Rich people tend to be assholes. This is not an uninformed personal opinion. It’s actually supported by studies and empirical evidence. But apparently in the genre of milquetoast opinion journalism, it is a step too-far.
I was mildly reprimanded, and told my work would be subject to review by the full editorial board before any future publications.
I cannot convey my disappointment enough. It was crushing, really. Why wasn’t I blacklisted? That I could live with. That would be a badge of honor – it would say that I’ve stepped on the gout-swollen toes of a great American plutocrat.
I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better next time. As a polemicist, I suck.
On January 3 of 2015, my op-ed article “How becoming super-rich turns you into an A*hole”, after having been posted for only a few minutes, was taken down and I was banned from posting new op-eds without the explicit clearance and approval of Digital Journal staff, who wrote in an email:
You…included a photo of Donald Trump in an article about ‘rich assholes’ which not so subtly links him to your headline, and that is also the kind of association we want our writers to avoid. That’s not the professionalism we look for in a Digital Journalist…we can’t have such childish and potentially litigious material on our news network.
The staffer hiding behind the moniker “Digital Journal Staff” at least gets an “A” in reading comprehension, although a little remedial work in media law is surely warranted.
My response, therefore, was:
As a law professor who teaches constitutional law, I can tell you that calling someone an asshole, especially a public figure, is not ‘slanderous’ by any definition. In fact, it is an opinion than cannot be objectively be proven either true or false. While the piece may have been edgy, under no reasonable intrepretation [sic] could it be considered slander. Any lawyer, Canadian or American, will tell you the same. If your fear is litigation, there is a 0% chance of that happening. Digital Journal, like all other publications, explicitly and clearly does not endorse op-ed opinions, I take it especially ‘childish’ ones.
As a middle-aged, balding, paunchy man who teaches and writes for a living, personal and professional rejection has become a part of life I have necessarily developed an immunity to. But as a week passed, and as I worked on other things, the rejection pulled at me, and puzzled me. On further reflection I thought “asshole” might have been too coarse a word, causing an unintended antiphonic reaction among a reader who possibly flagged the article as offensive. So being a nice person (really), I offered to rewrite the piece, deleting the arguably undiplomatic language.
They were having none of it: “We aren’t interested in republishing that older article.”
Fine, but remember I haven’t been blacklisted. Yet.
Of course it is not at all difficult to conflate “rich person” with “asshole” and come up with an algorithm spitting out the notoriously thin-haired, and equally thin-skinned, Donald Trump. Remember, The Donald sued Bill Maher for satirically suggesting he had been fathered by an orangutan (the likeness is quite uncanny, actually).
In fact, when I input “rich assholes” into Google Images, Trump was the first to pop-up followed by Mitt Romney, so the eventual image of the snarling Trump I uploaded could hardly be said to have been inaccurate or misrepresentative.
Becoming super rich changes you, it may even change your brain. It transmutates otherwise normal people (let’s say your nondescript contractor neighbor with the comb over) into a horse’s ass (let’s say, er, Donald Trump). I’ve always intuited this, of course, but now there’s evidence. (Incidentally, Google Images also quite heavily samples Donald Trump in response to the query “bad comb over.”)
As I said before in a piece on wealth and income inequality in 2014:
We humans desire, we want to consume, we want to accumulate wealth, we want our children to have better lives than we do. It’s human nature, and capitalism doesn’t just acknowledge this, it embraces it; capitalism, like the Devil himself, is a fan of man.[…]
According to Credit Suisse, the richest 1 percent of the global population own almost 50 percent of total global wealth. Oxfam published research that the world’s richest 85 people share the combined wealth of the world’s poorest 8.5 billion people.
There are conflicting studies about whether money can or cannot buy you happiness. (Not surprisingly, investment magazines and other money media outlets cite the former.) I have been both rich, poor, and in between. When I was at my richest – in private law practice in California – I was also at my apogee of unhappiness. At my least-rich, teaching English in the rural hinterlands of southern Mexico, I was quite content. This does not at all seem odd to me, as “money can’t buy happiness” has long been a staple colloquialism in the English vernacular, and one which rings true.
But money can almost certainly buy you assholeness (I claim to have coined that word – yes I’m talking to you, Merriam Webster). I only know two things: being poor sucks (a largely undisputed proposition), and nobody cares if the super wealthy are happy, a dare say not even the super wealthy. So, where does that leave us? If money can’t buy you happiness, it can surely mold you into a better person.
