Only in America

Posted: 3 October 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

conspiciousconsumption

We know the rich are getting richer in the United States. And, as it turns out, people are well aware of how rich people are flaunting their growing wealth.

One Reddit [ht: sm] thread last week (which, last time I looked, had over 19 thousand comments) started with the question, “What’s the most obscene display of private wealth you’ve ever witnessed?”

Here are some of my favorites:

I used to be a nanny to celebrities and high profile New York financial families. . .The CEO and his model wife of a famous athletic wear company paid for an entire wardrobe for me to keep at their home because they didn’t want “outside clothes” contaminating their house or infant. I was to take my street clothes into the bathroom near the entrance, take them off, change into my “house” clothing, and then only change back after I was finished with the baby for the day and was getting ready to leave. They also had a safe of cash that I was to use exclusively for my meals, drinks and take out food, and then leave the receipts in the safe.


I work for a luxury home builder. Very big, very expensive houses. We are building a home for this guy & he calls freaking out at me because AT&T would only provide him with 9 DVRs when he needs 11. They would provide him with more, but he would need to open a second account to do so. I don’t know why, I guess they had some kind of weird limit at the time. I’m the CTO of the homebuilder, so he expected me to get AT&T to change this policy so he could have a TV with DVR in every bathroom as well as the normal TV-viewing rooms. I obviously couldn’t do this, so he cancelled his contract with us thru his lawyer & never spoke to us again. His deposit was non-refundable, in fact we had already spent most of the money on the initial part of the build. So he walked away from over $100,000 we wouldn’t give him back without ever saying a word to us. It was no biggie to him I guess. It also made NO SENSE.


I was driving for Uber in a college town and picked up a group from one of the richer frat houses to take them to a club. The girls were discussing how one of their friends was upset and went on a huge shoe shopping spree where each pair cost roughly $2,000 except for one. This one pair costed $7,000. One of the girls casually expresses that “$7,000 is really not a bad price to pay for shoes, they should’ve just been a little bit prettier. I would’ve paid $5,000 for them.” Why they called an Uber instead of a limo, I don’t know.


My boss owns a 15+ million dollar cottage. He likes to “entertain” and throws some pretty wild parties. His wealthy neighbours down the lake complained about the noise and frequently called police. One day they saw him on the street and told him smugly that they had a generous offer on their cottage and they were moving. I know, said my boss, I bought it.


A party at the CEO’s house for Halloween. Insanity. I thought I was going to get kicked out of the neighborhood because I was only driving a 30k car, not a 300k car. Anything you can think of, he had at this party – staff with signature cocktails at the door, a fully staffed bar for liquor, a fully staffed bar for wine, an entire table made of ice with ice shot glasses and ten different vodkas. He was wearing a costume made of leather that his wife commissioned for him, handmade in France. The 400 yard bridge to his private lake was strung up with extra lights, and the dock had a separate bar for those who wanted to sit on the lake.


My mother owned a small home-based business doing a whole bunch of different shit, including silk floral arrangements and other artificial plants. Occasionally, she would be hired to do the floral component of some big interior decorating job.

One time, she was hired by a local home builder to do just such an interior decorating gig at his mansion.

He did have a private helicopter pad in his backyard, but someone elsewhere in this thread has already mentioned another one of those.

The conservatory flooring was walnut parquet tile. It was lovely, except that the mogul’s wife had recently had a party where, of course, many of her guests were wearing stiletto heels. These heels made a kajillion tiny divots in the walnut parquet tile, ruining it. Mrs. Homebuilder was unconcerned; she was simply going to replace it.

I think, though, what stands out to me the most was the foyer, mainly its Corinthian columns gilded in 24 karat gold. Who the fuck does that?


