Illustration by Ted McGrath
Michael Lewis: Advice From the 1%: Lever Up, Drop Out
To: The Upper Ones From: Strategy Committee Re: The Counterrevolution
As usual, we have much to celebrate.
The rabble has been driven from the public parks. Our adversaries, now defined by the freaks and criminals among them, have demonstrated only that they have no idea what they are doing. They have failed to identify a single achievable goal.
Just weeks ago, in our first memo, we expressed concern that the big Wall Street banks were vulnerable to a mass financial boycott -- more vulnerable even than tobacco companies or apartheid-era South African multinationals. A boycott might raise fears of a bank run; and the fears might create the fact.
Now, we’ll never know: The Lower 99’s notion of an attack on Wall Street is to stand around hollering at the New York Stock Exchange. The stock exchange!
We have won a battle, but this war is far from over.
As our chief quant notes, “No matter how well we do for ourselves, there will always be 99 of them for every one of us.” Disturbingly, his recent polling data reveal that many of us don’t even know who we are: Fully half of all Upper Ones believe themselves to belong to the Lower 99. That any human being can earn more than 344 grand a year without having the sense to identify which side in a class war he is on suggests that we should limit membership to actual rich people. But we wish to address this issue in a later memo. For now we remain focused on the problem at hand: How to keep their hands off our money.
We have identified two looming threats:
The first is the shifting relationship between ambitious young people and money. There’s a reason the Lower 99 currently lack leadership: Anyone with the ability to organize large numbers of unsuccessful people has been diverted into Wall Street jobs, mainly in the analyst programs at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Those jobs no longer exist, at least not in the quantities sufficient to distract an entire generation from examining the meaning of their lives.
Our Wall Street friends, wounded and weakened, can no longer pick up the tab for sucking the idealism out of America’s youth. But if not them, who? We on the committee are resigned to all elite universities becoming breeding grounds for insurrection, with the possible exception of Princeton.
The second threat is in the unstable mental pictures used by Lower 99ers to understand their economic lives. (We have found that they think in pictures.)
For many years the less viable among us have soothed themselves with metaphors of growth and abundance: rising tides, expanding pies, trickling down. A dollar in our pocket they viewed hopefully, as, perhaps, a few pennies in theirs. They appear to have switched this out of their minds for a new picture, of a life raft with shrinking provisions. A dollar in our pockets they now view as a dollar from theirs. Fearing for their lives, the Lower 99 will surely become ever more desperate and troublesome. Complaints from our membership about their personal behavior are already running at post-French Revolutionary highs.
We on the strategy committee see these developments as inexorable historical forces. The Lower 99 is a ticking bomb that can’t be defused. They may be occasionally distracted by, say, a winning lottery ticket. (And we have sent out the word to the hedge fund community to cease their purchases of such tickets.) They may turn their anger on others -- immigrants for instance, or the federal government -- and we can encourage them to do so. They may even be frightened into momentary submission. (We’re long pepper spray.)
In the End
But in the end we believe that any action we take to prevent them from growing better organized, and more aware of our financial status, will only delay the inevitable: the day when they turn, with far greater effect, on us.
Hence our committee’s conclusion: We must be able to quit American society altogether, and they must know it. For too long we have simply accepted the idea that we and they are all in something together, subject to the same laws and rituals and cares and concerns. This state of social relations between rich and poor isn’t merely unnatural and unsustainable, but, in its way, shameful. (Who among us could hold his head high in the presence of Louis XIV or those Russian czars or, for that matter, Croesus?)
The modern Greeks offer the example in the world today that is, the committee has determined, best in class. Ordinary Greeks seldom harass their rich, for the simple reason that they have no idea where to find them. To a member of the Greek Lower 99 a Greek Upper One is as good as invisible.
He pays no taxes, lives no place and bears no relationship to his fellow citizens. As the public expects nothing of him, he always meets, and sometimes even exceeds, their expectations. As a result, the chief concern of the ordinary Greek about the rich Greek is that he will cease to pay the occasional visit.
That is the sort of relationship with the Lower 99 we must cultivate if we are to survive. We must inculcate, in ourselves as much as in them, the understanding that our relationship to each other is provisional, almost accidental and their claims on us nonexistent.
As a first, small step we propose to bestow, annually, an award to the Upper One who has best exhibited to the wider population his willingness and ability to have nothing at all to do with them. As the recipient of the first Incline Award -- so named for the residents of Incline Village, Nevada, many of whom have bravely fled California state taxes -- we propose Jeff Bezos.
His private rocket ship may have exploded before it reached outer space. But before it did, it sent back to Earth the message we hope to convey:
We’re outta here!
(Michael Lewis, most recently author of “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World,” is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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