“We” are not rich

I usually enjoy Slate's Moneybox column, written by Daniel Gross, but today Gross is guilty of the myopic Magooism of the wealthy — oblivious to how very, very many of us he's leaving out.

Gross' topic is limousine liberals, whom he just seems to have discovered — he writes his is "divining a trend." Well, yes, some very wealthy people are liberals. And yes, the disconnect between their political rhetoric and their lavish lifestyles is often amusing. But Oscar Wilde told this joke a hundred years ago — that doesn't qualify as a "trend." (I've spent enough time in the nonprofit sector that my mocking such people would be simple ingratitude.)

Here's Gross at his most clueless:

We've all seen the symptoms. A table of four raging over Bush's Iraq policy while sampling the $58 tasting menu at Virot, an expensive new bistro on the Upper West Side. A middle-aged man clucking over the deficit while fondling home furnishings at Restoration Hardware. The thirtysomething lawyer seething over the neutering of the Environment Protection Agency with one side of her brain, while weighing that classic conundrum — Cape Cod or Tuscany next summer? — with the other side.

Who is this "we've all" that Gross thinks he's writing for?

He seems to forget that most of us — 90+ percent of Americans and 99+ percent of earthlings — do not dine at expensive new bistros on the Upper West Side. "We" can't always afford Home Depot, let alone Restoration Hardware. "We" are not on such intimate terms with jet-setting 30-somethings that we are able to read their minds. Nor do "we" plan trips to Tuscany. (The closest we will get to Tuscany is watching that Diane Lane movie, but we are waiting for it to come out on video because we can't really afford $7 for tickets just now.)

Something often happens to people when they become rich — something intellectually and morally perilous. They forget that most people are not rich. (Give the limousine liberals some credit: they at least still recognize the theory that working class people exist.)

Gross says the limo-libs are suffering from "Bushenfreude" and offers this advice for them and all of "us":

In my darker moments, when I contemplate twin Excel files showing the ever-more imminent bankrupting of Social Security and my projected tax payments for 2003, I, too suffer from a mild case of the malady. But rather than buy David Corn's Lies of George W. Bush or make a political contribution, I calculate how much I'm saving in taxes. Then I put a fraction of that sum in a retirement plan. After all, the fiscal recklessness of the past few years means I'm highly unlikely to get the Social Security benefits to which I'm theoretically entitled. I also put a fraction of that sum in an account for my kids, who will have to foot the bill for this party when they grow up. And then—and only then—do I go to Dean & DeLuca and search for that perfect manchego.

That's it. That's his big advice. Don't try to change anything. Don't bother with politics– just concentrate on personal finance. If Bush is starving the beast and bankrupting the social safety net, reducing the republic to a Darwinian jungle, then you'd better set aside enough of a nest egg to ensure that you and your kids will be among the fittest who survive.

Nice. On behalf of those of us who might actually rely on Social Security and Medicare today or some day, let me tell you where you can stick that manchego.

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  • Tlachtga

    This angers me to no end. I’m a college graduate, I work in a library, live in a one-room apartment, and when I do go out to eat, it’s rare, and it’s to a small local pub. And I am a liberal. I’ve never been inside a limosine, never paid for a dinner worth more than $20 (and that was a special occasion). And I am a liberal.
    Yes, there are rich liberals, and yes, there is a sort of disconnect between their lifestyle and their politics. Or is there? Why does being rich automatically mean you must be conservative? Why does being able to afford nice things, good food, mean you must want to exploit the working classes? Not everyone makes their wealth the robberbaron way–yet this article of Gross’s simply reinforces the idea that the rich must have gotten there by being conservative, and implying that being conservative means you dislike social programs, dislike the government, dislike the working class. It’s a logical fallacy. But it may be how Gross and his own friends and associates view the attainment of their own wealth–they can only be rich if they are somehow taking from others.
    I need a shower.

  • Ross Judson

    Just from the examples given, I don’t see the tension…wondering about Global Warming and where to go on vacation the next year are not mutually contradictory. Neither is discussing the deficit over a bottle of wine.
    This is a false claim of elitism. It is rather darkly ironic that charges of elitism come from the party and people who promote it, in a darwinian fashion, as the end game of global society.

  • Laertes

    I imagine the apparent contradiction of the wealthy liberal arises at least in part from buying into one’s one risible caricature of the Other Side. If you really think that anyone left of limbaugh is a commie who thinks that anyone with more than $35k a year is evil and the government should function primarily as an enforce to take from each according to his ability and give to each according to his need, then you WILL find a wealthy liberal to be a contradiction.
    Of course, expressing this belief conclusively demonstrates that you’re a fool.
    Slack: I love this blog. I rarely comment, but I read it every day and frequently send links to my friends.

  • jackson

    Just wanted to second Laertes comment about your blog — I also rarely comment but am a daily reader. One thing in particular I look forward to is your perspective, as a liberal, on Christianity. As a liberal Christian myself, I really enjoy reading your thoughts on religious topics.
    Also, thanks for the comment about rich liberals and non-profits — I work in the non-profit sector myself and I even greatly appreciate the rich conservatives who give to my organization (where I live, that would be all of them ;) ).
    Finally, hear hear to all the comments so far on this column’s utter ridiculousness….who in the world thinks being a liberal automatically bars someone from amassing wealth?

  • rebecca blood

    I’m with Ross Judson on this. a “A middle-aged man clucking over the deficit while fondling home furnishings at Restoration Hardware” isn’t hypocritical unless he can’t afford the home furnishings he is about to buy. On the other hand, if he has the money, and is, say, refurbishing his home to meet his needs instead of building a new one, he may be economically, ecologically, and societally more responsible than the struggling-to-make-ends-meet person who has to shop at Wal-Mart to get by.
    one of the pleasures of being financially comfortable is to finally be able to spend money in a way that is in accordance with your values. for years, I couldn’t afford to buy vegetables, let alone organic anything. my rice and lentils were conventionally farmed: I couldn’t afford to spend money on anything that wasn’t as inexpensive as could be.
    the whole thing is a canard and, I agree, both lazy and infuriating.

  • walden

    The article says “well-off liberals are using their increased disposable income—much of which can be attributed to the Bush tax cuts—to sate their desires for luxury goods and for political revenge.” But most people ( I dare say even most rich people) are worse off financially than they were in the Clinton years. And the notion that Bush has made “liberals rich” and that therefore they should just go along with the full agenda is preposterous.
    It reminds me a bit of Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan — “Are you better of than you were 4 years ago” — when the right question should have been “Is the country better off than it was 4 years ago?” (Or ask not what your country can do for you……etc.)
    The piece basically says that the only right-thinking attitude is “I’ve got mine.” (Come to think of it, that seems to be the RIGHT-thinking attitude).

  • none

    Much more irritating is the liberal who insists on driving around in the SUV not the limo!

  • Mike Kozlowski

    Personally, I don’t understand how you could be wealthy, and support Bush’s tax cut. I mean, you have to be not only greedy (because it’s obvious that other people need the money more) but also short-sighted (because it’s obvious that you’re going to be paying higher taxes and enjoying less economic growth in upcoming years, thanks to the deficit).

  • Comfortably Liberal

    If I was rich I would know: what the heck is a manchego?

  • none

    The idea of a rich person expressing concern for the poor is every bit as ridiculous as a white person opposing slavery.

  • bgn

    Interesting that it’s always luxury goods and/or the arts that cause this tut-tutting over supposedly hypocritical liberal elitism. (La Coulter, for instance, pulls this stunt all the time.) It’s as if cultural populism–everybody buys and likes the same things regardless of one’s financial position–were supposed to compensate for political & economic elitism.

  • Ron

    Well, at least he didn’t call them class traitors. That was I believe the term used against FDR and the Mrs. back a few decades.

  • derek g

    I’m not rich, but well off. I work an industry that allows me socially to live beyond my means, enjoy nice dinners, tickets to events etc. But many people like myself realize that Bush’s economic policies do not make sense. It is enron economics, and one day someone will have to foot the bill for all the spending and tax rebates now. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out.
    I am a liberal because I needed a break to get where I am (public university paid for by government grants and loans) and want others to have the same or better opportunities than I did to succeed.
    How does this fit in? I don’t know, but I am so sick and tired of conservative selfishness.

  • Effern

    Ya know, in some areas, limo service to the airport is cheaper than a taxi. So spending time in a limo does not autmatically elevate you to Rockefeller status.

  • Isabeau

    The examples Gross chose are particularly stupid. How is being rich related to your position on the war or the environment? And didnt it use to be the rich who were opposed to deficit spending?

  • Raging Dave

    You fucking liberals are all the same. Always blaming America for the world’s problems. Your self loathing disgusts me. Why don’t you move to Canada you fucking pacifist.

