by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
He told me he was president of this or that bank-and-trust company, which I already knew. He might as well have said: “I get up in the morning and go to my desk at eight, work until noon, take an hour for lunch, and then work from one to five.” Yes, I told him, I know what your job title is, but what do you do? What kind of work does one have to do all day, requiring what kind of skills and aptitudes, to earn an income that buys a house like that? So far as I could tell, he had a lot of meetings. And that’s a strange thing I’ve learned over the years: A great many very rich people don’t really know what they do for a living, at least not well enough to explain it. And if you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it. …
… What do they do?
Often, the answer is: They work in finance. The Left, and some of the Right, talks about “financialization of the economy,” or the “FIRE” — finance, insurance, real estate — economy, as though it were somehow necessarily unsavory. (It often is unnecessarily unsavory.) You can kind of see why that might be. I know peanut farmers, and a guy who makes peanut butter, and another guy who sells expensive peanut butter in his chain of grocery stores, but none of them probably makes as good a return on the smushed-peanut trade as does the guy who finances their smooth operations and insures their chunky assets. Money is the one good that’s always in demand (give or take a few hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollars), and so one sort of expects the money business to be pretty lucrative.
What really seems to drive people bats about finance — and what’s behind a great deal of our resentment-driven “inequality” politics — is that same question: “What do they do?” It’s the mysteriousness that vexes people, the sense that there exists in these United States a class apart whose ways and means are alien and incomprehensible.
And there is something to that. The real story of inequality in the early 21st century isn’t one of the lower classes’ sinking into penury and misery. In purely material terms, they’ve never had it so good. By any quantitative measure — calories eaten, square footage occupied, energy consumed, disposable income after basic food and shelter, real purchasing power — lower-earning households are far, far better off than they were during the so-called golden age of the 1950s or 1960s, that magical postwar period for which we still feel a paralyzing nostalgia. What’s remarkable isn’t that the poor are falling behind, but that the top tenth or so are pulling away in ways that weren’t common, or even possible, before very recently in our history.