A Rich Awakening

The only way to get wealth equality is for the rich to give up their power, but how do you get them to do that?

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,392 words)

We all the know the stats, that by 2030 the richest 1 percent could be hoarding two-thirds of the world’s wealth. Tax the rich! Redistribute to the poor! It’s the kind of thing you hear lately set to some lame music in a weirdly cut NowThis News video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rutger Bregman. (It’s always some scrappy progressive, not some bloated billionaire because, I don’t know, *yawns, eats some cake.*) Perhaps the rich will be moved by the fact that income equality is not only bad for the collective mental health, but their own? No? That the 10 percent’s multiplying accessories — private jets and yachts and enormous holiday homes — hogs nearly half the world’s emissions, killing the earth we all share? No? Nothing? What’s that you say, infrastructure investment started plummeting just as inequality began rising? But all the philanthropy! Which, sure, America’s largest donors may give a little more than before, but they also make way more than they used to. And as Jacobin magazine recently noted, “those nations — mostly in Scandinavia — that have the highest levels of equality and social well-being have the tiniest philanthropic sectors.” When you have equality, you don’t need long Greek words.

To recognize this, as a rich person, you need to have a sort of reverse double consciousness. “Double consciousness” originates with W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, who coined it in 1897 as one way to describe the experience of  being an African American in a white supremacist world. In The Atlantic Monthly he defined it as, “…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others….” The concept is based on being oppressed. What I’m talking about is an inverted version based on being the oppressor. It is the recognition that not only do you have outsized means, but that they come at the expense of others. It requires not only self awareness, but other awareness, and it’s a prerequisite for change.

Roy Disney’s granddaughter, Abigail, for instance, has given $70 million away over the past four decades, which is more than she ever inherited. “The problem is that there’s a systematic favoring of people who have accumulated an enormous amount of wealth,” she tweeted after a viral appearance on CNBC last month in which she said CEOs were overpaid. “The U.S. must make structural changes by taxing the wealthy.” To say that, she had to have had some kind of awakening — but what was it? In her case it was a sudden burst of extraordinary wealth and its human toll — not on others, but on the wealthy themselves. In 1984, when the heiress was in college, Michael Eisner became the chairman and CEO of Disney and launched its stocks into the stratosphere. Abigail’s father embraced the excess income — the too-big private jet, the too-much drinking — and no one questioned him, not even about his alcoholism. “That’s when I feel that my dad really lost his way in life. And that’s why I feel hyperconscious about what wealth does to people,” she recently told The Cut. “I lived in one family as a child, and then I didn’t even recognize the family as I got older.”

That suggests we don’t have to eat the rich just yet, but where Abigail stopped flying private in part over the carbon footprint, Lori Louglin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli celebrated her maybe-unbeknownst-to-her-but-still-allegedly-paid-for USC admission with a sponsored Amazon spot featuring her dorm room. Her admission necessarily meant the rejection of another student, a crystal example of the wealthy person’s position coming at the expense of someone else. Giannulli’s advanced cheek-contouring skills were put to good use when she became the face of behind-the-scenes institutionalize American privilege. “I don’t ever want to depend on someone else for my success,” she said in an interview five days before the scandal broke. It was too delicious not to mock, but the focus on photogenic C-listers and their secret transactions threatened to eclipse the larger invisible deals that have — and continue to — always support an inequitable system. Behind the glittering heiresses are the money men (and women) who bankroll the same universities that now claim they can’t be bought. These are the millionaires Abigail Disney calls out as we rubberneck over the daughter of a Full House star, distracted by the same blinding sparkle that led to Disney’s epiphany. How many other rich awakenings could our attention have afforded?

***

In 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, in which he observed that people who experience inconsistencies in their internal lives adapt in order to recalibrate their psychological discomfort. This seems to be what journalist Anand Giridharadas observed when he became one of the few non-CEO distinguished fellows at the Aspen Institute (a think tank for “values-based leadership”) in 2011. He’d worked at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company like his dad and he’d attended the right schools (Harvard, Oxford), but he wasn’t one of the super rich. Perhaps it was this that made him more easily aware of their hypocrisy — the companies smashing the world to bits and annually patting themselves on the backs for tossing some napkins over the mess — which led him to turn a 2015 talk about forgiveness into the opposite. “We talk a lot here about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less,” he told a room full of cognitive dissonance, a speech he expanded into the bestselling book Winners Take All. “By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good,” he wrote of the elite, “it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken — many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right.”

The room didn’t rise up with their silver spoons. On the contrary, The Financial Times has since called Giridharadas “the insiders’ favorite outsider.” Is it because he is one of them that they are willing to at least allow him to speak where they have shut down so many activists before? He thinks not. Giridharadas tells me he had been talking about that stuff for a while and no one cared — even at the original presentation itself, the positive response wasn’t unanimous. In early drafts of his book he had pontificated and assigned blame, but in the end he relied on facts, the voices of the rich laying bare their own paradoxes. “Just by showing them,” Giridharadas says, “I could reveal the moral bankruptcy of the idea of doing well by doing good.” His readers were aware of inequity, but in the time of Trump, the consequences for their grand-kids raised their fleeting concern “to a level of being unignorable.” This gave Giridharadas an opening, though a much narrower one with the wealthiest of the lot. Their fundamental cognitive dissonance — that they are valuable members of society, but that their value is based on the devaluation of others — remained largely intractable.

