Friday, March 19, 2010

Status-Income Disequilibrium

In the 1950s, when intellectuals socialized mostly with each other, they did not feel the pain of their own middle-class income. The rich were remote. In those days an investment banker went to Andover and Princeton, while a newspaper person went to Central High and Rutgers. But now the financiers and the writers both are likely to have gone to Andover and Princeton. The student who graduated from Harvard cum laude makes $85,000 a year as a think tank fellow, while the schlump she wouldn’t even talk to in gym class makes $34 million as a bond trader or TV producer. The loser who flunked out of Harvard and never showered is worth $2.4 billion in Silicon Valley. Pretty soon the successful intellectuals start to notice that while they have achieved social equality with these money types, financially they are inferior.
Imagine, for example, our worldly intellectual, now middle-aged and well established, at a dinner for the Society for the Preservation of Historic Chicago at the Drake Hotel. All night long she has been telling stories about Ted Koppel (emphasizing her recent Nightline appearance) and Bill Bradley (recounting their joint Aspen Institute conference in August). She’s kept the bankers and lawyers and doctors at her table enthralled. They retire afterward to the hotel bar for seven-dollar martinis and are joined by a consultant from Deloitte & Touche and his wife, a partner at Winston & Strawn—a two-ampersand couple. She is just as amusing at the bar, filling the air with inside dope about the publishing industry and magazine gossip. Feeling expansive, she decides to pick up the tab for drinks, putting it on her own credit card, even though any of the others could expense it, and when the whole group stumbles outside she is so overcome by the triumph of the evening that she blurts out, “Can I give anyone a lift? Anyone going south?”
There is an awkward silence. The ampersand couple says, “Actually, we’re going north, up to Winnetka.” One of the doctors says he is going north too, up toward Lake Forest. Suddenly it is all ash in her mouth. She knows what the neighborhoods are like on Chicago’s North Shore. The million-dollar homes stretch on for mile after mile. Some are Tudor Revival and others are Prairie School and Queen Anne, but they all are massive and immaculate. There are no weeds on the North Shore. Each house is surrounded by a huge spread of flawless lawn and masterfully landscaped grounds, with hedges so neatly sculpted they look like they’re made out of green marble. Even the garages are spotless, with baby joggers hanging neatly from pegs, and the Little Tikes kiddy cars arrayed in perfect rows, the floors swept and mopped. The renovators in those neighborhoods appear inside the house every seven years like cicadas, changing the paneling in the rotunda from cherry to walnut or back again. From the time those people wake up in the morning and set foot on their preheated bathroom floor to the waning moments of the evening, when they hit the remote to turn off the gas fireplace, they are reminded that life is good, America is just, and their lives are in control.
But the intellectual has to drive down to her university neighborhood in Hyde Park. She has to zip past the menacing housing projects, and when she returns to her neighborhood at 47th Street, she finds herself waiting at a stoplight looking over at a yellow check-cashing place and a storefront operation that offers low phone rates to El Salvador. Her building, which seemed such a step up from her earlier graduate school existence, is made of old and dark brick and is low and squat. The patch of ground out front, a scraggly excuse for a lawn, is practically bare, iron bars protect the windows, and the gate is rusted and ramshackle. She walks through the chipped marble vestibule—with its faint odors—and one flight up to her apartment. In Winnetka the doctors and lawyers are greeted by a grand entrance hall, but the intellectual has only a small excuse for a foyer which has shoes and boots lining the wall. She steps over the threshold of her apartment and finds herself confronted by a cluttered dining room table and looking into the kitchen. Suddenly she is feeling miserable. She is suffering from Status-Income Disequilibrium, a malady that afflicts people with jobs that give them high status but only moderately high income.
