Jewish World Review July 27, 1999 /14 Av, 5759
On the other hand, there's me. Suddenly, a considerable number of friends, relatives, and business acquaintances have become rich, while I remain stubbornly poor. A long-time believer in the virtues of [ital.] pense a droit, vivre a gauche[ital.], I feel fine about it. No envy, no anguish. Perhaps I have something to say to America.
Why does other people's money cause such a frenzy? It needn't. Socialists have been complaining for over a century that Americans lack an appetite for envy. See a rich man? We instinctively think not that he has stolen what is ours, but that we might be rich too. One of my newly rich friends, who emigrated from Europe as an adult, told me that he worried about the financial disclosures he would have to make in his IPO about his company's huge profit margins. "If we were in the old country, and my customers learned how much money I was making from them, they'd have strung me up." Here, his customers merely congratulated him and tried to get hold of a few shares.
But wealth has been more unashamed lately. It was not so long ago that you would no more call someone rich than call someone a Jew. Both conditions called for a certain euphemistic softening-Jewish or of the Hebrew persuasion; or comfortable, wealthy, and well-to-do. In my Chicago neighborhood our marooned New Englanders with inherited wealth had the shabbiest clothes, the most beaten-up cars, the most blistered paint on their houses. The older generation, seared by the Depression, was nervous, partly out of taste, partly out of superstition, about displays of wealth. My mother carefully explained to me that our Black South Side neighbors' liking for vividly-colored new Cadillacs didn't meant that they were rich or show-offs-merely that they couldn't buy nice houses in white neighborhoods, and spent on cars in compensation.
Then came the late 1960s, with its two utterly conflicting imperatives: unfettered self-display, and the radicals' affectation of poverty in solidarity with the working class. The two great waves washed against each other constantly. I attended the most expensive college in the country, and you you've never seen such a collection of drab, exotic automotive wrecks as the Bennington College student parking lot had on view in 1969 (a year when you could still buy a new car with what you made on a summer job). We boomers graduated into the grim economy of the 1970s. You could do something idealistic like teach and make about $10,000 a year, or you could do something selfish and get a job on Wall Street and make about $10,000 a year, or do something glamorous in the media and get a publishing job for about $10,000 a year.
Then the 1980s--ten years ago a diarist in The New Republic marveled that many Washington journalist couples pulled down over $100,000 a year together. And now it's the 1990s, and readers of Kurt Andersen's amusing new novel are saying of the protagonist couple, who take home over $16,000 a month, "hey, that's not so much."
I say that too. And this leads me to my first piece of advice: affect solidarity with those richer than you. Understand them, care for them, make their concerns your own. It makes no difference to them, but it will help heal your soul. You can't share your friends' money, but you can share imaginatively their troubles.
There are people who have gotten important money simply by buying a house in the 1970s and hanging on to it. To you who agonize about having missed that tide, I say this. Calvin may be wrong about your being predestined to be one of the elect or more likely of the reprobate (though his theology is precise and superb, and were I a Christian I'd be worried). But I do know that some of us are predestined effortlessly to make money in real estate and others are not. And there's nothing you can do to move from one predestined category to another. Remember that anyone who sells a house now has to buy another one at the same high value. It's not real money. It's not something you can count on-not like an unlimited weekly Metrocard, which actually increases in value the more frequently you use it.
But of course, the new Internet wealth is something else again, and it is this kind of money that is causing so many journalists so much anguish. Here is how I suggest you deal with it.
Treasure its precariousness. Michael Wolff recorded a roundtable discussion among Silicon Alley types who had garnered 10s, 20s and 100s of millions in IPOs. Their anxiety was palpable. Not one of them believed that their stock was worth anything like what price the public paid for it. Nor should you. In fact, there is not much reason for any of these companies to exist-they all do pretty much the same thing, to sell stuff to you. But the amount of stuff you can buy is pretty finite. Remember all the boring hype about how Amazon revolutionized bookselling in 1998? It's transpired that consumers bought considerably fewer books than the year before.
Remember that many of the revenues that Internet companies show are the result simply of passing round the capitalization of one company to another, in a big share-the-investors'-wealth scheme.
When it all comes to an end, be ready with tea and sympathy. Be ready to
listen to reminiscences of wealth (having followed my advice now you can
pretend to have been rich too). Remember the sight of aeronautical
engineers in the 70s and mini-computer engineers in the 80s driving cabs to
make their mortgage payments. And think how much bigger mortgage payments
are today. Really-who can afford to be
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.
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