I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests with much interest. (See last week’s Bullish: Occupy Wall Street Will Affect Your Career – How to Succeed Without Being An A**hole)
Who, exactly, are the 1%? Apparently, anyone who makes $350,000 a year, although there’s a pretty huge difference between your average anesthesiologist, who can certainly make that much, and someone who gets a several-million-dollar bonus made up entirely of taxpayers’ bailout money that’s been folded into origami swans by children in a Chinese factory.
It has also kind of occurred to me that maybe complaining about “the 1%” — valid as those concerns might be — makes us look like douchebags to the rest of the world. Because aren’t we … you know … kind of …
Well, actually the U.S. is 4.48% of the world’s population, and as I’m sure we’ve all heard countless times, we’ve got 92% of all the stuff and make 97% of all the garbage and supply 100% of the Real Housewives.
So, I’ve always been interested in the question of what, exactly, to do with privilege. If you’re reading this, you’ve got at least some: living in an industrialized nation and having been taught to read, for one.
Furthermore, if you are white and live in New York, I’m sure you have experienced a store owner suggesting that you jump the line. This has happened to me when I’ve been dressed nicely and when I haven’t. I’m sure about what’s happening. It’s a pattern: it’s usually an Asian store owner, offering to help me in front of the (non-white, non-Asian) person ahead of me. And I say, “I think this lady was here first.” And then someone’s Puerto Rican grandmother picks up her laundry or a rotisserie chicken, and I am sad. And if that’s just what’s obvious to me, then dear god: I’m sure there’s more that I can’t see.
In 2002, I was living in Virginia, my company was failing, and I was being sued by my office landlord. I showed up to landlord-tenant court wearing a suit, and was ushered into the building without being metal-detected, like everyone else, because the cops assumed I was a lawyer.
While waiting for my turn in front of the judge, I was approached by another defendant — a guy who barely spoke English, and who was accompanied by his wife and many children, all in sweatpants. His kid peed on the floor while he plaintively (also thinking I was a lawyer) explained to me his situation: he worked in a fast-food restaurant and had been paying rent on a horrible, mold-infested apartment. When the apartment began to make his pregnant wife sick, he brought in an inspector, who agreed that the apartment was uninhabitable, at which point the man broke his lease and moved someplace else, which is a feat in itself on a fast-food “salary.” Now the landlord was suing him for back rent.
The man hadn’t thought to get any documentation from the mold inspector, so here he was in court with no English skills, no lawyer, no documentation — and a very reasonable case. I told him I wasn’t a lawyer but that he should explain to the judge that he would like to delay the case until he can bring in proof that the apartment had toxic mold. I gave the man a sentence to say and had him memorize it and repeat it back to me twice. Someone came to get him. He went into court and came out literally three minutes later, and was ushered off to the cashier’s office, which is where they try to make you pay damages on the spot.
Later that year, a date I went on with a lawyer ended after I told this story and he laughed. What the fuck is funny about that? (This is why I will never have a rich husband and why, therefore, you have so many Bullish columns about how to make your own damn money.)
I talked in Bullish: How to Use Your Career to Make the World A Better Place about using, and chasing, access to power:
Once upon a time here in the green, liberal-artsy woods, I attended an event about feminist workplaces. There was a bit of a generational disconnect. The panel consisted of Dartmouth grads of a variety of ages; they talked about working in an all-female workplace, forging your way in a male dominated workplace, etc. But it was like they were speaking Klingon; it seemed that most of the attendees wanted to be full-time activists, and had attended in hopes of being assured that they didn’t have to get big, dirty “jobs” after college.
After some talk about how it would feel like a betrayal of women’s causes to leave activism (the kind where you do stuff on a college campus in the middle of the woods) for the working world, I finally just kind of exploded. “You have an Ivy League education and most of you — statistically speaking — have wealthy and powerful dads. Don’t you think you could do more good for more people by, you know, getting a job as an investment banker and giving the money to a battered women’s shelter? And then maybe that job at the shelter that pays $9 an hour could go to … you know … one of the battered women?”
