‘Rising inequality has corrupted some of the essential ideals of America’s middle class,’ Stewart says

Matthew Stewart ’85
Simon & Schuster
An Oxford-trained philosopher and historian and a former management consultant, Matthew Stewart ’85 argues that when it comes to addressing inequality, we shouldn’t just focus on the top 1 — or 0.1 — percent. He takes aim in his latest book at the upper reaches of the middle class, with its fixations on pricey real estate, fitness regimens, overscheduled children, elite education, and virtue signaling. In The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture (Simon & Schuster), Stewart suggests that economic injustice has corrupted American politics and civic life and imperiled democracy. He urges the privileged to shed their illusions and advocate for a more equal society. Stewart discussed his ideas in a recent Zoom interview. 

What inspired the book? 

Two fundamental sources: I was looking at the philosophical origins of the struggle over slavery, and I began to see the issue as driven much more by economic conflict than I think is widely understood. I saw economic conflict leading to class stratification and dynamics that just seemed so resonant with now. The other factor was the experience of being a member of the upper-middle-class meritocracy with kids, and the kind of madness that that involves.

What’s your basic argument? 

Rising inequality has corrupted some of the essential ideals of America’s middle class. It has taken what I think is a sensible, good, and, in some ways, revolutionary project to build a society that’s fair, open, transparent, where everyone’s judged on merit, and turned it into something that’s more like its opposite.

Why focus on the 9.9 percent?

A lot of us are sliding in and out of a middle group that is much more complicit than we’re willing to acknowledge. We talk about Jeff Bezos [’86] and Elon Musk all day long. But there is this group below that, which even if it isn’t increasing its relative share [of the economic pie], it’s holding on. That makes it very distinct from the bottom 90 percent that is falling behind. 

How do you distinguish between meritocracy and what you call “the merit myth?”

Meritocracy means that we allocate power in our society through open, transparent, and rational standards. The merit myth is, in essence, that everybody in our society gets what they deserve according to their individual merit, and our economic product is nothing but the sum of a bunch of individual merits. And that is wrong, it’s false, and it’s dangerous. 

You see rising inequality at the root of most, if not all, of our social ills. 

I appreciate the world is complex. But I get frustrated with some of the commentary on this issue, because there’s a tendency to personalize our conflicts, to say, “The real problem is that the upper-middle class have become a bunch of latte sippers, and they no longer feel comfortable in the presence of the hicks from the backwoods. And if we would just sit down and learn to talk, everything would resolve itself.” And I find that infuriating, because rising economic inequality is the story here, and all [the talk] about blue and red, and latte sipping, beer swilling, and so on — those are mostly after-effects.

What might impel the 9.9 percent to renounce their privileges?

Look around: You can see that American society has produced a certain amount of wealth and well-being, but it’s got some really big problems. We had a coup attempt this year. We’ve had a significant amount of conflict. We’ve had an inability to deal as effectively as we should have with a pandemic. You will not be able to live in a world that can deal with those issues unless you address this fundamental issue of economic inequality.

The second incentive is, do the math about your kids: Their chances of achieving meritocratic success are not good, and they’re going down all the time — and that’s a direct function of rising economic inequality. You can spend your prime adult years racing to yoga-for-tots classes and Japanese language tutoring in order to game the odds ever so slightly in your child’s favor. Or you can try to work for a fairer society where there are other ways of having a happy life.

Has your research made you rethink anything about your own life? 

Mainly, it’s made me go easier on the kids. I keep reminding them — and myself — that there are other forms of life out there. Maybe you don’t have to be a credential-hoarding professional to be happy. I like to think that this project has made me (and the kids) think more frequently about the fundamentals, like the purpose of an education and the basis of a good society.

Interview conducted and condensed by Julia M. Klein