Steven Lagerfeld: Today we lionize the wealthy

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jay Gould, the wealthiest man in America, was only 56 years old when he died in 1892, and the general opinion was that he had already lived too long. "So far as his life and career made him conspicuous he was an incarnation of cupidity and sordidness," declared The New York World. The Herald reported that there was "much quiet rejoicing" on Wall Street. The New York Times weighed in with a relatively measured judgment: "It is in our time that the 'operator' has been born, and JAY GOULD was an operator pure and simple, although, in a general way of speaking, he was as far as possible from pure and as far as possible from simple."

To the long list of things they don't need to worry about, the two wealthiest men in America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, can add what the obituary writers will say about them. Buffett, whose $46 billion leaves him in second place to Gates, with $53 billion, on the Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans, hasn't even had to die to be dubbed the Sage of Omaha, as if investing were akin to Zen Buddhism. Beneath them, the rich and the merely affluent, with their mortgaged McMansions and leased Range Rovers, are admired (or at least ogled), rather than vilified as they were in Gould's day. Americans dwell so lovingly on the trappings of wealth that Tom Wolfe has invented a term to describe the new media genre that serves the taste, ­plutography. A yacht maker recently advertised a $20 million craft in The Financial Times as if it had the same mass appeal as one of Ron Popeil's ­Dial-­o-­Matic vegetable slicers.

According to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who, with various colleagues, has done pioneering research on the history of American wealth and income in recent years, the top one percent of households in the United States increased its share of the nation's pretax wage and salary income from the ­post-­World War II nadir of under eight percent in 1973 to 16 percent in 2004 (see chart, p. 41). During that period, the top 0.1 ­percent—­about 130,000 ­households—­increased their take from less than 2 percent to almost 7 percent. (Average income per household was nearly $5 million.) Such levels haven't been seen in many ­decades.

Americans' enthusiastic embrace of business and the rich represents an amazing change in public attitudes, and one does not need to look back a century to appreciate its magnitude. ...

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