The Rich are Not Like You or Me

A Bloomberg post, in which Max Abelson provides a snapshot of the travails facing Wall Street pros whose bonuses are much lower this year, caught my eye yesterday.  It’s a pitiable sight as grown men and women (but they’re mostly men) lament the hard times on which they’ve fallen. It’s right out of Dickens, I tell you, that having to sell the unused motorcycle, giving up the lease on the Porsche and summering for only one month instead of four.

Since I typically don’t troll the Bloomberg site (I’m trying not to further enrich New York’s technocratic, quasi-authoritarian mayor) I’m certain I stumbled on the story from elsewhere. What I know for certain is that by the end of the day The Atlantic’s resident apologist for the status quo had chimed in.

Far more interesting than either article were the comments they elicited. On Bloomberg there was a uniformity of disbelief, even in some cases outright disgust at the excesses (there is no other word for it) of these folks. At The Atlantic there was as much defense of McArdle’s take on the piece as there was aggressive disagreement.

I find myself puzzled by the neo-libertarians at The Atlantic. My own libertarian streak goes deep, rooted in reading scores of original documents from the Founding while working on my undergraduate thesis. I stand second to no one in my defense of liberty over the petty intrusions of small minds and the state. But really, the great gift of freedom has so much to do with money? Could you be more tawdry? If you ask me money is a pretty poor measure of anything except money.

So the working rich are hurting and the reactions range from disbelief to schaudenfaude.  Why does this strike anyone as new? Or news? In fact, it’s nearly eternal in New York.

The Bloomberg article references Edith Wharton’s masterpiece, The House of Mirth. Set in the last quarter of the 19th century, the novel tells the tale of Lily Bart, a comely young woman who destroys herself in an endless quest for a man with enough income to support her in the style to which she is accustomed. I’ve read it 6 or 7 times and it’s always shocking just how blind the quest for cash can make one.

I know, fin de siècle novels are out of fashion in the age of fictional memoir. Let’s move to the New York of my childhood and young adulthood—the 1960s through the 1980s—and that epic chronicler of all things silly, Tom Wolfe. He’s actually touched the topic more than once. Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, which I believe hails from the late 1960s, is essentially a catalog of invoices for the non-necessities of life that are considered a requirement for living in New York’s smart set. Here’s an excerpt that shows just how eternal wasting money is.

Better known is Wolfe’s late 1980s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. That tale may be most remembered for the racial conflict at the heart of the story. Let’s recall, though, that our protagonist, Sherman McCoy, was emblematic of the original Yuppies. There’s a whole back story with McCoy maintaining a household for a mistress and renovating an Upper East Side duplex and sending his child to a wallet-depleting private school. So the well-off living beyond their means is not new and has a history of not engendering sympathy among readers and writers.

Our correspondent for the Chicago School does get one thing right: it’s not luxuries that jam these folks up; it’s the fixed costs they assume. That has nothing to do with income but it is exacerbated by the milieu in which one operates. Wall Street pros are playing a game with each other, sending ranking and status signals by their purchases and the commitments they make. But don’t take my word for it, that’s a key finding in The Millionaire Next Door.

The fool lives in the house of mirth indeed.

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