A NATION OF WHINERS AFTER ALL

Posted in Rants on February 9th, 2009 by Ed

It is becoming increasingly common to read the New York Times and wonder in earnest if their "lifestyle" pieces are a recognition of their upper-middle-class clientele, a sincere attempt to cover issues they believe are important, or a quasi-dadaist theater of the absurd. To wit, what exactly runs through the minds of the editors when greenlighting a story like Allen Salkin's "You Try to Live on 500K in This Town?" It explores the impact of the Wall Street pay cap on the bloated plutocracy that piloted banking institutions into the side of a mountain at high speed. And I cannot tell if this story is supposed to inspire sympathy, provoke thought, or simply to act as the guy suspended over the dunk tank at the carnival.

Read that shit and try to imagine the mentality of a "journalist" who would write such a thing without tongue planted firmly in cheek. It is the kind of idea for a story that is easy to concoct, but to act on it requires an almost incomprehensible lack of self-awareness. Could an author, one presumably raised by humans and not by wild bears, begin a serious, non-satirical story like this?

PRIVATE school: $32,000 a year per student. Mortgage: $96,000 a year. Co-op maintenance fee: $96,000 a year. Nanny: $45,000 a year.

We are 1/4" into the column and already the premise is irrevocably fucked. It announces its intent to proceed from the idea that $32,000/yr grade schools and a nanny are somehow necessary, nestled snugly between the gas bill and groceries on the ol' family budget.

To many people in many places, it is a princely sum to live on. But in the neighborhoods of New York City and its suburban enclaves where successful bankers live, half a million a year can go very fast.

In other words, their ability to support an extravagant lifestyle behind the subdivision gates is imperiled. If anyone can explain why this matters or why anyone should care there may be some sort of prize involved.

“As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable.”

It's comforting to know that they use the same amount of foresight with their personal finances as with their banks' investments. Perhaps their jobs should be staffed by people who did not graduate from the MC Hammer School of Personal Financial Planning.

Sure, the solution may seem simple: move to Brooklyn or Hoboken, put the children in public schools and buy a MetroCard.

You're right Allen, that was pretty fucking simple.

But more than a few of the New York-based financial executives who would have their pay limited are men (and they are almost invariably men) whose identities are entwined with living a certain way in a certain neighborhood west of Third Avenue: a life of private schools, summer houses and charity galas that only a seven-figure income can stretch to cover.

Once again we return to the moral of the story, the fact that $500,000/yr may not be enough to support the lifestyle to which the ultra-wealthy believe they are entitled – perhaps as a deserved award for the excellent job they've done at the bank lately. But after showing us that $500k (or, to put it another way, about ten times the median household income for a family of four) is "only" $269,000 after taxes, Salkin takes a hard right turn at Is He Fucking Serious Street with the following words:

Now move to living expenses.

His living expenses include two $8,000 vacations per year, $75k per year for a chauffeur, $12k per year for a personal trainer, a second home in the Hamptons, and $35,000 annually for ball gowns. OK Allen. OK New York Times. Ball gowns!?!? This is a joke, right? You're just pulling our collective leg to bait an angry reaction from the commoners, right? The ball gown bit was intended to stun readers so they wouldn't notice idiotic things like "spa treatments" and "summer camp" in the subsequent paragraphs, right? It worked. I barely noticed them. The piece ends with this ludicrous burst of pop sociology, unironically quoting the author of Sex and the City:

Does this money buy a chief executive stockholders might prize, a well-to-do man with a certain sureness of stride, something that might be lost if the executive were crowding onto the PATH train every morning at Journal Square, his newspaper splayed against the back of a stranger’s head?

The man would certainly not feel like himself on that train, said Candace Bushnell, the author of “Sex and the City” and other books chronicling New York social mores.

“People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture,” she said. “So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.”

It's ironic that the author chooses to quote Ms. Bushnell since this article inspired the exact same reaction I had the first time I saw an episode of Sex and the City – I went in expecting mindless distraction and emerged from the experience a hardcore Marxist.

I cannot imagine what constructive purpose this piece was intended to serve. Truly this is a second Gilded Age; we are back to the 1890s when the newspapers were filled with "society" coverage intended to entertain the unwashed masses with the daily doings of the Astors and Rockefellers. The bizarre twist is that now we are now supposed to be sympathetic to their "suffering," to pity the fact that they cannot continue to indulge themselves in all manners of ostentatious consumption. The wealthy decided – conveniently enough, right around 1980 – that they had things right back in the 19th Century. Rather than being responsible to the larger society they would simply divorce themselves from it and create a separate one for themselves, no commoners allowed. When that self-segregation is threatened and they face the horrifying prospect of living like one of the people they lay off, extort, and otherwise rear-end on a daily basis, that is supposed to trouble us. Apparently.

I don't know about you but I anticipate no difficulty sleeping on account of this issue.

(h/t Nate B)

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