I was not born to the one percent. In fact, by the time I came along, my family was pretty far down the socio-economic ladder, with my mother raising her children on a secretary’s salary in an economically depressed Appalachian town. She never made over $20,000.
A confluence of influences has led me to the periphery of the land of the one percent and I have met, worked with, occasionally socialized with some of the richest and most influential people in the country.
If you are looking for a piece about the foibles of the one percent—how they’re rude, out of touch, entitled—you’ll have to go somewhere else. Almost across the board, they have been thoughtful, intelligent people. This may be because I have come across them while engaged in progressive causes. They believe in the issues I believe in and, like most people, I’m predisposed to like people who agree with me.
I also like to believe that the other one percenters, those who have decided to put their money to use turning the country into the governmental equivalent of a rubber stamp for whatever they want (and conversely, to deny others what they need and want), are rude, entitled, and out of touch. I like to think I would take an instant and visceral dislike to the Koch brothers – that their eyes gleam manically and evil is palpable when they walk into a room, making good people everywhere recoil in horror. Unfortunately, over the course of my working life, I have also worked with a good many on the other side, some of whom have advanced policies and beliefs I find utterly abhorrent but who in day-to-day dealings were personable and considerate, and who sincerely inquired as to how I was doing even when they didn’t need anything from me. Life is messy that way.
So this is not about the one percent as people.
I currently live in a small mother-in-law apartment in a neighborhood that is on the cusp of one percent land. The houses are big and most are behind gates. Sometimes, when I’m running or biking through the neighborhood, I think about the disconnect between my current neighborhood and my hometown and I realize that people in my hometown, when they talk about the rich, talk about them in the abstract. It’s one thing to know people own cars that cost two or three times the U.S. median household income , it’s another to be confronted by it day after day. And it’s not just one luxury car sitting in the parking areas of these homes, it’s three, sometimes four (Edmonds.com lists 73 luxury vehicles over $85,000). Easily, on any given day, I can bike past a house with more than $200,000 worth of cars sitting out front.
I say my neighborhood is on the cusp of one percent land. That’s because my neighborhood is accessible to everyone. Anyone can drive though and gawk at the houses (if you can see them behind the security gates and privacy fences). The true one percent in my city lives in communities I can’t access. I can’t run or bike past their homes and count the number of luxury cars out front because I would be stopped by guards and probably arrested. Not only are their homes gated and walled off, so are their communities.
Because my city is on the water, the homes of the one percent are on the water. And that’s something else that people in my hometown don’t really grasp. The one percent can buy the most beautiful natural features – the best views, the loveliest beaches, the prettiest lakes—and bar access to almost all but themselves. You can drive the coast road in my city and be 50 feet from the water and never know it, because large houses are hidden behind walls and gates and shrubs that form a barrier as thick as a penitentiary wall between the water and the ninety nine percent.
It’s not something I’ve ever been able to effectively articulate to those back home—just how much the one percent has. The one percent, behind their gates and fences and guardhouses, seem more cognizant than my hometown of just how much they have. Perhaps the real reason those gates and fences and guardhouses exist is because they have an inkling of what might happen to them with the sudden creation of a large underclass who feels they’ve got nothing left to lose and fully buys into an every-man-for-himself society.
As I’ve observed the one percent, I’ve realized that it just takes one person to turn a family into a one percent family—the one with the big, revolutionary idea or the one who claws to the top of hedge fund management. The one percent is not unlike a medieval monarchy. Once someone has managed to nab the crown on the field of battle, all the descendants have to do is hang on to it and continue to amass wealth to reinforce their position, which according to the Wall Street Journal, they don’t do via employment.
There is no merit involved, no proof of superior intellect, no outstanding moral fiber. Although they are often very intelligent, one percenters don’t have to replicate the success of the family member who got them there to stay there. They probably couldn’t, because those people are actually quite rare. They just need to not lose the money.
And money is all that they need. With it, they can get a job or get their congressman on the phone. They don’t even need higher education if they don’t want it. It must have been met with a certain amount of irony by families facing thousands of dollars of student loan debt that Warren Buffett, in a recent 60 Minutes interview, found it amusing that none of his three children have a college degree. He even made a joke about it. Meanwhile, lower and middle class families across the United States are being told over and over and over that without the best college education, they are forever doomed to a marginal lifestyle.
But here’s the thing about the one percent. As the government cuts more and more from education, social services, arts and other programs, the country will actually become more dependent on the one percent. They give the large donations to the universities and hospitals and programs and services now scrambling for money. (At a lunch one day, as I was relating my visit to an art museum in a major city, a man sitting at our table asked, “Did you see my room?” “Your what?” I said. “My room. I gave ‘em a room.” Sure enough, he and his family had given a very large gift to build a gallery in the museum.)
When government support for the poor, the arts, consumer protection, education, health care, environmental regulation, infrastructure, is cut, those with money are asked to step up and fill the gap and we become a nation dependant on the charity and patronage of few rather than a nation where we all contribute to the general welfare; receiving help when we need it, giving more when we have abundance, sharing the complex burden of running a nation.
There is no reason to think that most of the one percenters who step up to fill the gap and those who represent them won’t try to do so with integrity and compassion. But it gives them even more power and no matter how benevolent they may be, they, not the voters, will pick and choose who gets what. (You are fooling yourself if you think that your $500 donation to the local food bank will give you much sway over how it decides to spend its money—add a few zeros to that, though, and you can most likely sit on the board.)
I have trouble understanding why those who rail against the government are otherwise so willing to give away their power—granted there’s not a lot of power in one vote, but there is power in many votes—to a small group of people, not all of whom will have their best interests at heart and over whom they will have no authority.
It could be that the whole of the 20th century—with its expanding middle class, educational attainment, and social safety nets—was simply an aberration and that what the majority of Americans want to go back to is a country with no social security, no services for the disabled, no unemployment insurance, no agency watching over whether or not the water is safe to drink, and no Saturdays off. It could be that that freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose and people are okay with that.
While I was working on this post Mitt Romney brought up the specter of the “bitter politics of envy.” (No doubt, Mitt thinks that while I’m riding my bike past all those luxury cars parked in front of big houses, I’m thinking resentfully, “I gotta get me some of that.”) The right is currently playing to pride to try to convince people that certain things– good schools, higher education, good jobs and wages, strong police and fire services, a safe and secure old age, medical care, safe bridges and roads, support during tough times, a responsive government that watches out for them—that those things are actually fiscally irresponsible handouts and that strong people – proud people—not only don’t need them, but should scorn them.
Pride is a powerful thing. For my mother, it meant working two jobs: her fulltime job as a legal secretary and her part-time job typing dictated depositions at home. In my youth, I fell asleep and woke up to the sound of my mother’s typewriter. If you want the embodiment of true American excellence, it’s low-wage parents doing what it takes to raise their children.
When I bike past those large homes in my neighborhood, though, I'm not thinking, "I gotta get me some of that," while plotting a life of crime. I prefer instead to dwell on another statement about envy by a Republican who actually was president.
"I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life; I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well." Theodore Roosevelt
I think Teddy would have liked my mom.
(A Work-in-Progress; constructive suggestions welcome.)