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How Do You Feel About Billionaires?

This morning, Noah Smith took on the concept of social class in America, a country which he defines as "a class-stratified society. Class looms so large over our society that we don’t even see it, like a roof that’s so big we think it’s the sky."

Living in Japan gave Smith more perspective on class stratification in America. Japan isn't classless, he wrote, "But when you see top college graduates marry construction workers and food service workers show up to dinner parties with private equity people, you start to realize that the world doesn’t have to be the way it was in the place and time in which you grew up." Most Americans define themselves as middle class but quite a few identify as worker and lower class; almost no one cops to being upper class (maybe 2%).

[I]ncome and wealth are far from the only things that define your social stratum in this country. There are at least three other important factors that I can think of off the top of my head-- race, education, and occupation.
Back in the dark days of the political hellscape that was 2015-16, there was a ferocious battle among the online portions of the Democratic base over race versus class. This was really a proxy for the Bernie-Hillary fight-- a debate over whether Dems should try to win the election by turning out more minorities or by making a bid for the non-college White voters who were increasingly drifting to the GOP, but who Bernie seemed to appeal to. But in any case, the correct answer, which both factions of activists realized but neither could let themselves admit, was obviously “both,” because race influences class very deeply.
... When a pundit in America talks about the “working class”, the image they conjure is often implicitly a racial one-- a White guy in a hard hat. These, after all, were the swing voters in the political battles of the mid-to-late 20th century, the Reagan Democrats who flipped over culture war issues. But the actual working class of America in 2021 is very diverse-- a majority of construction workers, for example, are Hispanic or Black at this point, though of course it varies by region.
Take a walk through the Mission in San Francisco. Pop into a Walgreens, and as likely as not, the clerk behind the counter will be a Hispanic woman. If there is a working class in America, she is certainly part of it. Then hop on the BART and ride downtown; as likely as not, the train conductor will be a Black man. If there is a working class in America, he is certainly part of it. But in the fables we tell about “the working class,” both of these people are invisible.
You’d think they’d be very visible to the Left-- to the Bernie-voting young warriors who championed a class-first politics in 2016. But bizarrely, I find that these people often have in mind an entirely different image of the working class-- a member of the educated, downwardly mobile, mostly White “precariat.” In other words…themselves. A deli worker who graduated from Michigan State but can’t figure out what to do with her humanities degree; a struggling public school teacher; a writer for a leftist magazine who gets priced out of superstar cities by dastardly tech workers, etc. It is to the rescue of this precariat and their frustrated expectations that the government must ride, with student loan relief and free college and so on.
Conservatives, of course, will scoff at this. To them, class is generally defined not by wealth or income, but by education. As the American electorate becomes ever more polarized by education, Republicans become ever more resentful of the scholar-gentry who shame them for not saying “Latinx.” For wealthy Republicans the resentment must be all the more galling-- to think, some nonprofit loser in Portland exercising cultural hegemony over titans of industry!
It’s not like the Republicans don’t have a point here. Though the economic fortunes of college grads have faded a bit in recent years, the earnings premium for a four-year degree is still around 80%. Potential income is important; a sheepskin from a good school makes all the difference between a truly poor person and a temporarily embarrassed member of the upper middle class. There’s a real difference between someone who’s standing behind a cash register because that’s the best they can do to feed their family, and someone who’s there because they’re in denial about going to law school.
Still, throwing education into the maelstrom of American class just makes the whole thing more complicated. And then on top of that, there’s occupation. Karl Marx conceived of class as being closely tied to what you do for a living-- the proletariat were wage-earning laborers, the petit bourgeoisie were small businesspeople, and so on. The modern economy has progressed vastly beyond anything old Karl knew; we have a kaleidoscope of engineers, low-paid service workers, unionized semi-skilled auto workers, financiers, gig workers, consultants, online cryptocurrency shills, and so on.
And yet despite this endlessly proliferating complexity, what you do for a living still matters for your class. A rich White boat dealer with a college degree is of a different class than an equally rich White software engineer who went to the same school. The biggest divide, though we don’t often talk about it, might be between knowledge workers and other workers; between those who benefit from the spillovers of ideas and capital that arise in superstar cities, and those who will do just as well living in the exurbs. Knowledge clusters have reshaped the entire geography of the nation; this has led to a divergence of class interests between the residents of the exurb and the denizens of the megalopolis.
Class in America is thus so complex, so multidimensional and fragmented, that it requires an enormous amount of cultural capital just to navigate. To decide whether someone is a suitable spouse for your child-- perhaps the ultimate determinant of class in any society-- requires solving a hard computational problem. You have to evaluate their income and their potential income; their wealth and their family’s wealth; their occupation and their career prospects; their race and their racial politics; and their educational attainment. And all the interactions between those things. And you have to do it all while studiously pretending to yourself that you live in a middle-class society where anyone can be anything they want to be.
And so we wander through our country as if in parallel realities. We walk through teeming, crowded cities where only a few other people really exist-- the other residents of our tiny stratum. Our class equals are real to us, manifesting in living color-- people we might laugh with, do deals with, make love with, confess our frustrations to. The members of adjacent classes are a bit less real-- washed-out caricatures we deal with using simple heuristics. And the members of distant classes are mere shadows to us-- moving objects to be avoided on the street, automated kiosks to service our economic needs, statistics in our daily news. The Walgreens cashier, the BART conductor-- who could they ever be to you? And who could you ever be to them?

