US President Joe Biden made a remarkable speech at the end of March: “I’m a union guy. I support unions. Unions built the middle class. It’s about time they start to get a piece of the action.” He said this at a carpentry trade school outside the rust-belt city of Pittsburgh, which only served to underscore the message.
The idea that a political leader in an Anglosphere country might be interested in what unions have to say felt like a seismic shift — and one that took me back.
One of the great stories of my adult life has the widespread acceptance that it is all right, even desirable, to be filthy rich. In the UK, it was evident in New Labour’s embrace of the City of London; in the US, in the lionisation of Silicon Valley bosses. It is visible in rich lists and the way marginal tax rates have fallen. And it is visible in the way the wealthy have access to politicians, pretty much regardless of party affiliation.
Could this change in the Biden era? Could we be entering a new era where wealth does not mean “access all areas”?
Maybe. As the schadenfreude continues over former UK prime minister David Cameron’s failed attempt to enrich himself through lobbying, the two former premiers whose reputations have improved most since leaving office are John Major and Gordon Brown. Neither has sought unchecked wealth, as far as we know. Public approval is shifting towards those who at least appear to eschew personal gain.
But these guys are old. They span the so-called silent generation (Major, born 1943) to the early Gen-X (Cameron, born 1966). Regardless of their attitudes, they are part of a cohort that has done well out of the past 50 years. What about those who have not? How do they feel about the rich?
In 2019, millennials became more numerous than baby boomers in the US. They are also significantly poorer, even controlling for age (Gen-X sits somewhere in the middle but closer to millennials than boomers). The same year, research from the Cato Institute — a US think-tank that is hardly a hotbed of radicalism — found that 75 per cent of Americans felt we admired the rich too much (though 71 per cent still said they felt more admiration than resentment). But when you ask the under-30s, it gets really interesting: 44 per cent told Cato they felt angry when they read or heard about the rich, compared with 11 per cent of all Americans; 53 per cent supported wealth distribution, versus 20 per cent of the total; and 35 per cent said they believed violent action may be justified, versus 10 per cent. Viva la revolución!
The reason millennials now outnumber boomers is because boomers are starting to die. On average, according to UK think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for adults born in the 1980s inheritances will make up 14 per cent of their overall lifetime income — up from 8 per cent for those born in the 1960s. But those inheritances are expected to reflect the unequal distribution of parental wealth. It is notable that Biden is looking at raising estate taxes.
We have been here before, of course. After the financial crisis, there was plenty of talk of making the rich pay their fair share. The rich themselves talked about “stealth wealth” — the idea being that if you had it, you should not flaunt it. Yet nothing really happened. The “banksters” were bailed out and conspicuous consumption was back within a year or two.
That was 12 years ago, but there are now far more millennial adults, some with children, for whom the economy is not delivering. The coronavirus pandemic has further enriched the rich and impoverished the poor (and killed the latter in larger numbers). Donald Trump embodied the idea that the wealthy were above rules — but he has gone. Boris Johnson remains in power in the UK but is terrible PR for the country’s moneyed elite.
There is a larger, better educated middle-class precariat concentrated in industries such as the media and arts. While its members may struggle to earn money, it is good at making its voice heard.
Those who feel they are losing out are more willing to support radical changes, possibly including more public spending, greater state intervention to reduce inequality in everything from healthcare to housing, and higher taxes on the rich. They may also back green policies that curb excessive consumption, for example frequent flyer levies.
That does not mean the rich and the capitalist system are going away (even if Cato’s under-30s want it to). But it looks like the party is winding down — and maybe being a billionaire will not get you to the head of every queue, every time. Who knows, you might even have to stand in line behind a union man.
Rhymer is reading . . .
Come Join Our Disease, a coy understatement of a title. The book covers excrement, pus, maggots and depravity of all stripes. The bit about the rat necklaces is particularly memorable.
Follow Rhymer on Twitter @rhymerrigby
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment.