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Do One-Percenters Feel Guilty?

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Do One-Percenters Feel Guilty?

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February 2018

Who’s in the “one percent,” really, and what makes them different?

In Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, Rachel Sherman examines the attitudes of 50 well-to-do Manhattanites, the majority of them liberal, based on in-depth interviews and rare access to the inner-lives of these corporate lawyers, hedge fund-financiers, real estate developers and their spouses. They’re deeply ambivalent about their good fortune, Sherman finds, exhibiting concerns about their wealth and status that reveal shifts of attitude throughout American culture. Sherman is an associate professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Everyone I know has the same experience. They visit friends in New York and are amazed at real estate prices. For what someone pays in rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, they could pay a mortgage on a three-story house somewhere else. People who make what seems like a great deal of money don’t seem to live that much better than the rest of us. In your book, you say the people you interviewed don’t feel rich.

The people I interviewed for this book don’t feel “rich,” the way we are accustomed to thinking of wealth in America. It is strange. The average household income in the five boroughs of New York City is about $52,000 a year, so when someone earns $500,000 and up, they really are making a lot more money than almost everybody else does. Even so, they don’t “feel” wealthy or identify as such. But there are reasons for that, peculiar as they might seem.

For example?

Americans are accustomed to thinking of being wealthy as never having to think about money or to worry about it, but these people haven’t reached that point, and maybe people never do. But part of it is also the development of an attitude toward wealth in which a lot of these people don’t want to identify as wealthy. So they downplay their financial status, often to themselves. They don’t talk about how much money they make, in part because they think it is rude to do so. Also, there are attitudes they associate with being wealthy that they don’t want to exhibit. They don’t approve of gold-plated glitz and ostentation. They don’t want to be like Donald Trump, who represents for them a kind of crassness that they find distasteful. They don’t want to think of themselves as materialistic. They don’t want other people to think they are “living beyond their means.”

Some of this sounds just like middle-class values.

In a way, yes, they are middle-class values, which is ironic, considering how fragile the condition of the middle class in this country really is. The whole idea of the middle class is complicated. There will always be a middle class in the sense that there are rich people and poor people, and no matter how rich the rich are or how poor the poor are, there will always be people in the middle. But the old idea of the middle class, in the 1950s sense, is threatened these days — I mean the idea that even without a college education, you could work a factory job or whatever and buy a house and maybe even send your kids to college and be fairly comfortable and secure. But today I think the “middle class” in that older sense is mainly something politicians routinely pay homage to as “the backbone of our nation,” and all of that. It doesn’t describe current realities the way it used to. So, yes, this idea of not living beyond your means and not being showy with your money does reflect middle-class values in that way. But the attitudes of the people I write about are also the product of elite educations.

In what way?

Almost everyone I interviewed had at least some experience with Ivy League schools — either undergraduate or grad school. Besides money, they have accumulated a fair amount of “cultural capital.” They don’t want to appear nouveau riche, as you suggest, and they know it would be tacky to brag about their money.

A lot of this sounds as much about class as it is about money.

Definitely. In America, we don’t talk about class. We believe we live in a “classless” society. And whether that is accurate or not, the people in my book don’t talk about class, but they will talk about “inequality” and are keenly aware of income disparity in our country and are troubled by it. They realize they have advantages, but they are conflicted about it. There was a time, perhaps, when it was enough to think and even say, “I worked hard for what I have,” and that was the end of it. But these people aren’t like that. Saying you “worked hard” isn’t enough.

You say they disapprove of the whole notion of being “entitled.”

Yes, they don’t want to feel entitled, and they don’t want others to think they feel entitled. They teach their children to be aware of how fortunate they are and to appreciate it, even if they downplay it to others. So there is an irony there. They deny to themselves that they are “different” and know they should be appreciative and all that. But the very fact that they worry about being appreciative and not feeling entitled is proof that they really are in that privileged category.

A surprising and revealing look at how today’s elite view their own wealth and place in society.

These elites might not like to talk about money, but American culture is obsessed with it.

We talk about money all the time, actually. Shows on Bravo are all about money. Those “Real Housewives” shows are all about rich women and their overconsumption. Think about this, too. Think of how differently we think about money and gender. We celebrate entrepreneurs, who are almost all male, and we look down on those consumerists on Bravo who are almost all female. We like to talk about how Warren Buffett lives in a modest home, right? And then we like to watch those real estate shows and watch the “Real Housewives.”

Related to the ambivalence you mention, a big distinction between the kind of supposedly rich people on Bravo and those in your book is a kind of ethical awareness.

That’s true. The people I interviewed have a real sense that they need to “give back to the community,” because they have so much. But this is complicated, too. The ones who are stay-at-home moms, married to hedge fund guys, do tend to volunteer. The households do try to practice philanthropy, though rarely do they give more than about five percent of what they make. Some of them don’t want to be thought of as part of the “one percent,” which came in for some criticism in recent presidential campaigns. They don’t want to fit that stereotype. Just as splashy philanthropy can be a kind of performance, the sense of obligation with the people in my book can be very private. The mere fact of being aware of your good fortune can make you feel virtuous; it doesn’t necessarily lead to volunteering or charitable giving or other virtuous actions.

What do these people make of the whole “one percent” idea, as it is expressed in American politics?

That, too, is complicated. They dislike Trump and consider him tacky and ostentatious, a showoff. But just because someone technically is in the “one percent” doesn’t mean that person is looked down on in the same way. George W. Bush was certainly in the one percent, but he is still seen as an approachable guy. John Kerry, of course, was part of that one percent world, with his French background and marrying an heiress and all of that. He took some abuse back when he ran for president. The Clintons are definitely in the one percent now, but the elites in New York don’t hold that against them. In part, that is because they identify with the values the Clintons and other political leaders espouse. Depending on how these leaders conduct themselves and how they represent the elites determines a lot about how they are regarded by those that are such a significant part of New York today. It will be interesting to see how these attitudes spread, if they do, in wider parts of our society.

Want More Information on This Topic?

Reach Rachel at 212.229.5737 or [email protected].

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