by James McGirk
When I heard the Federal Bureau of Investigation might have figured out the identity of seventies skyjacker D.B. Cooper I was really upset. Who among us hasn’t felt a smidge of sympathy for the outlaw? Well into my thirties, having finally completed my education and finding myself without short-term goals to strive for, a swelling waistline, and an unremarkable life unspooling before me, I can’t help but feel attracted to a life fueled by passion and brightened with sparks of decisive action, like leaping out the back of a Boeing 727 into a lightning storm.
Actual crime is out of the question. I don’t want to hurt anybody, and my muscles have atrophied to the point were the thought of taking real life action is ludicrous, but as the dudgeon of white-collar work corrodes my body and seeps into my interior life I wonder whether there might be a way to fight back. Could living a life devoted to darkness and negativity act as a tonic, at least until the demon flows of testosterone ebb away?
What pushed me over the edge was reading “An Investment Manager’s View on the Top 1%,” an anonymous and possibly apocryphal investment manager’s account of his wealthy clients, written for the University of California Santa Cruz’s Who Rules America blog. In the United States an increasingly disproportionate fraction of the country’s wealth has accumulated in the richest sectors of society. The disparity itself wasn’t news to me, but I had never really considered what was inside of that top one percent.
Before reading the article, reaching that top percentile seemed like a feasible goal to me. I took it for granted that because I have degrees from snooty schools (granted both are in Writing, but I could always go back for a JD), reaching the highest echelons of society, i.e. making the required annual salary of $300K and accumulating a net worth of $1.2mm, seemed like realistic option to me. With a few years of hard work and a nice suit I thought access to the levers of society could be mine.
Turns out the top percentile is more spike than a plateau. The bottom half “largely include[s] physicians, attorneys, upper middle management, and small business people who have done well,” says the anonymous investment manager. “Most of those in the bottom half…lack power and global flexibility and are essentially well-compensated workhorses for the top 0.5%, just like the bottom 99%.”
Power and global flexibility was I wanted (who wouldn't) but you have pay for the privilege. Above the half-million-a-year mark is where you start having real power, but these aren't the lawyers, doctors, consultants, or even the investment banking analysts churned out by my alma mater, those diligent folk earning six figures while grinding out 100-hour work weeks. These are the real bankers and brokers, and occasional real estate tycoon. Their average net worth streaks upwards, with the top 0.10% holding an average of $5.5mm and the top 0.01% $24.4mm. This type of accumulation takes capital and nearly all of it comes from “direct or indirect participation in the financial and banking industries.” Only those at the very peak can take advantage of tax dodges and exotic investment strategies. For the rest of us, “the American dream of striking it rich is merely a well-marketed fantasy that keeps the bottom 99.5% hoping for better and prevents social and political instability.”
Now I can imagine buckling down and earning $300K a year but $24.4mm is a steep slope to climb. You would have to invent something ubiquitous or, more likely, expand an already substantial sum. My own net-worth would have to be yanked from a deepening puddle of red ink courtesy of my student loans. I would have chosen a more lucrative field than writing but it’s literally the only thing I can do. Trust me, I’ve tried. That’s why there is so much debt! But no matter how much I slide into my retirement account it is unlikely to swell to that size, and if I can’t be rich enough to influence the highest echelons of government then why bother working at all?
I am being facetious, but on some level I do need the illusion of being able to go all the way if I really got my act together. That’s why they tell American-born Americans they can be President some day. Without being able to fantasize about seizing absolute control over your destiny – the sort of control in America only an eight-digit earner can muster – then what is the point of working at all? Or to dilute the idea down to a point where I can actually pay my own rent, why should I affect happiness about my condition? Is it better to acknowledge the quagmire you’re stuck in, than grin and pretend it is a trampoline?
I have been told that exercise would soothe me, and there may well be some truth to that. As an adult I have entirely neglected the physical in my life. Once in a while I will scurry up a flight of steps but other than a strand or two of calf muscle I am all skin, bone, fat, and feverish brain. I suppose that “art” could be a solution, but all that taking two degrees in writing has done has ruined the one escapist pleasure I could enjoy without a throbbing headache the next day. And the closer you get to actually producing creative art or writing for a living, the more humiliating it becomes. You go from wanting to write a novel that will untangle the world to wondering how best to attract the attention of a publishing agent via Twitter. Then there are the fleshpots. But if you grew up in the 1990s like I did then all that flesh is blistered with oozing sores and more likely than not viewed from behind a computer screen.
Which brings us back to D.B. Cooper, who held a jumbo jet for ransom then hopped out the back midflight, and drifted down into the Pacific Northwest clutching a bag brimming with unmarked bills. He is either still on the lam or was sucked out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and drowned. I like to think he landed safely. Hopefully he invested that money otherwise he wouldn’t even break into the top percentile. But I don’t think D.B. Cooper really cared—and honestly, neither should I.