The tragedy of the SID sufferers’ lives is that they spend their days in glory and their nights in mediocrity. At work they go off and give lectures—all eyes upon them— appear on TV and on NPR, chair meetings. If they work in the media or in publishing, they can enjoy fancy expense-account lunches. All day long phone messages pile up on their desks—calls from rich and famous people seeking favors or attention—but at night they realize the bathroom needs cleaning so they have to pull out the Ajax. At work they are aristocrats, kings of the meritocracy, schmoozing with George Plimpton. At home they wonder if they can really afford a new car.
Consider the situation of our imagined intellectual. She’s earning $105,000 a year as a full professor at the University of Chicago. Her husband, whom she met while they were studying at Yale, is a program officer at a boutique foundation that takes Robert McCormick’s money and uses it to promote ideas McCormick despised. He makes $75,000. In their wildest imaginings they never dreamed they’d someday pull in $180,000 a year.
Or that they’d be so poor. Their daughter turned 18 last year, and her room and board at Stanford tops $30,000 annually. Their 16-year-old son, who has such a flair for music, consumes at least that much in tuition fees, when you throw in the prep school costs, the summer music camp, and the private lessons. The nanny who is home when their 9-year-old returns from the University of Chicago Lab School each afternoon eats up another $32,000 (they pay her legally because our intellectual still dreams of an administration post). Then there are the charity costs, which are high so they don’t have to feel too ashamed when they face their accountant each April (Nature Conservancy, Amnesty International, etc.). All of which leaves them about $2,500 a month for rent, food, books, laundry, and living expenses. It feels like they are utterly poor, and of course they are suffering from bracket amnesia; as soon as they reach one income bracket, they forget what life was like in the lower brackets and so can’t imagine how it would be possible ever to return there.
Modern intellectuals are good at worrying about their reputations. But the person who suffers from Status-Income Disequilibrium spends a lot of time worrying about money. And it is not as if the intellectual these days fills her days with thoughts about truth and beauty or poetic evocations of spring. It is not as if she is compensated for her meager $105,000 salary with the knowledge that she can rise above the mundane pressures of the world. She has to spend her working hours marketing herself, appraising the needs of her audience, selling herself to producers, journalists, and her academic colleagues. The SID sufferer who is in publishing spends. his days thinking about market niches, the same as the estate-owning executive at AT&T. He has to do just as much artificial schmoozing as the partners at Skadden, Arps or the sellers at Goldman Sachs. It’s just that they are working in big money industries and the SID sufferer is working in a small money industry.
Today’s intellectual is at the butt end of the upper class. She is rich enough to send her kids to the private schools and to Stanford, but many of the other parents at these places make as much in a month as her family does in a year. Eventually the kids of the SID sufferer begin to notice the income difference between their family and their classmates’ families. It happens around birthday time. The other kids have birthdays at Wrigley Field (they’ve bought out a section) or at FAQ Schwarz (they’ve rented out the whole store for a Sunday morning). The SID kid has his party in his living room.
When the intellectual’s oldest daughter comes home for Christmas break, she’ll be invited to go hang out with her Stanford classmate who lives up in Winnetka. She’ll notice that when she visits the home of her friend, everything is uncluttered. The house is filled with vast expanses of table space and counter space and floor space, all of it luxuriously spare. Spareness is also the rule at work. People in that branch of the educated class have big offices with wood surfaces. And they have secretaries to route the paper flow, and their secretaries have secretaries to file things away, so there is nothing left stacked up to cover the wide-open expanse of the predator’s desk. The briefcases of the financial services Bobos are wafer thin, with barely enough space to squeeze in a legal pad, because their lives are so totally in control they don’t have to schlepp things from place to place. They travel luggage-free to London because, after all, they’ve got another wardrobe at their flat there.
The life of the SID sufferer, by contrast, is cluttered. She’s got a small desk tucked upstairs in the social science building. And there are papers everywhere: manuscripts, memos, journals, magazine clippings. And at home the SID sufferer has jars and coffeemakers jamming the available counterspace, and pots hanging loosely from a rack on the wall. The SID sufferer has books all around the living room, most dating back to graduate school days (The Marx-Engels Reader, for example), and there are frayed copies of the New York Review of Books lying on the nightstand.
