Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
75

Rich People Things

Rich People Things
My ill-starred tenure at New York magazine was, among other things, a crash course in the staggering unselfawareness of Manhattan class privilege. Sure, there was the magazine's adoring, casual fascination with the "money culture"-a term deployed in editorial meetings without the faintest whiff of disapproval or critical distance. But more than that, there was the sashaying mood of preppy smugness that permeated nearly every interaction among the magazine's editorial directorate-as when one majordomo tried to make awkward small talk with me by asking what it was like attending an urban public high school, or when another scion of the power elite would blithely take the credit for other people's work and comically strategize to be seated prominently at the National Magazine Awards luncheon.

Since decamping from that scheming hovel of status, I've tried to write it off as a ludicrous resume misfire, gnashing my teeth at the odd "Look Book" entry or wildly off-key Kurt Andersen column. But as the "money culture" collapses into a smoldering ruin, Adam Moss's weekly catalog of plutocratic self-regard has become harder and harder to ignore. Week in and week out, New York sends out panicked instructions for scraping by when the cash spigots have dried up, and dispatches survival strategies for the equally deranging state of affairs where no one believes that the social hierarchies founded on the fancies of the paper economy command awed reverence-or indeed, should be permitted to continue at all. If conservative Middle America greets bailouts and the specter of slight marginal tax hikes kicking in two years from now with Tea Parties, New York has been hosting its own months-long encounter group for the super-rich laid low-the revolt of the "are nots," if you will, protesting a world where they are neither especially elite nor powerful.

And like any encounter group leader, the magazine's editorship traffics in a comforting jargon-a sort of class privilege all its own. The operative terms in its reckoning with the fallout from the last decade's pillaging always describe subjective moods and feelings, not actual privation or suffering. In place of mass layoffs, repossessions or hijacked pensions, there is diffuse "envy," "resentment" and "rage"-moods that with the proper forensic understanding can somehow be channeled, one senses, back into reassuring class deference, in much the same way that a clumsy faux-pas could be passed over at the court of Versailles. You will recall that even New York's arch takedown of the upstart social arbiters of the blogging world was given the nonsensical headline "The Rage of the Creative Underclass"-masking the magazine's own palpable class-based derision in the sociological feelspeak of the seminar room. (I have no doubt that, should any senior big thinker at the magazine stumble on these ruminations, I'll be dissected in much the same fashion-I went to a public high school, after all.)

rage_coverAnd this week's special cover package on the "Rage of the Rich" neatly distills all these editorial impulses into one handy ur-Text. Gabriel Sherman's lead piece, "The Wail of the 1%," (subtitled-wait for it-"As the privileged class loses its privileges, a collective moan rises from the canyons of Wall Street") recounts the raw anger of today's cohort of investment honchos deprived of what they see as their hard-won fair wages. Sherman may claim possession of the piece's byline (a distinction that may prove to have the long-term value of an AIG stock bonus circa 2009), but the lavishly emotivist text bears all the thumbprints of the magazine's money-obsessed braintrust. Is there the tone of puzzled hurt? Oh yes, there is: The celebrated resignation letter penned by AIG commodities trader Jake DeSantis and later run as a New York Times op-ed was "passionate and wounded," the piece marvels. Yes, its language was also "oddly out of touch with ordinary Americans"-but look at its therapeutic value! DeSantis' letter "put a human face on Wall Street's anger"-something that precisely no American not named Rick Santelli was clamoring for, but let that pass. There is, after all, a larger moral here: "In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway" (and yes, I could not help but picture a Tuesday morning New York magazine edit meeting here; my own therapeutic progress has been, alas, more halting than I might have hoped).

In any event, we are now penetrating to the intolerable inner conflict at the heart of the pathology: Wall Street rage, in its "expression is more furtive and it's often mixed with a kind of sublimated shame," Doktor Sherman explains, "but it can be every bit as vitrioloic." Yes, our subjects are "difficult" candidates for sympathy, he continues elsewhere, "but you can understand their shock: Their world has been turned on its head. After years of enjoying favorable tax rates, they are facing an administration that wants to redistribute their wealth"-it never appearing to occur to Sherman's sources, Sherman himself, or least of all his editors that these favorable tax rates are themselves mechanisms for redistributing wealth, and making it "theirs" in the first place. But again, let us not be detained by policy particulars-on to the feelings! "No one know what Wall Street will look like in a few years," Sherman darkly incants, as though the head of the US Treasury Department were not an investor-appeasing former chairman of the New York Fed. And how, please, are the raging bankers reacting? "They are anxious, and their anxiety is making them mad."

