At a time when poverty is soaring, unemployment hovers grimly above 9 percent and growing numbers of Americans suffer from “food insecurity” — the official euphemism for hunger — this concern may seem a tad esoteric. At a time when executive compensation is reaching dizzying new levels and the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing as fast as the federal deficit, it may even seem a little perverse.
But even beyond the taxes-and-deficits debate, in which wealthy Americans have been routinely characterized as yacht owners and corporate-jet fliers, the rich have indeed suffered a few blows to their self-esteem. Last year’s film “The Social Network” was unflattering to exemplars of both new and old wealth, and now two new television series are being hyped by some in the media as incitements to class warfare. In “2 Broke Girls,” a couple of young women struggle to survive — not as runway models or high-maintenance housewives but, shockingly enough, as waitresses. And Time magazine titillatingly describes ABC’s “Revenge,” set in the Hamptons, as “a target-rich environment of polo players and stock traders” in which a young woman stalks the singularly overprivileged people who, years earlier, ruined her father. No less a social commentator than “Revenge” star Madeleine Stowe has observed that “we’re dealing in a particular time right now in American history where I think the average American is going to want to see a takedown of the rich.”
You would never guess from all the talk of demonization that the rich enjoy perhaps the strongest PR machine on the planet, far beyond their entourages of agents, publicists and assorted image-makers. The mainstream media, for example, are not owned by collectives of busboys and taxi drivers, and even the “liberal” outlets among them are not pitched toward the impecunious. They may snicker when the occasional hedge fund manager is brought to justice, but they’ve been equally snarky about populist actions against the rich, such as the ongoing occupation of Wall Street, which is newsworthy if only for the levels of brutality it’s elicited from the NYPD. Or did you know that the Transportation Security Administration just won union representation this summer? Probably not, because that’s “labor news,” which has been all but supplanted by “business news.”
In fact, if you keep your ears open, you can hear the praises of the rich ringing out almost everywhere. Evangelical Christianity, for example, once harbored an ancient biblical bias in favor of the poor, but now, at least in its high-profile megachurch manifestations, it has abandoned the book of Matthew for a “prosperity gospel” that counts wealth as a mark of God’s favor.
Nor should we forget those secular evangelists in the motivation industry who have advocated selflessly for the rich for years, as in these instructions from the 2005 bestseller “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind”: “Place your hand on your heart and say . . . ‘I admire rich people!’ ‘I bless rich people!’ ‘I love rich people!’ ‘And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!’ ”
To the extent that any demonization is going on, one can’t help thinking that the rich have been, perhaps inadvertently, asking for it. For a year or two after the financial crash, relative modesty reigned; sales of private jets fell, and the luxury-goods market declined. The rich shunned shopping bags bearing tell-tale brand names such as Hermes or took up “stealth shopping” — buying online or meeting furtively to consume in hotel suites and private showrooms.
But in the past year or so, the richest among us have been embarked on a fresh orgy of spending that would make Nero qualify as a contributor to Real Simple. Women’s Wear Daily finds that the word “luxury” no longer suffices to describe the escalating tastes of the wealthy, so in August the magazine invented a new term — “hyper luxury.” Some current examples: the Louboutin boots that Saks sells for $2,495 a pair, or the limited-edition Prada crocodile handbag that goes for $41,000, which is not far from the median annual U.S. family income — and it’s not even pre-stuffed with cash. In general, the luxury-goods market is booming, while, at the other end of the class spectrum, so are dollar stores.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s latest vacation home — 11,062 square feet of oceanfront in La Jolla, Calif. — would be an example of old-fashioned luxury. Meanwhile, “hyper luxury” is represented by the 123-room Los Angeles mansion just purchased by 22-year-old British heiress Petra Ecclestone, which might be able to comfortably house about 50 homeless families while leaving plenty of room for its owner, should she care to remain on the premises. The term probably also applies to the new vogue of high-end children’s playhouses, one of which sells for $248,000. As one leading purveyor of such air-conditioned toys put it, “A special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better.”
The oddest thing, given the specter of demonization, is that, at the moment at least, the ultra-rich aren’t the slightest bit reticent about their out-of-control spending habits. When Ecclestone bought her mansion, she cheerfully gave interviews explaining that “my family from London will be coming to visit, so I need loads of space,” though her immediate family members number in the low single digits. Or on a somewhat less ultra scale, consider a recent complaint from Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) that, if a new tax on millionaires is passed, he will have only $400,000 left annually after he feeds his family. When his MSNBC interviewer pointed out that his might not be “exactly a sympathetic position,” Fleming shot back with a charge of “class warfare.”
Flaunting is fashionable again, even when it flouts common sense. The Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer is selling a diamond-accented, gold- or titanium-covered smartphone for $6,700, although it’s technologically less capable than a Samsung for about 2 percent of that price. Or for excess on a scale beyond wretched, consider Daphne Guinness, profiled at length in this past week’s New Yorker, who is apparently best known for wearing clothes, which she draws from a wardrobe of 2,500 garments, 450 pairs of shoes and 200 handbags. On the day she was interviewed, she wore a high-collared, presumably bespoke shirt by uber-designer Alexander McQueen, “a pave diamond brooch,” silver sheaths on two of her fingers and “custom-made sparkly silver Mary Janes, with a three inch platform under the toe” — not the heel, the toe. Well, to each her own, but she might as well walk around Manhattan wearing a sign saying “My husband stole your pension.”
Eric Dezenhall, a Washington-based crisis-management consultant whose clients have included many chief executives and celebrities, thinks the super-rich ought to be a little more circumspect about their displays. He cites a “gazillionaire” who came to him for advice after running his company into the ground. “I had one question for him,” Dezenhall told me: “Is your house visible from the street?” It had never occurred to this gazillionaire that his mansion could be a target for picketers. Why not? “Because the super-rich live in a bubble,” Dezenhall said. “They’re concerned about what a small circle of peers think of them, like the guys they play golf with, but nobody else.”
One solution would be for the super-rich to undergo intensive coaching in how to conduct themselves in our upstairs-downstairs, “hourglass” society: how to dress inconspicuously for the street, for example, or communicate with a valet parking attendant. Millions of Americans stand ready, for a nominal fee, to provide lessons in these and other daunting skills, such as how to purchase a bus ticket, should the need, God forbid, ever arise.
Already, a few of the politicians most sympathetic to the wealthy “job creators” seem to be getting some tips, however ham-handed, on how to proletarianize their images. Romney tweets his dining experiences at Carl’s Jr. and Subway. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) boasts, Palin-style, of butchering his own deer. And no one can call Rick Perry’s morning jogs an effete yuppie practice, since he runs with a laser-guided pistol tucked into his belt, the better to ward off coyotes.
The alternative would be for our multi-millionaire class to confront their demonization at its root, which, as the Bible suggests, is money. They could join Warren Buffett and hundreds of other super-high earners in supporting increased taxes for the rich, or at least taxes as high as they were before the Bush tax cuts. It should feel good, even cathartic, to say, “Aw shucks, I’d like to pitch in — not just to help my country in its time of need — but because I’m darned if I know what to do with all this money.”
Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent books are “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” and “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.”
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