Of Mercedes and Men

December 4, 2011

Political Theory


It was an all-too-familiar sight: the hazy sun reflecting off the sidewalk, the one-story designer boutiques advertising the latest fashion creations, the people dressed to attend midday soirees. As urbanites and suburbanites alike made the trek east, the seemingly endless line of new-modeled luxury vehicles clogged the perfectly paved roads. It was a true battle, a ruthless clash between the “haves” and the “have-mores”; the weapons were affluence and status (and possibly those new SUVs that look like tanks), the participants were the opulent and the excessive, and the battlegrounds were the Hamptons.

Designer stores and well dressed shoppers line the streets of the Hamptons

From the windows of the railroad – one headed towards Montauk, the less affluent David to the Hampton Goliath – my friends and I admired this obvious flaunting of wealth, imagined ourselves as part of this high-class, elite society, and made it our goal to someday be on the other side of the glass. Well, perhaps more myself than my friends. Perhaps as I sat there, trying to peel my eyes away from the multi-million dollar estates and their equally valued yachts, I was (jokingly) criticized for being shallow, and maybe a little bit materialistic. Yet, I embraced the scrutiny and took the jabs as compliments; “it’s not materialism,” I responded, “its motivation.” What is wrong with financial success as motivation?

Society today has imposed a largely negative stigma on using wealth and prosperity as goals, and an even stronger stigma on viewing the attainment of such as achievements. However, these implementations have spread beyond their original concentration and have given bad face to an undeserving group of people. The upper class members of the populace don brand clothing, live exorbitant lifestyles, and wholeheartedly take advantage of the socioeconomic position that they have worked to establish. Others live just as lavishly, but use their positions to continue up the ladder and lead a greed-driven pursuit of more: more money, more power, more success. There is a crucial distinction to be made between the wealthy and the greedy, and this difference has become muddied to the extent that the two are now regarded as one in the same.

The movie Too Big To Fail (awesome, must see) based on economist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book documents the 2008 economic collapse, from Bear Stern’s bankruptcy to bailout. The banking executives depicted in the movie struggle to clean up the meltdown they caused, and the fate of the world’s economy relies on the actions they take in this sleepless seven-day period. As exemplified in a heated back and forth dialogue between United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and his assistants, “…the whole financial system goes down. What do I say when they ask me why it wasn’t regulated? / No one wanted to; they were making too much money.”

They were making too much money. These Wall Street executives took advantage of flaws in the financial system and capitalized on them at the expense of middle and lower class America. This is the epitome of greed, and these are the people who deserve the negative stigma associated with wealth and prosperity. Sure, they are driving the same model Mercedes as the upper-class family that lives down the block. They may vacation (only the wealthy can use this word as a verb) in the same spot (Hamptons?) and wear the same brands, but there is an innate distinction that has been ignored due to the naivety of the general population. There is a difference between the “one percenter” who made a fortune on defaulted mortgage-backed securities and the “one percenter” who is proud that they can pay for their children’s college tuitions. With the loss of this distinction came the scrutiny and disgust of everyone in the upper class, and even those who hope to one day be a part of it. When did it become evil to aspire to be a “one percenter?”

While the general population is at fault for not recognizing this distinction, various theorists have made this same mistake as well. In his (in)famous Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx accuses the bourgeoisie of “substituting naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation,” and “tearing away from the family its sentimental veil, and reducing the family relation to a mere money relation.” Although the Bourgeoisie that Marx describes is a more-middle class group of people, his argument (read: unwarranted attack) is severely undermined by his inability to realize that the generalizations he made were not as sweeping as described. Of course I wasn’t alive during the 1800s, but I’m sure that not every money-driven member of the bourgeoisie “established new conditions of oppression” and “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Karl Marx has failed to establish the difference between the two different types of people that the bourgeois class was composed of, and modern day society has made the same grave error regarding the upper class.

The old adage, “money doesn’t buy happiness” is just that, old. Financial success and prosperity might be the end game for some, and fine I admit, it is certainly mine. But that doesn’t reflect what you do with the money, how you attain it, and the change you will bring with it. Being a “one percenter” shouldn’t imply voracity and ruthlessness, and aspiring to be one shouldn’t either. And while we’re on the discussion of old adages, what happened to, “don’t judge a book by its cover?” That should still apply, even if the cover is a Benjamin.

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13 Comments on “Of Mercedes and Men”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I agree that there needs to be a distinction between the affluent and the greedy, but I think it is the responsibility of the affluent to make the distinction more known. If they don’t want to be grouped together with the greedy and irresponsible, then they should make the effort to separate themselves. Whether by donating to charity or making some attempt to create accountability and eliminate unfairness in the financial sector, people should use their financial success to do some good. That being said, I do agree with the idea of this post; that we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover” and assume that every person who attains financial success is unethical or greedy. In addition, the entry is extremely well-written!

