I. The Disappearing Middle
When I was a teenager growing up on Long Island, one of my favorite excursions was a trip to
see the great Gilded Age mansions of the North Shore. Those mansions weren't just pieces of
architectural history. They were monuments to a bygone social era, one in which the rich could
afford the armies of servants needed to maintain a house the size of a European palace. By the
time I saw them, of course, that era was long past. Almost none of the Long Island mansions
were still private residences. Those that hadn't been turned into museums were occupied by
nursing homes or private schools.
For the America I grew up in -- the America of the 1950's and 1960's -- was a middle-class
society, both in reality and in feel. The vast income and wealth inequalities of the Gilded Age had
disappeared. Yes, of course, there was the poverty of the underclass -- but the conventional
wisdom of the time viewed that as a social rather than an economic problem. Yes, of course,
some wealthy businessmen and heirs to large fortunes lived far better than the average
American. But they weren't rich the way the robber barons who built the mansions had been rich,
and there weren't that many of them. The days when plutocrats were a force to be reckoned with
in American society, economically or politically, seemed long past.
Daily experience confirmed the sense of a fairly equal society. The economic disparities you were
conscious of were quite muted. Highly educated professionals -- middle managers, college
teachers, even lawyers -- often claimed that they earned less than unionized blue-collar workers.
Those considered very well off lived in split-levels, had a housecleaner come in once a week and
took summer vacations in Europe. But they sent their kids to public schools and drove
themselves to work, just like everyone else.
But that was long ago. The middle-class America of my youth was another country.
We are now living in a new Gilded Age, as extravagant as the original. Mansions have made a
comeback. Back in 1999 this magazine profiled Thierry Despont, the ''eminence of excess,'' an
architect who specializes in designing houses for the superrich. His creations typically range from
20,000 to 60,000 square feet; houses at the upper end of his range are not much smaller than the
White House. Needless to say, the armies of servants are back, too. So are the yachts. Still, even
J.P. Morgan didn't have a Gulfstream.
As the story about Despont suggests, it's not fair to say that the fact of widening inequality in
America has gone unreported. Yet glimpses of the lifestyles of the rich and tasteless don't
necessarily add up in people's minds to a clear picture of the tectonic shifts that have taken place
in the distribution of income and wealth in this country. My sense is that few people are aware of
just how much the gap between the very rich and the rest has widened over a relatively short
period of time. In fact, even bringing up the subject exposes you to charges of ''class warfare,''