Making Way for America’s New Aristocracy

Class warfare gets a lot of media attention these days, but it’s really nothing new. For proof, just look at ancient Rome or the follow-up to America’s Gilded Age.

But sometimes arguments about class become boisterous, and that’s certainly happening today. In Seattle, for example, we have an outspoken socialist city council member who is highly critical of measures that could benefit wealthy businesses or property owners. Nationally, the term “1 percenters” serves as an often resentful description of America’s privileged class.

Which brings us to the so-called “9.9 percent,” a group writer Matthew Stewart refers to as “the new aristocracy” in a recent feature article in The Atlantic.

So who are these 9.9 percenters?  In Stewart’s view, they are “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.” They have advantages like good families, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs.  Collectively, they hold nearly 60% of America’s wealth.

While that may sound impressive, this segment sits miles apart from America’s real moneyed and powerful citizens—the .1 percenters who hold 22 percent of the nation’s wealth.

What about the other 90 percent?  Oh yeah, them.  Collectively, their relative wealth has been shrinking at a remarkable pace.  As recently as the mid-1980s, this vast segment owned 35% of America’s wealth. Today, they own roughly 20%, less than the tiny demographic of the .1 percenters.

Stewart goes on (warning: this is a very long beach or airplane read) to describe how the 9.9 percent have “taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls.” In his view, by taking steps to ensure that their children have the best chance of success, they have unwittingly become barriers to the millions of people below them on the social scale.

Is this a looming problem we need to solve? Or is it inevitable that people who have acquired wealth (including some of Stewart’s own ancestors) will act aggressively in order to hang onto it? The question remains unanswered. But if you’ve got time, the piece makes for a provocative read.