I don’t want to presume to lecture those above my station, but I humbly offer a word of advice to rich people across North America and around the world: If a reporter calls and asks you to explain your money problems, follow this two step emergency process: 1. Hang. 2. Up.
I know that you have money problems. Virtually everyone has money problems. And I know, furthermore, that when you take a step back, you may be a bit surprised to find that you have money problems since, when you were younger, you thought $500,000 a year would mean that, like Scrooge McDuck, entire rooms of your mansion would be like bouncy castles of excess cash for you to romp in when you’d had a tough day picking out diamond-encrusted uniforms for your household staff to wear. And yet now that you earn that much, you find that a decent lifestyle similar to the ones all your friends seem to lead (a lifestyle conspicuously lacking private jets) leaves you… in debt. And I further understand that if, like those who made the mistake of sharing their pain with Bloomberg reporter Max Abelson recently, you have had your income dramatically cut, then the pressure to pay the bills starts to seem suffocating. I get it.
I am not in your income bracket, but even my limited experience of upward mobility gives me material to empathize: Just over a decade ago, I was working very hard and earning very little money. Less than today’s minimum wage. At that point, I actually thought to myself, many times, that if I could earn as much as $40,000 per year, my money troubles would be behind me. I did not delude myself into thinking that level of income would make me wealthy, but when I looked at how I was surviving on paycheques that could easily be blown during a single ill-considered trip to the Dollarama, I figured $800 a week would make me as comfortable as I’d ever really need to be.
I’m sure you know where this goes. I earn significantly more than that fantasy income now. But with a house and three kids and car insurance and everything, I have found that my idea of what a comfortable income looks like has more than doubled or tripled. And when I now check those average income numbers and see that I earn more than a very significant percentage of people, more than most people even, I am surprised. I have holes in my shoes. I have no idea how my roof is going to get replaced. I do not feel like I am affluent, or even middle class. I feel broke much of the time.
And I can imagine that, if I were to join you a few notches up the income ladder, my perspective would shift in much the same way. So I get it: You may be, objectively speaking, stinking rich, but you do not feel rich. The secret of this whole capitalist-consumerist striving game seems to be that rich is a destination at which you never arrive, a promised-land state that’s always a tax bracket or two out of reach. Woe is us, the somewhat-comfortable-to-fairly-affluent, still living paycheque to paycheque.
But as Bert Archer recently put it in the Toronto Standard, “the fact that once rich people spend most of their money, they don’t have much left” doesn’t mean they’re exactly like the 99 per cent. “In mathematical terms, that’s like saying 1,000-950=50; 100-50=50, therefore 1,000=100.”
Here’s the thing. These money problems I have, and those problems you have? These are good problems to have. When I say I don’t know how I’m going to replace the roof on my house, there’s a built-in feature creating that bug: I have a house, with a roof on it. When you, Andrew Schiff, worry about how you’re going to afford the summer home this year after you pay your kid’s private-school tuition, you’re juggling two really, really desireable lifestyle choices there. When you, Craig Haynes, worry that there’s nothing left after you’ve paid for your heavy tax burden and your $800 a month worth of wine and $1,000 a month worth of clothes, you’ve got a cellar full of wine to sip while you ponder that dilemma in your fancy new clothes.
Meanwhile, there are people lining up in food banks for tins of green beans because they have nothing to eat. There are people who are deciding between buying lunch for their children and buying a bus token to get to work. There’s some lady in Connecticut who lied about her son’s address (because she was homeless) so he could go to kindergarden and now she’s getting 12 years in jail for it. That is a real problem. Have a little perspective, you know?
It’s one of those twists of life that the things you consider suffocating stresses are things I aspire to. And the problems I have look like sweet success to some of my neighbours. And the problems some of my neighbours have look like luxuries to people who live in less developed countries. That is the magic hand of the self-pity economy at work.
So but the point here is: Contra Biggie, mo money ≠ mo problems. It equals better problems. That doesn’t mean they aren’t problems at all. But still, no one wants to hear you whine about it.
That’s a lie. They do want to hear you whine about it, but not because they feel an ounce of sympathy for you. It’s because they want to get their rage up so they can spew venom on you and people like you: children of privilege so blinded by greed and avarice that they are unable to recognize how good they have it. People love hate-reading about you and the rest of the 1 per cent. See what they say on Twitter? See what they say on Gawker? See what they’re saying out there in the world? See how I’m hectoring you right now? We love this shit.
In fact, that’s pretty much the whole readership, as nearly as I can make out, for this kind of rich-people-complaining-about-their-money-problems story: us poor schmucks in the other 99 per cent of the population who like getting angry at entitled pricks we read about on the internet and taking the chance to vent about it. It distracts us from our constant worries about money. When a reporter calls you for a story about this, that is who he is writing it for, and that is why the choice details of your Porsche and summer home and the handbag that’s named after your neighbourhood make it into the story, so we know exactly how dreamy your problems look. You really do not want to be in a story like that, whining, inspiring people to join the Occupy movement.
Whatever your money problems, it’s a safe bet that anyone earning less than you will not read your sharing as a chance to bond over the universal nature of human misery. Instead, they will take it as evidence that you are an asshole. Now, you can figure out how large a portion of the audience that is by asking yourself not “how rich do I feel?” but, instead, “how relatively rich am I?” If you earn more than $150,000 or so, the portion of the population less wealthy than you is, rounding slightly, everyone. So when a reporter calls for your sob story, hang up. While you suffer in silence, you can console yourself with the thought that it could be worse. You could be as poor as virtually everyone else. It doesn’t make those huge expenses shrink, but at least it might help you enjoy the good life those expenditures are buying you.