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Our June cover story, “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy,” by the writer Matthew Stewart, has kickstarted a robust conversation on the Masthead forums. In the story, Stewart describes a group of wealthy Americans that he calls the “9.9 percent.” This growing segment, he writes, includes everyone who falls, socioeconomically, between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent of the population. These Americans own more wealth than all other Americans put together, and are perpetuating wealth inequality like never before. What’s more, he adds, many Atlantic readers are likely among them:

We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

We asked Stewart to read through our members’ questions about his piece, and respond to anything that piqued his interest.

What We Want to Know About Wealth Inequality

Here are some of Matthew Stewart’s responses to your questions about his piece. The questions have been paraphrased, and Stewart’s answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can see both questions and answers in context on our Masthead forums.

Is there any way to actually solve the problem of income inequality in America? Or are we just “screwed?”

Stewart: I’d like to steer a course between recognizing the seriousness of the problem without going down the waterfall into some kind of fatalism. Here is my one basic reason for optimism: The modern world, taken on the whole, is evidence of human beings’ ability to solve the problem of inequality. Here are several reasons for pessimism:

  • First, considered in smaller time-frames (like, say, one human lifespan), the modern world blows itself up with distressing regularity.

  • Second, inequality has no natural enemy. The process runs away with itself, as growing wealth acquires growing power.

  • Third, fixing this problem means changing our mindsets. It means rethinking what we mean by success, how we think of ourselves, how we see our community—and none of that is easy.

To fully address the country’s inequality, shouldn’t we focus on the 0.1 percent, rather than the 9.9 percent?

Stewart: When I read about the supposed “failure” of the meritocracy, my first response is to ask, what about the “failure” of those parts of the bottom 90 percent that voted to deprive themselves of their own futures? What about the “failure” of the of 0.1 percent-ers who funded political division in order to pursue puerile economic fantasies? True, the 9.9 percent are complicit in all of these problems—that was one of my central contentions—but the real villain of the story isn’t any one class or group of bad actors; rather it is the process of class separation and calcification, a process that I identify with the Gatsby Curve.

This is a graph of what was dubbed “the Great Gatsby Curve.” The axis on the left shows how much parents' incomes determine the earnings of their children in each country. The higher up you go, the more your parents' earnings predict yours—that is, the lower your mobility. The bottom axis plots countries on a common measure of inequality—the farther right, the more unequal. (Miles Corak)

I devote more ink in this essay—but not necessarily more blame—to the 9.9 percent for three obvious reasons:

  • First, the role of this group—and more generally the role of non-financial forms of wealth in building class barriers that this group exemplifies—is the least well-understood aspect of inequality today. We won’t really understand class in America until we dispose of the myths embedded in the idea of a universal middle class, of “the 99 percent,” the meritocracy, and all that.

  • Second, I am writing for The Atlantic. I figure that’s a pretty good way to reach a lot of 9.9 percent-ers.

  • Third—this is the optimist in me bubbling up again—I think this class is potentially a revolutionary class.

How much does the 9.9 percent donate to charity? What might their charitable donations tell us about the role they play—and the role they see themselves playing—in society?

Stewart: Charity is part of the problem and part of the solution, but it would be a mistake to think that it is a large part of either. On the problematic side: A significant amount of charity ultimately works to consolidate inequality rather than reduce it. Consider, for example, fundraising for wealthy schools in wealthy districts; or the many philanthropies that are essentially vanity projects.

Also, compounding the first, charity (in the financial, as opposed to personal, sense) under our tax regime is effectively a way of channeling public subsidies (through the miracle of tax deductions). Is it really such a good idea to let the wealthy decide how public money will be spent? On the bright side, the ideal of charity is always a good one; it ought to be celebrated, and I’ve come across many stories of 9.9 percent-ers and 0.1 percent-ers doing good things with it. If it can be used to build bridges across the classes, so much the better. But it can’t build actual bridges, or real infrastructure, and we need that, too.

Clearly economic inequality is a huge problem in America. How do we fix it?

Stewart: I wish I had all the answers. Rather than offer my policy laundry list here—it probably wouldn’t be very persuasive—I’ll mention some basic principles that guide my thinking:

  • First principle: Go after the root causes of inequality, not the symptoms. For me, the rootiest of the causes is the growing concentration of economic power through monopolistic, quasi-monopolist, and other rent-seeking mechanisms; also down there in the roots is the disempowerment of labor. Do not believe the self-justifying nonsense that blames growing inequality on merely natural forces, like technology and globalization. The causes are all too human, and so are the solutions.

  • Second principle: Build the foundation that gives every individual a chance to be a productive member of society. For me, that means regarding health, education, and housing as rights in a certain sense. (Sub-principle: other countries have done a much better job of figuring out some of these, so don’t listen to anyone who says it’s not possible.)

  • Third principle: Assume that every major issue confronting us is in some way a derivative of the core problem of inequality, unless proven otherwise. Environmental issues, fairness in media, abortion/reproductive health-care politics, gun safety—all of these can be understood better, and approached more effectively, when seen through the lens of inequality, and will in turn affect inequality.

  • Fourth principle: Don’t let perceived political realities censor your thinking. We don’t know how the political realities will change. The slim upside of political instability is that a moment of genuine reform is also possible. So let’s get creative and talk about wealth taxes, basic income, and national service as vehicles for education and training, and so on.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: On the forums, people are still discussing Stewart’s story. The topics are branching out into questions like, “How do new discoveries about free will, consciousness, and instinct guide our response to inequality?” and, “Can a collectivist vision thrive in an individualistic America?” Jump into the discussion here.

  • What’s Coming: Soon, Caroline Kitchener will give us a behind-the-scenes look at a feature piece she’s been working on. Stay tuned.

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