Friday, April 5, 2013

"Dangerous Talk"

So I’m parking at the Gold’s Gym parking lot, prior to an hour of toning and beating back the decades, when a guy pulls in, driving a long, black, shiny Bentley, and the first thought that crosses my mind is,

“What did he do?”

Translation:  “How come that guy has a Bentley and I don’t?”

(Full Disclosure:  I drive a Lexus, but it’s twenty-two years old.  Broken down relative to its original purchase price, this works out to an expenditure of less than twenty-five hundred dollars a year.  Not much more than if I took the bus.

I am aware that my knee-jerk “envy response” is inappropriate in a capitalist society, having witnessed countless television interviews where people of circumscribed means insisted that they in no way begrudge the wealthy their money.

The understanding is that that is simply the way it works.  Some people have more, and other people have less.  And who knows, goes the accompanying assumption, in a free and equal society, the person who has less has every opportunity to someday have more.  Possibly a lot more.  Possibly even “Bentley-money” more.

That’s what keeps the less than financially fortunate in line.  They are simply waiting their turn.  Their unspoken mantra concerning the wealthiest:

“That could just as easily be me.”

I, apparently, am different.  I am skeptical that that could just as easily be me, and I feel a simmering resentment towards those who it already is.  It’s not like I obsess about it.  What happens is, I’m shuffling along, my mind on matters other than my relative financial status, and then, suddenly, some passing symbol of opulence sets me off, and I’m, like, “Man, that guy’s got a lot more than me.”

Floor seats season’s tickets for the Lakers games.  I’m never getting those.  A private jet, so I don’t have to take my belt off at the airport.  Not gonna happen.  Especially now that I’m writing for free.  The only possibility is, I win some kind of blog-writing contest, and “First Prize” is a private jet.  Pretty unlikely, don’t you think?  The prize, or me winning it.

Considerably more significantly, if I get really sick, I will not be flying in any world-class specialists to minister to my medical requirements.  The mega-wealthy can do that.  They may even know them.

“We met at a casino in Monte Carlo.  Amusing story:  I dropped a million dollar chip on the floor, and Dr. Sharnouer accidentally picked it up, thinking it was his.  It’s a funny world, isn’t it?  The only man who can transplant a brain.  And that’s exactly what I need.”

No Dr. Sharnouers for me.  It’s strictly local talent.  And not even the top practitioners in their fields.  They’re flying off to treat somebody who can afford them.  The best I can hope for is I’ll get a doctor with a “B” or slightly higher in the thing that’s trying to kill me.

Let’s go back to “That could just as easily be me.” – the soothing palliative for the capitalistic “have not’s”.  The encouraging hope that keeps them from feeling like losers, because, though losers at the moment, the game itself is still being played.

(Considering that “loser” label, things used to be even worse.  I recall reading that the Puritans, or some similar outfit, believed that the accumulation of wealth was a tangible sign of being anointed by God.  How sad is that?  The poor back then were burdened with not only being failures in a system in which others had succeeded, but also with the awareness that the Lord On High hated them.)

For educational purposes – interspersed with possible moments of pleasure – let’s take the guy driving the Bentley and see if that could just as easily be us.

Perhaps the guy was born into a wealthy family, making getting a Bentley as easy as,

“Dad!  I want a Bentley!”


If we ourselves were not born into a wealthy family, then, in the “getting a Bentley” context, that could not just as easily be us.  We’d have had to change parents at birth.  Unfortunately, since we are unable to communicate our desires at birth, our wailing would inevitably be interpreted as needing to be fed or changed, when what we’re really crying for is richer parents.

Another “fast track to the to the big bucks” he might have taken is working in a field like real estate, or sports and entertainment, or brokering corporate mergers, jobs in arenas where the size of the pie is so gigantic that, even with your share being a sliver, you can still end up with a Bentley.

And then, of course, there’s crime.  The white collar-er the better.  Not just because you’re less likely to be gunned down, or wind up in a prison where bad things happen with a broom handle, but because “White Collar” crime is most reliably where the “Bentley money” is.

There are, to be sure, legitimate avenues for accumulating great wealth, ones that involve actual work.  Well, not manual labor – that’s, like, forget about it – but manufacture and innovation.  Participating in enterprises of that nature, then yes, given the “smarts”, and the effort, that could just as easily be us.

But those types of activities involve preparatory groundwork, involving, more often than not, post-High School education.

Got fifty grand and rising for a single year of college?  No?  Well then, perhaps it’s less than likely to be us.

I hate saying this – because you can find studies establishing anything – but there are studies indicating that, because of, among other factors, the financial inaccessibility of college, the possibility of upward mobility in America is demonstrably less certain than it used to be.

Translation:  Once again, it’s less likely to be us.

(One offsetting bright spot:  There is a diminished stigma against “marrying up.”)

The “Betting Line” prediction:  It’s not going to be us. 

Though there is nothing stopping a dish washer from becoming a billionaire, the majority of them don’t even come close.  Ditto for hotel bed makers.  Unless somebody really likes their “hospital corners” and leaves a billion dollar tip.

Question:  Does all this sound like “Commie” talk?  I’m aware people yell “Socialist!” pretty fast in this country, even at its most benign level of utterance.  It’s like you light a match, and somebody immediately yells, “Fire!”

