Is America on the Way to a Caste System?

  
Via:  john-russell  •  one month ago  •  17 comments

Is America on the Way to a Caste System?
In some cases, money can mean the difference between life and death. In California, private firefighters sent by insurers saved the vineyards and estates of a fortunate few during the recent spate of wildfires, even as neighboring homes were reduced to ashes. For $50,000, private health care consultants can steer cancer patients into potentially lifesaving clinical trials.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



America has always known haves and have-nots. But what was a tiered system is morphing into a   caste   system.



A $1,000 seat at Yankee Stadium, in the first few rows along the baseline, is known as a Legends ticket. Holders bypass the long lines of fans waiting to enter the park by conventional means, whisked in by security guards who greet them like family. They enjoy a private dining room and concierge access, and they are separated from lesser fans by a concrete moat.



It has been a long time since sporting events were essentially communal experiences, and it's no secret that the industry caters to the wealthy. But what struck me about the Legends experience, when I shelled out for a pair of seats one autumn Sunday, was something called the Harman Lounge.



It's a club within the Legends club, and there's nothing particularly unique about it -- just more gray suede couches, another bar and some TVs. The only thing that makes the Harman Lounge special is that it is restricted to fans sitting in the first row and only the first row. It exists solely to exclude fans who are not at the absolute top.



I had gone to Yankee Stadium in search of what I call the Velvet Rope Economy, and in the Harman Lounge I found something like its apotheosis. Whatever the arena -- health care, education, work, leisure -- on one side of the velvet rope is a friction-free existence. Red tape is cut, appointments are secured, doors are opened. On the other side, friction is practically the defining characteristic, with middle- and working-class Americans facing an increasingly zero-sum fight for a decent seat on the plane, a college scholarship, even a doctor's appointment.



There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who's not at the pinnacle.



[This article is adapted from Nelson D. Schwartz's new book, ''The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business,'' published by Doubleday.]



This trend doesn't merely delight the wealthy -- it also exacerbates the isolation and abandonment of everyone else. Anger and resentment are hardening into permanent features of our politics. President Trump regularly inveighs against the elite, and the Democratic front-runner, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, makes attacks on ''millionaires and billionaires'' a hallmark of his campaign. Consumer dissatisfaction is high despite low unemployment and steady hiring gains.



Among the purveyors of elite experiences, however, business has never been better. The creation of products like Yankee Stadium's Harman Lounge is driven by straightforward economics: As more money accumulates in fewer hands, attracting this contingent is essential if profits are to grow.



''By definition, the 1 percent is always just 1 percent, but that group has gotten much wealthier and their purchasing power is bigger,'' said Geoff Yang, a co-founder of Redpoint Ventures and one of Silicon Valley's most successful venture capitalists.



Meanwhile, ordinary experiences deteriorate in quality, and the motivation to pay more for an upgrade and better treatment becomes more urgent, even for Americans who don't consider themselves part of the elite.



The political and social repercussions go beyond symbolism -- they have a real impact on government policies and fiscal priorities. For instance, when corporate decision makers, members of Congress and especially the political donor class routinely bypass traffic jams and deteriorating trains and buses and get to the airport via a luxury helicopter service like Blade, the political impetus to improve public transit fades.



The ease of catching a commercial flight at the deluxe new private terminal at Los Angeles International Airport -- the first of its kind in the country, with a $4,500 annual membership plus a $3,000 fee per trip -- makes it that much easier for those who can afford it to forget about the decrepit main terminal, with its claustrophobic hallways and overcrowded waiting areas.



Similarly, if wealthier consumers can hack the hospital game and see specialists before everyone else, or employ high-priced counselors to gain special access to the Ivy League, health care and education reform become much less pressing.



Nowhere is the segmentation worse, or anger more evident, than up in the air. With nine different groups to board a plane, flying has explicitly become an exercise in class distinction. The frustration isn't confined to rhetoric. A 2016 study on air rage by Katherine A. DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School found a surprisingly robust link between onboard incidents and what they call ''physical and situational inequality.''



What the researchers discovered as they sifted through the data was remarkable. When passengers boarded at the front of the aircraft and had to walk through the premium cabin to get to coach, the odds of an outburst in economy doubled. Nor was the anger limited to the back of the plane. On those flights where coach passengers traipsed their way through first class upon boarding, unruly behavior among elite passengers was nearly 12 times as likely.



The extremely rich don't see even first-class fliers, let alone those in coach. Take Nick Hanauer, a Seattle entrepreneur worth hundreds of millions of dollars. As an early investor in Amazon, Mr. Hanauer gets around in his personal Dassault Falcon 900LX jet, which retails for $43 million. Money provides him with a kind of all-encompassing E-ZPass, enabling him to zip past the everyday obstacles the rest of us have to contend with.



''This is my life -- I see it everywhere,'' Mr. Hanauer said. ''I haven't waited in a line in 10 years.''