When an intellectual with a household income of $180,000 a year enters a room filled with moneyed types making $1.75 million a year a few social rules will be observed. First, everyone will act as if money does not exist. Everyone, including the intellectual who can’t pay her Visa bill in full, will pretend it is possible to jet off to Paris for a weekend and the only barrier is finding the time. Everyone will praise the Marais district, and it will not be mentioned that the financial analyst has an apartment in the Marais and the intellectual spends her rare vacations at one-star hotels. The intellectual will notice that the financial analysts spend a lot of time talking about their vacations, whereas all the intellectual wants to talk about is work.
When an intellectual enters a room filled with financial predators, there will be a nagging doubt in the back of her mind: do they really like me, or am I just another form of servant, one who provides amusement or publicity instead of making the beds? The sad fact is that the moneyed analysts tend not to think this way. The millionaires are plagued by the fear that while they have achieved success, they have not achieved significance. They suffer from a reverse SID—their income is higher than their status. They have Income-Status Disequilibrium (ISD). After all, they have not done much with their lives that would allow them to explore their artistic side or to achieve intellectual immortality or even to be dazzling in conversation. The millionaires notice that they have to pay for all the foundation dinners they attend while the intellectuals are thought to be important enough to get in for free. The rich are the johns of the think tank circuit.
Furthermore, the intellectuals are, in effect, paid to be interesting. They are paid to sit around all day reading things that they can then redirect into provocative prose and conversation (it’s astonishing that so many do this job so badly). And the rich, meanwhile, are practically paid to be dull; they are given huge salaries to work on arcane deals that would make their dinner companions’ minds go numb if they had to hear about them. Finally, the rich feel vulnerable because, despite their vast resources, they still rely on the publicity machine for their good reputations, which these professional dinner party ironists control.
Therefore, many millionaires think it would be neat to be a writer whose opinions are queried on The News-Hour with Jim Lehrer. Look at Mortimer Zuckerman, who owns the New York Daily News, U.S. News and World Report, and godly chunks of Manhattan and Washington. He’ll drive out to New Jersey to do a taping for the cable channel CNBC. It’s not enough to have more money than some countries. Zuckerman wants to be a public intellectual.
The intellectuals react in diverse ways to Status-Income Disequilibrium. Some try to pass for members of the money wing of the educated class. They buy those blue shirts with white collars. They polish their shoes daily. The women in this category save up enough money to buy a Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan suit. And if they are in, say, media, publishing, or the foundation world, they use their expense account to the max. Like an asthma sufferer taking the cure at an Arizona resort, a SID sufferer can find temporary relief when traveling on business. She can stay at the Ritz-Canton for $370 a night, with phones and televisions in every room. Hotel dry cleaning will be as nothing.
But then the business trip ends and it is back to earth. Which explains why other members of the intelligentsia go the other way and aggressively demonstrate that they still proudly adhere to their bohemian roots. You’ll see them wearing Timberland boots with their suits, a signal that they are still rebelling against the money culture.
Their taste in ties and socks will tend toward the ironic; you might see one wearing a tie adorned with the logo of a local sanitation department, a garbage truck driving over a rainbow.
At home this sort of SID sufferer will luxuriate in his poverty. He will congratulate himself for the fact that he lives in an integrated neighborhood, though he couldn’t afford the pearly white neighborhoods in such places as Winnetka or Grosse Pointe or Park Avenue. Most of all, he will congratulate himself on choosing a profession that doesn’t offer the big financial rewards, for not devoting his life to money grubbing. He does not mention to himself that, in fact, he lacks the quantitative skills it takes to be, say, an investment banker and that he is unable to focus on things that bore him, the way lawyers can. There never was any great opportunity to go into a more lucrative field, so there was never any real moment of deliberation of sacrifice.

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