Beyond education-- or, theoretically, even race-- is another class, the billionaire class that Bernie has done so much to expose.

Fallout from the ProPublica exposé, the week began at the New York Times with a guest essay by Anand Giridharadas, Warren Buffet and the Myth of the 'Good Billionaire'. Giridharadas notes that Buffett doesn't fit in with the obvious arch-villain billionaires like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos or, God forbid, any of the "Sacklerian undertakers." There's a fly in that ointment though-- Buffett, writes Giridharadas, "is actually the most dangerous kind of billionaire we have. The worst billionaires are the Good Billionaires. The sort who make it seem like the problem is the distortion of the system when, in fact, the problem is the system."

Actually malevolent and disastrously negligent plutocrats get most of the attention. And when we hear about these Bad Billionaire exploits, it is possible to conclude from them that the system needs better policing, updated regulations and maybe slightly higher taxes. The system needs to be made to work again.
But as America slouches toward plutocracy, our problem isn’t the virtue level of billionaires. It’s a set of social arrangements that make it possible for anyone to gain and guard and keep so much wealth, even as millions of others lack for food, work, housing, health, connectivity, education, dignity and the occasion to pursue their happiness.
There is no way to be a billionaire in America without taking advantage of a system predicated on cruelty, a system whose tax code and labor laws and regulatory apparatus prioritize your needs above most people’s. Even noted Good Billionaire Mr. Buffett has profited from Coca-Cola’s sugary drinks, Amazon’s union busting, Chevron’s oil drilling, Clayton Homes’s predatory loans and, as the country learned recently, the failure to tax billionaires on their wealth.
...Buffett is almost the perfectly made billionaire for this moment in which, at last, many Americans are beginning to question not only corruptions of the system but the matter of whether billionaires should exist at all. He doesn’t do the things the worst of them do. He isn’t in it for what they’re in it for. He clearly must care about money, but he also kind of doesn’t care about money. Even in his generosity, he has avoided the imperial lording over that others cannot resist.
And this is what makes him so troubling, because through him we are tempted into believing that a system can be defended that allows a man to accumulate more than $100 billion while people are sleeping, in hock to him, in his mobile homes, shortening their lives with the beverages he’s invested in, scampering around the warehouses whose nonunion status has redounded to his money pile.
It can’t. And who keeps us from seeing that simple, stark truth more effectively, more perniciously, than the Good Billionaire?

What typical Americans think:

1 Comment

Jun 18, 2021

taxing the rich doesn't cover it all. tax high incomes, as they did to recover from the great depression and create the biggest middle class in the history of the world, sure. naturally. of course. it fucking works!

but by NOT taxing income nor cap gains nor increases in paper holdings since 1980, we've created billionaires where mere millionaires used to be our "rich". In addition, because we don't tax nor regulate corporations any more, we've created the conditions where the CxO caste can and does treat their activities as minting their own wealth. When a bank CEO can "earn" a 9-figure comp, even honestly, there is something very wrong.

so, absolutely, tax large compensation (all forms). 75% is probabl…

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