What The Rich Are Really Like

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

To the Republicans, the rich are basically superheroes: having been endowed with a superhuman work ethic and the smarts to run the world, the wealthy do nothing but good in this world by creating jobs for slovenly poor people everywhere!  Having clawed their way to the top, fighting for every dollar, don’t the rich deserve a break from the predations of those awful people who would yank the money from their well-manicured hands?  Haven’t the rich proven their worth already by being smart and cunning and persistent enough to amass all that wealth?  Haven’t the rich proven their worth already by, well, being fucking rich?
I might even believe that, had I not grown up in Connecticut.
I grew up in Fairfield County, one of the 40 wealthiest counties in all of America.   Paul Newman and Martha Stewart lived there.  Not everyone in Fairfield was rich, but it was impossible to grow up there without bumping into the wealthy on a regular basis – they bought their coffee with you, their kids went to activities with you, they went to the same movies.
Now, it’s important to notice that these folks usually weren’t the super-rich, the people even rich people envied.  They had a mansion, and maybe a yacht for a hobby if they were particularly well-off, but most of them didn’t own their own private jets.  They didn’t have a chauffeur, because it was usually easier and cheaper to drive your own car, and they’d take the train to New York where they often worked.  Their kids went to public school because the public school system in Fairfield is pretty top-notch, as you’d expect from the income level, but when it came time for college you bet your ass that Yale or Harvard were getting mentioned.
They were the 1%, which in today’s day and age means they had about $300,000 a year on their hands.  They didn’t have to worry.
And here’s the thing: their kids were often douches.
As a teenager, you could tell a rich kid not because of his clothes, but because of a certain recklessness that emanated from them.  They didn’t really understand consequences all that well, because whatever they did, it would get cleaned up.  If a rich kid’s grades were bad, they got tutors, the teachers got spoken to about helping poor Jack to his potential, there was much moaning about the need for Jack to do better, and the parents would ride saddle on Jack until he did his fucking homework.  If a rich kid drank too much, well, that wasn’t a problem – the cops overlooked the rich kid drunk teenagers, letting them have their places where people didn’t go much, and if you were dressed right they’d usually just tell you to move elsewhere.  (I once witnessed a millionaire heiress wave off a cop in her local town by telling him, “Do you know who I am?”  He did.  He knew who donated to the policeman’s ball, and moved on.)  And if a rich kid did get into trouble with the cops, usually via fighting, well, he’d be bailed out and the parents would have a talking to him, but mostly the emphasis was “You’re screwing up your future potential!  How do you expect to get into college with this record?” and not “You could go to jail.”
They lived in a different world.  If you got on drugs, well, you had a problem.  If they got caught with cocaine repeatedly, we all knew about the local detox centers they got sent to.  They’d talk about these places like it was such a burden to have to go. I remember being in more than one conversation where two rich kids commiserated about the terrible food at these places, and how you couldn’t even call any of your friends, it was so lonely there.
Here’s the thing: none of these kids had really done a damn thing to earn all of this wealth and privilege.  They just sort of had it.  And it oozed out of them, a slacker mentality that things would be all right, and they could keep fucking up until things worked out, because hey, no pressure, we’ve got the time.
Now, not all rich kids were like this.  Some of them were razor-sharp, the kind the Republicans are proud to talk about.  They studied hard, they got good grades, because they had a future they were determined to be prepared for, and they did all of the extra-curricular stuff because they already had their favorite college targeted.  You often couldn’t tell those kids from the poor kids, because they didn’t mention their wealth.  I envied and feared those kids, because I wasn’t able to be them on any level, and yet I couldn’t really bitch about them, either.
But the other rich kids, the drifters who roamed through Westport in their preppie outfits?  Well, they had a lot of money, and a lot of potential, and didn’t do shit with it.  And some of them are still rich, just because of an accident of wealth.
Some of them are me.  Hell, I drifted through college for nine years, attending endless semesters of college that I dropped out or flunked out from – and who do you think paid the bill?  Hint, dear readers: it wasn’t me.  I turned out all right, because after a decade’s worth of slacking I finally got my shit together… but I’m excruciatingly aware every day that I had the luxury to find myself.  And it was a luxury.  My parents bailed me out, and now I’m not rich, but I’m way better off than I would be if I’d had to start working at the grocery store to pay my rent.
Which is not to say that there aren’t good rich people.  My boss used to sleep in the back seat of a car, driving from town to town to sell comics out of his trunk because there was a buck in it.  He never sleeps.  His relentless work ethic has created a good company that I am proud to work for, and he’s the kind of wealthy I’d like to reward in America: a guy who, with nothing more than dedication and cunning and an insane work ethic, has built his own wealth. And created jobs for people like me.
But the Republicans’ repeated fellating of the rich, as if “being rich” was automatically the same as “being super-hard working” or “being smart,” just doesn’t add up if you knew enough rich folks.  Sure, the rich will tell you that, but why not?  It’s in their best interests to create their own monolith story, the same way that poets turnthe reclusive and horrid-paying world of poetry into a romantic, mysterious world of adventure.
Yet I think that the poor buy into it because it seems right.  I mean, if someone’s that much better off than you, then they must have done something spectacular to deserve it, right?  They can’t be that wealthy just at random.  But a significant portion are – hell, the Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican bill is – and a lot of the things people have done, nobly enough, to protect their children means that a lot of the kids who have tons of money are just as stupid and slothful and ignorant as the worst of the welfare mothers, except they’re rich enough to bail themselves out. In some cases, that richness is big enough that it’s self-perpetuating, which is to say that as long as these dimwits hire the right accountants and don’t buy a life-sized gold Ronald Reagan statue every week, they’ll be dumb and rich forever.
Yet this illusion permeates the debate in America.  The poor all see themselves as, as Steinbeck famously said, “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”  And they think that if they just did the right things, they’d all be rich themselves.
Except it’s not simple.  Some people do all the right things to get out of poverty, and can’t manage it anyway.  Some people do all the wrong things, but wind up okay because they’re wealthy.  Life is messy, and full of should’ves and shouldn’t’ofs, and any philosophy that claims a 100% correlation between an activity and a success is selling you something fetid.  And rich, I hate to say, are like us – some of them smart, some dumb, and the only difference is all that lucre they’re floating on.
When you talk about taxing the rich, realize that they’re not all superheroes.  Not all of them necessarily deserve that cash.  And maybe you should think about ways to tax to encourage the kind of wealth you want to see in the world.

2 Comments

  1. Steve R
    Aug 15, 2012

    Excellent post, as usual. I’ve long thought that, rather than doing battle over whether the inheritance tax should exist, we ought to be working to make it much, much larger, the idea being to launch the children of wealth into the supposedly magical arena of free market competition in order to better deserve places on the pedestals we erect. Why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to directly compete with people like your boss? Society would surely benefit, wealth would get churned into productive use, at least to a larger degree than it is today, and the kids themselves would likely benefit from the sense of purpose and achievement such experience can create. They would still have the best preparation and clothes, but they’d also be expected to actually earn their way forward, and in the process help to push our society forward as well. Heck, the inheritance tax money wouldn’t even have to go toward paying for government operations if that offends conservatives, but could instead be pooled into an equity system of small business loans, or a high-risk venture capital pool available to all comers on a competitive grant basis. Our goal should not be to punish wealth, but to ensure that capital gets put into productive, innovative use more reliably than “old” money usually is. The thing about wealth is that it’s usually a result of innovation and risk-taking in the first generation, then shifts to a relentless battle against innovation and risk-taking in order to preserve its advantage.

  2. Shauna Roberts
    Aug 15, 2012

    Good post, Ferrett.

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