Sympathy for the 1%

The top 1% has a bad reputation, particularly on the left.  They are rich.  Some of them are beyond regular rich and have become super-rich.  And to make matters worse, these rich folks appear to be deficit-resistant -- everyone else is getting poorer, and they keep getting richer.  Even Obama can't seem to slow them down.  They are hoarding money while the masses have so little.  The resultant income inequality is one of our most wrenching problems, according to the New York Times.  If only we could take baseball bats to those fat bank accounts and burst them like piñatas!

Throughout most of human history, this might be a reasonable position.  The rich were small in number and lived very differently from the wretched masses.  In medieval times, for example, if you were a peasant, then you lived in a one- or two-room hut.  You had wood or straw floors.  Windows were a luxury.  Chairs were out of the question.  You sat on the floor or on a bench and slept on straw.  You lived in your little hut with your whole family and all your animals (because they kept you warm).  You ate stale bread and worked the fields of the rich.  When food shortages came, you starved.  Meanwhile, the rich lived in stone houses with chairs and windows.  They had feasts.  They threw you their leftovers and called that charity.  There was also a reasonable chance that the super-rich might own you.

However, times have changed greatly.  The understandable reasons for hating the rich are all but gone.  In fact, in 2012, the rich find themselves with an ironic problem -- the price of buying things has become so reduced that it is harder for the rich to separate themselves from the wretched masses.  Today, the masses can buy things.  Their houses often have floors made out of wood.  Sometimes they even carpet them.  Glass windows come standard for the masses.  Chairs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and fabrics, and most people have many of them.  Few still sleep on straw.  They eat all kinds of food -- too much food, actually -- and everyone is famine-resistant.  In America, the super-rich may hire you, but they can no longer own you. 

This puts the rich in a conundrum.  The power of the free market has reduced the value of being rich.  It is no longer an exclusive ticket to a materially satisfying life.  A super-rich person can buy a car with the snap of a finger.  Great!  A modern car is a truly marvelous machine.  A medieval king would die for one.  But you and I can also buy a car.  The rich can buy fifty cars, luxury cars and racing cars, and we can't do that.  But who needs all that?  From computing power and cell technology to clothing, food, and houses, vacations, streaming video, and online shopping, we have what we need.  Is all that is left for the rich just owning in largess?  What can they really do to separate themselves from the rest of us? 

The rich on the political left have come up with an answer -- an answer that is Machiavellian and ingenious.  To feel superior, they have created a whole genre of very expensive products that intentionally don't work very well.

But, you might ask, if these products are not better than their more efficient alternatives, wouldn't even the left-leaning rich might have trouble justifying their purchase?  That is where the real creativity and out-of-box thinking come in: these products are considered not physically superior, but rather morally superior.  Yes, the rich can buy moral superiority that you and I can't!  In fact, there is a whole cottage industry these days of intentionally inefficient but supposedly morally superior products, designed specifically for those with too much money. 

Take as one example the electric car.  The electric car is certainly not going to win the Daytona 500.  It might not even make it to the next town over.  It's like a poorly performing, overpriced, conventional gas engine car (it even operates on fossil fuels if you think about the source of its electricity), with a heavy dollop of moral superiority smeared all over its engine.  You have to plug the thing in at night, and then it putters around town by day.  And best of all, it's really expensive.  All this makes it perfect for caring, super-rich, left-leaning celebrities.  They just love the electric car.  They can afford to throw money at it...and you can't. 

All kinds of products can be made exclusive through the same basic formula of adding moral superiority through inefficiency and waste.  Why not get your house LEED-certified by adding solar panels on your roof or windmills in your yard?  If you are a liberal living in a sunny place like Boston or Seattle (because as anyone who's been there knows, no city in the Union is sunnier than Boston or Seattle), why not throw on a few extra solar panels for good measure?  That kind of inefficiency will cement your place in the club.  Or make sure all of your food is fair-trade certified.  Paying 10% more for the same product is a great start.

No one has quite figured out this market like former vice president Al Gore.  He managed to offset the energy consumption of the 10,000 square feet of his luxury home by buying carbon offsets.  Carbon offsets, by being completely non-tangible, qualify as pure, rarified, distilled moral superiority.

So feel some sympathy for today's poor rich, who are just living in the wrong epoch.  On the left, they are forced to contort themselves into pretzels just to obtain some separation from the rest of us.  But it doesn't matter.  When all is said and done, the only thing the rich -- on the right or left -- reliably possess, in this day and age, that we, the wretched masses, don't is the consummate envy of the mainstream liberal establishment.

