The tarnished image of wealth
I’ve been trying to understand how the general American public can equate wealth with success, and simultaneously denigrate society’s wealthiest people. I find this combination very odd sometimes. A couple of friends have pointed me to that study suggesting a “perfect salary” beyond which happiness levels off, so perhaps our acceptance of others’ wealth lies similarly on a cliff? But I’m starting to think that what society really attacks is the publicity of wealth, and specifically the flaunting of it. I think this is how society reveals a buried, but core and widespread belief that too much accumulated wealth, in reality, is irresponsible.
The idea of flaunted wealth comes up in both my personal and academic lives. In the first, it’s just there; even after my family fell into two parts, I never lacked food, homes, expensive gifts, luxuries like travel. Now I attend an institution known for a high price tag and situated in central London where many unsheltered individuals sit at the feet of conspicuously branded commuters and schoolmates speed-walking past each morning and night. And I walk by with Apple earphones plugged in, in a Burberry jacket my father bought for me last year at Bloomingdale’s in Newport Beach. I may write a post later about the confusion and inescapable elitism of being ashamed about being ashamed about the fortunate circumstances I was born into, or the fear of ever being ungrateful, but only once I can fully articulate it (which, I don’t know, might be never). The point is, this is one part disclaimer and one part evidence that wealth can be made visible. Wealth at its various levels has a look and a feel – it has an image.
Which leads me to the academic side, as the image of wealth has become an unexpected side-study in my international relations and communications coursework. In “American Grand Strategy,” about U.S. foreign policy since mid-last century, we’ve been discussing Bush’s foreign policies, Obama’s subsequent ones and how the ebb and flow of U.S. wealth and power has affected both. Also implicated is the U.S.’ international reputation as reckless or responsible, which traces back to the costs of its international initiatives. Then, all the way over in the social psychology department, my corporate comms class has me scrolling down articles about companies who consider their good reputation and profitability are connected, and want to keep both on an upward trajectory. As it turns out, though, being visibly at the top of the economic food chain is quite similar to being pinned to a public bullseye.
Last year, three dear friends and I lived in the former American murder-capital, lower-income city of East Palo Alto (EPA), the less fortunate relative of Palo Alto. Every day, on our way back from jobs at Stanford and in San Francisco, we drove past the pristine gardens of Palo Alto, across a decaying cement construction called Newell Bridge, and lastly over an overcrowded EPA street riddled with potholes and lacking sidewalk. We saw we were living in Silicon Valley at a moment when widely-touted, booming engineering incomes are coinciding with increasing – and increasingly reported – levels of regional poverty. Thus, SV might be a flash point of a national trend in which the economy is rebounding (if we trust the WSJ) but “leaving behind many middle- and lower-income Americans.” And the result in media? As epitomized by the remarkably blunt Telegraph headline from last week, “Zero likes: how the world came to hate Silicon Valley.” Underneath that, the explanation: “displays of excess and arrogance.” Before coming to London, I couldn’t wait to see what image Silicon Valley held across the Atlantic: glittery, gaudy? The answer is now a clear Yes to both, depending on if I’m talking with a designer or an economist.
Most crucially, I’m learning that while most people want more money, we’re also socially allergic to the image of too much of it. On Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, there is now an unpleasant aftertaste to unabashed wealth.
But why? Why is flaunted wealth deemed “gaudy”? Why is to “to spoil” a verb for food and people? The idea I have is that at a fundamental level, the general public agrees that there are many very poor people in the world who have no money, or at least many worried people very financially destabilized. I believe that this is a widely accepted and widely announced fact, even if not consciously registered on a daily basis. Stemming from that is the widely shared judgment that it is wrong, unfair and outrageous. On another plain is the fact that there are a few very rich people in the world, which is where the discussion gets political. Are those who hold a disproportionately high amount of wealth accountable to those who hold a disproportionately low amount of wealth? Well, I won’t get political here. What is clear is the friction between the very loud fact of poverty and any loud proclamations of wealth – and these days, the first overrides the second.
Basically, while wealth is easily exhibited in the privacy of a home or isolated community beside peers within the same socioeconomic bracket, it quickly loses dignity in the public eye. The backdrop of a much wider world racked by struggle and despair brings an unfavorable gravity and perspective to flaunted wealth (maybe Martin Scorsese capitalized well on this historical moment), and it all becomes less socially accepted after all.
This is a problematic reality for organizations that have done very well for themselves financially, but whose continued success also depends on maintaining a good social reputation. Lots of companies are realizing they must communicate an identity of social good to continue any long-term skyrocketing; lots of companies have also been attacked for communicating that identity without really executing it. Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming, because it’s directly translatable to individuals, too. The masses immediately sense hypocrisy in anyone hailing personal wealth like a flag (via words, pictures or behaviour) on one hand, while announcing humanitarianism on another. It seems the general public doesn’t believe you can get away with doing both publicly and simultaneously, and maybe this generation is the least wise time to try.
4 April 2014: Apparently “opulence is out” at the Catholic Church, too. Really interesting article from The New York Times.
25 September 2014: Paul Krugman also supposes that the today’s wealthiest people are far more ostentatious than those 50 years ago, i.e. more yachts, bigger mansions. Also, people in more unequal neighborhoods are also more likely to publicize their wealth than people living in more homogeneous neighborhoods. Anyway, this is Krugman saying that both Republicans and Democrats agree that modesty has been banished in this generation’s “show-off society.” Interestingly, this phenomenon of ginormous self-publicity is a burgeoning branch in media and communications theory, but I’ll save that for another post…