Let us take a moment to reflect on the vulgar reality of extreme wealth.
In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, populist Louisiana politician Huey Long inserted some pointed questions into the barnstorming speeches he gave across the United States. Addressing audiences of manual laborers and the unemployed, he asked how many of his male listeners owned at least four suits of clothes.
Not a single person would raise his hand.
Then Long would ask how many had three suits. Again, no one.
Two suits? Still no hands.
Finally, in a dramatic flourish, he would call out of one of the country’s wealthiest financiers: “I want you to know,” Long would exclaim, “that J.P. Morgan owns more than a hundred suits!”
Huey Long had his faults, but he knew how to make a point. His rising popularity pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to include expanded work programs and more progressive taxation in the government’s New Deal reforms.
Today the gap between those at the top and everybody else has grown so vast that it’s hard to even conceptualize.
For almost two years, the lifestyle website Refinery29 has published a series called “Money Diaries,” in which millennials from a range of incomes describe exactly how they spend their money over a seven-day period. In October, the series profiled a 34-year-old finance executive whose annual household income, between her salary and her husband’s, totals $1,250,000. With this, the couple supports themselves, plus a daughter in pre-school.
These people are merely millionaires, not billionaire tycoons. And yet the diary documents an astounding level of consumption. Even excluding basic expenses—mortgage, cars, school loans, utilities, a gardener, pool man, laundry service, wine shipments to the house—we watch the executive fritter away some $6,200 in one week of casual spending. This covers handbags and catalogue orders, tickets for a Hawaiian vacation and a trip to Disneyland. There’s a $175 sushi dinner and a $185 birthday cake. All whims fulfilled without worry or compunction.
As one might expect, the Refinery29 profile generated considerable revulsion on the internet. “You can argue whether increased taxes on the wealthy will have useful consequences,” wrote Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson, a leader in spotlighting the diary. “What I don’t think you can argue is that increased taxation would deprive people in any serious way.”
One interesting revelation, Robinson noted, was that, even at their wanton rate of weekly spending, the couple would only manage to blow through about a half million dollars per year.
After a certain point, one has to be creative in inventing new material wants, since any reasonable day-to-day need has already been met: A well-appointed home in an exclusive postcode; expensive schools and tennis lessons for the kids; constant dining out; housekeepers to tend to domestic chores; plus enough exotic vacations to make your personal carbon footprint bigger than the paw marks of the fabled Siberian Sasquatch. All this can be had for a small fraction of the income of the super-rich, who are hundreds or even thousands of times more prosperous than our millionaire diarist.
In its November Billionaire Bonanza report, the Institute for Policy Studies documented that America’s richest 400 individuals own more wealth than bottom 64 percent of the country combined—more than the entire GDP of Britain.
This news comes as Donald Trump proposes to eliminate the estate tax—a cut benefiting those who inherit more than $5 million—and when countless Americans fear losing healthcare access.
Statistics about the stark disparities we face become so commonplace that they lose their ability to shock. Which is why an even comparatively modest diary of excess provides a helpful reminder.
The injustice of extreme wealth and runaway inequality is an increasingly central part of U.S. politics, and global politics as well. We should not allow ourselves to forget its obscenity.