Haves, have-nots, and the looming hyper-gap

[Warning: this one is going to ramble a bit.]

It’s good to be da king!
— Louis XVI, as channeled by Mel Brooks

All other things being equal, ’tis better to have than to have not.
— Sam Smith, circa 1990

Have I noted in the past that the gap between the haves and the, ummm, have-lesses, seems to be widening? A series of developments lately appears to suggest that things aren’t exactly booming out in Normal Guyland. For instance:

  • U.S. May layoffs up 42% to 82,283, Challenger says (registration required) – Corporate layoff announcements increased by 42% in May to 82,283, according to a monthly tally released Thursday by outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. So far in 2005, layoff announcements are running 4.6% ahead of last year’s pace. Job cuts in the computer industry surged to 17,886 in May as companies reacted to weak demand in European markets.
  • Weak job growth raises slowdown fears – U.S. employers added only 78,000 workers to their payrolls in May, the weakest job growth in 21 months, the government said on Friday in a report that fanned worries on Wall Street over a slowing economy.

I’m sure a bit of snooping would turn up more stories and analyses telling working, have-less Americans all kinds of things they already know.

Then there’s the haves:

Super-rich widen lead over rest of Americans By David Cay Johnston
When F. Scott Fitzgerald pronounced that the very rich “are different from you and me,” Ernest Hemingway’s famously dismissive response was: “Yes, they have more money.” Today he might well add: much, much, much more money.

The people at the top of the U.S. money pyramid have so prospered in recent years that they have pulled far ahead of the rest of the population, an analysis of tax records and other government data shows. They’ve even left behind people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Call them the hyper-rich.

William Gibson would not only take Fitzgerald’s side in the argument – he’d go a few steps further. In his depiction of the hyper-rich of the very-near future, he suggested that not only are the very rich different from regular people, they’re barely people at all. If we study the Tessier-Ashpool clan of Neuromancer or the character of Virek from Count Zero, we see a good argument that at some point the rich stop being human.

There’s much to be learned from good science fiction, especially when that sf is primarily concerned with the socio-economic instead of the purely technical, and cyberpunks like Gibson and Bruce Sterling are writing so close to the cultural bone that it grows difficult at times to see how what they’re writing is even fiction, let alone science fiction. And it’s always valuable to remember that sf is never really about the future.

So what about the very rich? Well, people born billionaires tend to be fundamentally different from people like us. I mean, look at Paris Hilton. If you pay close enough attention, you begin to see that it’s not just the bottomless checking account, the jet-setting, etc. And while she’s dumb as a stick, it’s not regular dumb. It’s a refined, rarefied sort of stupidity that derives from the very character of her culture. She doesn’t know certain things because an animal of her species has no need of them. She has as much practical need of how to function in the world I live in as a gopher does of how to backstroke in the canals on Mars.

For a generation or so, these differences probably fall mostly in the nurture category, but once you in-breed the hyper-rich for a few generations, you wind up with something that’s genertically different. At some point we begin talking about a new species, don’t we?

What qualities distinguish homo sapiens from homo hiltonius, aside from the obvious? Well, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick marked empathy as the quality that made us innately human. You could program androids to fake certain kinds of empathic response, but in the end they lacked the essential capability to identify with other humans, to share emotional bonds of pain and joy, etc. Dick wasn’t talking about the rich, but it may be worth noting that the only very rich character in the story is Elson Rosen, the President of the corporation that manufactures the androids – hmmmm….

So is American society evolving a new breed of ubersapiens, a hyper-rich class of overlords whose wealth is more than simply beyond reach for a Regular Joe – it constitutes a difference of type so dramatic that even if you found yourself with that many zeroes to the left of the decimal in your bank statement, you’d still be inherently incapable of relating to others in your tax bracket? Maybe there’s value in examining the empathy we see in our business and political leaders and other assorted power elites. Ask yourself not just to what degree you think these people empathize with you, but to what degree they are spiritually, emotionally, and morally capable of doing so.