Sherman's piece is generously bedecked with self-pitying anonymous quotes from indignant traders and bankers to bear out this clinical view. (They are also, one surmises, the link bait that has made Sherman's story the most frequently emailed on the magazine's site; it turns out that the preppy magazine class, no less than "canny politicians" can make with the strategically leveraged "populist rage.") But really, these clueless whingeing sentiments are the pulpy B-roll footage here; yes, these are hypocrites who seem to have forgotten that their "industry" owes its continued existence to a titanic government bailout; yes, it's easy to hate on the going-Galt rhetoric of Sherman's nameless Spartacuses of the are-not revolt ("JP Morgan and all these guys should go on strike," one fumes, "see what happens to the country without Wall Street"; "The government wants me to be a slave," another laments, contemplating the horror of the return of Clinton-era tax rates).

But such cheap Schadenfreude misses the main point, which Sherman spells out with admirable, if analytically bankrupt, clarity. The secret conviction coursing through Wall Strteet's caverns is this, he writes: "Those who select careers in finance play an exceptional role in our society. They distribute capital to where it's most effective, and by some Ayn Rand-ian logic, the virtue of efficient markets distributing capital to where it is most needed justifies extreme salaries-these are the wages of the meritocracy."

Now, the widespread abuse of the term "meritocracy"-a term of satire coined in a novel by a British socialist-is a sermon for another occasion. But consider the plain wrongness of the surrounding fluff: By no measure, was capital distributed "efficiently"-let alone to places "where it was most effective" in the investor-invented calamity known as the mortgage meltdown. What's more, the question of where capital "is most needed" is inherently a political one. Post-Katrina New Orleans certainly could make do with a whole lot of efficiently delivered private capital, but somehow it was never kicked up, even in the headiest days of the housing bubble. Likewise, the "exceptional role" played by the nation's princeling capital-herders, as the piece goes on to ploddingly rehearse, consists largely of emailing to their foreign-market counterparts at odd off-work hours; what they're really up in arms about-with their New York magazine enablers feverishly goading them on-is seeing their social status in free-fall. "No offense to Middle America," one of these firebreathing social prophets emails, "but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?"

Well, no offense taken here, pal! It's all just part of the process, after all: "In this conversation about money, there's a lot to work through," Sherman counsels in the piece's wind-up. "Just months ago, the masses kept what anger they had to themselves, and the bankers were close-lipped about what they thought they were owed by society. There wasn't much of a dialogue about the haves and have-nots and who was entitled to what. For the privileged, it was a lot more comfortable when things remained unspoken. Almost more than the loss of money, they are concerned with the loss of status and pride."

Well, of course they are-for the simple reason that nothing else really exists in the Mossian wonderland of New York money. It's not as though the financial industry lobbied for decades to repeal consumer bankruptcy protections-or mounted a concerted political donorship campaign to secure the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, which oversaw the disastrous conversion of non-bank entities like AIG into bond trading enterprises in the first place. It's not as though the first Bush appointee to head the SEC, William Donaldson, was cashiered in favor of corporate toady Christopher Cox because precisely these same market elites demanded Donaldson's head for the sin of proposing more regulation of financial markets.

No, in New York magazine land, there are simply organic social hierarchies, and the way that the titans who once lorded over them feel about their sundered patrimony. There is a "dialogue" to be had about "the haves and have nots" and a "conversation about money" to work though-precisely because these are the preferred narcissistic entertainments of people who have had never had to worry about money at anything other than a conversational level. Conversations involve no transfer of power, after all, and dialogues are not pitched at demonstrating the social utility of one conversation partner's core assumptions about "who was entitled to what." So long as no one is setting a viable industrial policy, redressing enormous deficits in education, urban development and universal health coverage for the nation's vast majority of non-Wharton graduates, conversation is just that-talk, and talk that overwhelmingly serves the interests of the people who have muscled their way into positions of social predation.

