Even if crediting the rich with the agricultural revolution seems like a stretch, Hayden has marshaled plenty of other evidence that triple-A types have repeatedly driven the development of new technologies for the purpose of displaying their prestige—textiles, for instance, and metalworking, glass, indoor plumbing and illuminated books. Then the sweaty mob imitates them, gradually figuring out how to make prestige items more cheaply and put them to practical use.
This may sound like trickledown theory revisited. Or like a new take on social Darwinism, the 19th-century idea that the strong somehow end up smarter, fitter, more deserving—and richer. But the new affluenza theorists say that they're just explaining the way things work, not defending it. Hayden concludes that the status-grabbing, triple-A aggrandizers have created the world as we know it. But in their other lives as pirates, these same people have caused "90 percent of the world's problems" with a casual tendency to "ruin the lives of others, erode society and culture, and degrade the environment."
If he's right, the moral of the story might go something like this: the next time you come face to face with the rich and powerful among us, do the right thing and say, "Thanks for the secondhand status symbols." Then run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
Richard Conniff, a longtime contributor, is the author of The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide.