Even the Reagan Revolution rode on the coattails of this paradigm — trickle-down economics, after all, emphasizes the trickle. But in the late 1970s, things started to change. The income of the middle class started to stagnate and those at the top began to pull away from everyone else. This shift was most pronounced in the United States, but by the twenty-first century, surging income inequality had become a worldwide phenomenon, visible in most of the developed Western economies as well as in the rising emerging markets.
The switch from the America of the Great Compression to the America of the 1 percent is still so recent that our intuitive beliefs about how capitalism works haven’t caught up with the reality. In fact, surging income inequality is such a strong violation of our expectations that most of us don’t realize it is happening.
That is what Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely discovered in a 2011 experiment with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School. Ariely showed people the wealth distribution in the United States, where the top 20 percent own 84 percent of the total wealth, and in Sweden, where the share of the top 20 percent is just 36 percent. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they preferred the wealth distribution of Sweden to that of the United States today. Ariely then asked his subjects to give their ideal distribution of wealth for the United States. Respondents preferred that the top 20 percent own just 32 percent of total wealth, an even more equitable distribution than Sweden’s. When it comes to wealth inequality, Americans would prefer to live in Sweden — or in the late 1950s compared to the United States today. And they would like kibbutz-style egalitarianism best of all.
The skew toward the very top is so pronounced that you can’t understand overall economic growth figures without taking it into account. As in a school whose improved test scores are due largely to the stellar performance of a few students, the surging fortunes at the very top can mask stagnation lower down the income distribution. Consider America’s economic recovery in 2009–2010. Overall incomes in that period grew by 2.3 percent — tepid growth, to be sure, but a lot stronger than you might have guessed from the general gloom of that period.
Look more closely at the data, though, as economist Emmanuel Saez did, and it turns out that average Americans were right to doubt the economic comeback. That’s because for 99 percent of Americans, incomes increased by a mere 0.2 percent. Meanwhile, the incomes of the top 1 percent jumped by 11.6 percent. It was definitely a recovery — for the 1 percent.
There’s a similar story behind the boom in the emerging markets. The “India Shining” of the urban middle class has left untouched hundreds of millions of peasants living at subsistence levels, as the Bharatiya Janata Party discovered to its dismay when it sought reelection on the strength of that slogan; likewise, China’s booming coastal elite is a world apart from the roughly half of the population who still live in villages in the country’s vast hinterland.
This book is, therefore, an attempt to understand the changing shape of the world economy by looking at those at the very top: who they are, how they made their money, how they think, and how they relate to the rest of us. This isn’t “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but it also isn’t a remake of Who Is to Blame?, the influential nineteenth-century novel by Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism.
This book takes as its starting point the conviction that we need capitalists, because we need capitalism — it being, like democracy, the best system we’ve figured out so far. But it also argues that outcomes matter, too, and that the pulling away of the plutocrats from everyone else is both an important consequence of the way that capitalism is working today and a new reality that will shape the future.
Other accounts of the top 1 percent have tended to focus either on politics or on economics. The choice can have ideological implications. If you are a fan of the plutocrats, you tend to prefer economic arguments, because that makes their rise seem inevitable, or at least inevitable in a market economy. Critics of the plutocrats often lean toward political explanations, because those show the dominance of the 1 percent to be the work of the fallible Beltway, rather than of Adam Smith.
America still dominates the world economy, and Americans still dominate the super-elite. But this book also tries to put U.S. plutocrats into a global context. The rise of the 1 percent is a global phenomenon, and in a globalized world economy, the plutocrats are the most international of all, both in how they live their lives and in how they earn their fortunes.
Henry George, the nineteenth-century American economist and politician, was an ardent free trader and such a firm believer in free enterprise that he opposed income tax. For him, the emergence of his era’s plutocrats, the robber barons, was “the Great Sphinx.”
“This association of poverty with progress,” he wrote, “is the great enigma of our times. . . . So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent.”
A century and a half later, that Great Sphinx has returned. This book is an attempt to unravel part of that enigma by opening the door to the House of Have and studying its residents.
Excerpted from Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright Chrystia Freeland, 2012.