The 1% of Problems
Today’s Thing About Rich People Appalling the Internet: “Wealth therapy tackles woes of the rich: ‘It’s really isolating to have lots of money,'” an article in the Guardian about therapists who help the rich deal with the apparent loneliness and isolation of having a shitload of money. Here’s one of the more choice quotes from the piece:
From the Bible to the Lannisters of Game of Thrones, it’s easy to argue that the rich have always been vilified, scorned and envied. But their counsellors argue things have only gotten worse since the financial crisis and the debate over income inequality that has been spurred on by movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for $15 fair wage campaign.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement was a good one and had some important things to say about income inequality, but it singled out the 1% and painted them globally as something negative. It’s an -ism,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, a wealth psychologist and founder of the Wealth Legacy Group. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but … it really is making value judgment about a particular group of people as a whole.”
The media, she said, is partly to blame for making the rich “feel like they need to hide or feel ashamed”.
Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy.
So, point one: Rich people do indeed have problems, and while their problems are problems that most people would like to have, because those problems don’t generally involve lack of money, it doesn’t mean they are not genuine, actual problems that cause stress and unhappiness. I think money can indeed be isolating and strange, especially if you have money and those around you do not; money is inherently powerful and changes power dynamics and how people perceive you. I think rich people also probably need to be able to talk to other people without judgment about their particular and unique set of problems, just like anyone needs to. Otherwise their loneliness and alienation will get worse. It’s difficult for many people to imagine a ton of money being a curse, but if you don’t know how to deal with what money does to you and other people, sure, it can be a curse.
Point two, holy fuck does this article quote absolutely clueless people. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but …” I mean, wow. This is the therapist-to-the-rich-people’s version of “I’m not saying it’s aliens… but it’s aliens,” especially since later in the article she directly makes a comparison by encouraging people to replace the word “rich” with “black” to see the problem with how she says people speak of the rich.
Here’s a handy pro tip for you: When describing the problems of the rich — who are, statistically speaking here in the US, a very white cohort; the 2010 Census has 96% of the 1% households being white — do not bring up in comparison, even to say that you’re not necessarily comparing them, the problems of people of color. Here’s what some of the problems of people of color are, wealth-wise:
The Great Recession, fueled by the crises in the housing and financial markets, was universally hard on the net worth of American families. But even as the economic recovery has begun to mend asset prices, not all households have benefited alike, and wealth inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines.
The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Likewise, the wealth of white households is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010.
So, yeah. This on top of every single other thing that people of color in the US have to deal with. One of the reasons the “replace ‘rich’ with ‘black'” formulation rings hollow is because no one who is not utterly delusional believes the average experience of a black person in the US and the average experience of a rich person in the US is anything alike, either in the day-to-day experience or in the power dynamic between those expressing the opinions and those on the receiving end.
Again, I’m sympathetic to the idea that the rich have their problems; everyone does. But I suspect that Ms. Traeger-Muney, whether she wants to own up to it or not, was trying in a sad and clumsy way to appropriate the dynamic of racial inequity to describe the absolutely entirely different dynamic of rich people problems, even while denying she was doing it. If you’re not necessarily comparing them, then don’t bring it up at all — it compromises your argument and makes you part of the problem. You help neither people of color nor the 1% by this formulation.
Point three: The media is making “the rich feel like they need to hide or be ashamed”? Really? Huh. She’s seeing different media than I’m seeing, at the very least. If you’re a horrid little shitlord like Martin Shkreli, who appears so cartoonish as a human being it’s amazing that he hasn’t actually been photographed diving into a pool of money, a la Scrooge McDuck, then yes, you may feel the media is trying to make you feel ashamed. But it’s not because Shkreli is rich. It’s because he appears by all indications to be a genuinely terrible person, and he appears enabled by money (and his control of it) to be a genuinely terrible person in ways that affect innocent others.
Indeed that’s the hallmark of what rich appear to be castigated in the media: they’re doing terrible or clueless things, often to other people, and use their money to further those ends, or use the money to insulate themselves from the consequences. Even the fictional very rich noted in article are like that. People don’t dislike the Lannisters in Game of Thrones because they’re rich. They dislike them because they’re a family of sadistic schemers who will absolutely cut off your head or have you gored by boars or whatever if you get in their joyless, unhappy way. The single good thing about the Lannisters is that they’re rich; they famously always pay their debts. It’s everything else about them that’s the problem.
So, yes. If you’re very rich and you’re acting like an asshole — using your money to rise prices on parasite-treating drugs or blocking access to a public beach near your house or trying to buy an election or shutting off electricity to grandmothers during a heatwave to make money on the margins or cutting off the head of the Hand of the King even though you agreed to spare him and let him take the black — people are going to not like you very much. People tend not to like assholes. This should not be a surprise.
More generally, the rich also have the circumstance of getting manifestly richer in an era in the US and the Western world in which literally everyone else is seeing their real incomes drop, sometimes by negligible amounts (in the upper heights of the middle class) and by more noticeable amounts the further down you go. Should this make the rich anxious? Probably, because if they’re decent human beings they will recognize the increasing inequity of wealth is no good for anyone in the long run, because it’s already giving rise to systematic problems that will take generations to correct. Should they be fearful? You know what, if the heads of the rich are not already on spikes after 2008, it seems unlikely they ever will be, so I’m gonna go with “no.”
In my observation of things, neither people nor the media seem to dislike people either becoming or being rich. I can speak to this a little bit personally: after my deal was announced earlier this year, I’d say 99% of the response to it, in the media and out of it, was “cool, well done” (1% was the usual people who dislike me continuing to dislike me, and, you know: HA HA HA sucks to be them). I know people who are worth substantially more than I am; there doesn’t seem to be a reflexive dislike of them, either. If anything, the media and people in general are tuned to like and admire wealth and those who have it. It’s that particularly American version of the Protestant Work Ethic which says that in the US there are two types of people: The rich and those who aren’t rich yet. You have to work hard (no pun intended) to make people dislike you when you are rich. It’s much easier — again, speaking from experience — for people to dislike you because you are poor.
So, yeah, no: I’m not inclined to believe the media is particularly hard on the rich.
Yet again, this is not say the rich don’t have problems, including alienation, loneliness and anxiousness. I’m sure many do, and I’m also sure that for many rich people having their wealth be their initial outwardly defining characteristic is not a happy one. It’s okay to have some sympathy for the rich. But it’s also okay to recognize that the problems of the rich are their own set of problems, often unlike the problems that most people have or, honestly, will ever have. They are the 1% of problems.