The Rich and the Super-Rich
Permanent Poverty: An American Syndrome
The discovery of what we have known all the time is always among the more agreeable mental exercises. The books which are the excuse for this review are good examples of this genre. They both are what may be called without derogation good economic journalism. They are both well documented, and the documentation consists either of secondary sources or the public press. Neither of them contains, therefore, any radically new knowledge, each of them is in its own way a successful attempt to bring what we already know in reasonably succinct or entertaining form to the attention of a wider public.
Ferdinand Lundberg’s book The Rich and the Super-Rich, looks properly affluent. Its dust cover simulates a share of stock. It is so large and thick, and has been so expensively advertised, that one is a little disappointed to find that it is not bound in plush. The author has expanded and brought up to date an earlier work, America’s Sixty Families, published in 1937. The scene Lundberg describes has changed surprisingly little in those thirty years; pretty much the same families are still there, with everybody a generation older. There has also been surprisingly little improvement in the amount of information we have about the very rich, in spite of a number of important scholarly studies in the interim. For much of his data Mr. Lundberg has had to rely on the old TNEC studies of the 1930s, which was about the last time anybody seriously asked the rich how rich they were. Indeed, our ignorance about the distribution of assets in the United States is either a statistical disgrace or a remarkable tribute to one of Mr. Lundberg’s major themes, which is that the rich are more powerful than we think.
Mr. Lundberg has a number of themes. Nevertheless, one of the most interesting things about the book is Mr. Lundberg himself, who emerges from these opulent pages as a dramatic character, a salty but sophisticated cracker-barrel philosopher, with a strong distaste for cracker barrels—to which, nevertheless, he refers at least a dozen times—with a wit reminiscent of Mencken, which, however, trembles too often on the edge of the jaundiced. However, although the book is itself a huge cracker barrel of information often arranged at random, Mr. Lundberg has some important things to say and a great deal of what he has to say is probably true.
LUNDBERG BELIEVES, as seems obvious, that the distribution of ownership of the physical property in American society is extremely unequal, that 90 percent of Americans own practically nothing, except their persons and a little household capital; that among the 10 percent who have financial assets, the top 1 percent owns more than one-fourth of the total, and that at the very top are some very, very, rich people indeed. Moreover, the available evidence shows that this situation has not changed much in the last generation in spite of depressions, taxes, and wars, and while many people …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.