The past week has underscored one more way in which the lives of the super-rich are diverging from the lives of everyone else: The middle class is becoming a matriarchy, while the plutocracy remains firmly patriarchal.
One of the most urgent questions in economics today is the connection between inequality and growth. That is because one of the big economic facts of our time is the surge in income disparity, particularly between those at the very top and everyone else. The other big fact is the recession set off by the financial crisis and the consequent imperative to jump-start economic growth. Figuring out the relationship between these two tent-pole issues is therefore a good way for economists to spend their time.
If you doubt that we live in a winner-take-all economy and that education is the trump card, consider the vast amounts the affluent spend to teach their offspring. We see it anecdotally in the soaring fees for private schools, private lessons and private tutors, many of them targeted at the pre-school set. And recent academic research has confirmed what many of us overhear at the school gates or read on mommy blogs.
The one thing pretty much all of us agree on is the importance of equal opportunity. Opinion is divided about the significance of rising income inequality per se. Some see it as a problem in and of itself. But for others, a growing economic divide, so long as it is meritocratic, is a healthy characteristic of a growing, entrepreneurial society.
Prepare for the revenge of politics. For the past few decades, the quants – mathematicians, physicists and technologists – and their younger brothers, the economists, have been in the ascendant. With their mathematical models and their ability to crunch vast quantities of data, they have shaped the way businesses understand the world and operate within it.
Sometimes, the aftermath is more devastating than the storm. That is the story of the 2008 financial crisis. It was disastrous at the time, but what has been worse is how long it has lingered. That halting recuperation is why the global economic meltdown is still at the center of the political debate in the Western world.