the estate tax; it is an ultra conspiracy, in his view, a reprehensible giveaway to people whose outsized lucre bears little relation to hard work.


  1. #1 bigTom
    October 26, 2006

    Traditionaly in Britain the class thing had a lot to do with status. And making money like an American robber-barron didn’t confer status. Only old (inherited) wealth counted. The situation was thought to be responsible for inhibiting entrepreneurship and negatively affecting economic progress.
    Frankly I think waking up the lower-uppers about the runaway nature of superwealthy wealth/power is a good thing. It seems a pretty large portion of recent economic growth is going to the later group.
    As one who is a couple of rungs leow the lower-upper, I occasionally get the same feelings, for often the only difference between an upper-middle, and the super-rich seems to be ethics. “I coulda done that, but it seemed unethical”.

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 26, 2006

    I recently became quite peeved about class issues at an airport in a large American city. Where flyers were lined up to go through the TSA security check, first class passengers were being guided to their own special line! I can only hope that their desire to sit nearer the cockpit marked them out for extra thorough scrutiny. (don’t burst my bubble)

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    October 26, 2006

    Bonfire of the Vanities. Still a relevant read…

  4. #4 Lab Cat
    October 26, 2006

    Actually in Britian as class is based on inheritance, you could be upper class and relatively poor.

    Some people do have an obsence amount of money though.

  5. #5 Lab Cat
    October 26, 2006

    That was meant to be “obscene”

  6. #6 Mark
    October 26, 2006

    ” …America’s income gap is arguably less likely to spark a retro fight between proletarians and capitalists than a war between what I call the “lower upper class” and the ultrarich. ”

    What an absurd statement. Does anyone in his right mind think someone making $400,000 a year is going to man the ramparts in the streets and start burning cars? The very idea trivializes the important fact that the gap between even these “lower uppers” and the poorest in the county continues to grow to almost incomprehensible levels. I doubt that many of these poor rich kids could comprehend what it would be like to live at minimum wage.

  7. #7 rich
    October 27, 2006

    The point is not that they are going to revolt, but that they might be less willing to support Republican tax cuts for the wealthy.

  8. #8 Mark
    October 31, 2006

    The writer didn’t say that the poor rich might be less likely to support Republican tax cuts for the wealthy (than who? than what?). He said, ” … America’s income gap is arguably less likely to spark a retro fight between proletarians and capitalists than a war between what I call the “lower upper class” and the ultrarich.”

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