A guest post by Angelique Haugerud, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and Editor of American Ethnologist.
It took just a few days in March 2013 for the great American wealth gap video to attract 4.4 million YouTube viewers. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein termed the video, just over six minutes long, a “mind-blowing” visualization of a 2011 academic study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and psychologist Michael I. Norton.
What caught many Americans by surprise is the chasm between the actual versus imagined wealth distribution in the United States. If we assume that most citizens realize how unequally wealth is spread, we would be wrong. It is news to many that the top one percent hold nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 90 percent have less than one-quarter. In the video’s wealth inequality chart, the riches of the top one percent so far exceed the assets of the rest that their column zooms upward beyond view, like an impossibly tall skyscraper.
Not only did Ariely and Norton’s nationally representative respondents underestimate current inequality (by a lot), but in addition they defined an ideal pattern of wealth distribution that is even more equal than that of their assumed status quo. Although the top 20 percent of the U.S. population hold more than 80 percent of the wealth, Ariely and Norton’s respondents estimated that the top quintile held less than 60 percent of the wealth, and stated that ideally they would hold about one-third. According to these and other measures, the gap between the wealth distribution that respondents prefer and what we have is stunning.
The video’s wake-up call is echoed—in a different linguistic register—by satirists and activists known as the Billionaires, who are the focus of my new book, No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America. The Billionaires are a media-friendly national network of activists who don ball gowns, tiaras, top hats, and tuxedoes, and adopt fictional names such as Phil T. Rich, Tex Shelter, Ivan Aston Martin, Alan Greenspend, and Iona Bigga Yacht. Their signs declare “Corporations Are People Too!” “Leave No Billionaire Behind!” and “Taxes Are Not For Everyone!” In the spirit of satirical news programs such as The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, these faux billionaires express a sophisticated knowledge of economics and public affairs through ironic humor, parody, and satire. The Billionaires evoke the elegance of The Great Gatsby’s Roaring Twenties or an even earlier era of robber barons and heiresses. It is up to spectators to historicize the present, to perceive the implied link between the early twenty-first century and those earlier wealth bubbles--such as the late-nineteenth-century era Mark Twain popularized as a Gilded Age of surface glitter and vast underlying corruption, when the very rich sparkled while many went hungry.
No Billionaire Left Behind explores the inner workings of the satirical Billionaires as they tackle two of the most contentious topics in American political culture: the great wealth divide and the role of big money in electoral politics. In a time of precariousness and fear, the book recaptures political domains of conviviality and play. Why might the satirical Billionaires be considered a cultural touchstone, a sensitive gauge of the condition of American democracy? Through participant-observation, interviews, and archival research, I analyze cultural politics during a time of profound ambivalence toward politics itself, and show why irony opens spaces of hope. Humor’s gift, like that of the viral video, is to remind us that today’s world can be made differently.