But you know what? Go ahead and talk amongst yourselves, masters of the universe-and let your therapists-manqué at New York transcribe your every mawkishly aggrieved word. Every phony social revolution needs its Joe the Plumber, after all-and Messrs. Moss, Sherman et al fit the bill nicely. Watch the decibel level, though-it turns out that a lot of people went to public high school, and they're pretty fucking sick of the sound of your voices.

56 Comments / Post A Comment

Peter Feld (#79)

Should any "senior" big thinker stumble upon these ruminations, LOL…. you can't mean the mag's social science rehash artist-in-residence, can you?

biteofpythias (#229)

rehash with a side of misinterpreting the results. but great hair.

numbersix (#85)

Damn, dude. Nice work.

(insert witty, well-informed comment here)

vidqueen (#305)

You rocked the shit.

I like their restaurant recommendations.

karion (#11)

See, and I could write a long screed about why I hate their restaurant recommendations.

Not nearly as well written as this. Fantastic.

hockeymom (#143)

These people truly don't get it.
On all levels.
The magazine editors delude themselves into thinking that they are in the same social class as the people they cover. They are not.

The "monied" class seems to think that they actually earned their huge salaries, bonuses and tax breaks given to them by the previous administrations. No, you people just happened upon a career where gambling with other people's money was not only legal, but encouraged. Now, it's time to pick up the tab.

I had a conversation with someone bemoaning the fact that it wasn't "fun" for her husband to be a hedge fund manager anymore and he was going to retire (at age 44). When I pointed out it wasn't"fun" to lose our 401ks and college funds, she said "The problem is that people like my husband are too smart. It's not his fault that the government set up a system where really smart people can make a lot of money and people who aren't as smart are the regulators. It's not like he broke any laws, or anything."

I guess that makes it all OK, then.

Did you hurt your hand when you hit her?

hockeymom (#143)

Yes, but only because her face was botoxed so tightly it was like hitting a piece of cement.

Will Leitch (#130)

Shhh! So far I've been able to hide my Midwestern public high school — and Midwestern public university! — from the white shoe-d masses here. You're going to blow my cover! I think I can see them in the corner of the office right now, with their monocle, their brandy snifter and their white cat they keep ominously petting in front of a wall covered in television screens … I think they're looking at me. I think they know now. Thanks a lot.

sigerson (#179)

Yeah, no one knows anything about your background after reading Deadspin. No, your love of the Buzzsaw, emo bangs and black t-shirts is well-hidden.

bmichael (#213)

I didn't realize that the Awl contracted original content. Awesome!

Alex Balk (#4)

Click on the columnists tag above for more.

cdnpoof (#233)

a side note here… i have never understood this "white shoe" thing. it seems to be only an american phrase and i've only heard it applied to law firms up until now. i always thought it referred to people that were so badly brought up (public schools, other abominations, etc.) that they wore white shoes with their suits at work. So a "white shoe" law firm would be one filled with eager up and comers with no polish/finesse. But that's not it at all… it's the exact opposite? why?

honeybee33 (#663)

I believe it's a reference to "white bucks," a rather affected shoe style traditionally preferred by prep-school attendees.

sakade (#52)

From April 17th's "Best Bets" section, a $35 Kohl eyeliner that "doesn't get dull" (like your social-climbing monied existence) or "irritate eyes" (now that your husband got his bonus cut, you'll spend a lot of time crying!)

KarenUhOh (#19)

My copy of NYM is so snooty, it won't even let me bring it into the downstairs bathroom.

PunchPrincess (#235)

Bravo!!

I once asked an acquaintance why short selling is a good thing when its intention is to drive the price of the stocks in my 401k into the sewer. I was told that short selling is a way for traders to make money when stocks are going down. I pondered that for a second or two until the assinity ( is that a word? ) of the concept became clear — my savings are melting away, but my anger should be assuaged ( another ass word! ) because at least someone made money!!

And the Sysco truck driver is earning an honest living.

