A Class of Its Own

PRINCETON – The very rich, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “are different from you and me.” Their wealth makes them “cynical where we are trustful,” and makes them think “they are better than we are.” If these words ring true today, perhaps it is because when they were written, in 1926, inequality in the United States had reached heights comparable to today.

During much of the intervening period, between the end of World War II and the 1980s, inequality in the advanced countries was moderate. The gap between the super-rich and the rest of society seemed less colossal – not just in terms of income and wealth, but also in terms of attachments and social purpose. The rich had more money, of course, but they somehow still seemed part of the same society as the poor, recognizing that geography and citizenship made them share a common fate.

As the University of Michigan’s Mark Mizruchi points out in a recent book, the American corporate elite in the postwar era had “an ethic of civic responsibility and enlightened self-interest.” They cooperated with trade unions and favored a strong government role in regulating and stabilizing markets. They understood the need for taxes to pay for important public goods such as the interstate highway and safety nets for the poor and elderly.

Business elites were not any less politically powerful back then. But they used their influence to advance an agenda that was broadly in the national interest.