  • julia

    This is the upper manhattan/westchester/connecticut version of “those anti-fur people are so rude, aren’t they?”
    You’re not insulting anyone who’s likely to have a friend in the room, and it might get you invited to some good dinner parties.
    If there is an anti-fur person in the room, you just switch to “those anti-fur people who throw paint”
    I find it a little painful looking at social insecurity as bare as this.

  • julia

    parenthetically, raging dave is spam. He’s got the identical post all over town.

  • Nell Lancaster

    Can’t sleep, and I too was wondering what the heck manchego is (though that’s not what’s keeping me awake)…
    Manchego is Spain’s most famous cheese. Produced in La Mancha in Central Spain, true Manchego is made from 100% sheep’s milk. Cheeses from Spain are commonly made from sheep’s milk because most of the territory is rocky and dry, unfriendly to cows but suitable to raising goats and sheep. The abundance of wild herbs on Central Spain’s grazing lands gives Manchego a special taste and aroma. Its flavor is zesty and exuberant while its texture is firm and somewhat dry. Manchego can be recognized by the zigzag pattern etched into its rind. This is created by the rippled surface of the press used in the manufacture of the cheese.
    From http://www.bacchuscellars.com

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    And from dibruno.com:
    They’ve got three Manchegos at the moment, at $18.99/pound, $12.99/pound, and $29.99/1.5 pound.
    These are luxeries, especially the last one, but you don’t have to be fabulously wealthy to have that sort of thing as a treat.

  • aaron wall

    $58 sandwitch…since when did they get so cheap. if you just skipped rent for a month you can afford 8 whole sandwitches…

  • none

    FUD from the Right!
    Ignore the hype as much as you ignore coulter’s Treason.
    They are adroit at brainwashing techniques – tax & spend liberals – BAH! Limousine Liberals – no point to be made – oh except that those rich people actually give a sh*t about people! From a pyschological point of view, the reverse-negative is a very powerful way of indoctrination – aka blissful brainwashing!
    99% of the rich are goose-stepping Reichstagers – don’t EVEN tell me NO – MOST rich people are the local bizness ownerz – who unflappably follow the goose-steppers.

  • TK

    Two points (just for starters):
    1) Gross’ piece is just one long ad hominem rant, against a strawman no less. This is something I come to expect in the lower reaches of blogland, but Slate? On second thought, Slate has pretty much sunk to the level of Instapundit, so never mind.
    2) It provides one admirable service, namely documenting the core evil of Bush strategy, which is to foster a self-fueling lifeboat ethic in society that will likely outlast his term of office. Policies that undermine the social safety net, such as the gutting of our fiscal structure, reward thinking, such as Gross’s, that further hasten its destruction.
    I’ve been waiting for pundits to notice this aspect and denounce it. Now, here comes Gross, and he thinks it’s just nifty. So my tax cut is essentially coming out of future social services that others might depend on? Too bad. I’ve got mine, Jack.
    This is very dispiriting.

  • TK

    Third point:
    A person who lives in a glass house paid for with tax cuts that undermine the security of everyone else, is in no position to throw stones about hypocrisy.

  • Kevin Carson

    “Limousine liberalism” is not the only topic Gross has just discovered. He also was apparently late in discovering corporate liberalism. In “Socialism, American Style: Why American CEOs covet a massive European-style social-welfare state,” , he treated corporate support of national health insurance as a departure from “traditional” big business hostility to the welfare state.
    But as Gabriel Kolko or James O’Connor could have told him, social insurance is a major benefit for big business–and has been supported by a major wing of organized capital since early in the twentieth century. It’s a way of externalizing part of personnel costs on the taxpayer, and at the same time removing such spending as an issue of cost competition between firms.
    Currently, the largest corporations are the most likely to provide insurance to their employees; and such insurance is one of the fastest-rising components of labor costs. Consequently, firms that are already providing this service at their own expense are the logical beneficiaries of a nationalized system. The effect of such a national health system would be to remove the cost of this benefit as a competitive disadvantage for the companies that provided it. Even if the state requires only large corporations in the monopoly sector to provide health insurance, it is an improvement of the current situation, from the monopoly capital point of view: health insurance ceases to be a component of price competition among the largest firms. A national health system provides a competitive advantage to a nation’s firms at the expense of their foreign competitors, who have to fund their own employee health benefits–hence, American capital’s hostility to the Canadian national health, and its repeated attempts to combat it through the WTO.
    Dick Gephart, or rather his spokesman Jim English, admitted to a corporate liberal motivation for state-funded health insurance in his 2003 Labor Day address. Gephart’s proposed mandatory employer coverage, with a 60% tax credit for the cost, would (he said) eliminate competition from companies that don’t currently provide health insurance as an employee benefit. It would also reduce competition from firms in countries with a single-payer system.

