Friday, October 14, 2011

Trustafarian self-hatred

Are you by any chance trying to summarize your dissertation for several audiences, in several different formats, and finding yourself taking "breaks" to do reading for your dissertation, which seems like great, carefree fun by comparison? Looking for something genuinely procrastinatory? Look no further. Occupy Wall Street is not just the 99%. The 1% have, as the Daily Mail sneered, joined in. Via two different Facebookers' links, one endorsing it, one half-mocking.

My impressions:

-Of course it's possible to protest in solidarity against an injustice from which you, personally, benefit. Men can be feminists, whites anti-racists, straights for same-sex marriage (from which straights don't lose, precisely, except insofar as heterosexual privilege is diminished). But something feels off about the approach. Is it that the signs look an awful lot like beggars' signs, even if they're ostensibly the kind of sign one would hold up at a protest? That this, combined with street-urchin-chic, makes it seem like it's about rich kids playing at poor, even if that's not what's going on? Maybe someone behind the scenes could have instructed them to dress up for these photos, like when they do the interview segments on the "Real Housewives" and all of a sudden every woman is all modern-day Marie Antoinette'd-out.

-I'm somewhat more convinced by the self-maders asking to be taxed more than by those who were born into wealth, buy their clothes at thrift stores, have no idea what it's like to actually need money (and not even just in the poverty sense, also in the more quotidian I-must-work-or-else-no-income one), and feel ashamed at the unfairness of life, from which they've passively benefitted. The adage (is it indeed an adage?) about how people who say they don't care about money have always had it by the bucket-full makes it hard to care what children of immense financial privilege think about the possibility of higher taxes. Are they even aware that they pay taxes? Aren't teams of money-managers and accountants handling this for them?

-There's also something about the whole thing that reminds me very much of the nine years I spent at private school. There was, first off, the sense of relative poverty (Grew up solidly upper-middle-class? You probably did not find $3 million waiting for you when you turned 21. Or 22...), but this, whatever.  It's more that the super-rich have - as I remember from elementary and middle school, and as this reminds - a tendency to think of everything other than their own situations as tragic. Anyone who's ever had money concerns at all, which is to say anyone who works for a living, might as well be presented by a teary Sally Struthers. This tendency might look like a harsh critique of capitalism, but it's not that. It's more like a failure to understand that while there is such a thing as dire poverty, people who are merely not rich are not crying themselves to sleep about it every night. The middle classes might not be as robust as they once were, but there are Americans outside the 1% who do indeed have health insurance. (Often crappy health insurance, but anyway.) Sometimes people who are not millionaires even do things like buy tinted moisturizer at Sephora only to bring it home and not know quite what to do with it.

-There's quite a bit of confidence among these 1%ers that they will never be anything but comfortable. But don't trust-funds get blown through all the time? Or is it just that kids with trust-funds who favor pre-owned flannel, not new cars and cocaine, don't make a dent in their piles of cash, no matter how many backpacking trips they take, how many hostels per city? And aren't there offspring of wealthy parents out there whose parents would possibly help them out in an emergency, but who past some age (18, college graduation) are on their own? Are they still "1%" because of having attended only expensive schools, having had tutors, having lived in nice neighborhoods, etc.? Am I just incredibly naive, and massively underestimating the amount of family money floating around?

-I guess it's admirable that these 1%ers are not doing what I half-suspect I'd do if I found myself with a few mil to toss around, which is going to Paris without grad school paying for any of it, buying an apartment next to the Boulanger des Invalides, and using whatever was left over on pastries, books, and Bichons.


PG said...

If you're living the real backpacker lifestyle in crappy hostels, I'd estimate that you could circumnavigate the globe annually for $10,000/year ($5000 for transport, $5000 for living expenses). Divide that into what the average Manhattan 1-bedroom sells for ($1mil) and you could travel for 100 years. So yeah, as someone once said, in order to blow through lottery-levels of money you need to start buying big things (homes, cars, boats), develop an addiction, or give a lot of it away (through charity or child/ex-spouse support). Just having fairly normal experiences, even if you have them a lot, won't do it.

