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We have nothing to lose but our illusions

It wasn’t something I’d planned, but the juxtaposition of reading a book on the historical and current effects of wealth inequality while traveling through Glasgow, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the Fjords of Norway, and then Paris has provided an interesting backdrop for contemplating our current and future status as a nation.

The National Trust Tours portion of our trip was not of the ADC (*) variety by any stretch of the imagination. While we did have a visit to one castle and one cathedral, they were not the highlights of the wonders we saw. We were able to perceive, however, how three different countries and multiple cultures have addressed their own issues of inequality through the years.

The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture (2021) is a wide-ranging survey and urgent call to action by philosopher and historian Matthew Stewart. Most of us assume we are not “rich” because we are not billionaires, asserts Stewart. This allows us to fall into the 99% and scapegoat the Jeff Bezos, Elon Musks, and Peter Thiels of the world. (Note: Those three deserve a great deal of scorn, but that’s for another book.) Stewart reframes the issue, noting that the really wealthy make up 0.1% of the population. When you examine the top ten percent to find the people who control more than half of the country’s wealth, it is those other 9.9% — who look a great deal like many of us and our friends — who are doing so many things to entrench inequality in our system.

There’s a great little vignette in the book that is quite telling. Lizzie Magie, a feminist and part-time game designer, invented a board game she called The Landlord’s Game. One could play it by buying properties, creating monopolies and charging rents to others. But Magie included a second way of playing that was intended to illustrate the ideas of the progressive economist Henry George. “When players acquired a monopoly, they had to pay money into a common fund, so that individual success enriched everyone. The game ended when the poorest player doubled his or her original stake.”

Parker Brothers bought the game from Magie for a small sum of money and did not pay her royalties. Thus, they had a monopoly on the game that became known to millions as Monopoly. The company went on to earn millions of dollars from the game, a male engineer claimed credit for the feminist inventor’s idea, and the ugly capitalist form of the game replaced the pro-social variant.

Magie spent the end of her life working part-time in a government office. As one reviewer noted,

For any aspiring novelist trying to capture the layered hypocrisies and cruelties of American life, this historical episode is enough to inspire despair. It would be hard to invent a more perfect encapsulation of predatory corporate behavior, masculine arrogance, and cultural amnesia about the true sources of wealth and the urgent need for a system that distributes it more fairly.

Entrance into the 9.9% begins at about $1.2 million in assets and extends to those with about $20 million in assets, although Stewart notes that the figure will no doubt climb by the time the book is published. All of a sudden, we’re looking in the mirror, facing a necessary reassessment. And what does Stewart see that is causing such outrageous inequality in America today? We are increasingly dominated by monopolies (Google, anyone?); we totally misunderstand how wealth originates; we fight to reward those who become wealthy as a result of the work of others; we totally misunderstand our existing tax system; and we create fictions to support our inequality.

Stewart takes chapters to examine the behavior and beliefs of the 9.9 percent in a specific domain such as fitness, merit, housing, parenting, gender, education, real estate, race, and more. Many of them are stand-alone brilliant. Barely a page passed in this book where I didn’t underline something for further reflection, and often the entire two-page spread looks like my ink pen went crazy.

There are many suggestions and conclusions in this work which are worthy of mention…but that would make this review too long. Here’s one that will have to sit in for others:

Liberal democracy is misunderstood if it is represented, as it often is today, merely as a device for tabulating the opinions of a population. Liberal democracy does not in fact take its start from the assumption that human beings are largely self-sufficient rational actors in need of some minor assistance in maximizing their pre-existing preferences. On the contrary, its most basic assumptions are that humans left to their own devices are generally unreasonable.

The point of the separation of powers, the checks and balances, the inherently public character of deliberation and legislation, the election of representatives, the guaranteed rights, especially of expression, and all the other mechanisms of a functioning liberal democracy is to ensure as much as possible that the understanding on which public action takes place is accountable to reason. Properly conceived, liberal democracy is a truth machine. Its most fundamental premise is that every step in the direction of reason is also a step in the direction of justice (emphasis added).

As I mentioned, this trip provided an interesting backdrop for considering Stewart’s thesis. During the Norwegian portion of our visit, the local guides were quick to point out ways in which the country’s focus was on the common good. Yes, taxes were high, but the benefit was to a healthier, more productive, better educated, happier country.

Chandelier in Napoleon III’s apartment in the Louvre in Paris
View of one of the rooms in Napoleon III’s apartment in the Louvre

Stewart’s final chapter begins in 1785 with Thomas Jefferson in France, contemplating the playgrounds of the aristocracy. While doing so, he fell into conversation with a minimum wage peasant woman, and she told him of the brutal circumstances of her life. He came back to his apartment and wrote to his friend and political ally James Madison about the need for a progressive tax system in America — on property, on inheritance — to refrain the takeover by the oligarchs that he saw in France. Jefferson wasn’t the only founding father to advocate for what today is attacked as socialism. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Adam Smith (the founding father of modern economics), and Thomas Paine all had similar proposals.

The sad fact of the matter is that every country in the history of the world that allows the rich to build up massive wealth and extreme inequality crashes and burns to various extents. Rome, England, France, and more come to mind. Stewart rightly worries that America is on the same path. And yet the answers are fairly clear and well known.

American history considered in its broadest sweep makes abundantly clear that collective action through a democratically elected government has been and must remain an indispensable tool in advancing the cause of equal justice. The idea that the market or civil society, left to their own devices, will organize a fair tax code, break up monopolies, ensure universal access to health and education is and always has been fatuous. It is usually the mantra of those who rely on the hidden powers of government to sustain their own privilege.

And those who rely on those hidden powers and false tales most often look like us: the 9.9 percent. To reach the place where our awareness is clear that our happiness depends on understanding our actual relations with other people and our place in nature, we only have to “lose our illusions.”

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

*Another Damn Castle and/or Cathedral tour (take your pick)

Image of the Eileen Donan Caste in Isle of Skye, Scotland, by DJB

by

I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

4 Comments

  1. DJB says

    Whew! Unpleasant is a nice way to describe it, Deborah! I think Matthew Stewart has a bit more optimism, at least on dealing with the issues of inequality. But then, perhaps it is because he is American. Your writer points out that we tend to want to look at things a bit too optimistically.

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