As human beings we are all entitled to certain basic rights: Freedom, liberty, security, equity, etc. The United Nations even issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This is wonderful in theory, but in reality, some humans are more “entitled” than others. This divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” has existed since humans began to form societies and civilizations.
Popular culture such as movies, TV shows, podcasts and blog posts contain endless references to entitlement and its resulting income inequality. Books on this subject are no exception. I recently read two: Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires by Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media theory and digital economics at CUNY/Queens, and The Velvet Rope Economy by New York Times business reporter Nelson D. Schwartz. Both books are equally appalling and distressing in terms of human privilege, rights and power.
Rushkoff (who studies human autonomy in the digital age), reveals the crazy-but-true plans of a group of elitist technology billionaires to survive the apocalypse, spending a great deal of time and money to strategize how they alone might outlive such a catastrophic event, leaving the rest of us in the dust. Rushkoff has first-hand knowledge of their scheme, having received an invitation to an exclusive desert resort for what he thought was a speech on the future of technology. But when he arrived, he was shocked to find that his audience was just five super wealthy men “from the upper echelon of the tech investing and hedge fund world.” They had summoned him to pick his brain about how best to insulate themselves from “the very real and present danger” of a mass extinction.
Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of how these tech billionaires have gotten to this place in our society and the origins of their entitled way of thinking. Rushkoff calls this Silicon Valley escapism “The Mindset,” a frame of mind that “encourages its adherents to believe that the winners can somehow leave the rest of us behind.” The irony in all of this is that “these people once showered the world with madly optimistic business plans for how technology might benefit human society,” writes Rushkoff. “Now they’ve reduced technological progress to a video game that one of them wins by finding the escape hatch.” It’s a true story that seems straight out of a science fiction tale.
The Velvet Rope Economy is an equally outrageous exposé of the world’s continually splintering economy and value system. Schwartz navigates the playground of the super-rich and their long list of premium experiences, ranging from VIP amusement park tours and luxury sports arena boxes to better access to hospitals and educational opportunities. The real-life examples and statistics he reveals invoke a wide range of emotions from bewilderment and envy to anger, disgust, disappointment and even fear. As one very small segment of the population keeps piling on wealth, the middle class struggles harder, becoming more isolated, excluded and fractured. It’s an eye-opening wakeup call that something needs to be done to stop class segmentation before it truly divides us all.
For more books on the subject available here at Rutgers try:
- Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility
- The Age of Entitlement: America since the Sixties
- Geographies of the super-rich
- The globalization gap: how the rich get richer and the poor get left further behind
- Income Inequality: Economic Disparities and the Middle Class in Affluent Countries
- Income Inequality: Why It Matters and Why Most Economists Didn’t Notice
- Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit