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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Redefining Rich in America

The protagonist in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities is at the upper reaches of New York society, not the very top but close and getting closer. Today Sherman McCoy would be almost impoverished compared to the new elite. Sherman had a 2 million dollar apartment on 5th Avenue while the heavy hitters today would find that positively quaint as they shop for mansions worth $50 million or more. Wolfe’s character wouldn’t be near the weight class for the modern “Masters of the Universe.”

Just the way we see rich people today in pop culture is vastly different than 30 years ago before the Reagan tax breaks started to create a hyper-wealthy class of multi-billionaires. Rich today isn’t about consumer buying power; it’s about the ability to sway political elections and the course of the entire country. 

At almost exactly the same time I sat down to write this about how America’s perception of rich people has changed radically in the years since the Reagan presidency I discovered the book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer. The book was unputdownable and some of the best journalism you will come across today, anywhere.

The book begins with this quote:

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.   —Louis Brandeis

She gets to the point very quickly. What could be further from the democratic ideals of our forefathers than this sentence from the Dark Money by Jane Myer regarding Charles Koch in the days after Obama’s inauguration?

What he wanted that weekend was to enlist his fellow conservatives in a daunting task: stopping the Obama administration from implementing Democratic policies that the American public had voted for but that he regarded as catastrophic.”

So much for the idea of “one man, one vote.” The most revealing insight into Charles Koch comes from a journalist writing about the family. “He was driven by some deeper urge to smash the one thing left in the world that could discipline him: the government.”

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