A recent cover article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy,” says the “9.9 percent” has become America’s newest plutocracy, its members adopting behaviors that keep the rest out of their rarefied circles and accelerate America’s rising inequality.
Author Matthew Stewart, a self-professed denizen of the “9.9 percent,” claims to have found this number from a single graph showing that even as the percentage of American wealth accumulated by the top 0.1 percent has increased since 1990, only the fortunes of the bottom 90 percent have truly suffered in response, leaving the top 9.9 percent to prosper unabated.
His further arguments are the usual: the 9.9 percent send their kids to gated legacy schools, engage in anti-competitive career practices, and practice assortative mating (a fancy way of saying they marry people who are also well-off—surprise!). Some of his points are legitimate: doctors’ licensing associations really do engage in cartel-like behavior to drive up salaries, for example.
Other of his points are mind-numbingly dull, such as his point about “assortative mating,” a.k.a. marriage. But the end story is the same: America is a class-based society, and the 9.9 percent are the new bourgeoise.
For all the manufactured profundity of his article, Stewart raises an important question: can we really blame America’s inequality on something as banal as a percentage? And if we can, what is that percentage?
Is it the “1 percent,” the nemesis of the now-obsolete Occupy Wall Street movement? At the height of the craze, provocative images of yachts and country clubs adorned newspapers, pictures of dripping privilege juxtaposed with images of foreclosed houses and homeless guys on the street.
The purpose: to show how vastly exploitative the rich are of “the ordinary American.” Perhaps this is the preferred number for the Democratic Party: after all, this is a way to pin the blame on a small social group without alienating the rest of the upper-class, who are trending left.
But eventually a populism built purely on resentment for the uber-rich cannot sustain itself. After all, pinning everything on the “1 percent” is intellectually unserious. You can’t build a lasting political force telling people all their problems stem from 83-year-old patricians in the Hamptons.
In comes Richard Reeves. The Brookings scholar, in a 2017 book called “Dream Hoarders,” proposes a new form of percentage-blaming, this time targeting the so-called “20 percent.” This is the “kind-of rich,” the type stereotyped as living in McMansions driving Cadillacs and putting up picket-fences between them and poor people.
According to Reeves and his followers, the upper-middle class are pulling away from the rest because of a combination of behavioral trends: better marriages, higher educational attainment, health, longevity, and civil society. In doing so, they give their children a leg up others’ children, an advantage that will perpetuate itself generation after generation.
This is essentially how we arrive at Stewart penning a cover article for The Atlantic calling the 9.9 percent—a mild upward revision of Reeves’ “20 percent” argument—The New American Aristocracy. The real goal of the Left’s focus on percentages, and the behaviors of those at the top, is to bifurcate American society, to imagine a class of perpetual winners and perpetual losers, where the losers have no hope of crossing the chasm and becoming anything close to a “winner.” In doing so, however, the Left inadvertently reveals a conservative conclusion.
Traditional liberal rhetoric is behaviorally neutral: it argues that the rich are rich through no work of their own, that they are not really different from you and me. Therefore, they don’t deserve their wealth, and it should be redistributed as necessary. This is the view popularized by the great twentieth-century American liberal, John Rawls, and his acolytes.
But current leftist journalists don’t adopt this view. The rich work extremely hard to keep their wealth, say Stewart and Reeves. They methodically develop organizations that serve their interests. They practice behaviors that foster greater long-term wealth.
When Stewart ogles at the rich using SoulCycle, investment portfolios, and social circles to remain generationally wealthy, he generates an implied flipside: that the non-elite perpetuate their poverty because they don’t adopt these behaviors. After all, if the new American aristocracy keeps others out by eating healthier and marrying better, then aren’t the losers of this proposition kept out because they’re adopting behaviors that prevent them from rising, such as eating worse and failing at marriage? (Yes, also maintaining unions, because unions, at their best, are effective representatives of the lower classes.)
If the implication is that social behaviors make the difference between privilege and poverty, then the solution isn’t government intervention, or redistribution, or fixing a “rigged game,” as today’s Left advocate. No, the implication would be to stamp down the behaviors that perpetuate the spiral of continuous poverty.
It would be to compassionately exercise a firm hand in training the poor to behave as the rich do, to work harder on self-education, to eat better, to exercise more, to develop the social and organizational skills to compete with the professional class. Tearing down the aristocracy is the damaging, fruitless option. The better one would be to make all our citizens aristocrats.