  • michael (in DC)

    Hi Kevin,
    Wouldn’t a true national health insurance (not necessarily a Gephardt- (or Clinton-) style convoluted tax-incentive scheme, but true national–that is, single payer–health insurance) also convey competitive advantages in the other direction? That is, a truly national insurance scheme would eliminate the competitve advantage of the big firms in the labor market vis a vis smaller businesses. And since, by most of the stats I’ve heard, small businesses (not sure how they define “small”) still employ most folks in the US, wouldn’t that be a net boost to the country, both socially and economically in terms of international competitiveness? I’ve heard Carol Mosely-Braun make this point often in her single-payer crusade (aka “candidacy”).
    This seems to me an area where liberal-minded “socialization of (labor) cost” might not be a further inducement to coprporate gigantism; while still being in the enlightened self-interest of both big and small business, as well as labor. It is not, however, in the self-interest of the humongous health-insurance and pharmaceutical industries. And therein lies the rub…

  • michael (in DC)

    should add that…I mean that Nat’l health would eliminate, or at least offset some, the labor-market advantage of big firms in this one area of health benefits–just as Social Security and gov’t disability & unemployment insurance increase labor’s flexibility somewhat vis a vis dependence on Capital for other benefits (pensions, etc)…
    And that I don’t necessarily see Gov’t helping domestic biz be internationally competitive as a bad thing, so long as it’s all biz…esp. when it might help labor here catch up with other industrial countries in quality of life and real productivity…
    I know this is anathema to you philosophically, left-ibertarian that you are…still trying to win you over to the grey (but not necessarily dark) side :)

  • david

    As a leftist atheist, and sporadic reader, I always kick myself coming here, for not having done so sooner and more often.
    Jacob Weisberg tossed around “limousine liberal” in the 2000 election; I doubt this makes it Slate policy, of course, but there is an air to the magazine. And, to follow up on an earlier comment, Gross may not say “class traitor,” but that’s the only way to interpret what he says. The only contradiction in worrying about Bush and your vacation at the same time would be if your Tuscan vacation made you the sort who ought to vote their interests. This has always seemed to me to defeat itself. There’s a lot more poor than rich even (and way more than even) in this richest of countries, but we don’t ever hear people like Gross suggest how galling it is to hear people in Arby’s bragging on how tough Bush’s foreign policy is. So, even if you have heard people at your U.W.S. bistros complaining about the war, go ahead and start up a similar conversation at your own table. And at Arby’s.

  • John

    Re: Manchego, my mom buys it at Costco (I think) quite frequently, and it is not so expensive. Probably not as nice as the stuff one can special order from Spain on the internet, or whatever, but quite a good cheese.