Building a house for some rather wealthy people. While they “rough it” in their $1.5M barn waiting for us to finish. The horses they own have their individual quarters being completely cleaned around the clock. There is fresh new hay brought in by the truckload which is then sorted through in front of a fan where the dirt is blown out leaving only clean hay. The floors in each stall are constantly being covered with a bed of imported wood chips/shavings from somewhere in Northern California (we’re in central TX). The chips and hay are brought in by the truckload every week. Each horse is fed a Snickers Bar before bed. They live in a climate controlled area of the “barn” where they are fed filtered water. Hot water during the winter and ice water in the summer. None of these horses are pure-bred or rare/special other than the fact that they were chosen. One day while working we saw one of the barn workers hauling ass through the field so naturally we waited and watched to see what he was doing. He was running to our portopotty. We didn’t think much of it at first. Then we got a phonecall. “Have you guys seen one of the mexicans over there? He asked to use the bathroom and has been gone gone for 7 minites when he’s only allotted a five minute break.” She then proceeded to ask if we’d find him and send him back before he goes pilfering through the construction supplies and tools. These people made a ~45 yr old grown ass man, with kids and shit, haul ass across a field, about 300 yards, in the dead of summer in TX to take a shit…while they timed him. This lady once asked some hispanic concrete workers to move from under the shade of her giant oak tree because they may kill the root system with their boots. When we told her they were just eating luch and that it was hot her reasoning was that “mexicans don’t feel heat anyways”. Money makes people weird. I could go on for hours.

Well, you get the idea. There are plenty of other stories—about neighbors, roommates, and so on. The ones I’ve chosen (and there are many more) are all from or about people who have worked for the tiny group at the top.

Comments
  1. Which is why any discussion on inequality has to differentiate based on how wealth is used. Is it used for luxury consumption, positional goods (housing, status), is it a business investment, is it charity, is it used for political ends. These ways of applying wealth have very different moral weight. Regardless of how one gained control of the money, how one spends it requires its own moral analysis.

    People can viscerally agree that excessive consumption is morally wrong. If you proposed to tax it at 90%, so that people would have to share $90 for every $10 spent on themselves, the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett wouldn’t stop you. Lesser nouveau riche might, but the consensus even among 1%ers would move against them. Society might have to debate where to put the tax ceiling on consumption, $100k, $200k, $1M, but punitive taxation beyond that level would be much more acceptable than people think.

    You could also reach an understanding fairly quickly on business investments. At least in America, nobody likes to get in the way of investment. So you could let tech CEOs control their billions, relatively untaxed, so long as they use it as investment and not consumption. That’s what they want to do anyway, they’re playing a competitive game, they’re not working towards a yacht. In this case wealth means getting to decide where capital is applied, which is a relatively benign form of power as far as power goes. If you make that bargain, all the “taxation is cramping growth” nonsense would stop.

    And then you’d be left with intelligent debate to solve the real difficult cases: Positional goods, and political power. By far the biggest problem with inequality is positional goods. teachers not being able to afford to live in their own school districts. Social exclusion by neighbourhood. Things that shouldn’t be positional goods but are, like having access to healthcare. Education. Racism. Lack of prospects. That is where inequality really matters and is really breaking society.

    We need to look at how 1%ers and 0.1%ers are using their wealth. We need to differentiate and we need to question it. The doctrine that once earned it’s your money to do as you please must end, and morality has to be applied not just at the earning end but also the spending end. Separation of consumption-wealth from business-wealth has to be enforced by the accounting and banking system, and taxed differently. That’s the only meaningful way to tame runaway inequality and deal with it politically in a place like the US.

    • Magpie says:

      Pavlos,

      morality has to be applied not just at the earning end but also the spending end

      Paraphrasing Tina Turner: what’s morality got to do with it?

      Or, like your American namesake Paul (Krugman) put it:

      “So am I saying that you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs? Well, yes. You don’t have to like it, but economics is not a morality play, and I’ve yet to see a macroeconomic argument about why it isn’t possible.”
      “Inequality and Recovery”, 20-01-2013.
      http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/inequality-and-recovery/

      Ever since Bernard de Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees” economists have known that “the short-sighted Wisdom, of perhaps well-meaning People, may rob us of a Felicity, that would flow spontaneously from the Nature of every large Society, if none were to divert or interrupt the Stream”.

      Mandeville brought “to the foreground the beneficial effects of luxury, and this was part of what interested John Maynard Keynes. In his General Theory, Keynes cited Mandeville as a source for his position in emphasizing the positive effects of consumption (aggregate demand). This stood in opposition to classical economics who held up production (aggregate supply) as the motor of economic growth.”
      http://www.iep.utm.edu/mandevil/

      In a capitalist economy those people spend and generate incomes. What they spend their money on is nobody’s business. Keynes knew that. Joan Robinson insisted on that in her “Economic Philosophy”. So does Krugman. You should learn from them.

