Stop being so mean to rich people!
It’s not that greed is, for lack of a better word, good. I know lots of better words. Beneficial. Swell. Okay. Beamish. Perhaps not that last one. But you get the idea. Greed may well be bad, and I have lots of words to say so.
But time was, we idolized the rich — idle and otherwise. You spent a long apprenticeship mastering the art of acquiring money, and parents pointed admiringly at your limousine as you drove by and admonished their sons to do likewise. Horatio Alger wrote novels about you. Or, if you were from Old Money, F. Scott Fitzgerald did.
Now something’s turned. Being rich is out. Even the rich no longer aspire to be rich. They aspire to be cheap. Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, both of whom are adequately moneyed to be anonymous on yachts somewhere, instead flung themselves into reality television and reality, er, tapes.
Money no longer commands respect. There’s something suspect about the rich.
In fact, rich people, according to several studies conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto, are jerks. They’re entitled. They cheat. They’d take candy from babies. Watch any film featuring rich people, read any Fitzgerald novel, and you’d glean the same information. But now there’s science behind it.
I think it’s time someone spoke up for the rich. In spite of what the Supreme Court says, their money is clearly not speaking loudly enough.
There was a time when they did nice things. Carnegie gave us libraries. Sure, these days libraries are places where smelly, bearded men use the public computers to maintain their UFO conspiracy Web sites, but I think our parents liked them. “The only thing better than a book is a book covered in plastic that you must ask a matronly woman for permission to read,” they muttered to themselves.
The rich have given us great gifts, if by us you mean, I guess, museums?”
Without rich people, the makers of yachts would have to turn to Groupon to generate business. Without rich people, the people who produce those Bewildering Forks of Varying Sizes would be destitute. Without rich people, who would donate to super PACs?
Rich people have it hard.
The only era when people said exclusively nice things about the extremely rich was, I think, during Medieval times, when the alternative was being dropped into an oubliette or being given extra plague.
Other than that, they can’t catch a break.
During the Jazz Age, everyone was rolling in money because no one fully grasped the concept of bubbles, and people still weren’t nice to rich people. Fitzgerald called them careless. Perfectly nice people named Jay Gatz suddenly turned into hardened, bootlegging criminals who spelled their names oddly and fixated on green lights.
“If you want to know what God thinks of money,” Dorothy Parker used to say, “just look at the people He gave it to.”
But having money is not as easy as it looks. You have to learn just the right inflection with which to say, “Yes, aren’t they” after someone says, “The peasants are revolting.” You have to figure out how to pull off jodhpurs. You have to become interested in fox-hunting.
And then when you get all that down, life closes its doors to you.
If you’re rich, just try running for president. Try! You can donate to all the super PACs you want, just as Sheldon Adelson has done. But just you try running, and everyone throws everything in your face. Poor Mitt Romney gets his wife a couple of Cadillacs, and suddenly he’s a pariah being nearly beaten by a man in a sweater vest.
You can’t even complain. Look at Warren Buffett — generally beloved, in spite of his vast heaps of gold. He wrote an op-ed to the New York Times complaining that he had too much, well, money. Now there’s a Warren Buffett Haters Club.
Calumniating the rich is becoming something of a national pastime. Even the Muppets did it. And now the haters have scientific proof.
Of course, the studies weren’t unanimous and conclusive. They found that drivers of expensive cars are more likely to cut you off in intersections in California. I could have told you that. People with higher socioeconomic statuses (or people who had been primed to think positive thoughts about greed, which is rather different) are more likely to cheat at games of dice and withhold information in negotiations.
But the part of the study that really attracted attention had participants being asked to pretend that they were of high socioeconomic status. Those participants took candy from children!
So the studies are to be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, the fact that the studies have gotten such traction emphasizes a modern trend: active disdain for the rich. There must be something fundamentally seedy about them, or they wouldn’t have our money.
An American always views himself not as a member of some downtrodden underclass but as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. We don’t have classes here. We have the working people who are going to get theirs eventually, and we have the working people who got theirs already. We bank on that. That’s why we took that candy.
When we’re rich we, too, will cheat at dice, drive too fast in our Rolls Royces, take the babies’ candy. We’ll have earned it.
Unless, of course, we never get there.
The one notable facet of the results was, as some have noted, that the objectionable traits of the rich aren’t the consequences of money itself but of the habit of having money. It’s the same carelessness of consequence with other people’s lives and automobiles that Fitzgerald saw nearly a century ago.
That distinction is what frightens us.
The thought that for decades our money has been off without us fraternizing with people who wear shorts with whales on them is too much for us to bear. People shouldn’t just be rich. They need to Horatio Alger their way up. The United States is a nation built on the notion that If We Aren’t Rich Now, We Will Be Soon — and if you don’t believe me, ask any of the GOP candidates. Why tax the rich? We’re just making things harder for ourselves later, when we invent that revolutionary can opener. The only difference between the rich and ourselves is that they have more money.
Of course, if you offered us that money, we’d say — for lack of a better word — yes. But no one seems to be offering it to us. So in the mean time, we hate the rich.