This is the fifth response to an excerpt from Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, published this week by Penguin Press. The first response can be read here, the second here, the third here and the fourth here.
When historians write the story of the presidential campaign of 2012, it is a fair bet they will focus on how the candidates approached the question of wealth, taxation and the responsibilities of America’s richest citizens. In fact, 2012 may be the year that class – long unspoken and unacknowledged in American life – finally became an explicit issue, the year when the illusion that America is a land of universal economic opportunity and relative equality was at last shattered.
The United States as a whole is one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever known. But aggregate wealth is not individual wealth. Per capita income may look good, but it’s a number and an average, easily distorted in a society with a handful of plutocrats. It brings to mind the old joke that when Bill Gates walks into a bar, per capita everyone suddenly becomes a millionaire.
In short, the U.S. may be rich but few of its citizens are – at least in terms of net worth. Wealth is not evenly distributed, and the gap between the super-rich and the rest has never yawned wider. Chrystia Freeland addresses the causes and consequences of that gap, not just in the United States but also throughout the world. And her conclusions are that the new plutocracy is not good for democracy or the future of free-market capitalism.
The lives of the rich and occasionally famous have always drawn fascination, and today’s plutocrats are no different. CNBC has a full-time reporter focused on the super-rich, and a host of reality shows festoon the cable universe charting various aspects of wealth. That the U.S. presidential campaign is so focused on what the very wealthy owe to the common good is simply the political aspect of a cultural obsession.