Society must engage in better discussion about wealth divide


Last week, Kevin Roose of New York Magazine published a scathing exposé of the 80th annual initiation dinner of Kappa Beta Phi, a secret society of Wall Street tycoons.

What took place inside the St. Regis Hotel that night, however, confirmed every negative stereotype of the country’s ultra-rich in stunning detail. Diners tucked in to meals of racks of lamb, foie gras and petit fours. KBP neophytes dressed in drag and sang parodies of musical numbers on stage, including a parody of The Book of Mormon’s hit ballad “I Believe.” Some of the parodied lyrics included “I believe that God has a plan for all of us / I believe my plan involves a seven-figure bonus.”

Americans often take media depictions with a grain of salt, assuming that most representations of the wealthy by the media lie on the more sensational side. It comes as a surprise, then, that the KBP dinner events illustrated the beliefs and habits of United States’ ultra-rich as a disturbing collapse between reality and caricature, with the kind of combination of self-pity and disregard for others that borders on self-parody.

But isn’t throwing petit fours at a bunch of high-powered executives dressed in drag the Wall Street everyone expected? Isn’t this the age of the “Progressive Kristallnacht,” or persecution of the “successful few” by the many, as Tom Perkins so audaciously suggested in a letter to the Wall Street Journal?

The reality lies somewhere in between; though Wall Street suffers from an image problem, the fact remains that vitriolic criticism of Wall Street is doing nothing to help the problem.

Social psychologist Paul Piff explored the idea of wealth making individuals less compassionate and empathetic in an October 2013 TED Talk. In one of the experiments, Piff had two participants play a game of Monopoly with one catch: One player starts at a distinct advantage over another player, including extra cash. Piff noted that the advantaged player began to justify his successes to a sense of entitlement. To his credit, it was partially justified: The participants in an advantageous position were able to parlay their advantage into further success.

As William Shakespeare once wrote in Julius Caesar, “lowliness is young ambition’s ladder.” Many of the executives rose to their positions with a combination of skilled decision-making and determination. For lack of a better phrase, these executives are at least partially entitled to their sense of entitlement. In a sector such as Wall Street, where the only way to make a living is to make someone else money, it only stands to reason that these men or women would worship money. The logic behind criticizing a Wall Street banker for worshipping money would be akin to criticizing an athlete for wanting to win games, or criticizing a chef for wanting high- quality ingredients. At the end of the day, all of these things contribute to the perception of excellence in their respective fields — a Wall Street banker’s evidence just happens to be more directly financial.

This doesn’t absolve the Wall Street members of Kappa Beta Phi of their actions. Though they had an expectation of privacy, the amount of self-pity and bitter opposition to progressivism are telling. What these bankers are exhibiting through their sense of entitlement is a failure to understand their responsibility as wielders of significant financial capital.

The type of critical discourse employed by the 99 percent, however, only serves to galvanize the two factions. Instead of separating society between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the public discourse should be trying to foster a sense of collective responsibility toward bettering the world. Though the financial autonomy of individuals might vary drastically from person to person, personal human autonomy is a far more equal playing field. To that effect, there are those who abuse power and those who understand their responsibilities.

In another experiment from the previously mentioned TED Talk, participants of varying socioeconomic backgrounds watched a short segment on impoverished children, and all of them seemed to exhibit an equal amount of capability for empathy and compassion. Piff then went on to note that some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have pledged a considerable amount of their fortunes to improving the conditions of disadvantaged individuals.

Former New York Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg encapsulated this sentiment best in a 2012 interview with Scott Pelley of CBS Evening News.

“I’ve been very lucky in terms of making a lot of money and I’m going to give it all away,” Bloomberg said. “I’ve always said, my great ambition in life is to bounce the check to the undertaker.”

This only belabors the point: No matter how much one gains in his or her time in life, the only thing that lasts beyond the grave is the impact he or she makes on the world. It’s a concept that shouldn’t be relegated only to the one percent or the 99 percent of the United States, but 100 percent of the world.

