Economy

Don't Worry, the Ultra-Rich Are Doing All Right

The obscenely wealthy still have enough money to buy massive super-yachts and overpriced art.

While America holds its breath wondering if the new president will fix the economic crisis, we citizens have to keep the root causes in mind, like our raging wealth and income inequalities. As busy as the population is investing in canned goods and small arms ammunition, there is at least some awareness of the growing gap between the rich and everyone else. Without a better social awareness of this great divide, fighting to change it is impossible. The divide itself has been widening for 30 years, and so have the rich.

A very revealing report on this development was recently produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the group of developed nations that includes the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Japan. The report said, "Rich households in America have been leaving both middle and poorer income groups behind. This has happened in many countries, but nowhere has this trend been so stark as in the United States." In these parts, the wealthiest 10 percent was the richest in the entire OECD; and our poorest 10 percent was the poorest.

In another embarrassing American landmark, several U.S. cities have reached levels of inequality comparable to the massive slum-cities of the Third World. Cities of great wealth, like New York and Washington, approach Buenos Aires and Nairobi in their lopsided income distributions. In particular, New York City cracked the top 10 list of the world’s most unequal cities, unheard of for the developed world.

A recent study of American tax data over the 20th century concludes that the share of total U.S. income going to the top 10 percent of American households has gone from about a third in the 1970s, to half of pre-tax income today. And over the period 1993 to 2006, the income of the top 1 percent of households increased by an annual rate of 5.7 percent, while the income of the lower 99 percent grew by only 1.1 percent over the same period.

It’s not just numbers on paper -- the well-heeled are going to town, from $700 cigars to $15,000 face-lifts to $10 million personal helicopters. What an average American would make in a hundred years, the rich drop on a chopper to take from Long Island into Manhattan, so as to shop without sitting in New York traffic. And even as the retail chains for the working and middle classes decline (except for Wal-Mart), stores with upper-class clientele are another story. With the equity markets crashing, spending by individual wealthy families is somewhat down, and analysts have found "the idea that the high-end luxury market is immune to the economic cycle is a myth." But there is a silver lining: "luxury brands continue to benefit from a sustained increase in the number of wealthy consumers, particularly in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China."

Indeed, the world now supports more wealthy families than ever before. According to a report compiled by financial analysts and described by the Financial Times, "The ranks of the world’s rich swelled to 8 million during 2007 as the wealthy proved immune to the strains across global economies in the latter half of the year." The report suggests that wealth concentration at the top "retained its strength through 2007 and is in rude health." The report concludes that 2007 saw a 4.5 percent increase in the number of the "truly rich," even as they "shrug off the credit crunch."

The rich have been affected by the credit crisis, of course, since their ownership of financial assets it so disproportionate. But the "smart money" avoided the worst of the crisis; back in June, well before the implosion of banks invested in property-backed instruments this fall, "the wealthy have responded to the turmoil in the markets by scaling back their exposure to property and hedge funds in favor of safer investments," according to a report prepared by Merrill Lynch. The wealthy cut back on property trusts and hedge funds and committed more to cash and other liquid deposits, big moves from the "more than 10 million people on the planet with financial assets worth more than $1 million." This is not to speak of the "ultra-rich -- those with $30 million or more to invest," who grew even more rapidly than the mere millionaires.

It is these ultra-rich, the multimillionaires and billionaires, who have redefined affluence and conspicuous consumption. One notorious preserve for upper-class consumption is contemporary art, where recently the consensus among the prestigious art dealers is that "while there is some uncertainty in the middle of the contemporary art market, the top end is holding strong."  A recent high-profile art auction included "a stainless-steel cabinet of industrial diamonds," which went for £5.2 million to a Russian bidder.

Besides art, the most over-the-top ruling-class toy is of course the super-yacht. These massive, state-of-the-art private islands run into tens of millions of dollars, plus about a tenth of the purchase price in maintenance and fuel cost annually. No mere recession is going to put the yacht brokers out of business, "an elite group who match make the super-rich with what is regarded as the ultimate luxury." But it’s not all easy being the ruling class: When your yacht is 300 feet long, "One thing money cannot always buy is space at the marina." Grab the tissues, the suffering goes on. The shortage is aggravated by the lack of suitable new harbor locations, which must have "all the infrastructure needed to attract the big boats, including easy access by air, possibly a nearby airstrip that can handle private jets or helicopters and the potential to become a chic destination in its own right," as the elite press laments.

But for the lower 90 percent of us, things aren’t so damn chic. August 2008 was "the 10th consecutive month that the weekly average salary had failed to keep pace with inflation" according to the Labor Department. This fits with the longer trend over the last several decades, where America’s low inflation rate has kept up with our weak wage growth. This has become a minor news issue of late, with the New York Times reporting that since about 1973 "inflation-adjusted wages stagnated or rose glacially" in the American economy. The large majority of Americans have been working more hours and borrowing more money over recent decades just to maintain constant purchasing power. The recent chapters of the story of America have been about making do with less.

Much less. The infant mortality rate of the United States is very high, tied with Poland and worse than 28 other nations, including Cuba and Hungary, as well as Western Europe and industrialized Asia. This is despite the fact that "the United States devotes a far greater share of its national wealth to health care than other countries." Twice as much, in fact. The giant chasm in our American fortunes shapes our lives to a significant extent -- including whether or not we get to live them.

The wealth gap, unsurprisingly, is unpopular. "Public opinion across Europe, Asia and the U.S. is strikingly consistent in considering that the gap between rich and poor is too wide and that the wealthy should pay more taxes. Income inequality has emerged as a highly contentious political issue in many countries as the latest wave of globalization has created a ‘superclass’ of rich people." This is from the Financial Times, the world’s most prominent business newspaper, and not exactly communist. The Financial Times’ survey found large majorities around the world thought inequality had gone too far -- 87 percent in Germany, 80 percent in China and even 78 percent in the United States, "traditionally seen as more tolerant of income inequality." In spite of McCain’s railing against "redistribution," Americans may be more interested in moves toward equalizing wealth than is currently realized.

With the opening presented by a new Democratic administration, expectations are high. But this is a moment to remind ourselves that equality and justice don’t usually come from the generosity of the powerful, no matter who they may be. Only public pressure, usually in the form of a real popular movement, has dragged rights out of the American power structure. The movements for abolitionism, women’s equality, labor organization, civil rights and environmentalism have gotten some results over the years by demanding rights and equality from the rich and powerful, not by hoping for them.

It will take a large movement among the public to bring enough force to the Democrats to move the country back toward the progressive taxation that was modest even before Bush took an ax to it. And it will take a revived labor movement to win back bargaining power from the great firms mainly owned by the rich and to win some desperately needed wage increases. But more than political reform and wage increases, American citizens ought to ask why our economic system is driven to create the unequal class society we live in, and if we could find a better way of running things.

This means each of us standing up from our comfy, rent-to-own couches and getting informed and getting together. This kind of organizing work is hard, especially for an overworked and underpaid people like ourselves, but it could be motivated by keeping an thoughtful watch on the "superclass" and its "rude health" in our sick times.