The Embarrassment of Riches

Do not pity me for having more money than anyone I know. Still, wealth does have its mild difficulties

Photo by Ben/Streetcars London
Photo by Ben/Streetcars London


I will never have a face-to-face conversation with a friend about the things that I write here. Today my husband made tens of millions of dollars for his clients. He and his colleague invented computer models that help trade commodities markets. “I had a good year today,” he reported with disorienting nonchalance when he returned home.

“Sam” works for a commodities-trading firm whose clients include universities and colleges, small countries, and what are euphemistically called “affluent individuals.” His firm is very successful at what it does, but modest, abstemious, and unassuming compared to the rest of the companies on the wild frontier of hedge funds and high-stakes investment. Commodities trading firms have a reputation for being among the last bastions of near-feral, unapologetic masculinity. In the culture, top earners are “alphas.” Traders seem not to have read any of the warning labels slapped on contemporary life. They drink and drink, and drive sports cars too fast, and stay up all day after trading Asia all night, or party all night after trading Europe all day. Sam knows one trader who takes a vacation from his nerve-jangling job by chasing tornadoes across the Oklahoma panhandle. These are not men aspiring to the golden mean.

On the surface, Sam’s model—let’s call it F232—is steadier than the human traders. A “financial engineer” has created homo economicus on steroids. The model is a savant selectively endowed with the instincts of a rational, self-interested agent: dispassionate analysis, a blinkered memory exclusively for the past maneuvers of a particular market, single-minded purpose, and ruthless clarity for the bottom line. F232 is a free-market libertarian’s dream date, a being that truly does act on self-interest when actual people smother economic logic with passion, fear, pride, loyalty, and other seductions of the human condition. F232 “does” things and gets cheered for having done them. This is his trick: he is not beset by second thoughts or regret. If he loses, he does not care. If he wins, he does not care. Life (and profit) is easy if you have no preferences.

In investment and finance, employees usually receive yearly bonuses. It simulates the experience of winning the lottery, or getting an inheritance, as it creates a sudden outburst of prosperity. If it were otherwise, our lifestyle gradually would have grown into a larger monthly salary like a person growing into a baggy pair of pants. But, as it is, I confess that we are “coming into money,” having never come close to it before.

The rich “are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously commented. In The Other America, credited with inspiring the War on Poverty in the early 1960s, Michael Harrington elaborated that the poor are, too. The want of money, he wrote, is a gestalt that shapes everything from the “condition of their teeth” to “how they love.” Because I was not born into a rich family, I have no idea how, in particular, those who have always been rich differ from me. This is a story of becoming, not being. But I have no doubt that they are different, and the texture of that difference used to mesmerize me.

My father once did get mistaken for a wealthy person. When I was in college, I saw his name in a directory for development professionals, an informal “who’s who” of suspected rich Americans ripe for the plucking. My father was extremely charitable and not wealthy. But the directory had misinterpreted his great generosity as the tip of a deep iceberg of great wealth, so his name was harvested as a fundraising target.

My father would not have wanted to see himself there, cavorting in print with the rich, and I did not tell him about it. Products of Depression-era hoard-and-save poverty, my parents have a visceral moral contempt for wealth. My father recently shared with me samples from his personal letter-writing campaign to rich people. Embattled quixotically against what he calls “this www dot stuff,” he had pulled out his manual typewriter (the use of which surely will land him in an FBI file) and tapped out upbraiding letters to an odd menagerie of millionaires—Oprah, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, and Martha Stewart, among others.

“Dear Oprah,” the first began. “You belong to the class of what I call the ‘obscenely’ rich.” Each letter advised that no American needed more than, say, $200,000 a year to live. And even that is too much. But it would redeem a person to move, unmodified, from obscenely rich to rich. Something had brought these particular specimens of the rich to my father’s attention—they had bragged inappropriately of a paltry charitable contribution or they had asked for still more money in contract negotiations. “If you cannot give your money away,” warned my father, “the state will have to take it from you through real taxes.”

In my family, the rich were “filthy”—tainted with the dirt and grime that money inevitably brought. Poverty produced virtue, and wealth produced vice. This was a mainstream American belief for some time. Aspiring Horatio Algers once enjoyed moral pride of place in the national imagination. Some have always chosen to blame poverty on individual character flaws, but there were other, exculpatory stories about poverty that celebrated the virtues of hard work and conferred on the hard-working poor a higher moral stature.

