The Shift From Well-To-Do to Wealthy

A while ago, I discussed how certain groups and professions dramatically increased their wealth, starting in the 1980s, especially in Washington D.C. Steven Pearlstein describes the Washington D.C. phenomenon in detail (boldface mine):

The son of a diplomat and academic, Bob grew up in a Washington where your place in the social order wasn’t determined by how much money you had but by how much power and influence you had and how much respect you commanded. It was all about what you did and what you knew, not what you had.

Even the few who had wealth abided by the old-money ethic that you didn’t flaunt it — and most certainly you didn’t talk about it. Washington back then thought of itself as a city that existed for one purpose, to serve the public.

If that strikes you today as incredibly hokey and naïve, consider it a measure of how much the culture of Washington has changed in the past 30 years. In almost every way, the region continues to be shaped by the presence of the federal government. But as this series, the Insiders’ Game, has richly illustrated, the idea of “serving the public” has taken on a somewhat different meaning — one less rooted in sacrifice, stewardship and the chance to make a difference, one more given to celebrity, manipulation and the chance to make a big score….

What passed for “wealthy” back then were mostly people with comfortable incomes — doctors and lawyers, bankers and retailers, auto dealers and small-time home builders, most of them white. They lived in nice but not fancy houses in nice but not terribly expensive neighborhoods. They drove Fords and Buicks and Studebakers, not Cadillacs and Lincolns (there were no Mercedes and Land Rovers around here back then). Perhaps they were members of a country club or had a small place on the Eastern Shore. Most of them had household help. More than a few sent their children to private schools.

None of this required a huge amount of money. Washington was then still a relatively small Southern city with a small population. Land was plentiful and cheap. So were housekeepers and gardeners. Even private schools and clubs, while selective in all sorts of unpleasant ways, weren’t particularly expensive or lavish. In those days, even college professors, journalists and higher-ranking government officials could live very comfortable lives without being particularly rich.

Like Pearlstein, I’m not going to be pollyanish about this: it was always easier for the top half of the income distribution. Minorities, with rare exceptions, weren’t part of this comfortable life. But now, with some groups raking in tons of money, a comfortable middle to upper-middle class life has become increasingly hard to attain as part of the previously comfortable have pulled away from the rest of America:

To a considerable extent, I happened to be at Ground Zero–one of them, anyway, Washington, D.C.–when this happened. It’s probably hard for younger readers to understand what things were like before the rise of the neo-liberal state during the Reagan Era–conservative propaganda notwithstanding, Washington boomed during the Reagan Era and really became a very different place. Many lawyers, who were comfortable, suddenly were making, in 2013 dollars, one to two million dollars. Defense contractors–and their lawyers, MBAs, and accountants–did incredibly well. Call it the Wages of Kludgeocracy.

This is the real Washington Bubble, and you can’t understand the indifference to high un- and underemployment, stagnant wages, and the loss of hope without realizing how the mandarins of our capitol live. Go read Pearlstein.

This entry was posted in Economics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Shift From Well-To-Do to Wealthy

  1. Min says:

    “the idea of “serving the public” has taken on a somewhat different meaning”

    Reminds me of the old joke: “101 Ways to Serve Your Fellow Man”, by Ima Cani Ball.

Comments are closed.