This did not make me popular. So, yes, I am one of those people who thinks that protests are even more effective when you make an attempt to observe some of the cultural norms held by the people you want to convince (so, no djembes, please). I think that, if you have access to power, you should cultivate and use it.
A colleague asked me a question once about what, exactly, he was supposed to do with his trust fund. (Ooh, trust fund! Dirty!) I can’t even reveal his name, because obviously he’s a bad person, right? Because his parents gave him some money?
Of course, for every young college grad struggling to get by on an entry-level job in New York and hating Trust-Fund guy, there’s someone your age delivering takeout on a bicycle who feels exactly the same way about you, because your parents paid for at least some of college, and have your childhood bedroom lovingly preserved in case you should ever need to move back in while plotting your next move.
I did have some answers about the trust fund. Apparently, some of his friends seem to have implied that he should “give it all away.” Which is an option — one that would seem pretty stupid once he or anyone he cared about got cancer. You know that feeling of helplessness you get when an election is going badly or when someone you love is sick and you can’t do much or when something bad is happening halfway around the world? Actually, money is totally awesome for those things. Even people on their deathbeds have money troubles — many are concerned that even their funerals will be a financial burden on their loved ones. Someone I know died recently of a long illness, and her partner expressed on Facebook that someone had sent a gift that had made life so much easier in those last weeks — a giant Freshdirect gift certificate.
So, in addition to being able to actually do something in emergencies, I suggested microlending — Kiva is the most well-known place to lend money (as little as $25) to entrepreneurs in developing nations, and Microplace actually pays interest (3.5% is better than you’re going to get from any bank these days). Here’s something called The 101% Society (“Sharing 100% of our talent and 1% of our income”), comprised of young professionals who have agreed to give 1% of their incomes to an organization that works to help first-generation college students complete college. Or one could simply — as many wealthy people do — work with nonprofits and leverage both money and connections for good ends. This necessitates being nice to one’s dad’s friends. Sometimes the right thing to do is to suck it up.
So, I pretty much think that you (and I) should endeavor to become as rich and powerful as possible, so when — for instance — a cheerleader refuses to cheer for her rapist and is ordered to pay $45,000 in court costs, you could just, you know … send her a check. And flowers. And a scholarship. And kittens. (Do you want to fucking cry about something? The girl’s dad told a journalist: “I look at my kid and say ‘Wow, she’s my 15-year-old kid, and she’s my hero.’”)
In Bullish: How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo, Part I, I suggested finding a rich person you actually admire. (People seem to like Steve Jobs a lot lately. Tina Fey is totally rich. Warren Buffett’s not a bad guy.) People with an irrational hatred of the rich are undoubtedly sabotaging their own networking and moneymaking prospects, and thus preventing themselves from garnering more power they could use to make the world better.
Allow me to undoubtedly draw the ire of some internet trolls, but: not long ago, I said something on Facebook about social justice, and attracted the attention of an Ayn-Rand-loving acquaintance, who bragged that, despite being unemployed, he didn’t want handouts from anybody, and that I was trying to, you know, rape the rich of their capital gains by suggesting that funding public education properly would be a good idea.
This debate is so fucking tiresome. (Do you drive on the roads? Do you feel pretty confident about your job search because public schoolteachers taught you to read? Do you like clean air? How’s the tap water? Pretty good, right? Do you expect 911 to work when you call? Isn’t disaster relief a good use of our tax money? Do you balls feel bigger when you pretend you are totally self-sufficient?) This guy responds by saying that he can’t believe I’m not an Ayn Rand fan, because: “But Jen! You ARE Dagny Taggart!”
I have gotten this before. It’s flattering, sure. Maybe I could run a railroad. (I could certainly go on plenty of dates with libertarians if I wanted, although I doubt either party would opt for a second date once I started talking about the tap water again and going all Upton Sinclair on some dude’s ass. WE CAN’T ALL TEST OUR OWN FOOD FOR TOXINS AND HUMAN FINGERS!)
