The Other Nine Percent

Posted by Bob Lord

I've said repeatedly that we're living through a grand experiment: How much wealth and how much income can we jam into the top one percent before the bottom 90% explodes? I've written a good bit about both the top one percent and the bottom 90%.

But what about the other nine percent? The ones in the middle.

In The 21st Century Silver Spoon, Elizabeth Currid-Haldett sheds some light on the other nine percent. She refers to them as the "aspirational class," for their desire to join the top one percent. They're our status seekers:

A silver spoon is no longer a mark of elite status. Take the nation’s top 10 percent of households. The top 1 percent — those making more than $394,000 annually — are today’s version of Veblen’s leisure class in terms of wealth, but they are not the biggest buyers of silver flatware. Instead, households in the rest of this high-earning cohort — those making between $114,000 and just under $394,000 — take the silver prize.

Many of the consumption habits of this “aspirational class,” as I call it, the people who want to join the top 1 percent, or who may appear to be in it already, better conform to Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption. They outspend everybody else by big margins on fresh flowers and plants, bottled water, crystal glassware, gigantic refrigerators and the latest oversize sport utility vehicle.

In other words, they take their hard-earned money and spend it the way they think rich people would. What a bunch of losers. In terms of happiness, they get nothing from their discretionary income. And as they buy their over-priced status symbols, their money flows to those one percenters they aspire to be. Effectively, they're donating large chunks of their incomes to the top one percent, pretty much destroying their own prospects of joining that elite group. 

This is the group that will wring their hands when the masses rise up. They'll feel their way of life is threatened. Ironically, the one thing they could do to save their precious way of life would be to demand poiicies that reduce our massive inequality. Collectively, they're a powerful group politically, and could make that happen. But they never will, because they're the aspirational class.

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