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.
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.