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.