Thursday, May 24, 2018

The 9.9 Percent

The Atlantic has a great article about the 9.9% being the new American aristocracy. Matthew Stewart has separated the 0.1%, who are the super rich, from the moderately wealthy who tend to believe they're middle class, and might even, from time to time, feel like they're poor. The stats are American, so in Canada, we only need to gross about $95,000 a year to be in the top 10%.

It was during a careers class a few years back when it hit me that I wasn't 'of the people' in the way I had always thought myself to be. I brought in many guest speakers to talk about their jobs; they included a lawyer, professor, midwife, novelist, journalist, therapist, dentist, city councillor, and MPP. My students' most pressing question at the end of it all, was how could I possibly know all these people? I told them, they're just my neighbours, as if we all have neighbours like this. Stewart says,
"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. . . . Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary."
It's so easy to think we're on the side of equity, then take advantage of privileges in a way that hinders equity, oblivious to our impact on the world.

I won't be able to do it justice here. Settle in for the long read.


The Mound of Sound said...

I expect most Americans are okay with the top 10%. It's the top 2% that they don't like. Many can see themselves someday within the top 10 which continues because they don't realize that the ladder of social mobility has been pulled up.

America's rich and powerful have shifted from investment to accumulation. They've gone from supposed "wealth creators" to rentiers, collecting rents from their holdings. The combined impact of tax "reform" and the slashing of estate taxes means that the rentiers can accumulate and bequeath their holdings from generation to generation. Think of it as "late stage" neoliberalism.

Ralston Saul, in his 2005 book, "The Collapse of Globalism," proclaimed the neoliberal order dead. Milton Friedman himself prior to his death declared the neoliberal experiment a failure. The IMF and the World Bank have criticized neoliberalism as destructive to national economies, a driver of inequality and the loss of social cohesion. And yet, despite all these pronouncements and forecasts, neoliberalism remains stubbornly entrenched.

Chris Hedges maintains that America has entered a "pre-revolutionary" state. To him it's a matter of when, not if. Yet Hedges knows enough about the history of revolution to realize such revolts rarely end as imagined and instead trigger revolutionary after-shocks, authoritarianism and immense brutality.

Like Matthew Stewart, I believe the only way out of this predicament lies in embracing again what neoliberalism purged, progressivism. It was expunged from the Liberal ranks under Ignatieff and Trudeau. I'm not sure it still has much purchase with the NDP either.

Today many Liberals proclaim themselves progressive by virtue of not being Conservative and, hence, morally superior people. To them progressivism isn't a code of principles or maxims but a "feel good" state. I rarely find anyone who can be bothered to explore much less debate progressive principles. I just don't see much prospect of it taking hold without some really calamitous precursor.

Marie Snyder said...

I can't imagine what will stop neoliberalism. When you've got the powerful making a killing from their easy ability to exploit others, why would they ever stop? The pain caused it too far away to make an impact on them, and the pleasures they get are immediate and spectacular. And the masses are just sedated enough to allow it all to continue.