By Penny Smith
Both of these pieces are printed in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine. The first one is the cover story, has gotten a little play around on the web and goes a long way toward explaining resentment about “the elite.” The second is a casual essay by Henry Kissinger – yes, that Kissinger.
Matthew Stewart, “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” The Atlantic (June, 2018): pp. 48-63. I’m going on at some length about this essay, since I found it compelling and potentially important in helping us understand our current divisiveness.
Matthew Stewart’s piece is about people like me. The “New American Aristocracy” is a group of winning strivers, who parlayed their gifts (being born at a certain time, getting an education when it was still affordable, investing time and effort in ways that yielded personal profit) into membership in the professional class. He defines that group as the “9.9%,” people who are not sufficiently rich to be in the top 0.1%, but who have enough wealth that they fall in that top decile (10%). I’m probably in a household at the bottom edge of that top 10%, not because I’m over-educated, though I am. Nor is it because I worked in education, which is not conducive to making a lot of money unless you’re in certain fields, none of which are in the liberal arts. I’m there because I moved from the classroom to administration, from K-12 public schools to higher education, and, more importantly, because I was slowly able to invest a little money in a small real estate business over four decades.
The 9.9 percenters, unlike the 90% economically below them, have done fine in the post-Clinton economy. As Stewart points out:
Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent … had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose. In between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent is a group that has been doing just fine. It has held on to its share of a growing pie decade after decade. And as a group, it owns substantially more wealth than do the other two combined.
Most of these folks are in professions that have traditionally done well compared to the general population – small town bankers, physicians, lawyers, and professors at prestigious universities. They also include the “new millionaires” – small, albeit successful, Wall Street investors, IT specialists, management consultants. “We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs,” writes Stewart. “We may want to call ourselves the 5Gs rather than the 9.9 percent. We are so far from the not-so-good people on all of these dimensions, we are beginning to resemble a new species.”
As 5Gers, we are healthier than the 90% below us, less likely to be obese and to suffer from economically linked illnesses like heart disease or Type 2 diabetes. We live longer (the death rate among low-educated, middle-class, whites in the United States has increased in the first two decades of the 21st-century, the only developed nation to experience that trend). Our occupational choices and schooling provide us with more choices, greater agency, and increased autonomy, all elements of job and life satisfaction. Although 5Gers rank high in international comparisons on any number of scales, their fellow citizens, the caregivers, food service workers, retail employees, assembly line men and women – all those non-college educated folks – come in the middle of the international comparison pack on multiple indicators. Their position in life is made more precarious by our ever-increasing economic inequality.
Because they are cut off from lucrative jobs and positions of political power, their voices are absent in public policy discussions. That’s one reason the poor in America, contrary to public declarations to the contrary, pay a greater percentage of their annual income in taxes than do their richer cousins. True, the poor benefit from our federal and state income tax structure, although not as much as they might in a truly progressive system. However, they cannot avoid sales taxes, property taxes, personal property taxes, and FICA taxes nor the proliferation of and/or increase in fees that has arisen in the past several decades. And all of those ways to collect money are regressive; they disproportionately affect the poor among us and help the privileged (those in the top decile particularly).
What is true about collecting taxes (they hurt poor people the most) is also true about the benefits of taxation. Not only do more tax breaks go to corporations and wealthy folks than to the poor, but rich people also get more perks. And what is true about taxes is also true about other, very visible, aspects of our shared lives together. Neighborhoods, for example, may be slightly more integrated racially today, but they are much more segregated culturally, economically and educationally. Poor people who live in gated communities do so in prisons; rich people do so next to golf courses and country clubs. Since we attend schools in proximate neighborhoods and since funding for those schools is linked to the availability of property taxes, those institutions all too often serve not as equal opportunity escalators, but as islands of hope or despair – and that’s in spite of the heroic efforts of many idealistic teachers.
As a consequence, according to Steward, we “have traded rights for privileges. We’re willing to strip everyone, including ourselves, of the universal right to a good education, adequate health care, adequate representation in the workplace, genuinely equal opportunities, because we think we can win the game.” One result is that our struggling 90% now resent, not the Donald Trumps and Koch Brothers of the top 0.1%, but that professional class, those elites. “The 2016 presidential election marked a decisive moment in the history of resentment in the United States. In the person of Donald Trump, resentment entered the White House. It rode in on the back of an alliance between a tiny subset of super-wealthy 0.1 percenters (not all of them necessarily American) and a large number of 90 percenters who stand for pretty much everything the 9.9 percent are not.”
