According to Miles Corak, an economics professor at the City University of New York, half a century ago IGE in America was less than 0.3. Today, it is about 0.5. In America, the game is half over once you’ve selected your parents. IGE is now higher here than in almost every other developed economy. On this measure of economic mobility, the United States is more like Chile or Argentina than Japan or Germany.Thanks to Roberto Aguilar for sharing.
The Aristocracy Is Dead …For about a week every year in my childhood, I was a member of one of America’s fading aristocracies. Sometimes around Christmas, more often on the Fourth of July, my family would take up residence at one of my grandparents’ country clubs in Chicago, Palm Beach, or Asheville, North Carolina. The breakfast buffets were magnificent, and Grandfather was a jovial host, always ready with a familiar story, rarely missing an opportunity for gentle instruction on proper club etiquette. At the age of 11 or 12, I gathered from him, between his puffs of cigar smoke, that we owed our weeks of plenty to Great-Grandfather, Colonel Robert W. Stewart, a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt who made his fortune as the chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana in the 1920s. I was also given to understand that, for reasons traceable to some ancient and incomprehensible dispute, the Rockefellers were the mortal enemies of our clan. Only much later in life did I learn that the stories about the Colonel and his tangles with titans fell far short of the truth.
At the end of each week, we would return to our place. My reality was the aggressively middle-class world of 1960s and ’70s U.S. military bases and the communities around them. Life was good there, too, but the pizza came from a box, and it was Lucky Charms for breakfast. Our glory peaked on the day my parents came home with a new Volkswagen camper bus. As I got older, the holiday pomp of patriotic luncheons and bridge-playing rituals came to seem faintly ridiculous and even offensive, like an endless birthday party for people whose chief accomplishment in life was just showing up. I belonged to a new generation that believed in getting ahead through merit, and we defined merit in a straightforward way: test scores, grades, competitive résumé-stuffing, supremacy in board games and pickup basketball, and, of course, working for our keep. For me that meant taking on chores for the neighbors, punching the clock at a local fast-food restaurant, and collecting scholarships to get through college and graduate school. I came into many advantages by birth, but money was not among them.
I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. If you are a typical reader of The Atlantic, you may well be a member too. (And if you’re not a member, my hope is that you will find the story of this new class even more interesting—if also more alarming.) To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.
By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below. But we do have a blind spot, and it is located right in the center of the mirror: We seem to be the last to notice just how rapidly we’ve morphed, or what we’ve morphed into.
The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.
Let’s talk first about money—even if money is only one part of what makes the new aristocrats special. There is a familiar story about rising inequality in the United States, and its stock characters are well known. The villains are the fossil-fueled plutocrat, the Wall Street fat cat, the callow tech bro, and the rest of the so-called top 1 percent. The good guys are the 99 percent, otherwise known as “the people” or “the middle class.” The arc of the narrative is simple: Once we were equal, but now we are divided. The story has a grain of truth to it. But it gets the characters and the plot wrong in basic ways.
The Discreet Charm of the 9.9 Percent
It is in fact the top 0.1 percent who have been the big winners in the growing concentration of wealth over the past half century. According to the UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the 160,000 or so households in that group held 22 percent of America’s wealth in 2012, up from 10 percent in 1963. If you’re looking for the kind of money that can buy elections, you’ll find it inside the top 0.1 percent alone.
A Tale of Three Classes (Figure 1):
The 9.9 percent hold most of the wealth in the United States.
Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, 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. In the tale of three classes (see Figure 1), it is represented by the gold line floating high and steady while the other two duke it out. You’ll find the new aristocracy there. We are the 9.9 percent.
So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”
As of 2016, it took $1.2 million in net worth to make it into the 9.9 percent; $2.4 million to reach the group’s median; and $10 million to get into the top 0.9 percent. (And if you’re not there yet, relax: Our club is open to people who are on the right track and have the right attitude.) “We are the 99 percent” sounds righteous, but it’s a slogan, not an analysis. The families at our end of the spectrum wouldn’t know what to do with a pitchfork.
We are also mostly, but not entirely, white. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, African Americans represent 1.9 percent of the top 10th of households in wealth; Hispanics, 2.4 percent; and all other minorities, including Asian and multiracial individuals, 8.8 percent—even though those groups together account for 35 percent of the total population.
One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.
Let’s suppose that you start off right in the middle of the American wealth distribution. How high would you have to jump to make it into the 9.9 percent? In financial terms, the measurement is easy and the trend is unmistakable. In 1963, you would have needed to multiply your wealth six times. By 2016, you would have needed to leap twice as high—increasing your wealth 12-fold—to scrape into our group. If you boldly aspired to reach the middle of our group rather than its lower edge, you’d have needed to multiply your wealth by a factor of 25. On this measure, the 2010s look much like the 1920s.
If you are starting at the median for people of color, you’ll want to practice your financial pole-vaulting. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that, setting aside money invested in “durable goods” such as furniture and a family car, the median black family had net wealth of $1,700 in 2013, and the median Latino family had $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family. A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8. That is not a typo. That’s two grande cappuccinos. That and another 300,000 cups of coffee will get you into the 9.9 percent.
Video: America’s Class Problem
According to Miles Corak, an economics professor at the City University of New York, half a century ago IGE in America was less than 0.3. Today, it is about 0.5. In America, the game is half over once you’ve selected your parents. IGE is now higher here than in almost every other developed economy. On this measure of economic mobility, the United States is more like Chile or Argentina than Japan or Germany.
The story becomes even more disconcerting when you see just where on the ladder the tightest rubber bands are located. Canada, for example, has an IGE of about half that of the U.S. Yet from the middle rungs of the two countries’ income ladders, offspring move up or down through the nearby deciles at the same respectable pace. The difference is in what happens at the extremes. In the United States, it’s the children of the bottom decile and, above all, the top decile—the 9.9 percent—who settle down nearest to their starting point. Here in the land of opportunity, the taller the tree, the closer the apple falls.
All of this analysis of wealth percentiles, to be clear, provides only a rough start in understanding America’s evolving class system. People move in and out of wealth categories all the time without necessarily changing social class, and they may belong to a different class in their own eyes than they do in others’. Yet even if the trends in the monetary statistics are imperfect illustrations of a deeper process, they are nonetheless registering something of the extraordinary transformation that’s taking place in our society.
A few years ago, Alan Krueger, an economist and a former chairman of the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, was reviewing the international mobility data when he caught a glimpse of the fundamental process underlying our present moment. Rising immobility and rising inequality aren’t like two pieces of driftwood that happen to have shown up on the beach at the same time, he noted. They wash up together on every shore. Across countries, the higher the inequality, the higher the IGE (see Figure 2). It’s as if human societies have a natural tendency to separate, and then, once the classes are far enough apart, to crystallize.
Economists are prudent creatures, and they’ll look up from a graph like that and remind you that it shows only correlation, not causation. That’s a convenient hedge for those of us at the top because it keeps alive one of the founding myths of America’s meritocracy: that our success has nothing to do with other people’s failure. It’s a pleasant idea. But around the world and throughout history, the wealthy have advanced the crystallization process in a straightforward way. They have taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls. Throughout history, moreover, one social group above all others has assumed responsibility for maintaining and defending these walls. Its members used to be called aristocrats. Now we’re the 9.9 percent. The main difference is that we have figured out how to use the pretense of being part of the middle as one of our strategies for remaining on top. Krueger liked the graph shown in Figure 2 so much that he decided to give it a name: the Great Gatsby Curve. It’s a good choice, and it resonates strongly with me. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the breakdown of the American dream is set in 1922, or right around the time that my great-grandfather was secretly siphoning money from Standard Oil and putting it into a shell company in Canada. It was published in 1925, just as special counsel was turning up evidence that bonds from that company had found their way into the hands of the secretary of the interior. Its author was drinking his way through the cafés of Paris just as Colonel Robert W. Stewart was running away from subpoenas to testify before the United States Senate about his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. We are only now closing in on the peak of inequality that his generation achieved, in 1928. I’m sure they thought it would go on forever, too.
Money can’t buy you class, or so my grandmother used to say. But it can buy a private detective. Grandmother was a Kentucky debutante and sometime fashion model (kind of like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, weirdly enough), so she knew what to do when her eldest son announced his intention to marry a woman from Spain. A gumshoe promptly reported back that the prospective bride’s family made a living selling newspapers on the streets of Barcelona. Grandmother instituted an immediate and total communications embargo. In fact, my mother’s family owned and operated a large paper-goods factory. When children came, Grandmother at last relented. Determined to do the right thing, she arranged for the new family, then on military assignment in Hawaii, to be inscribed in the New York Social Register.
The Origin of a Species
Sociologists would say, in their dry language, that my grandmother was a zealous manager of the family’s social capital—and she wasn’t about to let some Spanish street urchin run away with it. She did have a point, even if her facts were wrong. Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.
We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs. 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. And, just as in Grandmother’s day, the process of speciation begins with a love story—or, if you prefer, sexual selection.
The polite term for the process is assortative mating. The phrase is sometimes used to suggest that this is another of the wonders of the internet age, where popcorn at last meets butter and Yankees fan finds Yankees fan. In fact, the frenzy of assortative mating today results from a truth that would have been generally acknowledged by the heroines of any Jane Austen novel: Rising inequality decreases the number of suitably wealthy mates even as it increases the reward for finding one and the penalty for failing to do so. According to one study, the last time marriage partners sorted themselves by educational status as much as they do now was in the 1920s.
For most of us, the process is happily invisible. You meet someone under a tree on an exclusive campus or during orientation at a high-powered professional firm, and before you know it, you’re twice as rich. But sometimes—Grandmother understood this well—extra measures are called for. That’s where our new technology puts bumbling society detectives to shame. Ivy Leaguers looking to mate with their equals can apply to join a dating service called the League. It’s selective, naturally: Only 20 to 30 percent of New York applicants get in. It’s sometimes called “Tinder for the elites.”
It is misleading to think that assortative mating is symmetrical, as in city mouse marries city mouse and country mouse marries country mouse. A better summary of the data would be: Rich mouse finds love, and poor mouse gets screwed. It turns out—who knew?—that people who are struggling to keep it all together have a harder time hanging on to their partner. According to the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, 60 years ago just 20 percent of children born to parents with a high-school education or less lived in a single-parent household; now that figure is nearly 70 percent. Among college-educated households, by contrast, the single-parent rate remains less than 10 percent. Since the 1970s, the divorce rate has declined significantly among college-educated couples, while it has risen dramatically among couples with only a high-school education—even as marriage itself has become less common. The rate of single parenting is in turn the single most significant predictor of social immobility across counties, according to a study led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty.
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.
Most important of all, we have learned how to pass all of these advantages down to our children. In America today, the single best predictor of whether an individual will get married, stay married, pursue advanced education, live in a good neighborhood, have an extensive social network, and experience good health is the performance of his or her parents on those same metrics.
New forms of life necessarily give rise to new and distinct forms of consciousness. If you doubt this, you clearly haven’t been reading the “personal and household services” ads on Monster.com. At the time of this writing, the section for my town of Brookline, Massachusetts, featured one placed by a “busy professional couple” seeking a “Part Time Nanny.” The nanny (or manny—the ad scrupulously avoids committing to gender) is to be “bright, loving, and energetic”; “friendly, intelligent, and professional”; and “a very good communicator, both written and verbal.” She (on balance of probability) will “assist with the care and development” of two children and will be “responsible for all aspects of the children’s needs,” including bathing, dressing, feeding, and taking the young things to and from school and activities. That’s why a “college degree in early childhood education” is “a plus.”
In short, Nanny is to have every attribute one would want in a terrific, professional, college-educated parent. Except, of course, the part about being an actual professional, college-educated parent. There is no chance that Nanny will trade places with our busy 5G couple. She “must know the proper etiquette in a professionally run household” and be prepared to “accommodate changing circumstances.” She is required to have “5+ years experience as a Nanny,” which makes it unlikely that she’ll have had time to get the law degree that would put her on the other side of the bargain. All of Nanny’s skills, education, experience, and professionalism will land her a job that is “Part Time.”
The ad is written in flawless, 21st-century business-speak, but what it is really seeking is a governess—that exquisitely contradictory figure in Victorian literature who is both indistinguishable in all outward respects from the upper class and yet emphatically not a member of it. Nanny’s best bet for moving up in the world is probably to follow the example of Jane Eyre and run off with the lord (or lady) of the manor.
If you look beyond the characters in this unwritten novel about Nanny and her 5G masters, you’ll see a familiar shape looming on the horizon. The Gatsby Curve has managed to reproduce itself in social, physiological, and cultural capital. Put more accurately: There is only one curve, but it operates through a multiplicity of forms of wealth.
Rising inequality does not follow from a hidden law of economics, as the otherwise insightful Thomas Piketty suggested when he claimed that the historical rate of return on capital exceeds the historical rate of growth in the economy. Inequality necessarily entrenches itself through other, nonfinancial, intrinsically invidious forms of wealth and power. We use these other forms of capital to project our advantages into life itself. We look down from our higher virtues in the same way the English upper class looked down from its taller bodies, as if the distinction between superior and inferior were an artifact of nature. That’s what aristocrats do.
The Privilege of an Education
The skin colors of the nation’s elite student bodies are more varied now, as are their genders, but their financial bones have calcified over the past 30 years. In 1985, 54 percent of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from families in the bottom three quartiles of the income distribution. A similar review of the class of 2010 put that figure at just 33 percent. According to a 2017 study, 38 elite colleges—among them five of the Ivies—had more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. In his 2014 book, Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, summed up the situation nicely: “Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.”