One of the best shows on TV today – Game of Thrones – is successful not only due to its typical onslaught of T&A HBO is known for (which is has plenty of, mind you), it’s because the show itself is an allegory of the age-old problem with societal inequality. Specifically, Game of Thrones walks the fine line between showing different families and individuals at war for wealth and power in a fantasy world, and one where us modern folks can relate by looking at what we’d sacrifice for the success and longevity of our own families.
I’m not the only one who sees the underlying commentary of humanity as a whole in the series, and beyond all the humping there’s a warning for us all: as long as wealth remains within families, there will always be conflict and violence. Peace is not possible, even for the peaceful.
I feel incredibly guilty for my privilege in being born into a family with enough wealth to, bearing any unforeseeable circumstances, pass on a sum of over six figures to each myself and my sister. Meanwhile, my boyfriend, and only child of a very frugal mother, will likely see an even larger inheritance. While we’ll likely never be rich, our futures are more or less secure (as long as neither of us take up gambling or hookers) and we’ll also probably work to pass on this wealth to our children, and hope they do the same with their children in the future.
This is not wrong, it is how life goes — we want our families to be safe and prosperous. If we can do anything to help secure that future for them, why not? There are inheritance taxes and such to try to level things out a bit, but in the end the rich do get richer and the poor get poorer. I’m of firm belief that anything you earn in your lifetime should be yours to enjoy, but when wealth gets passed down from generation to generation, and that wealth is the same money that buys politicians and sets the laws, then how can we not be headed towards and infinite loop of civil wars? Yet try to take wealth away from those who’ve earned it and want to pass it on to their children, and you’re setting off an equally fueled battle. It seems it’s a no win situation, only one which can be held in check by skilled politicians and their speechwriters.
And as in this season’s Game of Thrones, where everyone seems to be murdering everyone to marry into power and wealth, getting into the 1% or close to it tends to be an easier path marrying into it then getting there via a professional success. Apparently, there’s a whole industry of financial advisors to help the non-wealthy get accustomed to their new affluent lifestyle should they enter it by accident or otherwise (see WSJ.)
Meanwhile, the wealth gap continues to grow. Given people generally marry within their race and most of the wealthy are white, this just gets worse. Sure, there are plenty of poor white people as well, and this isn’t an article just about race, but that does play into the larger picture and the tensions.
Black and Hispanic Americans continue to suffer the brunt of poverty in our country. My father would argue that is their own fault — his grandparents were immigrants with little to nothing and they worked their way up in the world. Even his parents had very little and were able to get six children through college, who each went on to – mostly – be very successful. Yet the wealth disparity is clear, and even if it did get redefined by certain cultures navigating the system better than others to increase their wealth, it doesn’t change the fact that the very real and growing inequality causes great tension.
Racial inequality makes class inequality easy to “see” for better or worse, because of the color of one’s skin. These charts explain why racial inequality is very real in America today. And then – this article – notes that the largest source of inequality in America is not the 1% – it’s actually college degree earners, as the lifetime income for a college graduate continues to grow while high school diploma-only incomes shrink (and guess who is going to college?)
Yet even with family wealth, unless your family has billions of dollars, it rarely lasts a long time. The wealth you leave behind may not last as long as you’d like, says Beth Pinsker at Reuters. Studies have shown that roughly 90 percent of families with at least $5 million in investable assets exhaust their estates within three generations. And that, IMO, is a good thing. The difference between a society that will completely fall apart due to class welfare and one that perhaps can survive on shaky grounds is one where no one has unlimited wealth. Having any wealth to start with can be a huge advantage and shouldn’t be downplayed, but at least most families must maintain their wealth somehow or find new sources in order to keep their lifestyle.
The main reason that wealth runs out after three generations, according to new research from Merrill Lynch, is that many rich families have an “unreasonable expectation of how much they can withdraw and still have the money last.”
Yet right now we are experiencing such vast divergence between the 1% families and just about everyone else it seems like we might as well be jousting in our very own Westeros. Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the 21st Century (which I need to read, btw – sounds like a good Fourth of July weekend brain feast) highlights this disparity, noting — the largest wealth gains are flowing to the top one-in-a-thousand households. For example, the 400 richest Americans possess combined assets of over $2 trillion. They now have as much wealth as all 41 million African Americans.
It’s a liberal’s wet dream that equality can be achieved, and I don’t think it’s possible without some sort of communist dictatorship and even then that quickly becomes corrupt and unbalanced. Piketty’s book highlights that we’re returning to wealth gaps as vast as during The Gilded Age, and the only way to really make it is to jump on the gold digging bandwagon. (See: Love in the Time of Inequality.) In fact, for middle class millennials, marriage is more of a business arrangement then a pairing of two partners in love. While in a traditional family where the male earns the stable income and the woman earns less or stays home to raise the kids, now women are earning more than men and men, many with unstable jobs, end up becoming more expensive to keep then to get rid of, especially once kids are born.
In the new book Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, the authors argue that “over the past four decades, the American family has undergone a radical transformation,” but not for the reasons you would guess. Naomi Cahn and June Carbone “show that the changing structure of our economy is the root cause of the transformation, and that working class and poorer families have paid the highest price. Increasing inequality and instability in the labor market over the past three decades has had a disproportionately negative impact on family stability and marriage rates among working-class and lower-income Americans.”
What are we to do about this growing inequality? Piketty calls for a global tax on wealth to put a brake on the build-up of wealth dynasties. “Without taxes, society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible,” he writes.
But taxes are filled with loopholes, and the wealthy are always the first to figure out how to slither through them thanks to high-paid advisors and lawyers. If you are to pass on over $10.5 million in wealth to your children you’re supposed to pay an estate tax in the United States, but you can get away with paying none or much less by sheltering your money in places taxes cannot touch. For example, in 2013, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson engineered 30 complicated trusts to escape $2.8 billion in estate taxes and hand his heirs $8 billion of his fortune tax-free. The Walton family pioneered the use of these billionaire loopholes to place its treasure chests outside the reach of the IRS for generations to come.
These dynasties are what Piketty is warning us about. Even if family wealth of $5M will be dispersed within three generations, wealth disparity in its fast growth upwards and downwards enables those at the top to capture a much, much larger piece of the pie, keeping it in their families for many generations to come.
We’re left to ponder the question of what exactly is fair — and if there is any way we as a human species can see each other as all part of the same collective family, or if we’re always going to see the rise of nobility nouveau, and the horrors that come with gaps in wealth and power. Game of Thrones is certainly trying to tell us something. If only we would listen.