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.