Some suggestions for sad, rich people

The Guardian's story about wealth therapists, who help one percenters cope with the stress of being rich in an era of widening wealth inequality, features quotes from some really awful-sounding, clueless people who compare the plight of the wealthy to the discrimination experienced by black people.

This awful and inept comparison has provoked a lot of amused online outrage. Whatever problems rich people have, they can't be usefully compared to the problems of people who've faced systemic oppression and discrimination for centuries.

John Scalzi injects some thoughtful perspective into the discussion, along with useful advice for rich people who want to talk about their problems:


So, yeah. This on top of every single other thing that people of color in the US have to deal with. One of the reasons the “replace ‘rich’ with ‘black'” formulation rings hollow is because no one who is not utterly delusional believes the average experience of a black person in the US and the average experience of a rich person in the US is anything alike, either in the day-to-day experience or in the power dynamic between those expressing the opinions and those on the receiving end.

Again, I’m sympathetic to the idea that the rich have their problems; everyone does. But I suspect that Ms. Traeger-Muney, whether she wants to own up to it or not, was trying in a sad and clumsy way to appropriate the dynamic of racial inequity to describe the absolutely entirely different dynamic of rich people problems, even while denying she was doing it. If you’re not necessarily comparing them, then don’t bring it up at all — it compromises your argument and makes you part of the problem. You help neither people of color nor the 1% by this formulation.

My take: systems of oppression are terrible for everyone, even the people they nominally benefit. That's what makes them such wicked problems. If you're rich, you need a story to tell yourself about why you deserve so much more than everyone else, and that story is inevitably about some innate superiority that you possess relative to the 99.9% who trail so far behind you.

Once you've concluded that your wealth is a result of your worth, you're left with the intractable problem of the people who are wealthier than you. Remember that late capitalism's wealth distribution is a power-law curve: the 0.1% are much richer than the 1%, and 0.01% are even richer -- the gap is comparable to the gap between the bottom 50% and the 1%.

If you've convinced yourself that your money reflects your worth as a human being, then what are you to make of people with much, much more money than you? Surely their existence is proof that you are very nearly worthless, relatively speaking. This is why rich people profess poverty: because they are so focused on the even-richer, they genuinely feel poor. Not "poor" in the sense of going hungry or worrying about the mortgage, of course, but sweating and precarious nevertheless. Rich people are prone to burning their money in status displays, purchasing extravagances that even they can barely afford in order to front the kind of wealth that they aspire to.

I think it's fruitful to look to gender theory here, specifically the problem of toxic masculinity: men get a much, much better deal than women in society, and it still sucks. Profoundly unequal systems make everyone miserable, even the people that they enrich.

It's a truism that you live your own blooper reel and everyone else's highlight reel. It's a truism that no two pains can be compared: the experience of pain is the intersection of circumstances and resilience. In other words: how you feel about your circumstances is determined by how bad those circumstances are, and how good you are at coping with them.

Scalzi's advice to the rich is very good, but really, if rich people wanted to talk about the problems of being wealthy, they'd be received most sympathetically if they ended their complaints with a pledge to do something about the systems of inequality that produce their misery: "And that's why I'm donating all my money to fighting for campaign finance reform."

The 1% of Problems [John Scalzi/Whatever]