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Guest Thinkers

The Very Rich Are Different from You and Me

So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “yes. They have more money.”

Could they one day end up having more fingers? Toes? Brains?

The economist Robert Frank wonders about that, picking up on Robert Saffo’s suggestion that advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and personal genetics will be so expensive that they will lead, as Saffo put it, to the rich person “evolving into a different species entirely, leaving his not-so-rich counterpart behind.”

That this idea has popped up again is one more sign of how harshly stratified American society, where one-third of wealth is held by the richest one percent of the population, has become. (Contrary to American folk wisdom, in a recent 12-nation study of the influence of family background on a child’s future wealth, the four countries where family status counted the most were France, Italy, Britain and the U.S.) For this rich-as-separate-species notion to enter a society’s conversation, its class system has to be both obvious and rigid — like that of Victorian England in 1895, when H.G. Wells imagined the human race diverging into pale, ineffectual Eloi (who mooned about on the surface) and thuggish grease monkeys called Morlocks, who worked underground.

Still, the cultural welcome an idea receives is not a measure of its merit (or lack thereof). Could Saffo be right about the effects of expensive technology?

I doubt it, for a reason I was surprised not to see in Frank’s blog: Rich families have a strong tendency not to stay rich. Frank himself has said so. Even if a stratified society makes it harder today for a poor kid to rise, it could still be easy for a rich kid to fall. Evolution can’t do anything will Bill Gates’ ability to turn himself into a very expensive Windows-7 driven cyborg. Evolution needs the Gates’ to hang on to their money for many more generations than most rich families do.

At the same time, of course, the technology would have to stay expensive for hundreds of years. But isn’t the history of technology — for example, in Gates’ industry — a history of ever-cheaper costs for each unit of computing, labor or energy?

For all those reasons I’m going to guess that the answer to Frank’s question is “no.” What do you think?