They are also different than they were before the Reagan tax cuts.
Remember Sherman McCoy, the protagonist from Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and his $2 million apartment on 5th Avenue? Even if you take inflation into account that place wouldn’t be fit for a college crash pad for the children of today’s hyper-rich elite. Only 30 years after the Reagan era tax cuts for the rich went into effect we have seen Tom Wolfe’s cautionary tale turn into a quaint little fable.
It’s one thing for people to stand by and do nothing but watch as our elites stack the cards in favor of the richest few in America but it’s another thing to cheer it on at every step, convincing ourselves that we could be part of that group with the right lottery ticket, a few hands of blackjack, or maybe a little promotion. Most criticism of the hyper-rich is met with a cascade of insults about how you’re just jealous, or that you hate capitalism—the modern version of apostasy.
It just pathetic that we allow ourselves to be fed these inequalities in our diet of popular culture, as if it’s now perfectly normal that a few members of our society have risen to god-like status leaving us questioning whether or not it’s even possible to be considered a citizen if you’re merely eking out an existence like most of us. It’s supposed to be OK because in the future (according to the books, stories, TV, and movies we are force-fed) we’ll all have a super-rich friend who can lend us money.
The pop culture landscape is littered with the propaganda that hyper-rich people are our friends, they just have enough money to make the world spin the other way if they so desire. A recent example is Why Him?, an utterly forgettable film with the following synopsis: A holiday gathering threatens to go off the rails when Ned Fleming realizes that his daughter's Silicon Valley millionaire boyfriend is about to pop the question.
Except the boyfriend isn’t a millionaire because that would be too boring and unoriginal, not that the film is adverse to boring and unoriginal during its seemingly endless one hour and 50 minute runtime. No, a millionaire doesn’t travel in a private helicopter and may not even fly first class unless it’s a company upgrade. In the film the father calls him a “zillionaire” which is just further proof that our ship is sailing off the face of the earth in uncharted waters in which a new vocabulary is necessary. Vocabulary is the least of our worries in this age of wealth inequality.
This poison is making its way into what we read. This is from the short story “Signal” form the April 3, 2017edition of the New Yorker where we are served this description of one of these plutocrats:
“Michael was loaded, seriously and unambiguously loaded. He was the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich. He had made the money himself. It was all the more impressive because Michael seemed barely to have noticed. His peers and friends and rivals and colleagues were all amazed by the fact that Mike was now some kind of gazillionaire…”
Just why it’s important to the story to have a “gazillionaire” isn’t really clear except that he has a house so big and vast that one would hardly notice if, during an overnight visit, a mysterious stranger may or may not have diddled your unsupervised kids while you were out doing something stinking rich people do (killing animals that are served to you on a platter, like hunting at a petting zoo). He could have placed the whole story in a moderately-priced hotel but where’s the fun in that? I suppose that the author feels that the mega-mansions of billionaires make for better literature than any Holiday Inn Express.
Next we have the excellent Showtime series Billions which goes right to the heart of the matter, sort of. Here is the synopsis: U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades goes after hedge fund king, Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in a battle between two powerful New York figures. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades goes after hedge fund king, Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in a battle between two powerful New York figures.
Half-way through the second season it’s almost impossible to tell who the good guy is and who is the bad guy—if there is a bad guy. I completely understand the idea of not painting this Manichean tableau of good and evil but at the same time I have some misgivings about the storyline.
Balzac wrote in Le Père Goriot, “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.” I don’t care to discuss here whether behind all great fortunes there is a crime but I can state confidently that nothing threatens our democracy more than the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few individuals. If you doubt this I will point you to Exhibit A, the new president of the USA. If ever there were an unqualified plutocrat running the show then that guy is Trump.
Hello Citizens United, adiós democracy, and welcome to the new aristocracy. For those of us who have read some history we already know how this ends. Now where did we put those guillotines?