America's new aristocracy: the 9.9% and their delusion of hereditary meritocracy

It's true that the 1% have accumulated a massive share of America's national wealth; but just as significant is the cohort of professionals — "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" — who style themselves as the "meritocratic middle class" but who actually represent the top decile of American wealth, with net worths from $1.2m to $10m.

The 9.9% have rigged the system every bit as much as the 1% have: they live in exclusive ZIP codes with the nation's best "public" schools; they spend vast fortunes to get their kids into elite private colleges; they get better health care and serve easier prison time; they live longer and they pass all these privileges on to their children.

Along with the 1%, the 9.9% are recreating the Gilded Age, right down to the creation of a class of "governesses" (under the modern job description of "nanny"): "both indistinguishable in all outward respects from the upper class and yet emphatically not a member of it." The inequality, corruption, and social immobility of 2018 America is meeting and surpassing all the key metrics that made the Gilded Age so very unstable.

Matthew Stewart — author of a magesterial longread on America's new aristos — is the descendant of a corrupt oil executive who was key to the Teapot Dome scandal and whose shadow looms over the Stewart family. Stewart uses his substantial literary gifts and the editorial generosity of the Atlantic to catalog the non-monetary ways in which wealth is accumulated, hoarded, and passed on intergenerationally, with a special emphasis on the psychological delusions about the self-made nature of the 9.9% and the "meritocratic" system that has elevated them, and their children, to the status of precarious courtiers to the billionaire class.

Stewart thinks that we're on a collision course with disaster: this kind of inequality "has reliably ended only in catastrophic violence: wars, revolutions, the collapse of states, or plagues and other disasters."

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver disease are all two to three times more common in individuals who have a family income of less than $35,000 than in those who have a family income greater than $100,000. Among low-educated, middle-aged whites, the death rate in the United States—alone in the developed world—increased in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Driving the trend is the rapid growth in what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call "deaths of despair"—suicides and alcohol- and drug-related deaths.

The sociological data are not remotely ambiguous on any aspect of this growing divide. We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients or line up great internships for our kids.

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.

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy [Matthew Stewart/The Atlantic]

(via Naked Capitalism)