My “Being Poor” piece is has been getting a workout the last couple of days, because people were linking to it in response to a blog post by Todd Henderson, a law professor at the University of Chicago. Professor Henderson was kvetching about the possibility of Obama raising his taxes (or more accurately, Obama allowing the Bush era tax reductions to sunset) when he was just scraping by on a household income high enough for the president to have an interest in letting his tax cut expire — i.e., above $250,000, which puts his household in the top 1.5% or so of all income earners.
Henderson’s lament has since been taken down from its original blog — he appears to have been hurt and confused as to why so many commenters and other bloggers had a distinct lack of sympathy for him as he laid out how the change in the tax regime would affect his gardener and nanny and his childrens’ private schools — but economist Brad De Long rescued the piece from Google Cache, and you can see it here. De Long unsurprisingly also has some pungent thoughts on Henderson’s predicament elsewhere on his blog.
It’s pretty clear that Henderson either forgot or didn’t know that the problems of the well-off tend to be less than impressive to people whose own problems are not so nearly high-toned. Yes, it’s awful that you may have to cut back on your gardener and your housecleaner and your nanny, but do please understand that in airing such a lament, you establish that in fact you have a gardener, housecleaner and nanny. Which is an enviable trifecta of domestic hands on deck, to be sure. Such a loadout largely disqualifies you from sympathy from those who do without. Which is most people, many of whom would like to have a job right now, and a side order of health insurance to go along with it.
Or to put it another way, while an Ivy League graduate currently employed as a law professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world has a perfect right to complain in public about how he and his equally gainfully-employed medical doctor wife might have to make adjustments to their wholly enviable professional lifestyle because their top marginal tax rate might go up a couple of percentage points, he really ought to have the good sense not to. You end up looking foolish on the Internet when you do. Which Professor Henderson now appears to realize, and has at least temporarily excused himself from the Internet because of it.
Professor Henderson may have been foolish to write what he did, but in fairness I don’t believe he deserved to be bludgeoned with my Being Poor piece in response. When he was kvetching about scraping by, he wasn’t suggesting that he was in any way poor — not he, with his gardener and housecleaner and nanny and private schools. It’s the wrong tool to employ against him, and I feel reasonably qualified to say so. Professor Henderson’s lament isn’t saying that he’s poor, or even feels poor. His lament is that he isn’t rich, and certainly doesn’t feel like he’s rich, what with his debts and owes — which aside from his domestic help, also more seriously include the massive school loans that come with law and medical degrees, and a mortgage which Professor Henderson implies but does not say is currently underwater. Not being (or feeling) rich is an entirely different thing than being poor, and I don’t think it serves anyone well to confuse the two states.
Now, if you are part of the rabble who populates the lower 98.5% of American income brackets, you may ask: is it really possible to be in the top 1.5% of income earners in the United States and not realize you’re rich by most objective standards? Sure, as long as two things are in play: First, that your picture of “rich” is predicated on how billionaires live and act; second, that your financial outlays come reasonably close to your financial intake. So in the first case, if your mental image of being rich includes helicopters and supermodels at your beck and call, in equal and staggering amounts, then making a quarter of a million a year looks rather more like an “average” or “middle-class” income, even when it is manifestly not. When rich folk say they feel middle-class, they’re not (always) being disingenuous, it’s just their way of saying “I don’t own a castle on an island.”
Likewise, if you make a quarter of a million a year but send out most of it paying for things, then asking yourself “wait, I’m supposed to be rich, here?” doesn’t seem horribly unreasonable. When one is poor, the problem you have with money is not having any. When one is well-off, the problem you have with money is managing it. When you have more money, you do more things with it, and that means more opportunities for it to get away from you if you’re not paying attention. This is a high-class problem to have, mind you, and generally speaking it’s not going to generate a large gout of sympathy from anyone else, especially those with little money to manage. But it’s still a problem, especially when it’s your problem.
But it is your problem, and it doesn’t mean you’re not well off, or even rich by many relevant real-world standards. Because, my dear 1.5% folks: you so very are. The median household income in the US is about $46,000 a year. If your household is bringing in five times that on an annual basis, you certainly have the potential to be doing reasonably well anywhere in the United States — even in Chicago, and even in Hyde Park — provided you have some sense about how you allocate your income and resources. And as regards the very-likely-soon-to-be-sunset Bush tax cut, if shaving off an extra couple of percent off your income above $250,000 will send your family into a dark spiral of money woes, you have other issues which you should address. Taxes are not your biggest problem in that case. Accountants are your friends.
So what have we learned today?
1. Don’t complain to the Internets about trying to get by on $250,000 a year;
2. Being poor and not feeling rich are not the same thing, don’t confuse the two;
3. Even well-off people can have money woes;
4. With great income comes great (financial management) responsibilities.
There, we’re done for the day! Let’s go get some pie.