Lifestyles of the formerly rich and not that famous

Another tragic tale of down-and-out Wall Streeters to tickle your sense of schadenfreude. Too bad real poverty can't generate the same kind of buzz.

Published May 5, 2009 8:44PM (EDT)

In the genre of sad tales of the formerly rich, Mark Clothier and John Helyar's "Rattled in Ridgewood" story about the tough times faced by laid-off Wall Street workers is a nice piece of work -- empathetic and detailed. And I'm sure Time's Justin Fox is right to observe that "it isn't at all easy to suddenly downshift from [making several hundred thousand dollars a year] to actual middle class America, where the jobs pay $50,000-$100,000 a year (or less)."

But consider the details of the star of the piece: David Roberts, a one-time international economist for the Bank of America, was pulling down $500,000 a year at the height of his career. He bought a Jaguar and remodeled his kitchen for $98,000. But "as of last month, he had lost or spent more than half of his $1.4 million in savings." Currently unemployed, he's been battling depression and his wife is having trouble affording treatment for her multiple sclerosis.

There is nothing about the way David Roberts is described that makes him seem like a bad guy or implies that he has any culpability for the financial crisis. Quite the opposite, he appears to be a perfectly decent person, unlike some arrogant AIG traders we can think of. But come on: Who deserves more pity? The man who once enjoyed the good life but lost it, or the woman who never even had a shot at that good life? There are millions and millions of Americans who can't begin to conceive spending $98,000 remodeling their kitchen, much less imagine battling with depression while sitting on $700,000 in savings.

The fact that Roberts got $500,000 a year is a clear sign, as Fox acknowledges, that "pay in the financial sector escaped the moorings of the rest of the economy over the past couple of decades." If you want to understand rising income inequality in America, David Roberts is part of the story. Sure, "how-it-sucks-never-to-have-been-rich-in-the-first-place" is a dog-bites-man kind of story that won't sell many newspapers or generate tons of page views. But maybe if we had spent more time, and ink, or pixels, paying attention to the problems of the real middle class in this country, a majority of the population wouldn't have bought into the rhetoric that what was good for the lords of Wall Street would be good for the rest of the country.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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