Have you ever actually read Atlas Shrugged? (If you didn’t do it as a teenager, it’s hard to justify the time now.)
Sure, if you can ignore badly-written dialogue and hilariously one-dimensional characters (did you know that all capitalists have firm, noble countenances, and all collectivists have soft, jiggly jowls?), a little Ayn Rand can make you feel motivated. I WILL RUN THAT GODDAMN RAILROAD, you might say to yourself. After reading a little too much Rand as a teenager, I turned into a raging asshole and claimed to my mother that no one with less than $100,000 in the bank should have children. Nice.
In the world of Atlas Shrugged, REAL MEN MAKE METAL. HARD, HARD METAL. And they are sexy loners. Of course, rich capitalists in this country don’t really make anything anymore, nor do they invent things themselves; rather, they capitalize on the inventions of others. The magnates of today do indeed order people in Asia to make things (possibly out of metal) and then run marketing campaigns about the stuff made in Asia and also have to do a lot of thinking about their “network” and getting along and working in teams. Ayn Rand hates teams.
There’s one part in the book wherein, due to the incompetence of people who believe in the redistribution of wealth, a train stalls in a tunnel and everyone in it dies from breathing exhaust (the exhaust of incompetence!) And then Rand goes through the passenger list cataloging the lack of “rationality” of every single one of the passengers, who obviously deserved to die.
There was a particular dig at housewives (choking to death on fumes, babes in arms), which made me pause, even as a teenager contemplating becoming a huge asshole, because the noble characters in the book were pretty much made up entirely of heroine Dagny Taggart and the three hot industrialists she bangs by book’s end. No other women get a pass — in fact, in the hidden free-market utopia Dagny crash-lands her plane in, there seems to be only one other woman, a beautiful film actress. What are all the upstanding capitalists there supposed to do, bang a Fleshlight full of money?
The part where the book really lost me was after Dagny, her insatiable capitalist-vagina serving as a radar system for the weirdest, meanest, most nobly-jawed man on earth, finally chases down John Galt and crashes her plane into the hidden free-market utopia (sorry if I’m losing anyone here — it’s a really long book and that woman really loves any type of heavy industry that can be described using the same type of language used to describe erections), which normally you can only get into by vowing, “I swear that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another to live for mine.” Galt rescues her from her plane crash and makes her some eggs. Then he charges her for the eggs. (He charges her for the eggs! Because he respects her capacity in the market. Sweet.)
Of course no one in the book has children. At all. Except the housewives who die in the tunnel. Because then you’d have to, you know, live for them, and make them free eggs.
The end of that little tiff was that my unemployed friend said that obviously I work very hard, and I should be mad that the government is taking my money. And I said that I was only able to work hard at awesome things (rather than at cleaning bathrooms, for instance) because of public education, and that I wish we all paid more to make sure that public schools in poor neighborhoods achieved parity with those in rich neighborhoods. And he said, after arguing for the total abolishment of public education (and libraries, hospitals, etc.): “Oh, come on. If there hadn’t been public education, I’m sure you would’ve worked something out.”
I said, “WHEN I WAS FIVE?!”
He said, “Well, I’m sure your parents would’ve worked something out for you. It’s not like you were an orphan.”
And I said, “Are you saying that orphans don’t deserve to go to school?!”
That was actually exactly what he was saying. He intimated that maybe some charities would step up.
And that’s why I’m glad for every bit of success I’ve achieved that that guy hasn’t. In fact, maybe it’s that dude’s lack of regard for others that’s hurting his employability. (I’m not a fan of group work either, but can you imagine that guy in an office?)
Sometimes, it is good and righteous and feminist and just to be able to say to someone, “I pay more in taxes than you even make.” Or, “Every time you say something douchey, the Obama campaign gets $50. Go!”
As I wrote in Bullish: How to Use Your Career to Make the World A Better Place, money isn’t evil; it simply magnifies the desires of whoever holds it.
originally published on The Gloss