The top 1% has a bad reputation, particularly on the left.  They are rich.  Some of them are beyond regular rich and have become super-rich.  And to make matters worse, these rich folks appear to be deficit-resistant -- everyone else is getting poorer, and they keep getting richer.  Even Obama can't seem to slow them down.  They are hoarding money while the masses have so little.  The resultant income inequality is one of our most wrenching problems, according to the New York Times.  If only we could take baseball bats to those fat bank accounts and burst them like piñatas!

Throughout most of human history, this might be a reasonable position.  The rich were small in number and lived very differently from the wretched masses.  In medieval times, for example, if you were a peasant, then you lived in a one- or two-room hut.  You had wood or straw floors.  Windows were a luxury.  Chairs were out of the question.  You sat on the floor or on a bench and slept on straw.  You lived in your little hut with your whole family and all your animals (because they kept you warm).  You ate stale bread and worked the fields of the rich.  When food shortages came, you starved.  Meanwhile, the rich lived in stone houses with chairs and windows.  They had feasts.  They threw you their leftovers and called that charity.  There was also a reasonable chance that the super-rich might own you.

However, times have changed greatly.  The understandable reasons for hating the rich are all but gone.  In fact, in 2012, the rich find themselves with an ironic problem -- the price of buying things has become so reduced that it is harder for the rich to separate themselves from the wretched masses.  Today, the masses can buy things.  Their houses often have floors made out of wood.  Sometimes they even carpet them.  Glass windows come standard for the masses.  Chairs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and fabrics, and most people have many of them.  Few still sleep on straw.  They eat all kinds of food -- too much food, actually -- and everyone is famine-resistant.  In America, the super-rich may hire you, but they can no longer own you. 

This puts the rich in a conundrum.  The power of the free market has reduced the value of being rich.  It is no longer an exclusive ticket to a materially satisfying life.  A super-rich person can buy a car with the snap of a finger.  Great!  A modern car is a truly marvelous machine.  A medieval king would die for one.  But you and I can also buy a car.  The rich can buy fifty cars, luxury cars and racing cars, and we can't do that.  But who needs all that?  From computing power and cell technology to clothing, food, and houses, vacations, streaming video, and online shopping, we have what we need.  Is all that is left for the rich just owning in largess?  What can they really do to separate themselves from the rest of us? 

The rich on the political left have come up with an answer -- an answer that is Machiavellian and ingenious.  To feel superior, they have created a whole genre of very expensive products that intentionally don't work very well.

But, you might ask, if these products are not better than their more efficient alternatives, wouldn't even the left-leaning rich might have trouble justifying their purchase?  That is where the real creativity and out-of-box thinking come in: these products are considered not physically superior, but rather morally superior.  Yes, the rich can buy moral superiority that you and I can't!  In fact, there is a whole cottage industry these days of intentionally inefficient but supposedly morally superior products, designed specifically for those with too much money. 

Take as one example the electric car.  The electric car is certainly not going to win the Daytona 500.  It might not even make it to the next town over.  It's like a poorly performing, overpriced, conventional gas engine car (it even operates on fossil fuels if you think about the source of its electricity), with a heavy dollop of moral superiority smeared all over its engine.  You have to plug the thing in at night, and then it putters around town by day.  And best of all, it's really expensive.  All this makes it perfect for caring, super-rich, left-leaning celebrities.  They just love the electric car.  They can afford to throw money at it...and you can't. 

All kinds of products can be made exclusive through the same basic formula of adding moral superiority through inefficiency and waste.  Why not get your house LEED-certified by adding solar panels on your roof or windmills in your yard?  If you are a liberal living in a sunny place like Boston or Seattle (because as anyone who's been there knows, no city in the Union is sunnier than Boston or Seattle), why not throw on a few extra solar panels for good measure?  That kind of inefficiency will cement your place in the club.  Or make sure all of your food is fair-trade certified.  Paying 10% more for the same product is a great start.

No one has quite figured out this market like former vice president Al Gore.  He managed to offset the energy consumption of the 10,000 square feet of his luxury home by buying carbon offsets.  Carbon offsets, by being completely non-tangible, qualify as pure, rarified, distilled moral superiority.

So feel some sympathy for today's poor rich, who are just living in the wrong epoch.  On the left, they are forced to contort themselves into pretzels just to obtain some separation from the rest of us.  But it doesn't matter.  When all is said and done, the only thing the rich -- on the right or left -- reliably possess, in this day and age, that we, the wretched masses, don't is the consummate envy of the mainstream liberal establishment.