Pitchforks and Velvet Ropes

March 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“To: My Fellow Zillionaires.” So begins Nick Hannauer’s “memo” (a magazine article really)  “The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats.” (His TED talk along similar lines is here.) 

Hannauer’s vision of angry peasants is a rustic and old-fashioned version of Nelson Schwartz’s more urban and up-to-date metaphor “the velvet rope economy.” (See the previous post.)

In this model, as the very rich pull away from the rest of the society economically and socially, those who are not wealthy will become increasingly resentful and moved to collective action. In politics, says Schwartz, the resentment rises on both sides of the political divide. “President Trump regularly inveighs against the elite,” and Bernie never fails to point his finger at “millionaires and billionaires.”

The only trouble with this is that the only elite Trump attacks is the mainstream media. His other targets and those denounced by his followers are not wealthy or elite. They are long-term government employees, immigrants, the undeserving poor, and generally anybody who disagrees with him. As for Sanders, if the Bernie bros and other youth were so angry, their turnout on Super Tuesday would not have been so disappointing.

The only systematic evidence Schwartz offers is a single study about the two-caste microcosmic society of the airplane.

When passengers boarded at the front of the aircraft and had to walk through the premium cabin to get to coach, the odds of an outburst in economy doubled. Nor was the anger limited to the back of the plane. On those flights where coach passengers traipsed their way through first class upon boarding, unruly behavior among elite passengers was nearly 12 times as likely.

That study understandably got much attention in the media when it was published, but as Andrew Gelman has pointed out, the study has serious methodological flaws. Worse, the authors would not make their data public so that others might re-analyze it. (See Gelman’s post and the comments here ).

Even at face value, these results don’t paint a picture of pitchforks. The passengers in economy got rowdy with one another or with the flight attendants, as did the high flyers. In fact, we Americans generally do not begrudge the very wealthy their huge fortunes. Nor do we often criticize what they do with all that money. If they want to gobble up sports franchises and get the best players that money can buy, more power to them. Boston fans of a while ago might have booed the Yankees, but they never booed Steinbrenner (“the Boss”). You wouldn’t go to the stadium and see a banner like this.

Dietmar Hopp, software billionare (SAP), owns the Hoffenheim team and has been spending carloads of euros to raise the standing of his team, much to the distaste of Bayern Munich fans. (The banner says in part “Hopp Is Still a Son of a Whore.”) It’s not just Bayern Munich. Hopp is generally despised. There were similar protests at Bayern matches in other cities. It gets complicated because the players on the pitch at this match then protested against the fans, spending the final 10 minutes of the match playing keepy-uppy at midfield. (I cannot figure out how to embed the video, but you can see it here.)

That’s Germany. In the US, wealth inequality is far greater and has been increasing more rapidly. But pitchfork sales remain flat.

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