Bill Gates blurbed Giridharadas’ book — he called it “thought-provoking” — but then dismissed the author’s approach as “communism” and doubled down on capitalism. “I think we have a system that works but we can tune it to achieve more equality,” he said. This is a system which allows Gates to retain a nearly $100 billion fortune while dictating where billions more are allocated by his foundation (remember its attempts to reform education?) The fact is that Gates is willing to give, he is just unwilling to give up his position to those governments and grassroots organizations that have the capacity to make real systemic change. Abigail Disney, meanwhile, thinks top execs are paid too much from the jump. “If your CEO salary is at the 700, 600, 500 times your median workers pay,” she said on CNBC, “there is nobody on earth — Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median worker’s pay.”

But Gates’ word is gospel: affluent people don’t want to give up their own personal affluence. “I think that’s the hardest part and I think that’s probably where I’ve had the least luck with very wealthy people and had the most luck convincing everybody else,”  Giridharadas tells me, adding, “The only answer to a winners-take-all is a world in which winners take less, and that’s a tough message for your winner.” Empathy is one luxury that appears less affordable the more you make. The most common “rich guy” response Giridharadas faces is the Gatesian, “Why can’t you have win-win?” And while, sure, theoretically money is not zero-sum, practically speaking it functions that way — under American capitalism, one person’s more is necessarily a function of another person’s less. Which side of the coin would you rather be on? “When you get down to it,” says Giridharadas, “they don’t want to be less powerful.”

Ironically, it is America’s inequitable system that makes that all-or-nothing mentality seem necessary. When all things are equal, there’s no risk in giving up individual power, because the power is collective and the collective is looked after. It is perhaps unsurprising that the wealthy people more likely to awaken to this reality are the ones who understand oppression on a visceral level. Giridharadas describes them to me as, “people who are in these privileged circles, but who as a matter of personal identity are also on the wrong end of certain power equations — being a person of color, being a woman — they therefore have a double consciousness.” Take Resource Generation, a national organization that encourages wealthy Americans aged 18 to 35 to redistribute to grassroots social justice movements — up to 80 percent of the membership, according to Resource Mobilization Director Sarah Abbott, is female, gender non-conforming, or trans.


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According to a 2001 study that was recently cited in The Huffington Post, as much as 45 percent of American wealth is inherited, and an estimated $30 trillion could potentially be passed on by baby boomers to their kids and those kids’ kids. With a father who made millions from a glass manufacturing business, Abbott, who has received approximately $80,000 from her family, joined RG in 2009. The organization asks that members who are heirs in the top 10 percent (like Abbott) redistribute all (or almost all) of their inheritance. Per Abbott, “in my experience no one is really going to do that unless they really feel a deep stake in that somehow.” Women, people of color, LGBTQ communities have all experienced a lack of support and understand the need for social nets. It is highly unlikely that a ruling class of “white dudes,” who have been nothing but served by society as it is, will have the same motivation to change the system.

Most people come to RG after witnessing inequality in school or while travelling or on the job. It makes you wonder how celebrities like Giannulli, whose parents appear to minimize their exposure to reality, can ever be made fully aware of their privilege (outside of, you know, a scandal). It’s doubtful that the coverage maligning Loughlin’s daughter will spark an epiphany, but perhaps she’ll be moved by the deeper coverage on systemic inequality? Of course, had she been forced to attend a public institution in the first place this would likely be a non-issue, as she would have been exposed to a more diverse group of students; more than anything, the college-admissions scandal is a great advertisement for state funded schools, as is the cascading coverage around the corporatisation of the American educational system. For Abbott, it took a trip to a poverty-struck area of America to be “removed from my bubble” and to internalize the values of RG, which she describes this way: “excess wealth isn’t even ours, it’s extracted and stolen, and we have a moral obligation to redistribute that wealth.” So while it may be worth a chuckle to hold up a sign outside the courthouse where Loughlin appeared which reads, “pay my tuition,” the bubble only pops when we look from her to ourselves and where we fit in the economic paradigm.

***

Two years ago, The Conversation interviewed 20 “wealthy allies” who were part of an unnamed nonprofit which works towards economic equality. Most of them were white men and all of them agreed “that the most effective way for them to fight inequality is by willingly handing over their power to the poor.” The majority had gone through a process of self-reflection that involved acknowledging that their money stemmed from a rigged system, overcoming shame around their wealth and accepting that their rich peers might have a problem with their newfound wokeness. The difference between these people and the RG youth, versus someone like Gates, is that they are not only promoting equality, they are practicing it. This full-bodied dedication to change is particularly crucial for a demographic that historically has a louder voice than the oppressed majority that has spoken out against it. Concedes Abbott: “I do think rich people are listened to more.”

Abigail Disney, whose parents were embarrassed by how much more she gave than them, maintains her inverted double consciousness with help. “Just like I watched my father increasingly surround himself with yes-men, I started to deliberately surround myself with no-ladies,” she told the Cut. “And so they would, a lot of the time, really jerk my chain, and that was important.” It’s hard to picture who Giannulli surrounds herself with because she is alone in so many of her Instagram photos. But sometimes her mom’s there and maybe that’s the problem.

Outside the courtroom earlier this week where Loughlin showed up to face charges, there were fans holding up masks of her face. How is it possible to have a dual consciousness if all you see is yourself? That’s where the growing popularity of Abbott, Giridharadas and Bregman comes in, where the media can propagate their message — that one person’s wealth is another person’s poverty — by projecting more voices like theirs, calling out inequality as resoundingly as the haves have not. At that point, it no longer requires a double consciousness like Disney’s to see reality — it just requires consciousness.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.