The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the self-serving attitudes of the 9.9 percent perpetuate inequality

The origin of the board game Monopoly is a tale of greed and inequality, cited by philosopher Matthew Stewart as he argues that false beliefs about wealth still dominate our society. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Early in the 20th century, a feminist and part-time game designer named Lizzie Magie invented a board game called The Landlord’s Game. One method of playing involved buying properties, creating monopolies and charging rents to others. But a second way of playing was intended to illustrate the ideas of the progressive economist Henry George. When players acquired a monopoly, they had to pay money into a common fund, so that individual success enriched everyone. The game ended when the poorest player doubled his or her original stake.

Not long after the game’s invention, an unemployed engineer claimed it as his own. Parker Brothers bought it from Magie for a trifling sum without royalties, promptly securing a monopoly on the game that became Monopoly. In the following decades, the company earned millions from the game, the male engineer claimed credit for the feminist inventor’s idea, and the ugly capitalist form of the game replaced the pro-social variant. Magie spent the end of her life working part-time in a government office.

For any aspiring novelist trying to capture the layered hypocrisies and cruelties of American life, this historical episode is enough to inspire despair. It would be hard to invent a more perfect encapsulation of predatory corporate behavior, masculine arrogance, and cultural amnesia about the true sources of wealth and the urgent need for a system that distributes it more fairly.

This astonishing history appears briefly in the philosopher Matthew Stewart’s brilliant new book, “The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture.” And while the episode’s themes may seem remote from contemporary life, he makes a compelling case that we still live in a society dominated by monopolies; misunderstandings about the true origins of wealth; and such a swarm of ugly, false and self-justifying beliefs that we could all benefit from playing the forgotten version of Magie’s game.

As his title suggests, Stewart targets a broader elite than the now thoroughly reviled top 1 percent. This expansion is a useful reframing of inequality, encouraging self-examination rather than scapegoating. The phrase “we are the 99 percent,” he points out, “suggests that the whole issue is about ‘them,’ a tiny group of crazy rich people, who are nothing at all like ‘us.’ ” Statistically, the 9.9 percent includes those with net assets between about $1.2 million and $20 million. With control over more than half of all personal wealth in America, they possess vast, undeniable economic power. But the category is truly defined by a set of cultural attitudes and assumptions, and is “more a state of mind than it is a group of people.” It’s within this mental territory that Stewart is both cartographer and critic, serving as a kind of appalled anthropologist as he reveals the self-justifying delusions and harmful customs that define the demographic.

Each chapter in the book examines the behavior and beliefs of the 9.9 percent in a specific domain — fitness, merit, housing, parenting, gender, education, real estate, race, etc. Many of these chapters are extraordinary investigations in their own right, dense with empirical detail and insightful analysis, and they collectively establish beyond any reasonable doubt the book’s fundamental claim: “Inequality distorts human rationality. It turns the life of the mind inward, away from the actual problems of the world, and focuses it instead on a destructive competition.”

Just how severe and extensive inequality and its distorting impacts have become is often quite shocking. Stewart writes that the median price of a home in San Francisco, for instance, would purchase 39.8 homes in Detroit. This is neither natural nor inevitable: Policy decisions that might have been — and still could be — different promote such insane concentration of wealth. Ending the mortgage interest deduction, which benefits only 7 million or so households, many squarely in the 9.9 percent, would be one concrete step toward greater equality. Another of Stewart’s policy suggestions is to eliminate the tax-advantaged status of exorbitantly wealthy private-university endowments. He cites one economist’s estimate that Princeton University alone receives a taxpayer subsidy of $54,000 per student each year, while the average Pell grant recipient gets $4,010. Many of his other suggestions are familiar but nonetheless vital: breaking up monopolies and oligopolies across the many economic sectors they dominate; implementing public financing for campaigns; increasing public funding for media, health care and schools; and ending inheritance-tax exemptions.

He argues that instead of championing strategies that would reduce inequality, many of the 9.9 percent are strenuously pursuing a range of diversionary tactics both political and psychological. The “anti-racists in the 9.9 percent who sit at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy are policing one another’s thoughts with a vigor that would do a religious inquisitor proud.” This is not just a sad if distracting spectacle that fuels the outrage machine of right-wing media: “Self-delusion in the upper economic reaches of the left risks turning the Democratic Party into a home for an affluent, educated elite that seeks to correct every form of injustice except the inequality that is the actual basis of its privilege.”

The political and moral arguments for decreasing inequality through public spending on public goods are as old as America. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that tax paid in support of schools “is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” Stewart’s book is a worthy contribution to this long tradition, and his arguments deserve the widest possible audience.

What gives the book its relentlessly sharp edge is his exposure of so much conventional wisdom as ultimately self-serving and deluded. “The best way to stop Harvard graduates from trying to eat essential workers for lunch is not to tell the first to be nicer to the second, nor to allow a trickle of lucky individuals to flow from the second to the first, but to ensure that both are compensated in ways that reflect the fact that in a just society every human being is essential,” he writes. The alternative is to remain the strangely self-deluded country we have become: a hereditary aristocracy crouching defensively behind crumbling myths of merit.


The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture

By Matthew Stewart. Simon & Schuster. 352pp. $28