Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Say Hello to the New Aristocracy

In the coming decades this tsunami of inherited money will likely accelerate class divisions, as those in the current top decile (in terms of income) gather in more than a million in parental bequests, while those in the lower class will at best count their inheritances in the thousands. Among boomers who will receive an inheritance, the top 10 percent will receive more than every other decile combined. 
This is just the beginning of the process. The well-born members of the millennial generation are set for an even greater inheritance, which will distort the economy even more. The Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College estimatedthat a minimum of $41 trillion would pass between generations from 1998 to 2052. This huge transfer, the researchers believe, will usher in what they call “a golden age of philanthropy.” Even as most younger Americans struggle to obtain decent jobs and secure property, the Welfare Institute concluded, America is moving toward an “inheritance-based economy” where access to the last generation’s wealth could prove a critical determinant of both influence and power. 
...  Historically, education was one way the middle and working classes, and even the poor, ascended the class ladder. But we may be seeing the end of this trend, given what some see as the “death of meritocracy,” particularly if you also count the enormous advantage in education that comes from going to an elite private school or a well-placed suburban public school. Over the past two generations, notes former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, the gap in educational achievement between the children of the rich and the children of the poor has doubled. While the college enrollment rate for children from the lowest quarter of income distribution has increased from 6 percent to 8 percent, the enrollment rate for children from the highest quarter has risen from 40 percent to 73 percent. 
So we have a graduate of Choate or Beverly Hills High who attends Wharton, and goes to work for, say, Goldman Sachs. And yes, this individual may work hard. But whether he or she works hard or not, the chances of success are much greater than those of an equally talented, equally diligent person who has to pay off college loans and whose choices about where to live—outside of places like New York or San Francisco—are driven as much by cost as they are by opportunity. 
This represents a sea change from the past, where the inheritors earned their “gentlemen’s Cs” while the aspiring class busted for As. After all, who needs good grades to simply engage in traditional charity work—like feeding the poor or supporting their churches? But now many of the rich feel compelled to “make a difference.” No longer satisfied to suck gin and tonics at the country club, they want to find fulfillment, and impress their friends with their cleverness and social worth. 
One place we can see this is in the cultural sphere. Hollywood, in particular, has always had a weakness for helping its own. Dorothy Parker once noted that “the only ‘ism’ Hollywood cares about is plagiarism.” But increasingly there is another “ism”—nepotism. And the trend can be seen across the the entertainment industry in such families as the Paltrows, Fondas, Douglases, and Smiths. You can see the wheels turning when someone like Jay Z puts his newborn baby’s cries—no doubt a budding rapper—on his songs. 
But some of the most obvious places where dynastic power can be seen are on the executive side of the business. In the early years, the big powers were often rough, self-made men such as Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. People like David Geffen who worked their way up from the mailroom are increasingly rare. Today the hottest new producers tend to come from the richest classes, such as William Pohlad, son and heir of a Minnesota billionaire; Gigi Pritzker, an heir to the Pritzker fortune; and Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle Founder Larry Ellison, one of the world’s 10 richest men. 
At the same time, the media itself, particularly in its most visible manifestations, is increasingly populated by the children of prominent politicians and by those who come from the ranks of the plutocracy. Middle-class parents may have to grind their teeth and empty their wallets as their kids work in unpaid internships in pricey Gotham, but this is not the fate of the offspring of the Reagans, Bushes, Clintons, McCains, Pelosis, or Kennedys, all of whom have ascended to levels of media power that mere mortals take years to achieve, if ever. If you need a show for millennials, why not hand it over to Ronan Farrow, the offspring of celebrity parents. In my time, generally speaking, the icons of a generation were likely to be outsiders; the “screwed generation” of millennials get to have theirs defined by whose birthright landed them on third base. 
But perhaps the biggest long-term impact may come from the nonprofit institutions that the wealthy fund. Nonprofit foundations have been growing rapidly in size and influence since the late ’20s, paralleling the expansion of other parts of the clerisy like the universities and government. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent to more than 1.5 million. Their total employment has also soared: By 2010, 10.7 million people were employed by nonprofits—more than the number of people working in the construction and finance sectors combined—and the category has expanded far more rapidly than the rest of the economy, adding two million jobs since 2002. By 2010, nonprofits accounted for an economy of roughly $780 billion and paid upwards of 9 percent of wages and 10 percent of jobs in the overall economy. 
Nonprofits, due to their accumulated wealth, are able to thrive even in tough times, adding jobs even in the worst years of the Great Recession.
They don't want to share their political power, and if the Middle-Class look likely to win a few elections, we can expect that to see more calls from the New York Times, et al, to spread out elections, or to attempt to institute other election "reforms" intended to dilute the power of Middle-Class voters.

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