Beyond the One Percent: Categorizing Extreme Elites

A lot of people talk about “1%” as though it was synonymous with “almost nothing.”  Except that when it comes to people, that’s extremely misleading.  One percent of the US population is more than three million people!

Confused thinking is especially common when we talk about extreme elites, of achievement or wealth.  If “top 1%” means millions of people, what about even smaller, even more extreme elites?  The top 0.01% is as far removed from the 1% as the 1% is from the general population; and yet that’s still tens of thousands of people!  How do you have any kind of gauge for these numbers?

Because human intuition is evolved for much smaller social groups than the United States, our mental models can be very badly wrong. If you’re a mathematician at a top-tier school, it feels like “lots” of people are at that level of mathematical ability.  To you, that’s “normal”, so you don’t have much intuition for exactly how rare it is.  Anecdotally, it seems very common for intellectual elites to implicitly imagine that the community of people “like them” is orders of magnitude bigger than it actually is.

So I’ve done a little “Powers of Ten” exercise, categorizing elite groups by size and giving a few illustrative examples.  All numbers are for the US. Fermi calculations have been used liberally.

Of course, people don’t belong to one-and-only-one group: you could be a One-Percenter in money, an Elite in programming ability, and average in athletic ability.

Historical figures: people who achieve things of a caliber only seen a few times a century. People who show up in encyclopedias and history books.

Superstars: people who win prizes that are only awarded to a handful of people a year or so — there are usually dozens alive/active at that level at any given time. Nobel Prize winners (per field) and Fields medalists. Movie stars and pop music celebrities. Cabinet members. Tennis grand slam winners and Olympic medalists (per event).  People at the superstar level of wealth are household names and have tens of billions of dollars in net worth.  Groups of superstars are usually too small to develop a distinctive community or culture.

Leaders: members of a group of several hundred. International Mathematics Olympiad contestants. National Academy of Sciences or American Academy of Arts and Sciences members, per field. Senators and congressmen. NBA players. Generals (in the US military). Billionaires. Groups of Leaders form roughly Dunbar-sized tribes: a Leader can personally get to know all the people at his level.

Ultra-elites: members of a group of a few thousand. PhDs from top-ten universities, by department. Chess grandmasters. Major league baseball players. TED speakers. Fashion models.

Elites: members of a group of tens of thousands. “Ultra high net worth individuals” owning more than $30 million in assets. Google software engineers. AIME qualifiers. Symphony orchestra musicians. Groups of Elites are about the size of the citizen population of classical Athens, or the number of Burning Man attendees. Too large to get to know everyone personally; small enough to govern by assembly and participate in collective rituals.

Aristocrats: members of a group of hundreds of thousands. Ivy League alumni. Doctors. Lawyers. Officers (in US military). People of IQ over 145. People with household incomes of over $1 million a year (the “0.1%”). Groups of Aristocrats are large enough to be professions, as in law or medicine, or classes, like the career military class or the socioeconomic upper class.

One-percenters: members of a group of a few million. Engineers. Programmers.  People of IQ over 130, or people who scored over 1500 on SAT’s (out of 1600). People who pass the Cognitive Reflection Test. People with over $1 million in assets, or household income over $200,000. If you are in a group of One-Percenters, it’s a whole world; you have little conception of what it might be like to be outside that group, and you may have never had a serious conversation with someone outside it.



3 thoughts on “Beyond the One Percent: Categorizing Extreme Elites

  1. I can’t place it, but somewhere in a biography of Churchill probably, was a quip that a Duke cost about as much to maintain as a battleship (definitely referring to a time, at least in the 19c when Britain was more of a class society than the U.S.).

  2. Indeed, the meme of “the 1%” seems like a big mistake. If you are middle class, you probably know several people in the (lower echelons of the ) 1%. Even if poor, there’s a good chance of some uncle/cousin from another branch of the family who “made it”. And chances are, their wealth doesn’t seem totally unreasonable/obscene because they are, after all, in the bottom 90% of the top 1%, and many of them will seem deserving enough — or anyway, to have worked harder than you can imagine working. It’s when we start to justify as “deserving” the .001%’s ability to sprinkle favours on politicians, and fund 10s of thousands of right wing think tank (which don’t “think” so much as they propagandise) apprenticeships, and when they suck up all the growth in the economy leaving the rest in a stagnant or declining remnant of an economy that we get into trouble.

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