Michael Lewis, author of the bestseller Flash Boys published a piece in the New Republic in November of 2014, since republished elsewhere, entitled “Extreme Wealth is bad for Everyone–Especially the Wealthy.” In it, he reviews academic research relating to happiness, wealth, and how there is some evidence that the latter alters the brain, for the worse. But Lewis, in mining the dusty academic journals, finds that this doesn’t work either. For starters, he analyzes the work of Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West, saying:
Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, West notes that the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of American citizens has returned to levels not seen in a century. One percent of the population controls a third of its wealth, and the problem is only getting worse: from 1979 to 2009 after-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by 155 percent while not changing all that much for everyone else.
Okay, so wealth is concentrating, as is poverty. Nothing new there. Nothing I, as well as others, such as Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty haven’t said before. As it turns out, being wealthy is just about as useful to being a decent human being as being double-jointed. After the party’s over, no one will remember that you could touch your foot to your nose.
But there must be some emotional, or spiritual, or moral (or anything else) benefit in accumulating such unspendable-in-a-lifetime wealth. Why would so many people be otherwise so hell-bent on it? Can’t it make us better persons? We know we can’t take our billions with us (hearse’s don’t have luggage racks for a reason), and leaving a few million, even a hundred million, for our kids really seems quite adequate. So surely there must be a good, higher reason for this almost uniform, parsimonious desire.
There are perfectly explicable social and biological basis for greed, but that does not bestow legitimacy on it, just like we men are genetically programmed through evolution to spread our DNA as far and wide as possible by copulating as many female as our species as we can get our hands on, is still not very likely to go over so well with our wives.
As it turns out, excess accumulation of wealth is more prone to reduce, not enhance, moral character, producing personality characteristics more dickwadish (that one’s mine too, Merriam Webster) than enlightened.
Here’s where it gets fun. As Lewis describes, a U.C. Berkeley’s psychology professor Dacher Keltner supervised an incredibly dull study carried out by graduate students (somebody had to do it), who stationed themselves on city streets to observe traffic habits. People driving expensive cars were the most disrespecting of traffic laws, ignoring pedestrian right-of-ways, double parking, and generally exhibiting an indifference to traffic rules. In another Berkeley study, rich study subjects were more likely to steal candy (clearly labeled for children only) than poor subjects in the same study.
It gets worse.
Rich people are more likely to cheat at games, even trivial ones. And the richer one becomes, whether in imaginary currency or not, the higher the probability of cheating. I have to shamefully admit I have cheated in family Monopoly games when I came into lucky, and sudden wealth, crushing the dreams of my eight year old daughter. (It’s so easy to distract and trick kids with even a clumsy slight-of-hand – just ask the GOP which shamelessly convinces the middle class to vote against their own interests with simple sophistry.)
In yet another study, the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that the rich shoplift significantly more than the poor. To add insult to injury, poor people are more altruistic as well. People earning less than $25,000 a year give away, on average 4.7 percent of their income. Their rich (usually distant) neighbors earning more than $150,000 year give away barely 2.7 percent.
Of course this leaves us with the classic causation question: Does extreme wealth cause people to become assholes, or rather are assholes just more likely to become wealthy? Clearly, the only way to know is to perform a long term double-blind study measuring a group of kids with asshole personality characteristics against others with normal characteristics to see if there is a correlation between these inimical personality traits and wealth. Alas, however, it may be a moot point: by the time such a study could possibly bear fruit, the 99 percent will be picking fruit for the 1 percent, the middle class having been completely eliminated from the gene pool.
We’re all prone to the impulse for economic gain, but some less than others. Lest someone think I am critical of the rich and powerful out of some secret envy, I can assure you that this is not the case. I find business boring. I’ve tried to engage in entrepreneurship, but simply can’t get the fire to ignite. Brainstorming ways to improve balance sheets, to market products nobody really needs, to create brainless social trends, seems nightmarishly jejune to me. Spending one’s life accumulating massive amounts of wealth, while almost 3 billion of your fellow Earthlings are struggling to make it on less than two dollars a day, shouldn’t make you an object of admiration, or any kind of role model. It is, in my view, the worst possible kind of unexamined existence, perhaps only being topped by psychotics and sociopaths. For me, having a bevy of Rolex’s in my closet has about the same appeal as having a collection of rectal warts: don’t want ‘em.
I am not naïve enough to think that the super-wealthy will be going away any time soon. In fact the economic trend line suggests that they will continue to get richer while the middle class will continue to melt away into the increasingly isolated, dystopian societies of the poor – the great unwashed walled-off, segregat&ed from their genteel plantation owners, who are happier left alone to sip mint julips and compare yacht lengths (no metaphor intended).
If you’re one of the rich and are now aware of this phenomenon, the very least you could do is make a concerted effort not to be an unremidiated douchebag. Considering that you already rule the world, it doesn’t seem like that’s asking a lot.
Where’s Our Humanity?
© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson.