I read the Wall Street Journal for a change recently, and now I’m even more pissed off I didn’t win the lottery.
See, wealth, at least for a few people, is dramatically increasing in America. According to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of Americans—their assets like home equity and stock investments measured against their outstanding debt like mortgages and student loans—has hit an all-time high: $80.7 trillion. In fact, it grew by $10 trillion last year alone. Forbes magazine touts this year’s annual list of billionaires as its “largest ever.”
Rising wealth, though, has nothing to do with the wages of people actually working for a living or regular folks buying things in retail stores. Even the Wall Street Journal says this growth “disproportionately benefited affluent Americans” and was driven by “a record-setting rally in the U.S. stock market.”
Along with stockholders, though, one single category of retailers has enjoyed the fruits of this billionaire boom. “Spending on luxury goods has generally held up in the aftermath of the recession,” the Journal continues, “but companies [targeting] average Americans aren’t doing as well.”
When the American aristocrats’ paper of record readily concedes that the economy is only improving for its own readers, the United States has a serious cultural problem brewing.
We see it other places, too. During her recent D.U.I. trial, Kerry Kennedy, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, attributed her impaired driving to having inadvertently taken the wrong prescription medication—an understandable mistake. After being acquitted, Kennedy went on Today and, rightly, acknowledged the role her privileged status played in attaining that verdict: In her words, she “had competent counsel” and enjoyed the resources and willingness “to bring it to trial.” Many others, Kennedy observed, “can’t go out and hire lawyers and therefore, they plead to something that they didn’t do.”
She’s rich, and it helps.
While it’s noble of Kennedy to point out the obvious existence of two very distinct American experiences—rich versus not—the unfairness of it remains: She got to go on an Ambien-fueled morning drive without proceeding to jail.
Well, shucks. I want to be a Kennedy. Who wouldn’t want to be able to first own a Lexus and then later use it to play his own grown up version of shitfaced MarioKart?
To be fair, those gross disparities in class experience have occasionally led rich people to do some awesome things in American history.
In the late 19th century, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie practically created the modern public library system in America by spending $56 million to build over 2,500 free libraries. Like the Kennedys, Carnegie used his wealth to do a great deal of good in the United States. Average Americans benefited from his philanthropy—and so did Carnegie, who weathered the bad press he got when his hired security guards maimed and killed dozens of striking Pennsylvania steelworkers.
In today’s America, though, it seems as though the rich need not engage in philanthropy to gain our admiration: We’ve turned their gluttonous excesses into our national fetish. We’ve assigned them a cultural value for merely possessing money without actually doing anything intrinsically valuable with it.
Southern Charm, a new reality show on Bravo, demonstrates the have-nots’ lurid curiosity about the haves perfectly as it chronicles the lives of a few old-money Southern aristocrats. One such cartoonish Fredo-with-a-drawl is the son of a former U.S. congressman as well as a former drug trafficker: Thomas Ravenel had to resign from his post as state treasurer of South Carolina after pleading guilty in 2007 to conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Having served six months in federal prison, Ravenel is apparently now determined to run for political office again, in between matches on his home’s $1 million polo field. About a million Americans watched Southern Charm’s premiere this month.
We regularly revel in the extravagant excesses of the rich on our basic cable packages, ogling not just outright mansions on MTV’s Cribs but also homes priced just south of $1 million on HGTV. A man’s home is his castle, after all, and a favorite pastime today is observing, but never being able to purchase, the homes of our dreams.
Should most of us, who could never realistically afford such houses, think of ourselves as losers in the game of life? Or, rather, is it that all Americans make ourselves losers when we use wealth as a measurement of intrinsic cultural value?
Some Americans rationalize the unfettered wealth accumulation of others as an outright virtue. In one of the more grotesque perversions of Christianity, adherents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” rationalize de facto worship of wealth through creative theological gymnastics. These folks have literally transformed greed, considered an offense to god by almost every single mainstream world religion, into a good deed.
Never mind, of course, that their savior was born, lived, and died in poverty, and his disciple Paul observed, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
In addition to building those libraries, Andrew Carnegie wrote an essay in 1889 called “Wealth,” now known colloquially as “The Gospel of Wealth.” “The problem of our age,” Carnegie begins, “is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”
Saying that class differences are inevitable in America, Carnegie still makes a breathtaking declaration: It is a key responsibility of the wealthy to “consider all surplus revenues” as “trust funds” to benefit American society and not just their heirs.
Perhaps a useful addendum to Carnegie’s essay would be that working classes have a duty themselves to enforce this responsibility. At the very least, we shouldn’t be celebrating its antithesis.
Josh Kruger is a writer and editor from Philadelphia. His PW column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” presents stories and ideas that challenge our cultural understanding of what “normal” means in American life anymore.