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The Great Isolation of the 1%

Chronic racial and gender imbalances amongst the super-rich only add to their detachment from the world around them.
 
 
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This article originally appeared on Colorlines.com, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Due to a spate of bizarre rants from members of the 1 percent over the past two weeks, it would be easy to conclude that America’s super-rich have gone off the rails. A well-known billionaire Tom Perkins recently compared the plight of America’s economic elite to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Fellow billionaire, Sam Zell, rushed to his side and declared the fascist comparison “right.” If these bizarre statements were merely the strange musings of lone, eccentric rich people, no one would care. But the problem is that what the ultra-wealthy think has a disproportionate influence over our political system and their economic values have dominated American economic policy for the last three decades. The disturbing truth is that these comments help to give insight as to why economic inequality is hardening and resistant to change.

Chronic racial and gender imbalances amongst the super-rich only add to their detachment from the world around them. Despite the glitter and visibility of black and Latino celebrities, black and Latino wealth is the lowest on record. The annual list of America’s richest four-hundred people, generated by Forbes, highlights alarming realities. 

Even though they make up half of the U.S. population, only 48 women are on the list. Only one Latino, Jorge Perez, and one African-American, Oprah Winfrey, are on it as well. The list indicates an even starker truth. Even in rapidly diversifying present-day America, close to 100 percent of America’s wealthiest households are white; 96 percent to be exact. These whopping wealth inequities underscore that the super wealthy occupy a world apart from the rest of us, one that is growing more distant.

Reinforced by political access, national economic policy, and their own echo chamber of social networks and media outlets, their world has an outsized influence on and negative consequences for the reality lived by everyone else.

Wealth and its discontents
The latest glimpse into the Oz-like mind of the superrich erupted when Perkins fired off a screed to The Wall Street Journal on January 25. His letter to the editor was sparked by anger at San Francisco’s anti-gentrification protests centered on Google’s private bus network used to ferry employees to the company’s campus 35 miles away. In his note Perkins railed against “progressive radicalism,” and declared that there were “parallels” between Hitler’s Germany and “the progressive war on the American 1 percent, namely the ‘rich.’” Even though Perkins gave a partial apology for some of his words days later, the damage was done. In response to his screed, Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman penned an op-ed titled, “Paranoia of the Plutocrats.”

The problem with Perkins’ paranoia is that he is not alone in it. Despite the fact that the top 1 percent has captured nine out of 10 dollars of all the wealth added to the economy since 2000, there is a pervasive sense that they are the ones facing persecution and denigration. As wealth therapist Jamie Trager-Muney told Politico, “I think that with Occupy Wall Street there was a sense of the heat getting turned up and a feeling of vilification and potential danger.” But as Krugman points out the real danger in America is poverty and inequality. There is “strong evidence that high inequality leads to worse health and higher mortality,” he writes. Being poor, rather than being rich, is what kills.

Regardless of the facts, the issue is that what the rich actually believe about themselves and about everyone else has an excessive impact on American society. As was laid out in a report last year by the think tank Demos, wealthy individuals are far more likely vote and contribute to political campaigns. Those making over $150,000 showed up at the polls nearly twice the rate as those making less than $20,000. In 2012, just 41,000 Americans — out of a total population of 310 million — gave $2,600 or more to presidential campaigns that year. But these contributions made up nearly one out of four dollars raised that year meaning that these individuals’ impact on presidential fundraising was 2,500 times greater than their actual percentage of the population.