SeanP (#4,058)

@PunchPrincess While I'm totally onboard with the idea that the "financialization" of the economy needs to be reversed (and the smug assholes involved should be brought down a peg), short selling: maybe not so bad. There is an actual reason for short selling beyond enriching traders in a down market: it provides a valuable "price signal" that helps the market understand that a stock is probably overvalued. More details here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_%28finance%29#Views_of_short_selling

BoHan (#29)

Oh gosh. fI understand the author's frustration with the super-rich or those who aspire to that. But I just can't get too mad at New York Magazine. They sell ads about stuff that people with money or people who think they have money think they have to get to make it look like they have money. To get those people to look at those ads, the magazine has to publish articles that are sympathetic to them. Pretty much like The Awl has me buying caffeinated candy bars. Granted, it's a creatively bankrupt way to support yourself, but a lot of things are that way. Anywhose, awesome article. Time to go weigh myself again.

sigerson (#179)

Honestly, I read the Sherman piece as satire. It wasn't?

davidwatts (#72)

I personally don't know any Sysco drivers making 100 to 300 grand.

I guess they never learned how to let things fall off their trucks.

Not Bob (#113)

Leaving aside the argument that the editorial staff of New York is made up of a bunch of Wall Street toadies (I kinda like the magazine and never got the sense that that was the case, but how would I know?), this is a fantastic piece of writing.

The sense of entitlement, and resentment that anyone should question it, is mindboggling, and not just in finance. I can't count the number of arguments I've had with colleagues who insist that $300,000 is a middle class salary, and that Obama's plan to raise taxes is class warfare.

So, Balk/Choire, any chance that Mrs. Lehmann will be contibuting here?

As someone who also went to public school and worked as a freelance factchecker at New York I can only say: Wow. Good stuff.

Cliff Spab (#84)

Wow, i just had that post-coital shudder after reading this. I hope it was good for Lehmann, too. Because this thing was amazing.

Too bad no one's going to read it

Cliff Spab (#84)

Also, Balk and Choire – thanks for getting the band back together

Hamilton (#122)

Heh.

Jerry (#253)

I don't understand why you're passing off other people's choice of the words "resentment" or "rage" as questionable or meaningful, when you're dropping fat dork bombs like "majordomo" in our unsuspecting faces? Are you goofballing on us, bro?

What's wrong with majordomo?

This whole argument just comes from this place that doesn't want to be reached. There is a balance to be struck between reform and recrimination that seems to elude you entirely.

Maybe you could write an article explaining where that point lies.

moss went to public high school. it's just the way we live now.

adanalyst (#266)

To be the douche: spell check guys. Pretty sure WordPress has that function.

Cliff Spab (#84)

Young man, have you finished your paper?

Shit, I couldn't even make it through this whole piece because I couldn't keep my damn place as I scrolled. It would be so awesome if you guys could lose the forced-justification. It's fine on the short, single-page, ATF pieces, but a typographic rag would help locate one's place vertically on the longer, scrolling jobs.

Or maybe I couldn't get through it because it was so frustrating to watch the author attempt — in vain — to wrestle his resentment (and rage?) into a meaningful piece of cultural criticism.

I guess it was probably both of those things.

You and ADismalScience should hang out.

vidqueen (#305)

Of a 30 story window.

oops, better step back in line!

This is so insurmountably amazingly written that all I can offer is those two big words. Congrats!

quackenbush (#287)

Good piece and love The Awl so far. But agree with commenter who suggests losing the right justification. It's hard to read. Also would it kill you to go up a point size or two in the font?

whowhahuh (#57)

I understand their rage, I just don't agree with it. They need to stay out of the news (quit writing op-eds and having Santelli like outbursts), and have a little empathy for those around them. Unfortunately this does not bode well for the city since media, law and finance basically keep this city afloat.

Nsedef (#291)

I'm glad I found The Awl.
Disagree that media, law, and finance keep this city afloat.
Hedge fund managers, in my experience, are quite the opposite of smart. Admittedly, they have arrogance and balls. And self-important entitlement in spades. Karma's a b@.

wallymarxjr (#299)

Now that kicked ass.

Although I harbor no illusions that the priviliged class will every actually acheive sentience, I do look forward to a few of them falling to earth and wandering around in the muck with the rest of us.

rkw (#151)

Excellent writing.

I just don't get this sense of entitlement the elite have and how they can even attempt to be frustrated. They have more than enough to afford things that others are terrified they're going to loose: their homes, their retirement funds, their health insurance, etc.