But for all his wealth, Mr. Hanauer said, he has a gnawing fear that the widening gulf between economic winners like himself and ordinary Americans is unsustainable. ''If you're not genuinely concerned about the future of the United States, you are not paying attention,'' he said.



In some cases, money can mean the difference between life and death. In California, private firefighters sent by insurers saved the vineyards and estates of a fortunate few during the recent spate of wildfires, even as neighboring homes were reduced to ashes. For $50,000, private health care consultants can steer cancer patients into potentially lifesaving clinical trials.



The evidence of this trend isn't merely anecdotal, either. The richest 1 percent of Americans live nearly 15 years longer on average than the poorest 1 percent, according to a 2016 study in JAMA. And that disparity is increasing.



It's getting impossible to imagine that we're all in it together as a society. Because the hard truth is we're not. On the other side of the velvet rope, millions of Americans are going about their daily lives, paying their taxes and trying to make ends meet, even as they wait longer to see a doctor or to get through security at the airport because richer Americans are jumping the line.



''If this continues unabated, we're done,'' said Mr. Hanauer, who in 2013 started Civic Ventures, a think tank aimed at creating a more level playing field. ''This won't be a capitalist system -- it'll be a feudal system. You can't shred the norms of reciprocity that make social cohesion possible and expect to have a functioning democracy. It's just not going to work.''


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JohnRussell
1  seeder  JohnRussell    one month ago
In California, private firefighters sent by insurers saved the vineyards and estates of a fortunate few during the recent spate of wildfires, even as neighboring homes were reduced to ashes.

They say you want a revolution. 

Whether Sanders wins or loses,  the issues he raises are not going away. 

 
 
 
WallyW
1.1  WallyW  replied to  JohnRussell @1    one month ago

If Democrats win, the issues will remain. How will they handle the problem? Will taxing the rich more help?

 
 
 
JohnRussell
1.1.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  WallyW @1.1    one month ago

Wally, should people be treated differently (better) because they have money? 

 
 
 
Dean Moriarty
1.1.2  Dean Moriarty  replied to  JohnRussell @1.1.1    one month ago

They are wise, a fool and his money are easily parted. 

 
 
 
Nerm_L
2  Nerm_L    one month ago

No, I don't believe the United States will turn into a caste system.  A caste system segregates a population according to both hereditary class and function in society.  Caste is more than just a distinction between 'haves' and 'have nots'.

In the United States someone can win a lottery and become quite wealthy overnight.  But that wealth was not earned; it was bought.  Luck is the only difference between the winner and the losers.

The biggest problem with emerging class disparities in the United States is that too many of the 'haves' simply buy their wealth; they do not earn their wealth.  Class distinctions are becoming a matter of luck that isn't influenced by education, work ethic, or motivation.  And luck isn't something that the government can provide everyone.

 
 
 
Ender
2.1  Ender  replied to  Nerm_L @2    one month ago

I agree that we will never have a complete caste system but we have always had forms of it.

The wealthy live together in enclaves and the poor live together on the other side of the tracks.

Birth has a lot to do with it. Born into a wealthy family and get an automatic leg up as far as possibilities and even university choice. Even if one looks at the hollywood elite, a lot of the so called stars are descendants of previous ones.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
2.1.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Ender @2.1    one month ago

I understand that money will buy comfort in many types of situations, usually by buying products that create convenience. What we have now is the wealthy buying a better treatment in situations where money should be a non factor. The people in the cheap seats on an airplane are put at some physical discomfort so that the wealthy can luxuriate in first class. 

I'm sure the airlines will say you get what you pay for and that without first class, ticket prices would rise for everyone, but you still have the experience of the well off getting preferential treatment, not based on any personal qualities of their own, but based on money. 

 
 
 
Ender
2.1.2  Ender  replied to  JohnRussell @2.1.1    one month ago

And that is nothing new. It has always been that way. Even back in the old west days where the wealthiest man would run the town.

 
 
 
Nerm_L
2.1.3  Nerm_L  replied to  Ender @2.1    one month ago
Birth has a lot to do with it. Born into a wealthy family and get an automatic leg up as far as possibilities and even university choice. Even if one looks at the hollywood elite, a lot of the so called stars are descendants of previous ones.

Birth is a lottery, too.  The family we are born into has certain amount of chance involved.  Our innate abilities, talents, looks, and charisma are also a matter of luck, to a great extent.  

Comparing class disparities to a caste system is political.  The institution of slavery in the United States was a caste system.  Slavery was hereditary.  Government can address caste in a straightforward manner by abolishing castes; just as slavery was abolished.  Politically that can be touted as government granting or giving something to people.

Class distinctions can't be addressed by simply abolishing classes.  Addressing class disparities requires the messy approach of organizing society to allow opportunities for class mobility.  Everyone does not possess the same potential; some do not win the lottery.  But society needs to be organized in such a manner that everyone has an opportunity to improve themselves and their place in society.  