What seems to be going on in this country is a division not simply between the religious fundamentalist and the atheist, between the city-dweller and the farmer, between conservatives and liberals, between coastal and fly-over residents, but between the highly educated, comfortable with their multiple privileges, and everyone else. Complicating that division is the issue of race in America. Again, note Stewart:
Did I mention that the common man is white? That brings us to the other side of American-style resentment. You kick down, and then you close ranks around an imaginary tribe. The problem, you say, is the moochers, the snakes, the handout queens; the solution is the flag and the religion of your (white) ancestors. According to a survey by the political scientist Brian Schaffner, Trump crushed it among voters who “strongly disagree” that “white people have advantages because of the color of their skin,” as well as among those who “strongly agree” that “women seek to gain power over men.” It’s worth adding that these responses measure not racism or sexism directly, but rather resentment. They’re good for picking out the kind of people who will vehemently insist that they are the least racist or sexist person you have ever met, even as they vote for a flagrant racist and an accused sexual predator.
No one is born resentful. As mass phenomena, racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, narcissism, irrationalism, and all other variants of resentment are as expensive to produce as they are deadly to democratic politics. Only long hours of television programming, intelligently manipulated social-media feeds, and expensively sustained information bubbles can actualize the unhappy dispositions of humanity to the point where they may be fruitfully manipulated for political gain. Racism in particular is not just a legacy of the past, as many Americans would like to believe; it also must be constantly reinvented for the present. Mass incarceration, fear-mongering, and segregation are not just the results of prejudice, but also the means of reproducing it.
The raging polarization of American political life is not the consequence of bad manners or a lack of mutual understanding. It is just the loud aftermath of escalating inequality. It could not have happened without the 0.1 percent … wealth always preserves itself by dividing the opposition.
But that is not to let the 9.9 percent off the hook. We may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils. We’ve looked on with smug disdain as our labors have brought forth a population prone to resentment and ripe for manipulation. We should be prepared to embrace the consequences.
And what might those consequences include? Well, eventually the alliance between the tippy top wealthy among us and the 90% will come after the elites. One could argue that they are already doing some of that. Another consequence is instability and, potentially, the end of the American Project as we know it. Part of the problem is people like me and I have a responsibility to figure out how to become part of the solution.
An Aside: The underlines are mine, not Stewart’s. Also apologizes for blowing up the rules for fair use and quoting extensively from his article. I do, in my defense, attribute the arguments and research to him.
Henry Kissinger, “How the Enlightenment Ends,” The Atlantic magazine (June, 2018): 11-14.
I’m a child of the sixties, a Vietnam War protester, and a Nixon hater, so how could I possibly want to read anything by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State? Well, he was/is a more than decent historian, specializing in an era I found intriguing (his first book was about Metternich). He writes a whole lot better than he talks. And, at 95, he has remained curious about our world.
His short essay begins with the game of Go. Go is to the East what chess is to the West, a complex game based on strategy, cunning and learning from past experiences. Although Go seems simpler (there is only one piece type, a stone, and one goal, immobilize and collect your opponent’s stones, as opposed to multiple types of pieces with different move options attempting to capture a particular piece in chess), because it involves play with 180 stones per side on a larger board, gamers consider it more challenging.
We became a Go playing family, when my father was stationed in Japan during the 1950s. I was never able to gain the comparable skills in Go that I once had with chess, although I got better as I got older. Usually, in Japan, my brother and I defaulted to a variation of Stack Four or Connect. What’d you expect? We were four and seven years old at the time.
Kissinger learned that there would soon be a computer that could beat international champion Go players and that the computer would be able to accomplish that feat as a result of self-learning. In other words, the program in the computer was not how to become a Go champion, because there were almost an infinite number of options within each game. The program was how to learn from playing the game innumerable times. Since the computer can play much, much faster than a human, it gains from that additional experience and will, ultimately, become a better player. It is a perfect example of AI, artificial intelligence.
In response, what does an ultimate nerd like Kissinger do? He arranged a set of discussions with technology experts to better understand AI.
Progress, Kissinger notes, has really been about differing ways of making sense of our world. Facts (truth) were once the province of isolated tribes and limited experience. It became, then, the repository of wisdom found in religion. Organized religion was subsequently challenged by science, which ushered in an age of reason. In the 19th-century history complemented the scientific method as a way of understanding our individual and communal lives. What, Kissinger speculated, will happen when AI surpasses what we as humans can comprehend and articulate?
As Kissinger points out, “the Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spreads by a new technology.” Conversely, we live at a time when a new technology is in search of a philosophy. Whereas other nations are simultaneously advancing the development of AI and seeking to understand its implications for human beings, we are not – and, according to Kissinger, that’s not a smart thing. His rosy conclusion: “This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.” I might argue that the election of Donald Trump confirms the end of the Enlightenment Age, but I’m not sure what succeeds it. The alternative facts and reality of Trumpsters? Or, perhaps even more tragically, the superior learning abilities of machines? And, when that happens, are they still machines?