Nov 1 2009

Hard Times for the Overclass

Media fascination with the recession’s richest victims

Money/Photo: Flickr of 401(k) 2012

Money/Photo: Flickr of 401(k) 2012

It was Finley Peter Dunne who said that the job of newspapers was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But the other job of newspapers, as we all know, is to bring in advertisers—who want to reach a big-spending demographic. So what’s a paper to do in this current economic recession? Simply redefine “affliction” to mean wealthy people struggling to maintain their way of life at the top.

Most readers of the Washington Post (8/16/09) might have been taken aback by this headline: “Squeaking by on $300,000.” The paper explained that spotting the fallout for the wealthy from the recession requires a special sort of investigative know-how: “To the untrained eye, the long economic downturn as viewed from here and beyond—the hedges and country clubs of Westchester County that stretch to Long Island Sound—has been hard to see or feel.” Fortunately, the Post was on the case. Over 3,000 words were dedicated to the plight of Laura Steins, a divorced vice president of a credit card company living in a $2.5 million house with a live-in nanny. Steins “radiates confidence” while “wearing a dark Armani suit and take-charge heels”—though she has missed several hair appointments, “a telltale sign of economic distress for a woman such as Steins.”

The piece included a message for the rest of us:

Whatever fantasies the underclass may have of the good life—of small dogs in purses and Dolce & Gabbana—are not on display here. The rugs are worn. Milk is spilled. A Marmaduke of a beast named Tyson hovers at the table ready to snuffle up pork tenderloin from the plate of a distracted child.”

Or, to put it another way: “Being a mother on her own in married suburbia requires courage. One of the few redeeming qualities of the Post article was the fact that, for several paragraphs, readers learned about the life of Kathy Shellogg, the nanny—the Steins household, we’re told, “actually has two ladies of the house”—who lost a union job 15 years ago and has struggled ever since. The Post suggests the two women are as similar as they are different: “They make a portrait in class distinction—Steins in her shimmering white trench coat and Shellogg in her comfy sweats—yet they can also seem like two exhausted blondes trying to keep a house going.” In the end, the lesson was that “the lower rung of affluence,” while still, well, affluent, is not what it seems: “Perfect looks perfect from a distance.”

This wasn’t an isolated man-bites-dog take on an economic crisis that will overwhelmingly harm the world’s poorest. “World’s Wealthy Pay a Price in Crisis” (Washington Post, 9/15/09) detailed the international scope of the phenomenon, declaring that “it no longer pays as much to be rich,” as governments seek to raise taxes and increase regulation, “part of a far broader campaign in the wake of the Great Recession—including curbs on bankers’ pay and a rigorous global hunt for tax cheats from Switzerland to Singapore—that is suddenly putting the world’s wealthy on notice.” Asking the richest to make contributions commensurate with their gains and to obey the law might sound all right to you. “But for some, it is beginning to feel like governments are piling on when it comes to the rich—who, through lost real estate and stock values, have already shed untold billions.”

The Post’s domestic example was weak: President Barack Obama’s “current budget calls for a rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans that would increase their top marginal tax rate in 2011 from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, or the same as in the Clinton era.” Yes, we all remember the rough years the wealthy endured during the Clinton presidency.

Other outlets took a somewhat different tack, highlighting (often at great length) the fall from super-wealthy to merely very wealthy status, while suggesting they knew that such attention might be unseemly. Under the front-page headline “After 30-Year Run, Rise of the Super-Rich Hits a Sobering Wall,” the New York Times (8/21/09) alerted readers:

For every investment banker whose pay has recovered to its pre-recession levels, there are several who have lost their jobs—as well as many wealthy investors who have lost millions. As a result, economists and other analysts say, a 30-year period in which the super-rich became both wealthier and more numerous may now be ending.

The paper noted that the “relative struggles of the rich may elicit little sympathy from less well-off families who are dealing with the effects of the worst recession in a generation.” The reason the “struggles” of the wealthy are news, though, is that they raise “broader economic questions,” including whether “harder times for the rich will ultimately benefit the middle class and the poor.”

It’s those harder times for the rich, though, that are the story here. The piece dwelt on the fortunes of John McAfee, who founded the computer antivirus company of the same name. McAfee’s personal wealth peaked at somewhere near $100 million, we’re told, but has since dwindled to a mere $4 million. The fallout is obvious, perhaps even “sobering”: Real estate holdings in Colorado and Hawaii have been sold off, and McAfee is selling a property in New Mexico where he kept his airplanes. In fact, McAfee “has sold a 10-passenger Cessna jet and now flies coach.” Again, the Times reminds that McAfee’s “remaining net worth of about $4 million makes him vastly wealthier than most Americans, of course.”

Being vastly wealthier than most Americans but somewhat less wealthy than before also garnered McAfee an admiring profile on ABC’s Nightline September 1, introduced by Terry Moran:

In this recession, the average American is certainly pinching every penny. But for many of the super rich, the financial downturn has meant millions—even billions—lost. Analysts say the number of Americans with a net worth of at least $30 million dropped by nearly 25 percent last year. Now, the man you are about to meet is one of the biggest losers. It’s staggering, really, but his response might surprise you.

McAfee told ABC’s Chris Bury: “Well, god, I hope they don’t have sympathy for my—I don’t have sympathy for my position….I’m perfectly happy and if I were struggling to meet my mortgage and worried about losing my job and how I was going to feed my family, I wouldn’t have much sympathy.” That’s a refreshing response, but surely it’s only surprising to someone who finds the idea of being down to your last $4 milllion “staggering.”

Indeed, the actually well-off seemed to have a better sense of their relative status in economic hard times than the journalists profiling them. NPR’s Morning Edition (6/25/09) went to the suburb of Ridgewood, N.J., to tell the stories of laid-off Wall Streeters—“not,” the report stressed, “the super-wealthy corporate executives we hear about,” but men who made “nice six-figure salaries; they have some savings and so they’re not desperate for work.” A follow-up had reporter David Greene (9/11/09) telling an unemployed broker, “Some listeners didn’t understand why with so many Americans out of work and struggling in this recession, we decided to focus on a former stockbroker.” The stockbroker’s answer: “I’m not even sure why I am talking to you. I don’t feel like I have any special story to get out to anybody.”

The Los Angeles Times (7/3/09) approached the story via the hair salon. One Manhattan colorist’s business is in decline—“an entitled world goes haywire”—and the cultural habits of the elite are changing:

The orgy of shopping is over, and the conversation has shifted to a sort of proletarian chic. Women who once bragged about spending sprees now boast about how they’ve combined phone and online services to save money. They turn up at the salon in town cars instead of limousines to appear less indulgent. They stretch the limits between appointments from four to six or, heaven forbid, eight weeks.

As this suggests, the tone in some of the “decline of the super-wealthy” reporting is, to be sure, a bit on the snarky side. But devoting thousands of words to the pain among the wealthy and occasionally snickering about their streak of, “heaven forbid,”bad luck is a curious way to spend so much time (and newsprint).

Barbara Ehrenreich, whose contributions to the New York Times op-ed page have been a bright spot, criticized the selective fascination of “the new media genre that’s been called ‘recession porn’” in a June 14 piece headlined “Too Poor to Make the News.” The media’s crisis story, Ehrenreich wrote, is one “of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s.” Such stories present the recession’s impacts as shared, even leveling in their effects.

That story would change if media were to include those who are “generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility—the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the population who struggle to get by in the best of times.” Though their numbers dwarf those of the super-rich, their stories continue to attract decidedly less enthusiasm from the corporate media than the tales of CEOs and millionaires now living on less.