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When Income Inequality Causes the Rich to Seek Shelter

Best way to respond to the vast income gulf? Run and hide.

by Malak Abas
Sep 30 2016, 11:00am

Image: Intel Free Press/Flickr

From the sixth to the twelfth grade, I went to a relatively prestigious private school for girls in Winnipeg, Canada. It was all right, and I had a pretty OK time. But most people who know me now, who did not know me then, usually beat around the bush about it for a minute and then get to the meat of their sentiment: I just don't seem like the type.

And that may be because I wasn't the type. I was there on a bursary, kind of the American version of a scholarship—and maybe to meet a diversity quota. My mom is a Lebanese immigrant and my dad a hardworking former farm boy. While we always had pretty stable footing financially, we were by no means part of the old money club that loomed over many of my classmates. One way that this especially presented itself was in our very different notions of security.

I grew up in the murder capital of Canada (or what the United States might call a quiet town) and I spent my childhood in what you'd consider a "rough neighborhood". While I had spent my whole childhood believing that falling asleep to sounds of blaring ambulances and the occasional gunshot was normal, apparently my new classmates thought otherwise. One said classmate, who had lived in a quieter neighborhood since birth, had a basement bunker in her home.

The room was reinforced with concrete and steel, stocked to the brim with canned goods, and bigger than my family's house. But it also had really nice couches. And two TVs. It was pretty chill. When I asked about it, my classmate shrugged and half-jokingly said, "You can't put a price on safety."

Basement bunkers—a bunker in this case being an underground room to be used in case of disaster, natural or otherwise—are not even the half of it. Everywhere, the ultrarich are becoming more and more paranoid. Reports of everything from $230,000 guard dogs to safe rooms disguised as ordinary bedrooms are becoming less of a strange commodity and more of an assumed necessity for the world's richest.

A lot of this seems to come from a place of paranoia—whether it was my friend's family bunker, which her parents believed to be necessary despite us living in a small and uneventful city—or even more elaborate setups. Some precautions seem so far from reality they're almost comical. Many who can afford it are equipping their yachts with "safe rooms", which often include perks such as escape pods and ex-Marine bodyguards. If enveloping possible home intruders with a blinding fog isn't enough for you, there's also options like SelectaDNA—which releases synthetic DNA chains with the fog, which show up under UV light and are personalized to be traced back to their own specific home.

So why all the fear? Income inequality in America is more pronounced than it has ever been—and it's rising. Between 1963 and 2013, the average family in the 10th percentile of wealth distribution went from having no wealth to being about $2,000 in debt.

Wealth distribution in the US seems inseparably tied with race. White families in the US, on average, have an astounding seven times the wealth of the average African American family. But coupled with the fact that as of 2016, white people are currently the slowest growing race of American people, could be the basis for extreme civil unrest. At least one economist, Robert Johnson, the president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, cited the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2011 riots in London, as stark warnings for the upper classes.

"I know hedge fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway," Johnson said at the World Economic Forum in 2015.

Back to luxury. The four richest families in the US earn as much as the entire bottom 40 percent of American earners put together. Not long ago, a man crashed a plane into a Texas I.R.S. office, after leaving a rambling last message about America's unfair tax system. In 2013, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot came under fire for calling out Pope Francis for criticizing the rich. And billionaires like him keep businesses that sell James Bond-level of security features (valuable art pieces can now be fitted with microchips that can lock down the home and notify police, which you would think would lessen the value of the piece, but whatever) alive and well.

Fear and luxury go hand-in-hand. When Thomas Perkins of the Silicon Valley capital firm Kleiner Perkins faced backlash in 2014 for comparing the "persecution" of the one percent to Nazi Germany, he went on Bloomberg television and referred to himself, along with other billionaires, as "minorities".

This level of perceived ignorance may seem astounding to read on paper, but it reflects a widespread attitude amongst the privileged few. I, of course, don't have the answer. This is just a skimming of a monstrous issue, a collection of facts from an increasingly nervous group of people. Former Nobel Laureate Christopher Pissarides spoke at that same World Economic Forum, and cited redistribution of tax revenue towards things such as childcare to help provide additional opportunities for working class people, and that simply redistributing wealth away from the wealthy achieves nothing. About half of all Americans disagree, and would consider themselves "heavy redistributionists".

With great luxury comes greater paranoia. But that's a good thing. After all, what else do you give the person that has everything?

Luxury Week is a series about our evolving views of what constitutes luxury. Follow along here.

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