Rachel Sherman can't say whether or not she liked the people she interviewed for her new book about New York City's wealthy elite. As a sociologist at the New School, that would be unprofessional. But she did tell me she could empathize with them, and after reading her book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, you should be able to do the same.
Through extensive conversations with 50 people—including financiers, inheritors, housewives, and more—Sherman found that rich people are uncomfortable with being rich, or at least being labeled "rich." Not that they're going to give all their money away or send their kids to a public school. They just want to be thought of as "normal," whatever that means.
Sympathy for the wealthy is deeply unfashionable these days. Even the president, who is famous for pretending to be richer than he actually is and often spends his weekends at one of his many country clubs, regularly denounces the elite and portrayed his political opponents as tools of Wall Street during the election. At the same time, the behavior of the rich is often examined on moral grounds: A lavish display on Instagram is grotesque; a massive charitable is praised. But Sherman says that judging wealthy people as either worthy or undeserving of scorn based on their lifestyle choices is counterproductive and keeps us from analyzing the structural forces that perpetuate massive income inequality.
Still—how can someone having millions of dollars in assets think of themselves as having middle-class values, as the subjects of her book often insist they do? I asked her to explain.
VICE: In the intro to your book, you kind of say that you're trying to challenge the assumption that rich people are unpleasant or greedy or competitive. Why is that a worthwhile undertaking?
Rachel Sherman: Because I think [the book] really speaks to a broader conversation that we need to have about wealth and inequality. This is kind of the punch line of the book, that if we're making distinctions between good and bad wealthy people, what does that mean about what we're not talking about? Why are we focusing on the individual attributes of wealthy people like if they are hard workers, or if they are reasonable consumers, if they give back, if they behave in an entitled way, if they are snobby, or obnoxious, or whatever? Why is that the basis on which we're kind of implicitly saying that people are legitimately entitled to wealth? Do we actually want to be saying that somebody who works hard and doesn't live in a McMansion and gives to charity should be entitled to as much money as they want and only people who are mean and rude and ostentatious shouldn't be?
And another thing is these are also criteria that we use to kind of identify legitimate entitlements of poor people. I mean, all the conversations about welfare—tying the state support to work and criticizing poor people for spending money in ways that people with more money don't think that they should. These are the same types of critiques of entitlement. So I think we should be having a more explicit cultural conversation about what entitlement really should be based on.
Should I be comforted by the fact that the rich seem to wracked with guilt over their wealth, or should I be annoyed that they're being so emotionally self-indulgent?
It makes me sort of happy that you have that conflict, because I think that's the kind of question that the book raises. What I'm saying is, "What if you didn't judge them at all?" Like what if our reaction to these kind of people was not always, "Are they good or bad? Is this good or bad?" and rather to think more about the social system that is producing people with this kind of wealth.
It was very difficult to write the book, to navigate these judgements myself; I don't live outside of my own cultural context. I do think that there's a practical implication in that not all of these people [are the same], and some of them are quite liberal politically. And I think this can open up more of a conversation about what relatively liberal wealthy people can do with their wealth and what kind of social change they can contribute to and what different ways.
There's a woman in the book who suggests that affluent people's embarrassment over money is actually kind of harmful because it makes them less likely to donate large amounts to charity. Do you actually buy that?
That woman was talking about her client base who are progressive, wealthy people who feel very conflicted about this. I think mostly they're inheritors of wealth, and I think they feel kind of guilty. She's just saying that if people hide it from themselves, they can't take any kind of action around it.
Is that maybe one of the practical benefits of having a more transparent conversation about affluence, that money would be redistributed more fairly?
If we talked about it more, I think more unexpected things would happen. There's a kind of double-edged sword of awareness of privilege, because on the one hand, as you said, it seems good that these affluent people are aware that they're privileged. On the other hand, as I argue, I think in some cases they use awareness as a way to get themselves off the hook. Like, "I'm nice to the nanny, or I know that I have more than she does, or in general I'm nice to people with less or generous to friends or family who have less," or whatever.
Like the emotional labor of guilt kind of absolves them of actually confronting inequality in a material way.
Right. So on one hand, there's a kind of generosity toward actual other people, and then on the other hand, there's a way in which they torture themselves about it. And again, this is probably the more liberal or progressive people. And then they feel better that they thought about, Should I send my kids to private school? or, Should I buy the second home? And again, it's so tempting to make fun of people like that, but I think that there's another way, which is like, "This is a legitimate conflict that a human person is having, and the impulse to ridicule it is in itself kind of legitimating of inequality." Because it keeps us thinking about inequality in this particular way.
Another part that I found really interesting was when you talked about feeling sympathy for some of the women whose husbands devalued their labor and couldn't see themselves as privileged because they were kind of second-class citizens in their own marriages. How does that speak to the larger phenomenon you're getting at about people being unable to see past their immediate circumstances and locate themselves within society as a whole?
They're so engaged in not being the bad kind of rich people, which is very distracting. And particularly in these marriages where there is a stay-at-home mother married to a high earner, the gender dynamics do serve as a kind of distraction from the wealth, and particularly because there are often conflicts over money, it kind of makes—at least the women feel like—that there's not enough, because they lack control over the family finances.
It was genuinely really hard for them to talk with their husbands honestly about this. I think they often felt really devalued, because all of the women I interviewed were highly educated, and they previously had careers. It's not like a lot of their husbands necessarily wanted them to keep working, but the emphasis on work as being the person who brings in the money to the household is so strong, as is the stereotype of wealthy women as dilettante consumers. They were really struggling with both of those things. And then it kind of seems like there's a sense of scarcity. Which I know, again, sounds kind of ridiculous, but I think that is actually how they feel within their own particular contexts.
Can you be a good person and be incredibly affluent?
I'm not going to answer that. The point is not so much, "Can you be a good person and be in the One Percent?" That all depends on one's definition of a good person, right? But it stands to reason that of course by some definitions, rich people are good people too. For me the question is, "Why do we want rich people not to be able to be good people?"
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