We have allowed society to be organized so that those lucky enough to become rich are rewarded most.  And rewarding the rich for being rich has displaced merit, effort, and work ethic as a means of providing opportunity.  When a wealthy individual's weekly income greatly surpasses the annual income of those less fortunate in life's lottery then opportunities become limited to winning a state sponsored lottery.  We begin electing politicians who promise to rig the roulette wheel.  Turning the organization of society into a gamble won't address the problems of class disparities.  

 
 
 
Ender
2.1.4  Ender  replied to  Nerm_L @2.1.3    one month ago
society needs to be organized in such a manner that everyone has an opportunity to improve themselves and their place in society.

Completely agree.

 
 
 
zuksam
2.1.5  zuksam  replied to  JohnRussell @2.1.1    one month ago

The Idea that the suffering poor are jammed into the cheap seats on a plane is wrong they chose the cheap seats because they're always looking for the lowest price. How poor are they really if they're flying, I know poor people and they don't fly, they don't vacation, they're lucky if the get to the beach every few years. Poor people watch Baseball on TV and drink cheap beer. What do you want to do rip down the velvet rope and make all the seats the same but that will just make the cheap seats slightly more comfortable and way more expensive. There is a very good reason why there are different levels of products and services because not everyone can afford solid gold diamond encrusted shit. Believe me businesses want to sell everyone the best but they know everyone can't afford it so they offer a lesser product. If you make it all even you'll just end up pricing more people completely out of the game because those premium seats subsidize the cheap seats.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
2.2  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Nerm_L @2    one month ago

I think the article meant "caste" in a colloquial sense, not in a technical or formal sense. 

Caste relates to privilege. We have a class of wealthy people who want money to buy them privilege. One of the things that was mentioned when Trump ran in 2016 is that he wanted to have separate entrances in his NY condo buildings , one for the "riff raff" and a separate entrance for the people who had bought the most expensive units. 

Why?  Do rich people object to being seen in public with the non rich? 

 
 
 
Nerm_L
2.2.1  Nerm_L  replied to  JohnRussell @2.2    one month ago
Caste relates to privilege. We have a class of wealthy people who want money to buy them privilege. One of the things that was mentioned when Trump ran in 2016 is that he wanted to have separate entrances in his NY condo buildings , one for the "riff raff" and a separate entrance for the people who had bought the most expensive units. 

The solution is not to use government to hand out privileges.  The government's approach to civil rights was to create a velvet rope line and hand out privileges under the guise of granting opportunities.  The government has attempted to give privileges to the poor that the rich buy for themselves.  The only thing that accomplishes is to establish privileged classes at both ends of the economic spectrum.

Dispensing privilege isn't the same thing as creating opportunities.  

 
 
 
zuksam
2.2.2  zuksam  replied to  JohnRussell @2.2    one month ago
Do rich people object to being seen in public with the non rich?

No, in NY the city always wants affordable housing included in these condo projects but it's the upscale condos that pay for the building. Upscale buyers want a fancy entrance with flowers and full service doormen, mail and package service and other services and they are willing to pay for them while the affordable housing can't afford these services and if they use that entrance they'll expect the doorman to open the door for them, help with their bags, hail them a cab, and any other service that's provided to upscale tenants but they won't want to pay the extra charges.  If they have separate entrances there's no problem. You might as well whine about the landscaper who mows your neighbors lawn not mowing your lawn, if you want upscale service you have to pay for it. If you want affordable housing you have to expect a lower level of service and extravagance. If you lower the value of the upscale housing the project won't make money and they won't build any more. Remember these upscale condo are subsidizing the affordable housing which otherwise wouldn't be built at all.

 
 
 
Sparty On
2.3  Sparty On  replied to  Nerm_L @2    one month ago
The biggest problem with emerging class disparities in the United States is that too many of the 'haves' simply buy their wealth; they do not earn their wealth.

This may be true but how many is too many and who decides that?    The Fed?    That would be a clusterfuck waiting to happen no doubt.

I submit there are more people who through Intelligence and hard work rise through the ranks to earn their wealth.    I know a lot more of them than ones who had it handed to them.    Mike Bloomberg is good example of that.    So is Mr Facebook to name a couple.

Sure it gets handed to some lucky folks but I fail to see the purpose of being jealous of that when so many make it happen on their own.

 
 
 
squiggy
3  squiggy    one month ago

One wedge to be hammered is whether health care is a right or a privilege. I'd like to see it as a right but the poor are going to have to suffer too - SNAP won't buy potato chips, Tubby has to skip the ice cream aisle and nobody inhales nothing but air.

 
 
 
bbl-1
4  bbl-1    one month ago

US heading toward a 'Caste System'?  No, not in the general terms.  But, as the wealth continues it's concentration into the upper income strata Americans will be part of a signified order of class distinction with the determiner being the holders of wealth and more so how much wealth those holders control. 

This is why Supply Side Economics needs to be addressed, re-examined and decided by the populace as to whether this type of economic system is best for the general populations and the structural underpinnings of the American infrastructure.  I have always believed and still do, that SSE is much more than a pure economic system, it also alters, changes and realigns the social structure of the American society.  

 
 
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