THE 9.9 PERCENT
The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture
By Matthew Stewart
A decade ago, protesters enraged by corporate greed and the bailouts that followed the 2008 financial crisis coined a phrase — “We Are the 99 Percent!” — that quickly went viral. It was a captivating slogan that spoke to the anger many felt about rising inequality and an economic system that seemed blatantly unfair. It was also misleading, not because the slogan exaggerated the economic disparities in America but because it understated them.
As various studies have shown, much of the wealth in recent decades has flowed into the pockets not of the richest 1 percent of Americans but of the 0.1 percent, including a band of billionaires whose net worth has grown by a staggering $1.8 trillion since the start of the pandemic. In our new Gilded Age, wealth is even more concentrated at the top than the participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests imagined.
At the same time, the idea that the interests of all but the very rich — that 99 percent — are harmoniously aligned is a fantasy, glossing over the economic and racial divisions that cleave the rest of society. This was starkly apparent during the pandemic, when families in some neighborhoods gathered in bread lines while others fled to second homes and ordered gourmet meals online — food delivered to their doors by “essential workers” paid a fraction of what the typical lawyer or software engineer earns.
In books like Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” and Sarah Smarsh’s “Heartland,” the stories of poor people at the bottom of America’s hourglass economy have been vividly documented. The literature on affluent citizens who, though not superrich, have nevertheless benefited from inequality is comparatively sparse. What kinds of stories do the better-off tell themselves about the advantages they possess? How do they justify their good fortune to themselves?
In his new book, “The 9.9 Percent,” Matthew Stewart focuses on the wealthiest one-tenth of Americans, a “new aristocracy” whose aggregate wealth is four times greater than that of everyone else. A minimum of $1.2 million in assets is required to enter this exclusive club and Stewart writes that the threshold will almost certainly rise by the time his book is published. It’s a club to which white people are eight times more likely to belong than people of color.
But what ultimately unites its members is less the size of their bank accounts than a mind-set, Stewart contends. At its core lies “the merit myth,” a shared belief that the affluent owe their success not to the color of their skin or the advantages they’ve inherited but to their talent and intelligence. Under the spell of this conviction, Stewart argues, the privileged engage in practices — segregating themselves in upscale neighborhoods, using their money and influence to get their children into elite colleges — that entrench inequality even as they remain blithely unaware of their role in perpetuating it.
A former partner at a management consulting firm, Stewart is interested in tracing how the “thoughts and desires” of his own professional class exacerbate inequality, a welcome if not entirely original idea (in his 2017 book “Dream Hoarders,” the economist Richard Reeves made a similar argument about the upper middle class). Unfortunately, Stewart’s portrait of the 9.9 percent draws on few firsthand interviews with members of this class. He relies instead on examples culled from sources like Slate and on made-up characters such as “Ultramom,” a cartoonish figure who deploys her knowledge of branding to promote the virtues of her “Ultrachildren” in the race for coveted spots at a hyper-selective preschool.
Such caricaturing may resonate with the popular anger at elites. But it fails to lend much insight into what Stewart calls “the mind of the 9.9 percent,” or for that matter, to demonstrate that such a uniform thing exists. Is it fair to place salaried professionals in fields like medicine and law in the same category as hedge-fund managers who pocket seven-figure bonuses? How might the aspirations and beliefs of the 9.9 percent vary by occupation, or by region and political affiliation? And how has the growing rage at financial elites — nowadays, one is as likely to hear billionaires denounced by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson as by Senator Bernie Sanders — altered how affluent Americans see themselves?
The latter question was examined by the sociologist Rachel Sherman in another recent study of those reaping the benefits of our economic system, “Uneasy Street,” which drew on interviews with 50 well-to-do New Yorkers. Far from unaware of inequality, many of Sherman’s subjects were acutely conscious of it, to the point that they refrained not only from showing off their wealth but from talking about it (money is “more private than sex,” one subject told her). Sherman interpreted the silence as a form of status anxiety, reflecting uncertainty about how to feel morally entitled to one’s privilege.
“The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate,” observed the sociologist Max Weber. “Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others.” The comparison that wealthy people have often drawn to affirm their moral worth is with the lazy, undeserving poor. Some of the people Sherman interviewed compared themselves favorably to another class — the undeserving rich, dilettantes who inherited their money rather than earning it and who ostentatiously displayed their wealth. Distinguishing themselves from these “bad” rich people did not mean Sherman’s subjects were ready to give up their own material advantages. To the contrary, drawing such distinctions affirmed their self-image as “good people” who, by dint of certain character traits (self-sufficiency, restraint), could feel entitled to what they had. In an age of rising inequality, believing they possessed such traits could help assuage “the anxieties of affluence,” Sherman concluded.
These are, to be sure, anxieties that millions of adults who fear going broke because of a medical emergency or getting evicted from their homes would be happy to have. In “The 9.9 Percent,” Stewart notes that in 1963, the median household would have needed 10 times as much wealth to reach the middle of the 9.9 percent. Today, it would need 24 times as much wealth. In contemporary America, the lives of the wealthy bear increasingly little resemblance to those of working-class people, much less to those who are poor. Stewart is surely right to view this as a problem and to question why it has generated so much less outrage and concern than the obscene fortunes of the superrich. But the growing chasm between the 9.9 percent and the rest of society only underscores why pushing beyond reductive stereotypes to explain how affluent professionals think about, and justify, their wealth and privilege is important. Doing so can help illuminate both how deep the economic disparities in America have become and how inequality is validated and sustained.