 

Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan.

  • CarlLegg

    Euno,

    Economic disparity can be reduced to a few statistics.

    1.) Between 1945 and 1975, America created the strongest middle-class the world had ever seen. This was done via 100% progressive fiscal policy. During this period, millionaires and billionaires were created en masse, but NOT at the expense of a healthy middle-class. By 1975, the 99% owned 80% of American wealth, the healthiest economic period in American (and perhaps world) history.

    2.) After 1975, the tax code radically changed. The 99% continued to pay a progressive tax, but the 1% were gifted with a REGRESSIVE tax system (too complex to get into here) that was called “trickle down economics”. Since 1975, the 1% has grown their share of U.S. wealth from 20% to 36%, and by 2020 should be at 40%. This near DOUBLING of 1% wealth came from the pockets of the middle-class. Since 1975, the middle-class has shrunk 18%, and continue to shrink. The wealth has not been “trickling down” — it has been TRICKLING UP.

    http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

    The result?

    3.) More people are living in poverty today than at any time since they started keeping census data in 1959.

    4.) 1 in 5 Americans are now on food stamps – more than at any time since the program started.

    5.) Fully HALF of all American children will be on food stamps before their 18th birthday – more than at any time in history.

    6.) 77% of families are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with little or no savings to cover emergencies. Household savings rates are today at their lowest moving average in modern U.S. history (this isn’t due to low interest rates — compare with China’s low interest rates but historically high household savings).

    7.) American middle-class debt ratios are at their highest point in modern history.

    8.) From 1945-1980, America had the highest GDP per capita in the world, by far. Today, we’re #13, and falling.
    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_gdp_percap-economy-gdp-per-capita

    Since 1975, while the 99% has been falling deeper and deeper into economic despair, the 1% has accumulated more of the U.S. wealth pie than at any time since before the Great Depression. In fact, some have noted that today’s massive economic disparity looks identical to the disparity that (in part) triggered the Great Depression: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_T2gpIK0VzFw/S8jJitoRJSI/AAAAAAAAAXE/LClwMBAMK3Q/s1600/Gap+that+Gave+Us+the+Great+Depression.jpg

    9.) 90% of national news is controlled by just 6 corporations, and those 6 corporations have only one goal: to maximize advertising revenue. They maximize revenue via addictive polarization, both left and right, creating and sustaining a false sense of anger, distrust, fear (of the other side), and blame. Oh, and these 6 news outlets are owned by the 1%, so you are not going to hear any reporting about these massive wealth and income imbalances that are destroying our country and our liberties.

    • Cameron

      Carl,

      I wonder why is it that these facts cannot be synthesized to concise sound bites that the middle class and impoverished can understand? It does not take my USC degree to understand this. These facts are clear. Yet, somehow these groups continue to vote against their financial interest.

      I keep making more dollars yet they don’t go as far and I get to save less. It isn’t the cut that the tax man takes that is doing this. It is easy for me to see this. The percentage stays the same but it may be one dollar more the next year that I pay to the Feds. I don’t scream about that dollar.

      It is the cable TV bill, it is the gallon of gas, it is the bank fee, it is the gallon of milk, it is price of insurance (and I don’t mean Obamacare,) it is the price of a movie ticket. These “taxes” are being collected by the ultra rich, not Uncle Sam. It is not paying for the poor to survive that is eating away at middle class wealth. It is paying for the next mansion and the next boat and the next Ferrari and the next island vacation of the 1%. Entitlements are the problem, the entitlements of those who feel entitled to their wealth. Luck and initial stature are two parts of a formula that includes brains and hard work to create success. The entitled never pay deference to the first 50% of the equation. If the richer you got the less entitled you felt we would not have to deal with this issue.

      I do fear that this wealth gap will lead to French Revolution style ethos. History has shown what happens when the haves and havenots get too far apart. Not enough armies and policeman that are paid well enough to stand in front of the mob with a guillotine.