As for your concept of how much money is floating around, by definition the top 1% in a country of 300mil is 3 million people. Somewhere between the 236,883 taxpayers who earned more than $1mil in 2009, and 3 million people mostly of whom are what you'd perceive as UMC or LUC, is a count of the number of people who can afford to give each child even $200k in resources as an adult (all-expenses private higher education, down payment on the first home).

I'd guess there's fewer trust funds out there where the beneficiaries can do whatever they'd like with the money (though of course trust funds are mostly a tax-avoidance mechanism and not an intrinsic indication of wealth), than there are families where parents decide what they want to spend money on. (There's a middle point in this too: the trust fund with a trustee who's unwilling to dispense money or who's bound by narrow conditions on what the money can go to; the trusts/estates and wills section of bar review is full of ridiculous cases.) My parents have been really generous with anything related to education, but the most money they ever spent "on" me was for my wedding, and I really could've done without it. No doubt somewhere there's a person who feels the same way about parents who would fund his life for another three years so long as he went to law school. And another person who's clocking in 9-5 at a family business where he's a figurehead on a fat salary. Etc. etc.

Money is a means of control and most people who have it aren't inclined to say, "Here, have some, no strings!" Which I find completely understandable, but then I also believe in the in-kind benefits welfare system rather than a guaranteed income (despite the latter periodically getting support from conservatives). I don't want my money, whether it goes to offspring or unrelated poor people, to be spent on things of which I disapprove, so Bloomberg's proposed ban on using food stamps for soda strikes me as entirely sensible. Also, I'm pretty sure the conservative long game on supporting a guaranteed income program to replace traditional welfare would be to rack up enough people spending the money on Bad Stuff that they could finally get rid of all welfare entirely.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I've lost you at the end of your comment, so I'll address what I can.

Most of this I agree with, but I think you're looking at some of these things a bit too literally - math doesn't get at who's identifying as "1%" and I suspect, from that site, that some posting are more like "15%" or "35%" but confused about the exercise. Or maybe not confused - I think the point is to "own" unearned privilege, something plenty can do whose families are nothing close to "1%". And in terms of multiplying to get at what backpacking costs, if every single thing you do is the expensive version (small purchases, large purchases, haircuts, shoes, groceries, bars), even if you're not addicted to anything or buying anything massively flashy, the result of not thinking about what one's spending seems like it could easily enough blow through a lot.

But I definitely agree re: money as strings. Without even pointing to anything all that concrete (parents who will pay for A but not B), there's something not entirely wonderful about not paying/borrowing your own way through college. It's privilege... with strings. Whether your parents are paying for some or all of your post-18 education, it means you're effectively still a child. For kids who didn't care what their parents thought of what they did at 15, this isn't a problem, but for those who cared then, they keep on caring, which leads to some not-so-healthy situations. That whole thing where your parents advice becomes internalized, yet you make your own decisions, gets thrown out of whack. Then think of situations where the "kid" isn't 18 or 22 but 30.

Basically, then, I don't see this as something generalizable to social-welfare programs, and more as a question of "emerging adulthood" or Young People Today. Is it better for a 30-year-old to have family money plus strings, or for the parents to donate what they have no use for to the charity of their choice, and for family money not to be an issue?

PG said...


The last para was meant to situate my general views on paternalism and money. A lot of liberals are uncomfortable with the possible infantilization that comes from strings on benefits, and I was trying to make clear that I'm not one of them.

I don't think parents who spend this stringed money on their kids see it as charity, and so I doubt they'd substitute toward charitable giving if the kid refused the money. The kind of people who do that are strongly invested in the view of their children as some reflection of themselves and of course are emotionally concerned about their kids' well-bring.

Plus the parents also can be conscious of privilege; when I was in high school, my dad told me not to apply for any awards that came with money for college (as opposed to just prestige) because I had parents willing to pay my way but my potential rivals for such awards probably didn't. Since he scraped his way through school in India entirely on scholarships because his family was actual developing-country-level poor, he felt that scholarships should go to those with both merit and need. But when my sister insisted on funding her own MBA via scholarship, he didn't donate an equivalent sum to charity.

I don't think most of these parents have a line in their heads where before 18, money spent on one's offspring is like money spent on oneself and after 18 it's charity for an adult.

elizabeth said...

If I was part of the 1%, I'd be right there in Paris with you. Or maybe Sicily ...