  2. Katia Says:

    Wonderful quote, “it’s not materialism. it’s motivation.”
    And great title.

    In response to Rachel, I don’t think there is a difference between the greedy and anyone else. Everyone in America is greedy, but there isn’t anything morally wrong with that. We are taught from the get go that to be America is to end up with more than you started with. It’s called working hard and reaping the rewards. There is nothing wrong with coveting and attaining.

    Great article Justin!

  3. Ethan Widawsky Says:

    I think your distinction between the greedy and the affluent is completely arbitrary. There is, in fact, no difference in their motivation except when us middle-classers, who (myself atleast) strive to reach that level, create one. They’re all rationally self-interested actors. When they cross the line from promoting their own interests in a rational way to violating the rights of others (especially middle-classers) through lying, stealing, etc… then a distinction merits being made. If you want to call these (lyers, stealers) greedy, then thats fine but i think the more appropriate term is simply criminal, which differentiates them from their wealthy, honest counterparts, and classifies with those who lie and cheat regardless of wealth. If a wealthy person wants to use his wealth to create more wealth, then that is his right, so long as he doesnt violate others rights while doing so. Society has a habit of extolling such figures, so long as they contribute to the public good (Bill gates and the gates foundation, steve jobs and everyone loves apple products) but in reality any wealthy person can continue to use their wealth to create more isnt doing anything wrong. Just ask Warren Buffet, known for demanding higher taxes on the rich, who just bought a piece of IBM because he finds it a promising investment.

  4. Mark Says:

    Interesting viewpoint!
    It’s honest and I give you credit for writing it.

  5. Brian T., Says:

    I think this post presents an excellent starting point for discussion of values and perception. I wholeheartedly agree with the author that many fail to recognize an important distinction when ridiculing the so-called “1%.”

    I’d add also– what gets lost in the heated rhetoric that characterizes today’s politics is that America has, in both traditional and contemporary times, never been a nation solely characterized by class or financial status. The author here argues that the “1%” is not a uniform group; rather, they have a diverse set of interests, values, and make different contributions to society. That is why we see 1% such as Russell Simmons supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement; he may be in the 1% when measured by wealth but his value system runs counter to other 1 percenters. Because of these diverging values and concerns even within the 1%, it is completely wrong, as the author alludes to, to label the entire group “greedy” or what not.

    This is also true for America as a whole. A very influential piece of political theory, at least personally, comes from book titled “What’s Wrong with Kansas?” Here, the author explores a vexing question for political scientists: if the economy is consistently viewed as a consequential variable in electoral politics, then why does the populace always vote against their own economic interests? For example, Kansas is traditionally a Red State. It is also one of the poorest states in the country. Why then, do folks from Kansas tend to vote for Republicans who believe in less government, and by extension, less benefits? Why not vote for Democrats who will better their economic situation by making the tax code more progressive, increasing welfare benefits, heightening Medicaid, etc. The conclusion he reaches, supported by many other political scientists spanning the decade, is that Americans do note vote along class-based lines. Poor people do not always vote democratic because there is a strong enough religious and cultural streak in American politics that convinces people to vote against their own economic interests in favor of say, a pro-life candidate. This supports the author’s argument; we should not label classes as a uniform group because they tend to vote in varying ways and have very different value systems.

    Lastly, I’d like to address the commenter above. A lot of what you say could and should be considered Rand-ian (as in the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand). She essentially says that greed is not only acceptable, but the highest form of morality. I used to believe in a lot of her objectivism platform but have grown away from it. However, you seem to fall in line with something Rand might suggest. Is being greedy really a virtue? I would argue no. We have a right to be greedy, certainly. But I do not subscribe to the warped view that we should always defend greed, which is what you seem to be doing. In this sense, I do think greed can be used as a dividing point amongst the “1%.”

  6. arielleshanker Says:

    The complex issue at hand here– the distinction between the greedy wealthy and the working wealthy–is made this way based on purely American, individualistic, and capitalistic ideals. Since the turn of the twentieth century, perhaps even as far back as America’s founding, people have believed in the “American Dream,” the idea that if you work hard, you will be rewarded by streets paved with gold and all the luxuries that come with pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. The concept of improving yourself by your own efforts is inherently “greedy,” as it claims that any amount of effort will result in payoffs.

