"I read the paper, understood most of it, but was basically lost trying to understand the graphs. (It's true that my math and science foundation is fairly weak.)"
-- Ta-Nehisi Coates
"Well when I was 17, I didn’t realize that my parents were poor and stupid."
-- Half Sigma
Background: Half Sigma was born to lower-middle-class Staten Island Jewish parents and blames the American class system for his failure at life. At some point he read Paul Fussell's 1983 book Class, decided this made him an expert on the subject, and started mixing up dated observations from Fussell with his own observations of the people he perceives to be his social superiors in present-day Manhattan.
Fussell could not have been any clearer on who he put in his "Top out-of-sight" category: "The top-out-of-sight class (Rockefellers, Pews, DuPonts, Mellons, Fords, Vanderbilts) lives on inherited capital entirely."
This class, as described by Fussell, barely exists today. The proportion of the richest Americans (or their children) with any particular connection to the mid-20th century or earlier American upper class is small and continually shrinking.
I just looked up the original Half Sigma "top out-of-sight" post, and his confusion is even deeper than I remembered:
(Please note that this was a post from June of 2012 -- not 1952.)
The top out-of-sight upper class
A few days ago I threw out the idea that the country is run by WASPs, which I think is rather misleading and over-simplistic. It’s probably more accurate that there are several different power groups in the United States. The two most obvious power groups are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
There's no ambiguity about who Fussell classes as "top out-of-sight". It's not any Manhattan yuppie/hipster/"bobo" who went to private schools and who Half Sigma could see himself crossing paths with. It is, in caricature, the stock mid-20th century estate-dwelling upper class of popular imagination (which, again, increasingly no longer exists).
Searching for other power groups, one of the obvious power groups is the highest social class in the country. And to know what the highest class is, we turn to the late Paul Fussell’s book Class, and we find out that the highest class is what Fussell calls the “top out-of-sight upper class.” Fussell, unfortunately, doesn’t say much about this class, probably because he doesn’t know that much about them. The primary difference he talks about is that the regular upper class live in showy mansions and make their wealth known to the lower classes. The top out-of-sight upper class hides from public exposure.
In the movie Born Rich, directed by Jamie Johnson (which I previously blogged about), one of the important things he mentioned about his class of people is that they like their privacy and they were very opposed to him making a documentary about them. So Paul Fussell got the out-of-sight part right, although out-of-sight means that they are non-obvious rather than that you literally can never see them. The top out-of-sight is more often hiding in plain sight rather than on a private island off the coast of Maine. They might summer at such a place, although there are probably more of them summering on Nantucket.
I have personally met people from the top out-of-sight upper class, and maybe you have to. They are not rock stars, and because they are often hiding in plain sight, they are actually a lot easier to meet than upper class people who are more likely to have gatekeepers to restrict access to them. Imagine the unlikelihood of having a conversation with Donald Trump. But there are many top out-of-sight upper class people living in Manhattan who you can talk to easily enough, although they won’t be interested in being your friend for the same reason you (a middle to upper middle class person) wouldn’t want to be friends with a prole.
So now I will fill in some of the gaps of this class. Of course, I don’t have much personal knowledge, so I am mostly making educated guesses.
And, yes, the "out-of-sight" part was meant literally -- referring to the houses, not the people. Half Sigma fails even at basic reading comprehension. Fussell:
No one whose money, no matter how copious, comes from his own work--film stars are an example--can be a member of the top-out-of-sight class, even if the size of his income and the extravagance of his expenditure permit him to simulate identity with it. Inheritance--"old money" in the vulgar phrase--is the indispensable principle defining the top three classes, and it's best if the money's been in the family for three or four generations. There are subtle local ways to ascertain how long the money's been there. Touring middle America, the British traveler Jonathan Raban came upon the girl Sally, who informed him that "New Money says Missouri; Old Money says Missoura."
"When I think of a really rich man," says a Boston blue-collar, "I think of one of those estates where you can't see the house from the road." Hence the name of the top class, which could just as well be called "the class in hiding." Their houses are never seen from the street or road. They like to hide away deep in the hills or way off on Greek or Caribbean islands (which they tend to own), safe, for the moment, from envy and its ultimate attendants, confiscatory taxation and finally expropriation. It was the Great Depression, Vance Packard speculates, that badly frightened the very rich, teaching them to be "discreet, almost reticent, in exhibiting their wealth." From the 1930s dates the flight of money from such exhibitionistic venues as the mansions of upper Fifth Avenue to hideaways in Virginia, upper New York State, Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey. [. . .]
The next class down, the upper class, differs from the top-out-of-sight class in two main ways. First, although it inherits a lot of its money, it earns quite a bit too, usually from some attractive, if slight, work, without which it would feel bored and even ashamed. It's likely to make its money by controlling banks and the more historic corporations, think tanks, and foundations, and to busy itself with things like the older universities, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Association, the Committee for Economic Development, and the like, together with the executive branch of the federal government, and often the Senate.