“Compassionate conservatism” has been pretty roundly trompled in recent years, and for good reason, but it’s a term that bears fresh examination. For starters, the very idea that it needed coining – that the two words needed to be juxtaposed in such a way – acknowledges the simple fact that contemporary conservatism (caveat: I’ll here renew my objection to the misapplication of the term “conservative” to the neocons, who aren’t even vaguely conservative in any traditional sense) has no compassion in it. If the quality of compassion were inherent and obviously resident in “conservatism,” after all, you wouldn’t need the redundancy, would you? What the term is telling you is that the people using it have to make a special effort at compassion.

Now, this isn’t true of all conservatives. It’s not even true of most conservatives. But most conservatives aren’t the power brokers at the top of the food chain crafting the messaging, the agenda, the frame. The hyper-rich elites, though…. Maybe we’re more than justified in asking ourselves about their obvious difficulties in relating to the lives of average Americans. (Hold your questions about how a majority who went to the polls in November clearly bought the shared “values” message – I’ll get to that directly.)

I didn’t set out to write a philosophy paper this morning. There’s actually a practical question underneath all this, and it has to do with the gap. The huge, widening gap. The hyper-gap.

As has been suggested before, human societies always breed hierarchies of wealth of class. Occasionally, those class structures are overthrown, but the ones that are most likely to be stable over a period of time are ones in which the gap is less about have/have-not than it is about have-more/have-enough. Now, you can certainly have massive gaps where a small elite have blinding wealth while the majority starve. Eventually, though, a leader is going to rise from the masses, a leader who can do simple math: “there’s a million of us and only 100 of them.” Smart elites are those who make sure that the masses at least satisfied enough not to revolt. Basic subsistence levels of food and health care go a ways toward assuring stability. Religion is a fantastic buffering device, because it convinces the masses that the riches of this world don’t matter (or even better, that they’re evil). You get the idea.

But the greater the gap, the more stress is placed on the buffers. And the less empathy the elites have for those down the ladder, the more stress you’re guaranteed to have in the system. Now, by “empathy” I don’t necessarily mean a tendency to feel bad for the downtrodden. I merely refer to a condition whereby the two groups share enough cultural DNA that they’re capable of seeing things from the other side’s point of view. Group A’s radio is at least wired to pick up the transmissions from Group B.

There is a breaking point. There is a set of circumstances out there that could hypothetically lead to poles being decorated with the heads of the formerly hyper-rich. Are we on the brink of such a revolution? Probably not. Are closer than we were a year ago? Arguably, yes. Given current conditions, are we likely to be closer still a year from now? You tell me.

Our proximity to Zero Hour on the hypothetical class warfare clock, though, has a lot to do with the quality of empathy in the hyper-haves. So far, the sheep have been plodding complacently along, eating what they’re fed and grazing where they’re told. So far, they have been willing to buy cynical misdirection plays that encourage them to worry more about what’s going on in bedrooms thousands of miles away than in boardrooms across town. So far.

But there’s a part of me that can’t help believing reality will one day set in. I mean, you smack even the dumbest guy in the head with a 2×4 99 times in a row, and that 100th time he’s going to duck, right?

Maybe. Then again, if he ducks one time in a hundred, that means you haven’t quite dumbed him down far enough, so another assault on education budgets is in order. Time will tell whether what I’m saying is a fateful prediction or merely a fitful prayer.

Meantime, a word to the hyper-rich. Gaps are like anything else – the bigger they are, the harder they are to hide.

Virek must have seen it too; he screamed, and Baron Samedi, Lord of Graveyards, the loa whose kingdom was death, leaned in across Barcelona like a cold dark rain.
— William Gibson

[THX: Steve Reynolds at the West Bygod Desk.]

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2 comments

  1. Sam, very insightful.
    Have you ever seen the Natural Economic Order?
    Description people can understand, perscription is where it gets messy, especially for Democrats these days.
    I mean: Marx and Engels Blew It, in a huge way, obviously, but where?
    did you see Chronicles of Riddick? ‘you keep what you kill’

  2. Marx missed on a couple points, I think. First, while class warfare happens on occasion, I’m not sure you can call it the defining dynamic of capitalist societies. Truth be told, I think if you reformulate around the idea that the defining dynamic is something akin to “pursuit of leisure” it explains a lot more.
    Also, like SO MANY political theorists, Marx did a wonderful job of describing what was wrong without providing a workable framework for solving the problems.

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