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by Peter Moskos

December 23, 2011

A Christmas Message From America's Rich

From Rolling Stone:
The very rich on today's Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.

An ordinary person who has a problem that needs fixing puts a letter in the mail to his congressman and sends it to stand in a line in some DC mailroom with thousands of others, waiting for a response.

But citizens of the stateless archipelago where people [the very rich] live spend millions a year lobbying and donating to political campaigns so that they can jump the line.
Some of these people take that VIP-room idea a step further. J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon -- the man the New York Times once called "Obama's favorite banker" -- ... orchestrated a deal in which the Fed provided $29 billion in assistance to help his own bank, Chase, buy up the teetering investment firm Bear Stearns. You read that right: Jamie Dimon helped give himself a bailout. Who needs to worry about good government, when you are the government?

Dimon, incidentally, is another one of those bankers who's complaining now about the unfair criticism. "Acting like everyone who's been successful is bad and because you're rich you're bad, I don't understand it," he recently said, at an investor's conference.

Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich.

What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens.

Most of us 99-percenters couldn't even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors. It's called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don't do them, because, well, we live here. Most of us wouldn't take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life's savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.
As someone from a middle-class public-school background who has rubbed shoulders with the 0.1% (that's what happen when you go to Princeton and Harvard), what bothered me about the uber-rich I met in Princeton (you don't meet so many uber-rich in grad school) wasn't that they were rich... It was their absolute sense of entitlement! They never counted their blessing. They didn't need to. They knew the game was rigged and that were going to win it.

Now I benefited from the same game, and by most of the world's standards I'm uber-rich (something mostly due to where and to whom I was born, for which I'm very thankful), so I can't complain too much.

No, what bothered me about these people--our current masters of finance and industry--is that they somehow believed that they had earned their privileged position. And I'm talking about 18-year-old prep-school kids who at that point had never worked a day in their lives!

They had convinced themselves that somehow, because their parents were rich and they went to Princeton, that they had won a meritocratic game. They thought they were better--not just richer, mind you, but better--than working people, especially the janitors and cooks and service workers (students and professional alike) who took care of them (and had made the best of their life's situation). I saw it all the time. The rich really are different than you and me: they have no clue.

[thanks to Alan for the link]


NewOldSalt said...

The “let them eat cake” crowd is clueless. I don’t know when the U.S. will have its own French Revolution, but we can’t arrest (for drugs) millions and millions of people, then make it nearly impossible for them to work a decent job at a decent wage without it coming home to roost.

My sense is there will be lots of every political stripe involved in it.

Dana King said...

What Ann Richards said about George H.W. Bush applies to too many people today: They were born on third base and think they hit a triple. At least Bush 41 served his country honorably and at great risk to himself, which is far more than what can be said for the overwhelming majority of the current 1%.

As I learn more about American history, I've come to believe the super-rich always had this sense of entitlement, or being better than those who were not rich. The difference is, until recently they had the good manner, civility, and class not to feel the need to rub it in our faces.

ChristMotForbud said...

There is much anger, rightly so, directed at “America,” however this problem has been perennial since long before Biblical times I suspect. We can see Solomon’s son acted this way, as did his contemporaries, in 1 Kings 12:1-14.

The thing I find so frustrating is that try as we might to avoid putting our own money in their pockets there seems to be no way to avoid it, then they use that money to further destroy our society and the world.

Take copyright among myriad examples. I tried to (officially, i.e. through the govt.) copyright a bunch of my songs that I’d finished. Besides the fact the govt. websites were horribly written and organized I muddled through and spent a bunch of money to register them and upload each song as a PDF.

Weeks later they replied they were rejecting me. Why? I can’t recall the whole answer, but it boiled down to not releasing them on an album, but individually. Complete nonsense. It reeked of recording industry slimy practices, ~ “you haven’t put yourself in huge debt to the recording industry via huge cash advances,” meanwhile the Smithsonian (or some related entity) is busying archiving tweets! Give me a freaking break.

ChristMotForbud said...

I love music. There aren’t many styles I don’t like. I’ve bought a lot of records and CDs over the decades. But what do they do with those profits? It seems a tiny percentage ends up going to the artists, but instead most goes to lawyers who pervert our govt. to do its bidding, and business models built on enslaving budding artists.

Jay Livingston said...

Wish I’d read this and the RS article before I blogged what I blogged this morning. As for Princeton and class, I hope you didn’t miss this segment of This American Life last week.

Charlieopera said...

Workers of the world unite ...

PCM said...


I had missed that segment. Good stuff! Of course he was describing more standard class resentment (and I might say unjustified class rage--after all, the narrator didn't want to write a college essay!) I, a budding sociologist in training, liked to think I could see beyond such generalizations and actually hate the individual!

