Is it us, or have America’s ultrawealthy been sounding increasingly unhinged lately? Despite the fact that the wealth of the 1 percent jumped 31 percent from 2009 to 2012 while the other 99 percent of America saw a gain of only 0.4 percent, the rich are very upset, and they need to tell us about it. Maybe it’s all the talk about income inequality that’s gotten them so stirred up. Whatever it is, here are five signs that the zillionaires seem to be losing it.
1. The rich are mouthing off in epic rants.
They’re going on talk shows, writing editorials, bitching and moaning, and taking every opportunity to tell us just how fed up they are.
Wealthy upper-eastsiders in New York are screaming that progressive Mayor de Blasio is punishing them by not plowing their streets of snow. Billionaire Home Depot founder Ken Langone warned Pope Francis that if he doesn’t shut it about income inequality, the charitable contribution spigot will be turned off. Nutcase venture capitalist Thomas Perkins just claimed that there is a war on the rich comparable to the Holocaust and that the wealthy deserve more votes. Bill O’Reilly warned, "Every affluent person in America is in danger. Every one." He asks you to pray for them.
During the Occupy protests, there was a surge of wailing from the 1 percent about perceived demonization and vilification, and it seems to have risen once again. It’s gotten so bad that Jason Furman, head of the President's Council of Economic Advisers (and quite rich himself) has told his fellow 1 percenters to knock off the “hyperventilating.”
2. The Ivy League apologists are out ‘splainin’ in full force.
Harvard’s Greg Mankiw is America’s most shameless defender of the 1 percent (just in case you didn’t know that about him, he wrote a paper titled, “ Defending the One Percent”). You can rely upon the chairman and professor of economics at Harvard and former Mitt Romney advisor to pontificate about why the megarich are smarter and more creative than you and not deserving of your ire. Mankiw just published an op-ed in the New York Times describing the risks our brave gazillionaire “superheroes” take to promote the public good.
Noting that actor Robert Downey Jr. recently got a movie paycheck of $50 million, Mankiw enjoys a little taunting: “Does that fact make you mad?...Does it make you want to take to the streets in protest?” He then condescends to observe that of course we don’t get mad at Robert Downey Jr. because our pea brains can comprehend how he made his money. It’s when our limited mental faculties can’t digest the wondrous activities of CEOs and financiers that we become sour.
Largely oblivious to the fact that a significant portion of America’s wealthy have arranged things so they can get away with cheating, bullying and creating nasty financial products that drain the pockets of their fellow citizens, Mankiw assures us that CEOs deserve their sky-high paychecks because the “value of making the right decisions is tremendous” (like Jamie Dimon overseeing a bank that has enjoyed an historic "crime spree?”) and because of all the taxes they pay (like Apple’s famous “ Double Irish with a Dutch sandwich” tax evasion scheme?).
He goes on to ‘splain that financiers are among America’s “most talented and thus highly compensated individuals.” (Talented, perhaps, at redistributing money upward?)
3. A new field of psychology is emerging to treat the uberwealthy.
Being loaded is a load to bear, evidently. A recent article in Mother Jones outlines new trends in psychotherapy emerging to deal with this overwhelming burden.
Jamie Traeger-Muney, a “wealth psychologist,” became the first shrink employed by a bank to work directly with customers when Wells Fargo hired her to offer touchy-feely counsel to people worth over $50 million in 2006. Now business is booming and she works with several other big banks and financial institutions. She notes that the rich are upset by all the bad press they’re getting and that they need to explore their feelings. (May we suggest the editorial pages of theWall Street Journal, which are always open for this purpose?) For his part, psychology consultant John Warnick, who works with bank advisors, is careful not to use the awkward term "wealthy," but rather “legacy families” when dealing with American fatcats. Has a nicer ring to it.
As the rich pile up more and more money, there’s a whole new industry of coaches who deal with everything from how to divvy up the loot to the kids to coping with the guilt and alienation of “Sudden Wealth Syndrome.” They teach the rich to meditate and cope with the biases against wealth that can “ gnaw at an inheritor’s self-worth.”
4. They’re barricading themselves in.
It is a perennial problem for the super-rich that once you’ve got the loot, you’ve got to guard it. In aFebruary 15 New York Times blog, economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev report that America now has as many private security guards as high school teachers.
Bowles and Jayadev note that the share of our labor force dedicated to guard labor (broadly defined) has risen fivefold since 1890 and today stands four times higher than that of Sweden, which has similar high living standards. “In America,” the authors write, “growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings.” Economic disparities, they note, tend to “push nations to devote more of their productive capacity to guarding people and property.”
Wealthy American citizens have gone into survivalist mode, constructing luxury bunkers and panic rooms in their fancy apartments. The 1 percent doomsday preppers are requesting everything from secret passageways to pepper-spray sprinklers, in preparation for every conceivable disaster and attacker. Chris Pollack, president of Pollack+Partners, a New York-based design and construction outfit, told Forbes magazine that spending on home security has seen a noticeable uptick in the past five years. Some of the stuff is in the realm of science fiction, like infrared cameras, biometric technologies and ballistics-proof suites.
5. Buying sprees are getting weirder.
There are only so many Prada bags you can buy before it starts to get boring. So the overly affluent have to resort to ever stranger and more refined items and services on which to spend their cash.
All across the world, luxury goods are booming. But wealthy American shoppers are particularly hedonistic in their spending. Serendipity 3 in New York City sells a $300 hamburger held together with a solid gold, diamond-encrusted toothpick. In South Beach, Miami, you can take a bath in Evian mineral water for $5,000. For the morbidly minded, luxury taxidermy is all the rage just now.
Going out in high style is becoming increasingly popular; America’s plutocrats may not have caught up with their Chinese counterparts, who hire strippers for funerals, but they’re working on it. Choose a burial-at-sea on a luxury yacht, or pick up a family mausoleum at California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park for $825,000. American richies excel in upscale pet funerals, spending thousands to send Fido on a diamond-studded journey to the afterlife. You can even have your deceased pet mummified for $30,000.
All of this behavior leads us to believe that the rich are getting a little nervous about all that cash they're hoarding, and how they got it. Maybe burying yourself alive in a bunker with an open line to your wealth therapist is the only thing left to do.