How to be rich and morally worthy: the dilemma of wealthy New Yorkers

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In this extract from her new book, Rachel Sherman sets out to understand how wealthy New York parents decide to spend their money and enters a world of moral conflict and self-doubt

Scott and Olivia, both 39, live with their three children in a large pre-war apartment in Manhattan. They spend weekends and vacations at their second home in the Connecticut countryside. Their children attend a prestigious private school, they employ a part-time personal assistant as well as a nanny-housekeeper and occasionally a personal chef. On aeroplanes they usually travel in business class, though when the children were small the family often flew on private planes.

Fueling this lifestyle is Scott’s inherited wealth, generated by a business his grandfather founded. After earning Ivy League BA and MBA degrees, Scott worked in finance for several years but now focuses on a small technology business he started that supports non-profits, as well as playing an active role on the board of his children’s school. Olivia is also Ivy League educated, although she comes from a working-class family. She has an MA in social work but works for pay only occasionally, spending most of her time taking care of the children and maintaining the household.

Scott had been self-conscious about his wealth since he was a child. He recalled feeling sensitive to comments classmates would make about the size of his family’s house. In college he became a leftist and obscured his background as much as possible, but classmates ultimately found out that he was a “secret rich guy” and taunted him about the family’s company, which was associated with abuses of workers’ rights.

When I talked with Olivia, she described feeling uncomfortable having married into wealth. Although she felt that it was easy to spend money helping other people or creating a home for her children, she had trouble spending only on herself, particularly because it was money she hadn’t earned. Quite liberal politically, she and Scott were both especially aware of those who had less. They also worried about their children and how to instil in them the desire to work.

Scott and Olivia’s internal conflicts about their wealth cropped up especially in their feelings about their living space. When I interviewed Scott in 2009, he was overseeing renovation of an Upper West Side apartment worth $4.5m, which they had bought primarily because they believed that each of their children should have his or her own room. But they felt conflicted about living there. When I asked why, Scott said, “Do we want to live in such a fancy place? Do we want to deal with the person coming in and being like, ‘Wow!’”

When I talked with Olivia a few years later, the family was living in their new home. But the transition had not been easy for her. In fact, she had initially been so uncomfortable with the apartment that they had considered not moving into it. The previous owner had done a significant renovation, which she found unbearably ostentatious. She said, “I mean, we’re doing our best, with our clutter and junk, to, like, take the majesty and grandeur out of it. But, when I come [home], I feel like ‘this isn’t me’ … This doesn’t reflect who I feel like I am in the world, and who I want to be in the world.”

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Guests at the Frederick Olmsted luncheon, a charity event featuring New York’s wealthiest socialites. Photograph: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Scott and Olivia are two of the 50 affluent and wealthy New York parents I have interviewed, ranging from Wall Street financiers and corporate lawyers to professors and artists with inherited wealth. I initially wanted to know how people who had economic freedom decided what it was worth spending money on. How did they make decisions about buying and renovating a home, placing children in school, hiring domestic workers, and using their leisure time? What counted as “real” needs, versus “luxuries”?

These questions mattered because they were related to a broader issue: how people who were benefiting from rising economic inequality experienced their own social advantages. Did they think of themselves as having more than others? And if so, did this self-conception affect the life choices they made?

What stood out from the beginning was how much my interviewees, like Scott and Olivia, had struggled over these decisions. I first noticed conflicts about how much money it was acceptable to spend, and on what. Was it okay to spend a thousand dollars on a dress? Two thousand on a handbag? Half a million on a home renovation?

Sometimes these were questions about how much they could afford, given their resources. But more often they were about what kind of people they would be if they made these choices. When a stay-at-home mother paid for a lot of babysitting, for example, was she “a snob”? If she sent back a light fixture she thought was too big for the kitchen, was she a “princess”? Did a couple with tens of millions in assets have to live with a sofa they hated because it felt “wasteful” to change it?

Exploring these issues more fully, I started hearing about other kinds of dilemmas related to money and identity. How could these affluent parents give their children high-quality education and other advantages without spoiling them? How should they resolve disagreements about spending priorities with their partners? How should they talk with others, including me, about these decisions?

Ultimately, I realised that these were conflicts about how to be both wealthy and morally worthy – especially at a historical moment of extreme economic inequality.

Being a good person

The wealthy women that Susan Ostrander studied for her book Women of the Upper Class, born mainly between 1900 and 1940, appeared comfortable with their class privilege. For the most part raised in a homogenous wealthy community, they saw themselves as pillars of that community, publicly carrying out charitable works and preparing their children to follow in their upper-class footsteps by organising their prep school educations and debutante parties.

Ostrander sees this community participation as an attempt to justify their privilege, but she does not describe any significant conflict about their class advantages. In fact, these women saw themselves as “being better than other people”, expressing “a sense of moral, as well as social, superiority”.

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Is it okay to spend a thousand dollars on a dress? Two thousand on a handbag? Half a million on a home renovation? Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The New Yorkers I spoke with were much less complacent about their social advantages. Some talked about these struggles quite openly, while others were more indirect. Some tended not even to think of themselves as socially advantaged because they were focused on others around them who had the same resources or more than they did. I call these people “upward-oriented”, while “downward-oriented” people, including Scott and Olivia, were more likely to see themselves as privileged.

