The super-rich live on a different planet. Their thoughts on US salaries prove it

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The super-rich live on a different planet. Their thoughts on US salaries prove it
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Hannah Beier/Reuters

It’s an average American salary. What could it be? $800,000?

It costs over $100,000 a year to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I don’t know what you get for that money exactly but insights into the everyday economy clearly aren’t on the syllabus. Nina Strohminger, an assistant professor at Wharton School recently asked her students how much they reckoned the average American makes a year. A quarter of the class, she reported in a viral tweet, thought it was over six figures; one student thought it was $800,000. The real figure? Around $53,838, according to figures from the Social Security Administration (SSA) last year.

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Now, clearly, this is just an informal poll broadcast on Twitter; it’s not a peer-reviewed scientific study. Still, it touched a nerve with a lot of people because it’s a reflection of the fact that the super-rich seem to live on a completely different planet than everyone else. According to data from the New York Times the average family income of a Penn student is $195,500; 19% of its students come from the top 1% of earners while only 3.3% come from the bottom 20%. Wharton is the alma matter of people like Ivanka Trump and her father. Wharton is a place, to risk being somewhat over simplistic, that largely takes in people from rich families – these people then go on to become politicians and titans of industry and make even more money.

If this poll just demonstrated that a few overprivileged students are incredibly out of touch that would be one thing. However, the myopia represented at Wharton is mirrored in society as a whole. As a Harvard professor noted in the Twitter thread, research shows that what you think others make depends on how much you make yourself. People tend to massively underestimate the gap between the rich and the poor.

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Want another example of this lifestyle-induced myopia? Last year, the New York Times asked the eight New York mayoral candidates how much they thought the median sales price for a home in Brooklyn was. Raymond J McGuire, an investment banker, reckoned “it’s got to be somewhere in the $80,000 to $90,000 range, if not higher”. Shaun Donovan, housing secretary under Barack Obama and housing commissioner under the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, guessed it “at around $100,000”. The real answer? $900,000.

It’s easy to laugh at these guys but, I can’t this stress enough, there is nothing funny about any of this. These people aren’t out-of-touch anomalies: the vast majority of the people running the world don’t live like the people they represent, and seem to have absolutely no idea of the issues regular people face. In the US, the majority of lawmakers in Congress are millionaires. Meanwhile in Britain, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is an ex-banker who is worth hundreds of millions: much of this comes from his wife, who is richer than the Queen of England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, once dismissed the £250,000-a-year ($284,000) he earned from a second job writing newspaper columns (lest you think this is normal for a writer, let me disclose that I get paid $500 for each Week in Patriarchy column), as “chicken feed”.

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“It’s hard to imagine these men solving a problem they don’t know exists,” said Monica Klein, a political consultant, to the New York Times, in reference to the mayoral candidates views on the Brooklyn housing market. And this, really, sums up the issue. Far too many politicians have no idea what it’s like to be unable to afford a house or to be swamped by student loans or bankrupted by medical bills. They have no idea about the problems the vast majority of Americans are facing – which is why none of these problems get fixed. Instead they spend their time on things that matter to people like them, AKA giving the rich bigger tax cuts. And this is a bipartisan issue, by the way: the second-most expensive component of the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill is a $275bn tax cut for people who pay large amounts of property tax that primarily benefits the top 10%. This tax cut is more costly than establishing a paid family and medical leave program.

Every single crisis the world is facing is ultimately a crisis of leadership. As I write in my new book (sorry for the somewhat shameless plug), we have no hope of changing anything unless we change the people in charge. That doesn’t mean just sticking more women and people of colour in power: it means breaking down the barriers that stop regular people for running for office. It means having a government that actually represents its constituents.

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