If you’ve ever fantasized about enormous wealth, “If I Were a Rich Man” might have begun playing inside your head. A new book suggests you’d be better off humming Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything.”
Immense riches do mean you can “build a big, tall house with rooms by the dozen,” as Tevye fantasizes in Fiddler on the Roof. But Lauper’s lyrics provide a cautionary counterpart: “You say, ‘Well, who can you trust?’…Money changes everything.”
That change is the focus of Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live and How Their Wealth Harms Us All. This isn’t a book-length Bernie Sanders speech, although there are enough barbs to ensure that author Michael Mechanic, a long-time senior editor at Mother Jones, keeps his day job. Nor is it a rehash of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, although there’s a steady diet of tantalizing tidbits. Instead, Jackpotmakes a carefully calibrated case that unfettered wealth is not only corrupting America, but brings a lot less happiness than you’d expect.
The book is timely, appearing right after Forbes’ 2021 Annual World’s Billionaires List counted a record-high 2,755 billionaires. According to Forbes, “rapid-fire public offerings, surging cryptocurrencies and skyrocketing stock prices” spawned 493 newcomers to the list “or roughly one new billionaire every 17 hours.”
To Mechanic’s credit he gives us character studies rather than caricatures, and he has done a wealth of research on wealth. Interviewees come off as ordinary folks who “hit the jackpot,” either literally (e.g., through a lottery ticket) or figuratively, through marriage, inheritance or — a particular focus — picking the right job at the right time, particularly in tech.
The New York Times recently estimated that in a six-month period at least 35 companies in the San Francisco area went public at a combined market value of almost half a trillion dollars. Just a handful of those offerings could mint an estimated 7,000 millionaires.
Moreover, the contrast between the rich and everyone else has been accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic. From mid-March of 2020 through Feb. 24, 2021, millions of Americans lost their jobs, but the wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by 44 percent, or $1.3 trillion, according to the newsletter Inequality.
Yet this cornucopia does not automatically confer contentment. Paradoxically, writes Mechanic, “extreme wealth bears an odd resemblance to poverty in terms of the psychological malaise it inflicts.” For example, one study of teens found that children from the richest and the poorest families were the most vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse. Teens from both ends of the spectrum committed crimes, but rich kids were more prone to “widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency.”
A different kind of cheating is even more pervasive among adults. Despite the myth of an egalitarian America, time and again money trumps merit. Wealth can buy preferential access to Covid-19 tests and the Covid vaccine — a life-and-death difference. Top colleges cater to kids of potential big donors, and the network of connections enabled by attending those colleges reinforces wealth and privilege. Similarly, the private schools to which the rich they send their children offer courses and personal attention public schools can’t match, perpetuating inequality.
Meanwhile, the uber-wealthy have steadily shifted the tax burden from their shoulders to ours, often through complex legal and accounting maneuvers. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, tax obligations as a percentage of wealth for the rich have been plummeting. While the case for raising taxes on the rich has long been clear, it remains to be seen whether the increased taxes the Biden administration seeks to fund improvements in America’s deteriorating infrastructure will make it through a Congress highly sensitive to the concerns of big donors.
Mechanic’s solution is to appeal to a sense of social solidarity, pointing to examples of the uber-rich who have begun donating large chunks of their wealth to causes that improve societal fairness. Mechanic asks others with similar assets to commit to working “on the complex and politically fraught task of remaking the American economy.” The alternative, he warns, is feeding the toxic populist anger already threatening democratic norms.
To me this sounds a lot like the white-collar equivalent of the hippies who once placed flowers in the gun barrels of National Guard troops in order to promote peace. I suspect most of us remain more Tevye than Cyndi Lauper. For instance, if it wouldn’t “spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man,” as Tevye put it, I’m still willing to take the risk. I’ll even promise to give most of it away!
Still, one data point in particular gives pause. The same survey of the uber-wealthy that uncovered widespread anxiety also found that most respondents nonetheless believe the cure for their angst is having even more money.
One hopeful sign is that Mechanic is not alone in his advocacy. The Ford Foundation recently published a book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, that advocates using philanthropy “as a tool for achieving economic, social and political justice.” In that light, Mechanic’s book is nothing less than a challenge to the rich to give up some of their privilege in the cause of patriotism, to love their fellow Americans more than their money. To lure more lucre, Mechanic could call his plan, “Make America Great Again,” although I believe that name’s already been taken.