For decades, social scientists, policy wonks, and politicians have studied and debated what's come to be known as the "culture of poverty." The consensus: A group of Americans is set apart from the mainstream by geography, class, and income. Its members adhere to norms that don't apply to the rest of society and engage in self-destructive behavior that imposes significant costs on the nation at large. The culture of poverty has made for potent politics (remember Ronald Reagan's fictitious welfare queen?) and spawned best-selling polemics from the right (Charles Murray) to the left (Jonathan Kozol).
We don't hear as much about the culture of poverty these days. Perhaps it's because the market turmoil is making us all feel a little poorer. Or perhaps it's because a highly visible group is now exhibiting all the outward appearances of the underclass: the overclass....
...In his book The Age of Abundance, libertarian author Brink Lindsey boils down the difference between the desperately poor and the blissfully rich to an ability to focus on the long term. "Members of the underclass operate within such narrow time horizons and circles of trust that their lives are plagued by chronic chaos and dysfunction," he says. By contrast, elites are well-organized long-term thinkers. Riiiiight. "Modern Wall Street is a system," says Charles Morris—a former Chase banker and author of The Trillion Dollar Meltdown—"that rewards crazy risk-taking in the short term without regard for the long-term consequences."
Critics point to a pervasive sense of victimhood in the underclass. But listen to what Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz told the troops after his firm succumbed to wounds that were almost entirely self-inflicted. "We here are a collective victim of violence," he said. Yep, just another case of the Man keeping the Man down.
Conservative critics constantly carp that the culture of poverty has encouraged a sense of dependency on Washington. Of course, in recent months, the bureaucracy—the Federal Reserve, the Federal Housing Authority, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac—has generally ignored the struggles of poor homeowners. Yet it vaulted into action to save the bankers from their own disastrous bets. When Bear Stearns, the nation's fifth-largest investment bank, approached insolvency, the Feds orchestrated JPMorgan's acquisition of it....
...The overclass is better connected, and it can cause more damage. "Poor inner-city kids selling drugs to suburban kids can harm people," Mayer says. "But financial markets can bring thousands and thousands of people to ruin."
The pernicious culture of affluence merits further study. When self-proclaimed rogue sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh sought to learn about the culture of poverty, he hung out in Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes and befriended drug dealers. The tale is chronicled in his fascinating book Gang Leader for a Day. If he really wants to understand the workings of a dysfunctional class that's threatening American values and taxing national resources, Venkatesh, who teaches at Columbia, should move into a co-op on the Upper East Side and get a job on Morgan Stanley's trading desk. He can call his next book Hedge-Fund Manager for a Day.