Somewhere between Michael Harrington and Donald Trump we lost our moral wariness toward the wealthy and reassigned it to the poor. Blame J. R. Ewing, Nancy Reagan’s gowns, and the influence of Reaganomics, certainly. But even the prevailing liberal mindset contributed to the moral estrangement of the poor. In the other America, Harrington tells us, “are those who live at a level of life beneath moral choice, who are so submerged in their poverty that one cannot begin to talk about free choice” (emphasis added). Being poor and needing to survive, the poor turn to the drug trade, or they steal, the wisdom goes. The poor’s very poverty shunted them into a morally coarsening economic underworld. That view catalyzed sympathy for the poor, but it unintentionally transformed the logic of wealth. If poor people stumble into vice because, quite simply, they are poor, then wealthy people, not being poor, must not be morally vulnerable in this way. They must be able to afford the luxury of moral free will that the poor cannot afford.

We Americans are especially infuriated and surprised these days when rich people lapse morally because we seem to expect the rich to be more virtuous because they are rich, not less. It is a stunning reversal of the old Populist wisdom that of course the rich are less moral than the poor! After all, that is what makes them rich.

My family’s lingering moral horror of wealth (I can still hear my mother chiding me, “Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba?”) warred in my mind against this vague but powerful logic that to be poor was to be morally frail, vulnerable even in one’s soul and character.

So, of course, I wanted to be the Queen of Sheba. This had little—nothing, really—to do with greed or materialism. To be wealthy was to be safe in the deepest recesses of my life, and protected from helplessness that would deprive me even of my “moral choice.” If the middle class was fluid, the upper class was ice, a solid security, frozen in place.

Growing up, I was often contiguous to old wealth. I found it and it found me on a current of mutual need and enchantment. I acquired the patois of wealth—references to “old” Greenwich over new, names of obscure towns in Westchester, useless minutia about how counselors at New England boarding schools help place their students in Ivy League colleges, and an assortment of tips like: do not bring hot dogs to “barbeques,” bring shark or tuna; talk about “old” friends when you mean to say people you do not want to see anymore. Do not be too ambitious professionally (they aren’t). Rich people love big, slobbery dogs like family members. They have money, but they never seem to have cash on them. In the velvety green valleys of wealth surrounding Baltimore, they drink Southsides during long summer evenings.

One September on a visit to Yale while I was still in high school, I saw the wealthy in the aggregate. It was like going from a zoo with one elephant on conspicuous display to a safari on the Serengeti. Here, the wealthy stampeded through. As I watched from the periphery, a Margaret Mead of American privilege, parents unloaded their children for the new school year. Well tended, unafflicted, and perfectly antiseptic, they betrayed no physical trace of a life mangled by circumstance. The women possessed the secret of wearing linen dresses that did not rumple, wilt, or hang on the body on hot days. And they knew how to disappear on cue, without emotionally sloppy, prolonged departures. They moved nimbly with their boxes, pecked their children goodbye, and receded back into lush anonymity. Being cruelly vapid in the way of many adolescents, I lusted after these blandly attractive parents with their chiseled cheekbones and their tidy dresses.

This must be what author Richard Sennett meant by the “hidden injuries of class.” I still cringe when my sister reminds me of my campaign to impress an early boyfriend, an Andover nerd whom I had met while impersonating a rich person during a high school summer abroad. I campaigned unsuccessfully to substitute pictures in my house of my actual relatives—poor farmers and poultry workers—with ancient pictures of fake relatives that I had excavated from a box at a yard sale. I thought they looked more dignified than my actual ancestors, I suppose.

Ambitious, driven students who live on the razor’s edge of success, by the grace of their wits, essays, and SAT scores alone, probably spend a lot of time in some version of disorienting, covetous class drag like this. My parents had no patience with it. “Why don’t you just go to a school that wants you,” they said, exasperated, as I agonized through the college application process. “What difference does it make?”

For as much as wealth played on my imagination, the mechanisms of wealth were just as profound a mystery. In this I am not alone. Most Americans have a view of the economy that verges on the superstitious. The National Council on Economic Education says that two-thirds of students—and half of adult Americans—do not know that stock markets bring together buyers and sellers. The evening national newscasts of my youth featured a sleepy, 30-second summary of the glacial movement of the Dow right before a commercial break, sometimes proffering a hopelessly truncated explanation: “Today the Dow climbed two points in reaction to the imminent royal marriage. Now a word from our sponsor.” High priest Alan Greenspan presided over the economy with cryptic pronouncements that were parsed with Talmudic care by his acolytes in the financial media. Even congressional representatives barely hoped to understand him, or to divine whether his insights supported or refuted their own exceedingly simpler political stances.

In college I studied the cultural syntax and logic of the economy and the market and learned not a thing about the actual economy or an actual market. Communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci cautioned in the early 1900s against thinking of class struggle solely in terms of the economic base rather than the cultural superstructure. But my encounter with the study of capitalism was strictly superstructure, no base. It was a rich metaphoric lode. I contemplated the reverberations of a “market economy” (however it actually operated) in sex, desire, sport—anything but the actual economy. I could have—should have—taken a basic macroeconomics class, but that would have felt intellectually sleazy. One didn’t want to imbibe too much of capitalism, for fear that to know too much about it was to endorse it or to believe in its ineluctability. Mostly I learned about capitalism circuitously and gesturally through reading Karl Marx or, even more slothfully, by reading embattled Marxist theorists. In the humanities, economics seemed more about cultural mood and style than money.

