Thursday, March 01, 2018
Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman
Have you heard of or read Hillbilly Ellegy by J.D. Vance? Did you know there is a book about the other side of the coin? Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street gives you a chance to balance the lives of Vance’s drug ridden coal miner community with the trials and tribulations facing a group of New York City Wall Street millionaires.
Sherman surveyed about fifty pairs of Gotham high flyers (stock brokers, hedge fund magnates, real estate moguls, etc.). The group was leavened with a few gay couples and some people of color. Most were in their forties and had children. They were all making ample six figure incomes and several had fortunes that were amplified by inherited wealth. None were going to challenge Bill Gates, but they were definitely in the upper two per cent of incomes in the country. According to Sherman, the high flyers were culturally aware, politically liberal, and not all that religious, which already positions them about as far from the denizens pictured in Vance’s book as they can get.
Not surprisingly none of Sherman’s sample admitted to making a budget much less having to live within one. There was no worry about having enough at the end of the month to pay the nanny or tip the doorman at their fifth avenue abode. Somewhat surprising though was that most of them reported worrying to some degree about money. For instance several had tensions about making sure that they kept their costs reasonable for their situation in life. Frequently their concerns centered on their efforts to be seen as average or normal rather than rich and privileged. The group was pretty universally opposed to conspicuous consumption. They felt that Kardashian style lives made hard working rich folks look bad and they had no taste for that.
These millionaire’s stated goal often, said Sherman, was to present themselves as morally worthy of their wealth. In pursuing this worthiness most felt that it was better to have worked for at least some of your wealth rather than inheriting it. Most of the subjects with inherited fortunes did feel some guilt about how they got their money. That group were also among the subjects particularly ready to emphasize their interest in giving back to society through high profile charitable donations and volunteer work.
Sherman isolated two main reasons used by her interviewees to justify (or if you are cynical) to rationalize their entitled states. The moderately rich (say lower six figure salaries and assets below five million) seem to look back or down-class more. They emphasize they have worked their way up and now can fairly characterize themselves as at the top of the middle class rather than at the bottom of the really rich class. Interestingly, the really rich (upper six figure to million dollar salaries and ten plus million in assets) tend to look upward more often. They talk about the large numbers of people (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett et.al.) who have lots more money than they do. This helps them to position themselves again as more average within the middling rich rather than the rarified realm of the super-rich. The problem is that both groups tend to overestimate the number of people in the classes above them and underestimate the number of people in the classes below them.
Most of the surveyed group had children and they were very concerned with how to make their kids see themselves as generally good normal people and not privileged. As one person put it she didn’t want her kids developing “into assholes.” Unfortunately this is a really tough sell as privilege defines almost every experience these children and their parents have. They live in bigger houses, reside in better neighborhoods, go to more prestigious schools, take more expensive vacations, and associate more with other wealthy parents and their children. It is nice that most of the parents do seem to realize that the best they can do is to teach their children a bit about how not to act entitled even though they are. Their attitude seems to be that since you can’t erase the privilege you should at least try not to advertise it and make attempts to live with it positively.
In sum we must see that this group of wealthy New Yorkers, while they strive to locate themselves somewhere in the morally respectable and comfortable middle, are often managing to forget that they are still better off than 99% of their fellow citizens. They and their fellows fall victim to the fallacy of interpreting a structural problem as an individual or personal problem. The data remains clear and demonstrable. Unequal distribution of resources is a reality and the gap is increasing not closing. Today’s millionaires are the beneficiaries of that structural reality not just a group of average lucky folks who struggled and managed to beat the system.