The subject of inequality is much on people's minds these days. Supposedly, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. This isn't a new observation - there's an old saying, "The rich get richer and the poor get children," but people are complaining about increasing poverty all the same.
Objectively, this doesn't seem possible - the poor people of modern America have more material comforts than the rich of days gone by. When even homeless people regularly carry photo-capable cellphones, the concept of poverty has ceased to have all meaning.
Still, even though America's "poor" are very comfortable when compared to the global scale much less the historical one, nevertheless nobody wants to become or stay poor even by American standards. Yet millions are doing exactly that.
Our unemployment rate is as high as it's been in generations, and each number in the statistics represents an unhappy, desperately worried human being who is suffering mentally if not yet physically.
Actually, it's even worse. For every unemployed worker, there are many more people whose lives are affected negatively. Obviously the worker's family is harmed if he's got one, the people who used to sell to him lose money, and on it goes.
More than that, the knowledge of the high unemployment rate and struggling economy leads to worry among those who still have jobs. Who among us can go to work confident that we won't get a pink slip today, or that if somehow we do, we can land a new job tomorrow?
Our elites, that's who - and that makes their outlook on life entirely different and alien.
It's an inherent attribute of human nature that human beings can become accustomed to almost anything and carry on life one way or another under many different circumstances. Why do we keep having mass famines and slaughter in African hellholes? Because Africans living there have not given up on life - they continue to live lives, have sex, and reproduce a new generation of future "Save the Children" poster kids and child soldiers.
As horrible as their lives may seem to us - well, as horrible as they are - they have gotten used to them and found a way to get through each day, one day at a time, until they die.
In fact, when you look at pictures of Africans, they don't seem notably more miserable than anyone else. Someone about to die of starvation is not going to have a happy face, but given the minimum of nutrition, you get throngs of ragged, smiling children romping through sewage puddles.
The same is true at the opposite end of the spectrum. You'd think millionaires and billionaires would be the happiest people on earth - after all, they have everything they could possibly want and not a care in the world, right? Hardly!
How often are plutocrats smiling when you see them on TV? The Hollywood ones do, of course - it's a professional requirement - but despite the smiles, we constantly read of personal misery. It's no fun when your spouse runs off with a new lover whether you are rich or poor.
Human beings will almost always find something to worry about, or to be happy about, no matter what their personal situation. On average, there is a worry steady state - people will worry, or not, based primarily on their personality and not on their circumstances. In this regard, the rich are no different from you and me.
Our media and politicians like to sort Americans into classes based on their income. We hear constant whining from the left about how "millionaires and billionaires" are not paying enough taxes and demanding special surcharges for those who make more than $250,000 per year.
Obviously anyone who pulls in a quarter-million bucks a year is doing OK, but that does not make them a millionaire much less a billionaire. There are, in fact, people whose income is very small who live lives every bit as comfortable. This works because they are old, their Florida home is paid for, and their health care is covered by Social Security. Are they truly that much "poorer" than a family man who makes $250,000 but lives and works in New York City, where tiny two-bedroom apartments cost well over a million dollars?
No, financial class is only indirectly connected with your income at any given moment. A more revealing way to understand class in America is to consider what would happen without income - i.e. after a job loss.
If losing your job and not finding another one right away leads to immediate financial collapse - inability to pay the rent, eligibility not just for unemployment but for welfare and being out on the street - then you are working class. Working class people live from paycheck to paycheck, and if anything goes wrong, they're toast. Homelessness is a very real possibility for members of the working class.
Traditionally, members of the working class had few skills and little education, but over time they developed useful experience. With diligence and hard work, a man who started out working class - say, an entry-level assembly line worker or unskilled construction laborer - could better himself and move up into the middle class.
What makes a middle class person? Not merely a decent house and car - a working-class person who's been lucky enough not to suffer unemployment for many years may enjoy those too.
To be middle class, you have to have enough financial assets, or at least enough access to credit, to survive a months-long period of unemployment. Having no job for six months, say, will do serious damage to a middle-class family, but it won't destroy them - they can borrow against the value of their house, run up credit cards, perhaps sell a boat or some stocks, dip into retirement savings. Then when a new job is found, over time they can recover and move forward without having been utterly ruined.
That's why our current recession has been so damaging to the middle class - the average time to find a new job is nine months. Most middle-class people can stave off the repo man for several months, and foreclosure for longer than that, but eventually time runs out and they are on the street just as surely as their working-class brethren.
For the middle class, one month without a paycheck is no serious problem. Three months is doable. Six months call for extreme measures and panicky desperation; beyond that lies doom, and a great many job losses today go far beyond that point.
Is it any wonder the middle class is so frightened?
Which brings us to what it means to be rich, or a member of the elite. Quite simply, this is: the ability to sustain a reasonable lifestyle indefinitely without working, or without fearing lack of work.
Consider the Kennedys. Obviously John, Robert, and Teddy wanted to work; they spent their lives running for high office. Unlike the rest of us, their looking for work had everything to do with desire for personal power, and nothing to do with a need to pay the mortgage.
JFK could have spent his life squiring Jackie around from Monaco to Nantucket to Manhattan, never doing a lick of work, and he would still have been just as comfortable - maybe more so, since nobody would have had reason to shoot him.
Barack Obama's father was a penniless African, but his mother's family was fairly well off. Despite his fantastically expensive elite education, Mr. Obama could afford to work as a low-paid "community organizer."
Today, of course, he's worth millions as a result of his book sales and the proceeds of Michelle's hefty hospital salary. Even if he weren't the President, he need never fear going homeless or hungry no matter what happens.
What about lesser folks? Not everyone with an Ivy League degree is a plutocrat. Surely there must be some homeless person with a Harvard sheepskin, but the overwhelming majority of our self-appointed elites simply have no need to worry about the money problems that so consume ordinary people. If nothing else, their connections from school will quickly land them a paying job in the bureaucracy of our government or a giant corporation.
So, we've established the fundamental difference between our elites and everyone else: they don't have to worry about a catastrophic collapse in their living standards, of falling into poverty, of suffering the agonies of failing as breadwinner.
In the next article in this series we'll see why this matters.