Not that commodities markets are any more literal or obvious than my poetic musings on the impact of capitalism on marriage or on the popularity of a movie. Although traders may trade oil, they do not actually handle, possess, see, touch, or otherwise come into contact with actual crude oil. Rather, traders make money by taking a position in the market, and then rolling their contracts into the next month, so that at no point do they actually consummate a contract and become the proud owners of 10,000 pigs or 50,000 bags of coffee. Were there a glitch in the model, Sam’s firm could end up with a bemused UPS driver scratching his head outside the doors of their office building, with an order to roll thousands of barrels of light sweet crude down their plushly carpeted halls.

Commodities futures are about transactions two or three times removed from an object and a person. But it is hard to resist the impulse to embody it in cozy, simpler images from the preindustrial age—a handshake, a tangible, heavy object trading hands, a pat on the back. Sometimes I imagine myself swimming in a vat of coffee beans or strapped on to a wooden barrel of sweet crude, adrift on the currents of a vast, temperamental ocean. The market baffles me, because it is, in actual fact, fantastical. The money exchanged globally on any day paralyzes the imagination. Outwitting these notoriously jittery, flamboyant markets requires conceptual leaps, and the profitable genius of being able to discern pattern and logic in the cacophony of trillions of knotty, tangled transactions. But now my life is intimately and directly linked to the global circulation of soy beans or pork bellies or crude oil that I will never touch, possess, or see.

Other people’s enduring ignorance about these markets is one source of the wealth. Many things have been called the secret to wealth: ambition, self-discipline, immorality, deceit, stubbornness, brilliance, inherited privilege, good luck. But I think now that the secret to wealth is secrecy itself. It is the wedge of wealth, a means of getting traction on the market. Knowledge dispersed equalizes power, and knowledge hoarded skews it. My husband’s model is a secret, and other wealthy people have their own secrets—knowledge, a contact, a loophole.

Wealth in turn elicits more conspiratorial secrecy. Secrecy is as important to accumulating the money as to making it. To avoid becoming immorally extravagant, wasteful, and decadent, you have to calibrate money with desire delicately. And desire is a reckless, dangerous pacesetter. Once Potential increases, Desire ratchets up to retain its competitive advantage. You have to maintain canned-tuna tastes on a caviar budget in a credit-card abusing culture. Almost no one pulls that trick off, except for the janitors and secretaries you occasionally read about in the obituaries, who had quietly accumulated a million dollars’ worth of the crumbs that had fallen their way during 30 years of minimum-wage work. They remained poor in their souls even as they became materially wealthy. For the rest of us, each of us is a tightly wound spring, poised and just waiting for the winning lottery ticket to pay the bill on a dream life already purchased on credit. For this reason, a substantial minority of American lottery winners end up not only poor but downright broke or bankrupt a few years later. One lottery winner I read about bought a roundtrip ticket to wealth and returned home to poverty and a trailer smaller than the one she had started in.

Ostensibly, nothing has changed in the lives my husband and I lead. We live in the same house, although we could move, and we drive the same domestic cars, although we could trade up. We do not want many things. But my world is becoming quietly fortified. Gaudy nouveau riche decoys deflect attention and absorb criticism, while others cocoon into newfound privilege and keep their good fortune to themselves. Historian Simon Schama writes about the peculiar “moral ambiguity of good fortune” that seized Dutch culture through centuries of prosperity, a “selfconsciousness” about wealth that “we think of as embarrassed.” Alexis de Tocqueville also observed in the early 1800s the “singular melancholy” that haunted Americans “amid their abundance.”

There is something self-incriminating about admitting wealth and poverty alike. The poor do not confess to being poor; the wealthy do not admit to being wealthy. The poor are ashamed, and the rich (at least some of them) are embarrassed. So wealth whispers under its breath like a closeted subculture. I have newfound theories about Yale’s cryptic, hyper-exclusive Skull and Bones social club. It must be a place where members can all be gleefully, guiltlessly rich together, rather like the one gay bar in a Kansas town, a social oasis for the extravagantly privileged. Good fortune produces a surprisingly erotic thrill of shame and transgression.

But we are not the only ones in class drag. Almost all Americans claim moral asylum in the endlessly elastic middle class when they are polled or asked about their finances, which creates the illusion of a classless middle class society. Only the most brazen outliers declare what they are. “I am rich.” “I am poor.”