Being aware of the expanding disparity between the super-rich and the rest of us, and the conditions making it increasingly harder for the rest of us to ascend to that level, I don’t know, maybe I am a Commie.

Not for advocating anything.

Just for noticing.


Keith said...

I'm sure the guy in the Bentley envies someone.

Just like you could walk around with a hot meal in some parts of the world and people would say, "What did Earl do?"

Doug said...

I find this amusing: I recall when Lexus, Infinity and Acura all were introduced to the world as luxury car brands about 20 or so years ago. They are all great. But now you start to see many of these cars on the road, and some of them age just as poorly as any ol' Chrysler. Rust. Missing fenders. Oxidized paint. The ravages of a fallen world affect steel with a Lexus mark just as much as steel bearing the name of Chevy. 1,000 years from now that Bentley will be dust. What lasts is what you did with the talents you possess now and the relationships you build with others.

Alanfg said...

"It’s a funny world, isn’t it? The only man who can transplant a brain. And that’s exactly what I need.”

Mac said...

For all you know the guy in the Bentley might have wanted to be a comedy writer. I'd like to think if I had loads of money I'd be like Branson and develop space travel, or I'd be like Bill Gates and do philanthropic work. But the truth is I'd probably just watch movies and eat burgers all day until my heart packed in. So I'm better off without it.

Rebecca said...

I grew up very wealthy in an age when there was a much greater chance of "it could happen to anyone". And, like a lot of people in this country, I have traveled far in the opposite direction over the years. Maybe that's why I fall into the category of believing "the game is still being played".

Because of my circumstances, I do not begrudge all people their wealth. However, I have extreme prejudice against those who have rigged the system in recent decades and those who have not gained their wealth in an honorable fashion.

My father was a good and generous man. It's true he started off in a better position than many in his community, but since we are talking about the bayous of Louisiana, this is not saying a great deal. It is also true, though, that he took a great many risks and worked very hard for the wealth he accumulated. More importantly, though, all the while he was building a fortune - and afterward - he gave generously to those who were less fortunate. And not just to tax deductible charitable institutions.

So maybe I have a slightly different view than most people.

Still, industries like banking and insurance were once fairly honorable, based upon a business model that made accumulating wealth not very difficult by methods which were fair for everyone. Now they are rotted to the core by fraud.


I am now hopeful that things in this country will be changing for the better, for one simple reason. You know that bit about a good education not being available to so many? That won't be true for very much longer.

There is now soooo very much available in the way of classes online, much of it for free, that it will soon be the most level playing field that has ever existed in this country.

It's still in its infancy, but the rate of progress is picking up speed rapidly. Middle schoolers are learning programming at Code Academy, others are learning a whole lot of subjects at Khan Academy and iTunes U has over 500K lectures available for free - including from schools like Harvard and MIT.

They have even started support for K-12 education.

I am a HUGE believer in the power of education. And nothing has made me feel better about the future of this country than the development of free, quality education available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Of course, it's by no means a perfect system of learning. But it is a HUGE step forward.

I also love the way younger voters are significantly changing social issues in this country AND trying to disrupt corrupt business models. I just started banking with Simple Bank because I like their philosophy of doing business. They don't want "an adversarial relationship" with their customers.

Of course, all of this still has a little ways to go before becoming the norm. But we are finally heading in an encouraging direction. After several years of being depressed by the state of our nation - and most of the world - I am optimistic. I may even live long enough to see it happen.

Still, although I would LOVE the convenience of a private jet - because I love to travel and I know from experience how much easier & more comfortable it is to travel that way, I have no desire to own a Bentley. And because I know, also from experience, that a fortune is not necessarily a permanent thing, I would not buy extravagant things just because I can. Nope, next time, I'm going to be a LOT more careful about what I throw my money at.

I'm almost at retirement age. But I'm not giving up. Because I believe once more that anything is possible.

ATrueModerateUnlikeEP said...

Earl, get a clue. More people are attending college now than at any time in American history. You wanna talk about the percentage of high school graduates who are attending college now compared to, say, 1980? And the percentage attending THEN compared to 1950? And then 1950 compared to 1920?

I'm sure your answer is "No" to all three but bear with me (and those were rhetorical questions anyway).

Just spend 2 minutes looking up the trend line, Earl, and take my word for it, you'll feel and actually BE a lot smarter for the effort.

And while I understand there is a wide and growing disparity between the super rich and the rest of us (and get ready for a bit of Liberal heresy here, Earl)...

SO ****ING WHAT???

Because it isn't about how rich Earl Pomerantz with his generous WGA pension and two-decade old Lexus happens to be compared to, say, Bill Gates -- it's about the median standard of living in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

As scholar James Q. Wilson has stated, “The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.”

In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR.

Is any of this getting through to you Earl?!

By its own report, the typical family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the year to meet all of their essential needs.

But for all of that, even though the standard of living in America is higher now than at any time in the country's history, you and other "moderates" (Dear God!) feel that some redress is still necessary to curtail all of this rampant... what, exactly? Not hunger, certainly. And not deprivation either.


Ah. NOW we're getting somewhere.