In the intense heat of the early Chicago evening, I decided to take a stroll down what is fondly known as the “Magnificent Mile” –– the city’s shopping epicenter. There, the lights of towering luxury stores twinkled in the sunset, mesmerizing every passerby. Burberry, Armani, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, hundreds of stores were nestled next to each other and extended as far as the eye could see. This stretch of land in the heart of Chicago, a stretch that attracts people from all over the world, is dedicated solely to shopping. It is a massive, swelling monument to wealth. But what is the appeal of a place like this? What about the shimmering lights and exorbitant prices makes this place irresistible?

The allure of wealth has always captivated Americans, and popular culture is reflective of that fact. American entertainment in particular fixates on wealth, the procurement thereof, and how it’s ultimately used. For example, the lives of the ultra-rich form the backbone of the reality tv industry. Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a show whose entire premise was following rich people around, ran for nearly 20 seasons, made the Kardashian brand internationally recognizable, and transformed popular culture. And even as cable reality television has slowed, streaming platforms like Netflix have recognized the American obsession with wealth and created shows like Bling Empire and Selling Sunset to meet that demand. 

Beyond reality television, scripted films and television programs also reflect our cultural obsession with wealth. Three of Netflix’s top five most-streamed shows of all time center on wealth and money (Bridgerton, Lupin, and Money Heist). Four of Time Magazine’s 10 best tv shows of the 2010s –– Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman, Halt and Catch Fire, and Mad Men –– use wealth as a key plot point. 

But why does this matter? Why is our collective obsession with wealth worth noting? Because our cultural values frame our politics and policy decisions. They define what matters to us, and in doing so set boundaries for what political ideas are socially acceptable. America’s fixation on wealth shapes our perception of who has value in society, of who is deserving of dignity and respect. It leads us to associate money with high intrinsic human value, and the lack thereof with expendability and uselessness. In America, wealth is status.

In 2019, the Cato Institute surveyed Americans to get their opinions on poverty, wealth, and work. 62 percent of Americans said they opposed redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, 69 percent agreed that billionaires earned their wealth by creating value for others; 65 percent believed that we are all better off when people get rich; and 71 percent said they felt more admiration than resentment toward the rich. These very sentiments underlie our policies and reinforce the belief that wealth is tied to worth. Nowhere is this more evident than in election laws and economic policy.

Consider how drastically different our government works for rich people and poor people. Political campaigns are the backbone of our democracy, and campaign contribution laws substantially favor the wealthy. American election laws allow wealthy people to donate tens of thousands of dollars to campaigns, sums that can easily sway local elections. And if they want to contribute beyond those monetary limits, wealthy people can create Super PACs to raise unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates, thereby exerting incredible influence over the outcome of elections. These campaign rules leave our election system, and our democracy more broadly, ripe for manipulation by those rich enough to sway both political and national politics through sheer spending power. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg nearly succeeded in doing so during his 2020 presidential campaign, buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads to propel himself from irrelevance to a competitive position in the race.

Conversely, poor people face systemic disenfranchisement when they attempt to engage in our democracy. Most American elections occur during the week, and for impoverished Americans working hourly jobs that means being forced to decide between exercising their right to vote and earning the money they need to survive. The recent restrictions on voting laws in several states have made things worse. Expanded voter ID laws have disenfranchised those who can’t afford to purchase IDs, and reduced polling locations and polling hours have made it difficult for hourly workers and public transportation users to get to the polls to cast their ballots.

Our tax policy shows a similar divide for the rich and the poor. It was recently revealed that Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffet –– three of the world’s richest people –– paid absurdly low amounts in income taxes. That story is a part of a much larger trend of rich people avoiding taxes. Wealthy people are adept at exploiting tax loopholes to pay as little as possible, and they often don’t get audited by the underfunded and overworked IRS. Poor people, who stand to benefit from the social assistance programs these taxes would fund, instead face regressive taxes and inadequate welfare benefits that make achieving financial security that much more difficult.

Laws surrounding labor and business regulations reinforce this power divide between the wealthy and the rest. Tech corporations have expanded their power and influence, but the government has yet to address the proliferation of monopolies by updating and enforcing its outdated anti-trust laws. And the stale federal minimum wage law keeps businesses from having to pay their employees living wages. This unchecked grab of market power lets large companies singlehandedly shape the global economy, determining which jobs go where and which products reach which consumers. For poor Americans, their main means of leveraging power, unions, are weakened and crushed by big companies like Amazon and Google.

We need to redefine our relationship with wealth, because our current obsession is harming our democracy and our economy. It starts by rejecting the idea that wealth is tied to human worth and imagining a world in which power is not distributed proportionally to riches. What would our politics look like? Maybe we would have publicly funded campaigns instead of privately financed ones, and maybe election day would be a paid holiday and the number of polling locations would increase drastically. Maybe our economic policies would force the wealthy to pay more taxes, empower unions to negotiate fair labor contracts, and provide a more robust social assistance infrastructure. Who knows. But as a nation, we owe it to ourselves to explore the possibility of a future unencumbered by wealth’s power.

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