Money is not about money anymore. It is more about temperament and legacy and less about tangible things. It buys you the luxury of intergenerational thinking. It buys you entry into a new wing of the philanthropic world. I am not dreaming about things anymore, but about leaving a social legacy, a philanthropic footprint in my city, or in a school, or in politics.

When you have enough of it, money buys you things as abstract and symbolic as the markets themselves. You acquire a deeper, larger palette of actions and emotions, riotous hues that you cannot entirely manage under normal budgets and still keep a job, sanity, or a financial foothold. Before money I had to like work, so I did. Now I see my part-time work rashly and impetuously, from moment to moment. It is vulnerable to my shifting moods. Not only can I fantasize about walking out, I can do it, which is a strangely regressive power. More wealth puts me potentially on equal psychological footing with my three-year-old, who throws temper tantrums, is deliriously happy one minute and distraught the next, who acquires passions with wild impetuosity and drops them without guilt, remorse, or fear. Wealth has paid the ransom to free moods held hostage by pragmatism and necessity.

A consoling cliché draws the line on money buying happiness; but to give wealth its due, it buys many things that are cognates of American happiness: equanimity, security in a sadistically insecure economy, genuine choices. It might not buy happiness, but it buys the words standing right next to it. More tragically, it buys something that verges dangerously close to the American vernacular of freedom. Radical Emma Goldman questioned what it meant, really, to be “free” and a worker in such a brutal economy. In a 1917 essay she marveled at the “poor, stupid, ‘free’ American citizen! ‘Free’ to starve, free to tramp the highways of this great country.” If you can acquire wealth and manage it, you can be in fact as well as in theory a free American. You have the freedom to leave, happy or sad, impetuously or less so, with or without a contingency plan, and without penalty of financial ruin. You are free to see things for what they are, and not for what they have to be in order for you to keep showing up for the job each day, or for you to keep making the mortgage payments. But Goldman was right. In America that kind of freedom does not come free, or cheap.

New worlds appear; others recede. My interest in much of the daily financial news is anthropological and philanthropic, rather than entangled. I am in danger of becoming a hothouse human. Already, I find myself zoning out when news stories begin, “We Americans abuse credit cards” or “We live above our means” or “We work harder and earn less than ever before.” I have lost my knack for mentally calculating the monthly payments on houses for sale or the “real cost” of buying merchandise on credit. A friend of mine recounts that her wealthy father once asked a young hostess what sort of “cuisine” her restaurant, some place called “Applebee’s,” served. He had never noticed one, much less eaten in one.

I fear that this is where you begin to think me a real jerk, assuming that you do not already. You are confident that you would still hear and see all of the economic miseries and injustices in the world. You would know Applebee’s from Sotheby’s, and you would let wealth wash over you like a wave as your feet remained firmly and ever more deeply planted in the sand. I hope for that also. But what if you were not proximate to the ups and downs of the economy, rising tuition costs, swings in the real-estate market, or the fate of a 401K? Would you choose to see and hear all the time? You might, but now it requires different skills, and self-consciousness, and sometimes you might weary of the effort involved and indulge in an anti-social insulation. It is like trying to train yourself not to slouch. You must constantly, consciously, think about standing up straight and not slouching, which goes against the powerful inertia to just do what comes (too) easily.

When there is no “we” in the we anymore, it becomes easier, although certainly no more forgivable, to see how the first President Bush would end up needing a cue card on a campaign stop to remind him of the all important theme: “Message: I Care.” (In a hilarious enactment of Bush Sr.’s penchant for political self-destruction, he accidentally read the card aloud to his audience.) When it is not your life on the line, or when engagement with economic danger and insecurity is optional rather than painfully inevitable, caring about them requires skills other than a primal instinct for survival—skills of empathy, imagination, moral depth, or simply the intellectual capacity to divine the crass self-interest lodged deep within altruism and the preservation of a social safety net. You can opt not to see things, so you need moral vigilance to choose to see them, however depressing or guilt-inducing they may be.

At parties for our preschooler’s classmates, we chat with other parents. They are all successful and creative, and we enjoy their company. They make decent salaries as scientists, professors, and doctors. “I’ve got to make more money,” one researcher lamented to me at the last party. He said it with the easygoing assumption of shared interest and collusion with which you talk about local weather or sports teams. He leaned closer to me, conspiratorially. I laughed quietly with him, producing the response that he wanted and expected. But it was not a true response anymore. I rolled my eyes at the frustration of the high costs of tuition and property taxes in this city. The conversation can resume. We are in the same boat, and that seems better. Some relationships do not easily survive good fortune.

After spending a shallow youth aspiring to appear more wealthy than I was, I am spending a luxurious middle age aspiring to appear more middle class than I am. Message: I Care.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Pamela Haag is the author of Marriage Confidential, The Gunning of America, and most recently, Revise.


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