  7. jonkeren Says:

    I think you make extremely valid points about the differences in the ” one percent.” The Collapse of Wall Street was caused by a collective force of both the government and the people who worked there. A lot of the bankers who were involved in the selling of mortgage backed securities were absurdly greedy and did not care that they were selling “junk.” They were making to much money to even think about the ramifications of their actions. Furthermore, companies and people in general were making so much money at the peak right before the recession in 2007 that the government did not really look into the situation that was going on. Very few people understood what was really going on and how the entire financial system was about to crash.
    With that being said, I think its very hard to make a vivid distinction between the rich who are greedy and the rich who are not. Many individuals who are unbelievably wealthy are/ were able to cover up their greedy tendencies. For example; before Bernie Madoff was exposed for his Ponzi Scheme, he was a praised and well respected person. He donated millions of dollars to years to charities and set up numerous organizations to help the less fortunate. If the financial system did not completely break down in 2007 then Madoff would probably still be operating his Ponzi Scheme today and would still be a highly decorated individual. What i am trying to say is that when it’s this easy to cover up your “greediness” it makes it very hard to make clear distinction between the “good” one per centers and “bad” ones.

  8. masonbear Says:

    To begin I have to say great post. As mainstream society begins to generalize all upper-class individuals as greedy money-grubbing CEO’s it is important to maintain the distinction between those that do good deeds with their wealth and those that are simply greedy. To further examine the ideal that being a “one-percenter” is bad a closer look at our countries financial origins must be examined. The United States of America began on the foundations of the “American Dream”: that hard work would lead to a prosperous and comfortable life. While the previous generation of Baby Boomers greatly valued wealth the current generation appears to be moving away from that ideal. Instead of high-paying starting salaries today’s generation places value in making a difference and doing work that “means something”. This is my answer as to why the richest in our nation are becoming richer at an astounding rate; there are less and less people doing all they can to become “one percenters” thus the separation between social classes is growing exponentially. Naturally those that drive mercedes and vacation away to their beach homes are being looked at in a more hostile manner than ever before, but does that make them shallow, greedy, and money-grubbing? They are simply trying to live the dream that this country has always held a stake in.

  9. benjishanus Says:

    I really like the message you give off in the final paragraph of this post. First off, although there is much more to life and how a person is defined other than the size of his or her annual salary, that is undoubtedly on the forefront of most of our minds, as it is this salary that entitles us to many of the privileges we take for granted.

    However, that being said, there is an old saying that goes, “we enter this world with nothing and leave this world with nothing.” In other words, money means nothing if it is not used the right way. “One percenters” may have all of the money in the world, but if it is not used for the good of society as a whole, it has been wasted. If it has been made to simply sit in their lavish bank accounts and not give back to those who are less fortunate, in a certain regard, it has been wasted. Again, people leave this world with nothing. It is the legacy and morals that they leave behind which will carry on, nothing else. Unfortunately, many people are blinded by greed and their own ambition, and tend to lose sight of what is truly meaningful in life.

  10. bmschmid Says:

    This a fantastic post, because it speaks to many people’s true and sub-conscious desires. It is very courageous to say something that everyone is thinking, but because it is socially now deemed as selfish, many people would avoid saying that money is their main motivation in life. There is nothing wrong with being a one-percenter. This 1% verse the 99% is a ploy by the Occupy Wall Street movement to demonize people who have made it big financially.

    I understand the frustration of the 99% in regards to the finance people who profited off of defaulted Mortgage Backed Securities. That was totally unethical and one of the main reasons why the recession started. Not all of the 1 percenters made their money this way, however Occupy Wall Street is placing them in the same selfish category. That is where the stigma derives from.

    As for materialism, the American public needs to stop pretending like this is a new phenomenon. Materialism is what drove the economic success of the 1920’s with the populous’ need for the new technologies at the time ( Cars and Radios). That is when people began to use margin to pay for these material items and got the flow of credit moving. This same flow of credit is what drives our economy. So, without Americans materialistic fixations we wouldn’t have the largest economy in the world for the last half century or so.

  11. lnk72792 Says:

    The part of this post I want to focus on is the issue with there being a stigma on striving to be wealthy. The reason why I believe that this is an issue is because there should be no problem with someone wanting to be successful, make a lot of money, and enjoy spending it. That is what most people living in a capitalist society strive for, and I see no wrong in doing so. I really believe that whoever tells themselves that that’s not what they’re striving for is lying to themselves and just want to put themselves up on a pedestal for others. You should want to make enough money to support a family, while still having enough to allow your children to live flexibly and enjoy life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.

  12. #jasonschwartz Says:

    This culture of affluence that we have created is one that is a serious issue to many. However, what motivation is there for people to do good in the world if they are a part of the “free market” provided by the united states. Why should people be motivated to help improve society when there is nothing in it for them. The government gives no incentive tot he wealthy to give back, nor do they set limitations to ensure that the wealth is spread evenly throughout all classes (i’m sure that they are taking a piece of the action themselves). We need to rethink the principles under which the United States was founded before we can make the claim that its people are doing wrong. WE are a product of our nation and it needs to change before we do.

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