For all of their education and status, the one thing they've never shown was empathy, compassion and generosity, so I don't see why they expect the same from the uneducated and dirty masses.

Oh, BTW, I agree with the others who've suggested the right justification made this more challenging than not to read.

The main problem I have with the Sherman's article and as a result Mr. Lehmann's well written but unfortunately tendentious response is that the people representing Wall Street's rage are caricatures. No serious person involved in finance can think that the "government wants me to be a slave" because the marginal tax rate will be hike 3% on the highest income bracket. Get real.

By focusing on the most unsavory parts of the Sherman article, Mr Lehmann misses the opportunity to have the real dialog about class and pay that he claims to want.

When he challenges Sherman's point about allocation of capital he rightly claims that the evaluation of efficiency is political. But as far as I can tell it was the government who abandoned New Orleans. There is a civic obligation for government to help. There is a moral obligation for individual citizens to help. But the right incentives need to be in place for private capital to come in. Along with millions of other American's I personally donated money to post-Katrina relief, but I didn't put up a dime as an investment because the government abandoned New Orleans.

Moreover, Mr Lehmann loses me on the discussion of public school. Most people I know on Wall Street went to public school and send their kids to public school, albeit in a well to do town.

The issues of class, pay and wealth discrepancy are a critically important one for the society we live in. But to pretend that Sherman's article is seriously represents the views of most of Wall street is absurd and unfortunately highlights Mr Lehmann's bias. I think it's important to remember that the vast majority of people working on Wall St are not greedy, egotistic with a overhyped sense of self-importance. Look there are a lot of problems with the Wall Street business model. I too am angry that people at bankrupt companies bailed out by the tax payer are getting paid ALOT of money..hell I was fired while others get paid. But it's the not the average employees fault.

I write a weekly column for recessionwire.com entitled Out on the Street. Below are a few thoughts I have.

http://www.recessionwire.com/2009/04/06/out-on-the-street-comp-me/

http://www.recessionwire.com/2009/03/25/tarp-bonuses-anger-and-policy/

Mark (#51)

Huh. So this is one of those substantive comments Heffernan was looking for…
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/magazine/26wwln-medium-t.html?pagewanted=1&ref=magazine

SeanP (#4,058)

@joe the trader From your post: "But as far as I can tell it was the government who abandoned New Orleans. There is a civic obligation for government to help. There is a moral obligation for individual citizens to help. But the right incentives need to be in place for private capital to come in. Along with millions of other American's I personally donated money to post-Katrina relief, but I didn't put up a dime as an investment because the government abandoned New Orleans."

This is all rather beside the point – which is that Wall Street does not, in fact, allocate capital to where it's most NEEDED. It's allocated to where Wall Street can make the most money.

And this: "No serious person involved in finance can think that the "government wants me to be a slave" because the marginal tax rate will be hike 3% on the highest income bracket. Get real."

Dude, I've seen variations on the same quote over and over again, from multiple sources. I guess there must just be a ton of unserious people involved.

And this: "But to pretend that Sherman's article is seriously represents the views of most of Wall street is absurd and unfortunately highlights Mr Lehmann's bias."

Who's pretending that an absolute majority of those on Wall Street are like this? It's clear that even if "most" Wall Streeters don't think or act this way, such a mindset is still altogether too commonplace.

Look, no one is saying that being a trader necessarily makes one a douchebag. Just that douchebaggery is rather common among that group.

yellahabibi (#330)

Great article, painful to read. No, really painful… can you change the font so it's legible please?

grashopa (#345)

PunchPrincess, short selling is not bad because it causes you to lose money and some trader to gain. You are making the mistaken assumption that the stock market is there to always go up and make you money. The goal of the stock market is a fair representation of the profits in our economy. Your government has failed you in that they think that propping up the financial market will help you. They have it backwards as do you – ensuring stable growth and market regulation allows for a slowly growing economy which is reflected in the stock market.

caitlinate (#416)

Brilliant.

But your layout is horrible.

pourquoi non (#643)

Unselfawarness, or self unawarness? I can never decide.

pshar (#8,008)

Bravo! Bravo! Sorry I am late to the party on this one…..but better late than …………

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