      Either one learns to live with that, or one moves beyond capitalism.

      Your choice.

  2. monikaullmann says:

    Revolutions are made of this.

  3. Magpie says:

    Pavlos,

    morality has to be applied not just at the earning end but also the spending end

    Paraphrasing Tina Turner: what’s morality got to do with it?

    Or, like your American namesake Paul (Krugman) put it:

    “So am I saying that you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs? Well, yes. You don’t have to like it, but economics is not a morality play, and I’ve yet to see a macroeconomic argument about why it isn’t possible.”
    “Inequality and Recovery”, 20-01-2013.

    Ever since Bernard de Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees” economists have known that “the short-sighted Wisdom, of perhaps well-meaning People, may rob us of a Felicity, that would flow spontaneously from the Nature of every large Society, if none were to divert or interrupt the Stream”.

    Mandeville brought “to the foreground the beneficial effects of luxury, and this was part of what interested John Maynard Keynes. In his General Theory, Keynes cited Mandeville as a source for his position in emphasizing the positive effects of consumption (aggregate demand). This stood in opposition to classical economics who held up production (aggregate supply) as the motor of economic growth.”
    “Bernard Mandeville (1670—1733)”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    In a capitalist economy those people spend and generate incomes. What they spend their money on is nobody’s business. Keynes knew that (Joan Robinson also praised Mandeville in her “Economic Philosophy”). So does Krugman.

    Either one learns to live with that, or one moves beyond capitalism: one doesn’t have to like it, as Krugman says above.

    Your choice.

    • “In a capitalist economy those people spend and generate incomes. What they spend their money on is nobody’s business. Keynes knew that … So does Krugman.”

      Adam Smith knew otherwise. Economics is both a science where you try to predict outcomes and a moral philosophy where you prefer some outcomes over others. Disregarding outcomes is not neutral, it’s favouring some outcomes disingenuously.

      Excessive consumption may matter morally if there’s scarcity of resources, otherwise it may not. We can’t all have private jets – at some point that’s diverting too much oil and skilled labour from other needs. We should probably have fewer cars and share them. We can all have fantastic digital devices and information goods, these are not scarce.

      By far the biggest problem, in my view, is not consumption or investment wealth but positional goods: Housing, health and well-being, education, social circle, prospects. These are both fed by and create inequality, which creates a runaway effect. None of these should be positional goods. They’re all essentials. Even housing would scale to serve our needs if we applied basic industrial economics, but we choose to make these goods scarce and competitive. In America much more so than elsewhere. We choose to have an economy which promotes inequality, because we have one already and people try to climb it rather than fixing it.

      The reason I go on about applying moral analysis to the spend side of private wealth is we can easily find common grounds and take the easy subjects off the table: Luxury consumption, investment, political lobbying. It’s relatively easy to reach a political settlement on those. Then we can uncover the issue of having created a positional goods economy and begin solving it.

      • Magpie says:

        Excessive consumption may matter morally if there’s scarcity of resources, otherwise it may not.

        May matter morally? According to who?

        Surely, it does not matter if one asks those enjoying the positional goods. And they have de facto power to do with their money whatever they see fit.

        By far the biggest problem, in my view, is not consumption or investment wealth but positional goods: Housing, health and well-being, education, social circle, prospects. These are both fed by and create inequality.

        But it’s precisely “investment wealth” that creates returns that increase both wealth and income inequality.

        The reason I go on about applying moral analysis to the spend side of private wealth is we can easily find common grounds and take the easy subjects off the table.

        Nobody ever said the solution is easy. One may not like it, but it is still the only solution.

        Again: your choice.

  4. Kenneth Lindemere says:

    Most obscene display of private wealth? The hubris paraded across the stage sets for the presidential election.

  5. Russ says:

    Hillary Rodham Clinton. The most pathetic pet president ever purchased.

  6. It’s time to bring back Madame Guillotine

  7. nikki54 says:

    I am all for them spending money on making animal’s lives better; making the lives of children safer and helping save this poor planet that is gasping her final breaths. The rest? All immoral deeds are judged in the end. Everyone’s.

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