“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story. “They are different from you and me.”
I am surprised that Fitzgerald’s observation hasn’t gained more agency since Occupy’s birth more than a year ago. Like a mouse to cheese, Fitzgerald was drawn to glamour. But he was gimlet eyed. Possessed of an acute intelligence, Fitzgerald knew how the world really worked.
If you doubt this, reread The Great Gatsby. Beneath the exquisite surface of the novel is a preoccupation with the will to triumph. It is as raw as in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Quentin Tarantino explores the power dynamic from the footsoldier’s point of view in Pulp Fiction. And Andy Warhol’s Elvis and Marilyn paintings personify clout. Artists recognize that being power-crazed is as American as apple pie.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know it. Like all politicians, however, they are too cagey to admit it.
Of the rich, Fitzgerald continued: “They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.”
One of the things it does is to spawn a lust for power that is disproportionate to their numbers. Or, as Chevy Chase might say: “They’re rich, and we’re not.” Call it entitlement.
I suspect something like this was in the back of anthropologist David Graeber’s mind when he minted the idea of the 99 percent.
Graeber was directionally correct when he intuited that the 1 percent holds most of the cards. But within the gated community of the 1 percent a more exclusive suburb exists — for the 0.1 percent.
The math is easy. Since the 1970s, 50 percent of the nation’s economic gains have gone to the 1 percent. But 50 percent of those gains have gone to the 0.1 percent.
The point of entry to the 1 percent is $350,000. The 1 percent is not a rainbow coalition, but it is relatively diverse. The 0.1 percent is not. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, strip out star athletes and Hollywood types and you have the suits: corporate executives, real estate titans, Wall Street operators. These are the kleptocrats.
So, with financial obscenity so clearly documented, why is the presidential election sitting at a statistical tie?
Because the 0.1 percent vote their self-interest and most Americans don’t — and haven’t for almost 40 years.
As Fitzgerald sensed, the super rich are carnivores; the masses vegans.
This is, of course, a simplification. The petulant Republican incumbent, Senator Scott Brown has tried to paint his challenger Elizabeth Warren as a 1 percenter. That may be where her income is, but not her head. And she is a reasonable surrogate of the scores of affluent Americans who have the heart, soul, and intelligence to realize that the rules of Monopoly must be rewritten.
More tellingly, large numbers of the 47 percent don’t realize that Romney considers them unwashed. I suspect that even larger numbers of the well-scrubbed 53 percent identify with the 1 percent. They just don’t have the wit to recognize that, with every passing year, their chances of ascension diminish as the odds of holding even decrease.
This election, pure and simple, is about social mobility. As Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night, “Either you think — or else others have to think for you.”
A frequent guest on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio, you can watch Peter Kadzis every Tuesday at 7:50 am on Fox25’s Heavy Hitters. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org:: @kadzis