  • Kevin Carson

    Ah, we meet again. But I’m always on the dark side.
    No doubt a portable health insurance system would make labor more mobile and less feudally attached to large corporations. Whether this would outweigh the cartelizing effects of socializing an aspect of labor costs–that’s a judgment call. But I doubt it.
    First off all, cartelization doesn’t necessarily require concentration, although the two phenomena certainly tend to be associated pretty closely. The regulatory state can cartelize an industry without affecting the level of concentration; if its effect is to reduce the overall level of competition between firms (small firms included), and move the system in the direction of administered prices, it’s still cartelization. It’s quite conceivable to leave a sizable minority of production in a given industry outside oligopoly control, and still have the industry as a whole functioning as monopoly capital, if the industry is so organized that smaller firms don’t upset the apple cart by starting price wars.
    As far as international competitiveness goes: I think the levels of international trade are much higher than would support themselves in a free market. The only reason 20% of U.S. GNP is made up of foreign trade is that the government
    1) subsidizes the export of capital through the World Bank;
    2) protects exported capital through CIA-SOA collusion with corporate-friendly regimes;
    3) absorbs the inefficiencies of long-distance distribution through transportation subsidies; and
    4) locks out the emergence of native TW competition through IP laws.
    The use of government to hide and shift operating costs of business does not make large-scale TNC’s any more efficient; it’s just cooking the books. And those costs are shifted either through the tax system, through a legal system that stacks the rules of the game to weaken the bargaining power of labor, and through a monopoly price system that allows big business to extract super-profits from small business or the consumer. In all these cases, what it boils down to is labor sacrificing part of its product through lower wages, higher prices, or higher taxes, in order to make the bottom line better for big corporations. Specifically, we pay higher prices and get lower wages to conceal the inefficiencies of producing goods for transport halfway around the world instead of producing efficiently for the town or county where we live.
    When you figure all the costs of irrationality and inefficiency brought about by state intervention on behalf of big business: drastic overuse of transportation and energy, mass advertising, “defense” spending to protect overseas investment, etc.–it probably only takes about 20-25 hours labor a week to produce what the average working person consumes. All the rest goes to parasites.
    As much as the neoclassicals and austrians hate to hear it, all exchanges really are exchanges of labor. And when the political means (coercion) are substituted for the economic means (free exchange between producers), the result is pareto non-optimality. In non-gobbledygook language, this means some benefit at the expense of others: namely, non-laboring capitalists and landlords benefit at the expense of producers.
    Finally, since all exchanges are exchanges of labor, it follows that Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage is the way to make sure that goods are exchanged for the least possible amount of labor. The way to help ourselves as workers and producers is to break the state-supported power of capital right here at home and keep the full product of our labor–not to promote corporate plunder abroad or pay more for something produced on the other side of the world.

  • michael (in DC)

    Every time I “talk” to you on one of these boards, I walk away thinking I’d better go get a postgraduate degree before trying again…
    …but why let a little ignorance stop me?
    I’ll say again that I’m just not optimistic enough by nature to see much hope of achieving the sort of radical societal transformation you envision; at least without an amount of suffering between here and there that I’d care not contemplate. While I have trouble finding any holes in your analysis, I take a more triage-like view of political solutions…
    In this case (national health care) I just want to see people live better. I think a genuine reform–single payer–is actually more politically feasible than most folks (certainly most politicians) are willing to admit. Mainly it requires standing up to one particular subset of the healthcare industry–albeit a very lucrative and powerful one. If this requires coaxing big biz to see their self-interest in a more enlightened way (and thus a temporary alliance with a truly exploitative set of folks), so be it.
    I do not, however, feel this way about the Gephardt/Clinton/etc models, which are surely much more likely to skew toward powerful interests in their economic effects, by virtue of their complexity and gimmickry as well as their vulnerablity to the sort of favor-trading that currently dominates the legislative process (not to mention the fact that their much less likely to actually fix the problem). Single-payer is different both in its simplicity and in the fact that fundamentally, it, like Social Security and Medicare, is a contract between the gov’t and the people, rather than between gov’t and “employers”…If one of the effects of this is to make the working classes more docile, that’s a risk I’m willing to take if it means they’ll also be healthier and live better lives.

  • Steveguitar

    Gee, I don’t even know what a manchego is. Is it a piece of fruit?
    I rode in a limousine once in San Francisco. I paid the guy $5 to transport me and my wife six blocks or so. He was driving around looking for tourists to drive around for cigarette money. The car was old and it smelled kind of funky.
    Given the sucky economy, the obscene jump in real estate prices, and the hopelessness, real or perceptive, most “young folks” (I’m 45) seem to feel about their economic prospects (with the conspicuous exception of the sons and daughters of CEOS), if I were young again, I’d be fighting hard to preserve Social Security, because it may be the only consistent check many of you may rely on one day. If it’s not there because the Grover Norquists of the world engineered its demise in pursuit of an economic perpetual growth machine, well, as the Blues Brothers once said: “You go hun-gry!”

  • Kevin Carson

    Actually, I had never considered the labor market competition thing until you suggested it. So maybe I’m the one who needs a postdoctorate degree.
    I guess if my only choices were corporate liberalism (or Euro-style mixed economy), and the banana republicanism of the last thirty years, I’d take the former–just as I’d hold my nose and take the paternalism of Brave New World over the naked brutality of 1984. Being smothered by a cradle-to-grave nanny state isn’t that great, but it beats “a boot stamping on a human face, forever.”
    I just hope those aren’t the only alternatives.

  • Lisa

    What on earth convinces Gross that individuals can save enough to compensate for the demolition of Social Security? Oh I forgot. All together now: “I got mine. Screw you.”