Amir, ironically--a Canadian and presumably the child or grandchildren of immigrants--even if a jerk, wasn't even the kind of kid I had issues with (though as a European banker, he certainly made certain career choices I didn't make). Jerks are everywhere.

Class-preserving jerks with hundreds of millions of dollars in their family are uniquely Ivy League.

[Unrelated, I do like the line: "He's a banker in Europe. I live with a roommate in Queens, arguably the 4th coolest boro in New York."]

Anonymous said...


Why did you pick Harvard?

-From Canada

PCM said...

For sociology grad school I was able to choose between Harvard and U of Chicago. Those were the two places that let me in and gave me good money.

Ultimately, at that point, the choice was more about where I wanted to live rather than anything academic.

After spending 4 years at Princeton and wishing I were elsewhere, I didn't want to make the same mistake again. (I had never visited Princeton prior to going there and somehow convinced myself, mistakenly, that Princeton is to New York City like Evanston, where is to Chicago.)

I knew Chicago very well and yet the South Side is further from the North Side (where I wanted to be) than the North Side is from Evanston, where I grew up (which was already too far away).

I spent a day in Hyde Park before making my decision and thought: this is not the place I really want to live for many years of my life.

Both Chicago and Harvard are great schools. So I figured I couldn't go wrong either way. Arguably, Chicago might have been better for urban ethnography. But Harvard worked out fine in the end. And I wouldn't have given up those years in Inman Square, Cambridge, for anything.

(Though even at Harvard my social life did not revolve around the University.)

Anonymous said...

What was life like at Princeton like? What are the children of the elite really like? Let's here some gossip. No names are necessary.

Was there a lot of this type of attitude exhibited in this video?


-From Canada

PCM said...

Honestly, now, the uber-rich don't take New Jersey Transit!

Generally I didn't hang around those types. Funny how you manage to self-segregate. But while at Princeton self-segregation was my salvation.

For three years I was not happy Princeton. I kept trying to fit in. Everybody else seemed to love the place. Why didn't people want to go to New York and roam the streets drinking beer from paper bags? What was wrong with me? Was it me or all of them? Turned out it *was* all of them (or so I say).

I took a year off (in two semesters off, mostly in Greece) and then when I returned for my senior year I basically dropped out Princeton, socially. I didn't do any extra-curriculars, I hung out at Terrace Club (the "liberal" "kookie" club; and we did have great theme parties, RIP Barton!), I worked in the kitchen at said Terrace Club (again, RIP Barton), played a lot of pinball (I had the high score on Sorcerer), and generally had a marvelous time.

When I graduated in 1994 (I skipped my graduation to run off to Amsterdam and tend bar), all my close friends (including the woman who, 10 years later, become my girlfriend and now wife) were all similar in our middle-class large-public-high-school backgrounds.

Strange, that.

But back to your question, most of the uber-rich are nice, or at least polite. As are most people.

And you (or at least I) don't know they were uber-rich when you first meet them. But somehow, you (or they) figure it out. Or they already know each other.

What shocked me at Princeton was (along with the lack of grime referred to in the radio clip Jay links to above) that half the kids come from private schools. I didn't know what this meant.

Where I come from, if you went to private high-school, it means you were a fuck up (though in Chicago it was acceptable to go to a Catholic school).

I did not understand the East Coast prep-school concept. And then you take another chunk of the student population who were jocks, on athletic scholarships. Some of them were downright stupid. Yes, stupid Princeton students. And then you get some hard-core nerds. Not bad people, but not exactly fun to hang out with.

So what's left? Very little. And that was the part I could relate to.

All that said, you do meet truly amazing people at Princeton. Not just valedictorians and 1600-on-your-SAT smart (that was the top score then) (though there were plenty of them, too). Football players who can sing and dance and talk philosophy. Or one guy, also in theater, who could get passed out drunk (a common pastime at Princeton) and yet, if you managed to put his passed-out hand on a piano keyboard, could still play a fine tune. Amazing.

And my Junior Paper was similar in subject to a senior thesis that had been written a few years earlier. I was told by my junior paper adviser (the wonderful Professor Howard Taylor) that I should contact her. I didn't. I should have. Her name was Michelle Robinson ('85).

And you know what, for all my griping, I did get a great education. I'm still close to a few of my under-grad professors (more so than my grad-school professors). I purposely took small classes and tried to avoid all the academic slackers. We used to say it's easy to get a B at Princeton; you have to work for an A or a C! And my parents paid for it all (thank you, Mama and Papa).

Anonymous said...

Great reply. I appreciate that. Thanks.

-From Canada

Brick Layer said...

Only after the last fish has been caught, only after the last river has been poisoned, will they relize money can not be eaten