Horrors! The dilemma of being filthy rich
By Michael Lewis
Once again the rich have gotten richer in America and everyone else is moaning about it.
Or so says a recent Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll, which set out to examine American opinion of the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.
"The wages of middle class workers are stagnant," according to the article on the poll (yawn!) before it allowed a few middle-class Americans, chosen seemingly at random, to complain that the wages of the rich aren't equally stagnant. "We are creating have and have-not classes in this country," said Jane Huntley, a 77-year-old elementary school teacher from Brunswick, New York, for example.
Coming on the heels of news that Goldman Sachs Group Inc. plans to dish out $16.5 billion for employee pay — or roughly 625 grand for every Goldman man, woman and child — the poll put a fine point on a problem that, at the start of each holiday season, arises vaguely in the Wall Street mind: how to keep the middle class as far away from your bonus money as possible. How, in particular, to defend yourself and your money from the jealous and angry faction within the middle class that, come the holidays, is especially difficult to avoid: your extended family.
Herewith, a few handy rules:
Rule #1: Acknowledge that your family has become a distraction. Now that you have made some real money you can see your siblings, cousins, and in-laws in a clearer light. They seem somehow... poorer. Less relevant. Ill-designed for the modern American economy. For instance, their time is so cheap that they can apparently afford to spend it complaining to pollsters about your money.
Armed with this understanding — that the "issue" isn't that you have so much, but that they have so much less — you can move rapidly beyond the guilt you might otherwise feel, and attack a more serious problem: the hope in the hearts of all those related to you by blood or marriage that you intend to share your incredible new wealth with them.
Rule #2: Intend no such thing. Middle-class family members, like Third World countries, need to learn to produce goods and services, and trade honestly with their richer neighbors. The gift-giving season offers the perfect opportunity to send this bracing message. Resist the urge to impress family members with your purchasing power and instead give them only what they can afford to give you.
Rule #3: Don't fear your family's resentment. Work with it. Get used to it. After all, as the gap between rich and poor widens, your brief encounter with your extended family during the holiday season is just good practice for dealing with future American life. Anyone who is seriously rich, and wants to remain seriously rich, needs to learn how to manage the resentment of the less capable.
Here's your opportunity to acquire these new skills (for free!), in a controlled environment, with middle-class people you know. To make it fun for you, and to fool yourself into believing it's not a huge waste of your incredibly valuable time, pretend that you are a diplomat on a critical mission — say, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in Mexico, to complain about the sorry state of the peso.
Your assignment is to prevent the natives' feelings of resentment from becoming outright hatred. The sad truth about a rich man in a democracy is that he remains vulnerable.
These people who claim to be your relatives bear the same relationship to you as the early stages of a rocket bear to the capsule. Your bonus just vaulted you into the top one-tenth of 1 percent of all Americans in the only national ranking that matters. You are now looking down not only at the bottom half of America but the bottom half of the top 1 percent of Americans.
If you try to convince them with words how little you have been affected by your new ranking, words will fail you. Actions are better.
The key point here is to disguise both your wealth and your (superior) view of the world. This doesn't mean you have to arrive at your aunt's modest home by public transport. It just means that when deciding which new car to drive you should pick the one so expensive that she's never heard of it — take the Maybach and leave the Porsche.
Once inside, participate politely in conversations but don't encourage them. Feign helpfulness. Ask where the recycling bin is, for instance, or pretend to set the table.
An egalitarian-sounding opinion or two will surprise and delight the most resentful pinkos in your extended family. "I think it's outrageous that the one woman in M&A was given a $3 million bonus when every single guy in the unit got at least $5 million," for instance. Or: "Che Guevara would have made a hell of a forex trader." Just so it doesn't sound too strained.
None of this is easy. Allowing your natural subordinates these false victories — indeed, allowing them even to be with you — will pain you. Just take some solace in the fact that no matter how badly you feel, at least you aren't one of them.
Michael Lewis, the author, most recently, of The Blind Side, is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The views he expresses are his own.