The Rich Are Different from You and Me. But Are They a Caste?

March 4, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Online, the title of the Nelson Schwartz’s New York Times article (here) was “When It’s This Easy at the Top, It’s Harder for Everyone Else.” But in the print version of last Sunday’s Business section, it was “Is American on the Way to a Caste System?”

I remembered Bettridge’s law:
When the title of an article is a question,
a. the author thinks the answer is Yes, and

b. the better answer is probably No
  (Previous examples are here and here.)

Schwartz has been checking out the luxuries that money, a lot of money, can buy. He wrote a book called The Velvet Rope Economy.  But what troubles him is not just the expensive toys that the only the very rich can afford. That’s nothing new. But . . .

There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle.[emphasis added.]

Yes, the wealthy are getting farther and farther removed from the rest of us. We do not share the same space — economically and socially, even physically. They are in their skyboxes and private jets, or at the new private terminal ($4500 per year plus $3000 per flight) at LAX.

But are we “morphing into a caste system”? Caste systems have more than two castes; it’s not just the 1% or 0.1% and everybody else. Also, castes are rigid and hereditary. You remain a member of the caste you were born into for your entire life. So do your children. No doubt wealth in the US is hereditary and usually permanent, but not in the same way. The superwealthy do everything they can to make sure that they and their children remain at the top. But it is not guaranteed, and newcomers from the other side of the velvet rope regularly arrive.  As for the rest of us on the other side of the velvet rope, economic boundaries are fuzzy. Even sociologists cannot agree on the categories and criteria for social class.

Schwartz sees other consequences of inequality, like “shabbier services” for the non-wealthy. As the quote in the box shows, he conflates this with caste, but they are not the same and not necessarily connected. Are goods and services a zero-sum game, where the more the rich win, the more the rest of us lose? Or do we all wind up with better stuff — cell phones and 50" flatscreen TVs that only a few years earlier only the wealthy could afford? That’s an economic debate I’ll sidestep here.

As for the psychological and societal consequence Schwartz sees — anger, resentment, and the withering of social cohesion, I’ll leave that for another post.

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