Poor Little Rich Folks

A new book looks at the spending habits—and guilty conscience—of New York’s wealthy class

Illustrator: Yann Kebbi

A good friend of mine has her own architecture firm in New York, and much of the time, she says, she’s basically a therapist. She gently guides her clients through the psychic crucible of their town house renovations and ground-up Hamptons construction, trying to make sure they suffer no mental breakdowns in the process. This is the emotionally fraught life event that the sociologist Rachel Sherman in her book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence chooses to focus on. In particular, and with what she describes as considerable difficulty, she found 50 young New York parents and interviewed them about their renovations as a way to see what they thought about their wealth—or at least how they talk about it.

It’s a good time to be rich in New York. Tax rates are historically low, so is crime, and the White House is occupied by the most pro-wealthy-person president ever elected. The costly renovations that many of Sherman’s subjects describe are to combine two or three presumably already very nice apartments into one, yet the author finds these people wracked with doubt. On one level, this isn’t surprising, because they’re human beings (and New Yorkers). Sherman’s goal, though, is to find out what is distinctive about their neuroses. “Although images of the wealthy proliferate in the media, we know very little about what it is like to be wealthy in the current historical moment,” she writes.

That statement ignores a whole bunch of novels, movies, memoirs, magazine stories, and documentaries. But it’s true that sociologists like Sherman haven’t shown much interest in the wealthy. Part of this is likely the leftish slant of the discipline, but it’s also attributable to the long shadow of Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen’s acidulous, deadpan look at the Gilded Age plutocracy manages to be both social science and satire, and Sherman’s book is, by design, its opposite: The rich were Veblen’s targets, but Sherman accords them the empathy she’d give any misunderstood minority.

And whereas Veblen famously saw competitive conspicuous consumption driving the lifestyle choices of the rich, many of Sherman’s subjects go to great lengths to downplay their wealth. One of them characterizes herself as being in the “very, very bottom, probably, of the 1 percent.” Others talk about being in “the middle”—better off than some, of course, but not as well-off as friends who have their own planes. As Justin, a private equity entrepreneur, told Sherman, “I think everyone, myself included, in this nation, is obscenely rich compared to other countries.”

Getting rich is an American religion; being rich is clearly more problematic. The people Sherman interviewed tend to define themselves not through consumption, conspicuous or otherwise, but as workers. One jokes that she is “working class,” because she has a job. Another, an heiress, brags about painting her apartment herself (she later has it professionally repainted). Doing work—any work—is important because it allows these people to feel on some level that they deserve their fortune. When Sherman asks a wealthy real estate agent whether she feels guilty about having more than others, she answers no. “I mean, I work hard,” she says. “My husband works hard, my kids work hard.”

The author finds subcategories in her sample group. People who inherit rather than earn their wealth tend to be more conflicted about it. One such couple spent two years deciding whether they could live with the ostentatious décor of their new Upper West Side apartment or whether, at great cost, they should remodel it to look cheaper.

The home-related decisions of Sherman’s subjects tend to be justified by the needs (or desires) of their children—a bigger apartment means each gets his or her own room; the house in the suburbs means a better school district (even if the kids end up in private schools anyway). Many of the progressive-­minded inheritors agonized over the choice between public and private education. Almost without exception they went with the latter, but what was important to them was the fact that they’d wrestled with it. As Sherman puts it, they saw “struggle itself as morally worthy.” She is especially good on the ways parents justify these decisions. “It is not private school for its own sake but rather the brilliance or restlessness or some other personality trait of a child that forces these parents to choose private school,” she writes.

Being wealthy is never not an advantage, but as parents, Sherman’s subjects are at the point in their lives when the advantages become much clearer. “Despite their discomfort with their wealth,” she writes, “the people I interviewed never ratchet down their spending or change their lifestyles significantly. In fact, the opposite is true. … They gain practice carrying out large consumption projects such as renovations and become comfortable spending the amounts of money required for these.” And with practice they get more and more comfortable rationalizing their wealth, too. “I was gonna be a revolutionary,” one tells Sherman, “and then I had that first massage.”

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