Downward-oriented people tended to have more economically diverse social networks, and thus to compare their own lifestyles to a broader range of other possibilities. Either way, the vast majority implicitly or explicitly indicated that they had some kind of moral concern about having wealth.

One way they addressed these conflicted feelings was to try to minimise the importance of privilege by obscuring it. Nearly all observed the cultural norm of not talking about money with people besides their partners. Like Scott and Olivia, they also sometimes wanted to avoid showing their wealth to those with less. They asserted that money didn’t influence how they thought about other people – and they believed that referring explicitly to their advantages might make those with less feel bad. But they also acknowledged that talking about their privilege made them feel vulnerable to negative judgments from others.

At the same time, my interviewees did recognise they were privileged. So, although they were silent with others, they struggled with themselves over the question of how to be worthy of this privilege in a moral sense. In order to feel that they deserved their advantages, they tried to interpret themselves as legitimately privileged “good people”.

Their narratives delineated three characteristics of “good people”. First, good people work hard. Across the board, these affluent parents described themselves as hard workers, drawing on general associations in American Dream ideology between work and worth. They valued self-sufficiency and productivity, and rejected self-indulgence and dependence. Those who had earned their wealth wore their paid employment proudly. Those who had inherited wealth or did not currently work for pay resisted stereotypes of laziness or dilettantism, and offered alternate narratives of themselves as productive workers.

Second, good people are prudent consumers. It may be counterintuitive to associate wealthy New Yorkers with Puritans, whom we imagine as self-denying ascetics, when they have large homes full of material goods, travel widely, raise their children in comfort, and for the most part are not very religious. Yet they described their desires and needs as basic and their spending as disciplined and family-oriented. They asserted that they could live without their advantages if they had to, and distanced themselves from negative images of consumption such as ostentation, materialism and excess. These interpretations allowed them to believe that they deserved what they had, and to cast themselves as normal people rather than rich ones.

The third requirement for being a good person – the obligation to “give back”—more explicitly recognises privilege. But this imperative meant different things to different people. Often to give back meant to be aware of and appreciate their advantages rather than to take them for granted – an essentially private state of feeling. Many gave away money, and time as well, in charitable enterprises of various kinds. But these practices were marked by ambivalence over what it meant to identify and be visible as a wealthy person. Those who faced upward, who moved in relatively class-homogenous communities, were more likely to take for granted that they would play this kind of role.

The logic of entitlement

Whether or not these affluent New York parents actually adhere consistently to the imperatives of good personhood they describe, the fact that they work so hard to interpret themselves as doing so is key to understanding how inequality is legitimated.

My findings illuminate a real cultural ambivalence about privilege in the United States. Confusing representations of wealthy people proliferate, invoking both aspiration to and judgment of high-end consumption. These images sit uncomfortably next to social norms of not talking about social class and one’s own advantages over others.

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The proliferation of representations of wealthy people – such as the Kardashians – invites aspiration to, and judgment of, high-end consumption. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images/Yeezy Season 3

The most visible elite lifestyles – those of “real” housewives or wolves of Wall Street – are widely seen as over the top, unnecessary and thus worthy of critique. In contrast, in their appeals to ordinariness, my respondents move to occupy the cultural legitimacy of the middle class. They want to be in the middle, not in a distributional sense but rather in the affective sense of having the habits and desires of the middle class. As long as the wealthy can distance themselves from images of “bad” rich people, their entitlement is acceptable. In fact, it is almost as if they are not rich.

It is especially striking that “the middle” is symbolically available to everyone, even if they have $50m and are thus actually at the tippy-top of the income distribution, as long as they can claim a particular kind of disposition and lifestyle. This forms part of the normalisation of affluence, the larger cultural process by which the top comes to seem like the middle.

If people at the top are those who buy $20m houses in the Hamptons, those in the middle can be the people who earn $2m per year and have $5m in assets. This normalisation of affluence is also visible in US popular culture, in which lifestyles that would actually be quite expensive appear in ostensibly middle-class settings on television and in the movies. At the same time, the actual middle class and the poor disappear from public view.

As we judge rich people for consuming well or badly, working hard or being lazy, giving money away or keeping it, we create distinctions that legitimate the system. Even negative judgments of individual behaviour reproduce the logic of legitimate entitlement: to say someone is inhabiting privilege incorrectly is also to say it is possible to inhabit it correctly. This focus on distinctions among individuals draws attention away from institutions and social processes such as the systematic unequal distribution of resources.

Scholars and activists have long pointed out that people interpret structural problems as individual ones. It is common, for example, to blame poor people for their own poverty, suggesting that they do not work hard enough or are otherwise morally deficient, when in fact they face structural disadvantages in educational and legal institutions as well as in labour markets. People who struggle economically are also apt to blame themselves rather than the system for their failure to advance.

The wealthy people I talked with vary in how much they explain their social position solely with reference to hard work and other individual attributes. But they manage their discomfort with privilege by turning inward, toward managing affect and behaviour, rather than outward, toward social structure and distribution. Of course trying to be worthy of privilege at the top of the income distribution is not the same as blaming oneself or being blamed for economic struggle at the bottom. But the failure to connect what C Wright Mills called “personal troubles of milieu” – by which he meant problems of individuals in their immediate social environments – to “public issues of social structure” is the same.

To put it more succinctly: the personal is political.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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