Friday, November 13, 2015

David Brooks and the nouveau riche

David Brooks evidently talked the New York Times into sending him on a posh vacation - or perhaps they decided he needed it. However it happened, now the rest of us get to deal with the pretext for the whole adventure: a ridiculous bragsplanation of how great it is to be a pampered bourgeois journalist.

Predictably, the piece has provoked all kinds of well-deserved disgust and murderous resentment from just about everyone who isn't David Brooks. Still, I think one of the most sinister aspects of this piece is the way it still manages to veil the obscene decadence and power of the 1%. Even Brooks seems to think he is writing about what it is like to be rich -- precisely because he, like most of his readers, will never have any idea what being truly rich really is.

Because he's personally a member of the nouveau riche - or at least an aspiring member - Brooks does have the standard petit bourgeois class consciousness which reminds him of his own inferiority:
What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between single-digit millionaires and the double-or-triple digit millionaires...Very few of these people were born into money. They did not dress rich, talk rich or put on airs. They have spent their lives busy with work and family, not jet-setting around or hanging out with the Davos crowd.
For starters, perhaps it's enough to note how Brooks casually equates class with wealth. This is something you do if you want to think of yourself as rich but a significant amount of your wealth is tied up in your house; but there's a world of difference between Brooks and the guy who just has millions of dollars just waiting to be invested. That's why the World Wealth Report defines HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, their euphemism for the rich) as "those having investable assets of US$1 million or more, excluding primary residence, collectibles, consumables, and consumer durables".

More to the point, the "differences between single-digit millionaires and the double-or-triple digit millionaires" Brooks mentions aren't just matters of dressing rich or talking rich. By the time you hit the high-double-to-low-triple millions, what Brooks thinks of as a newsworthy luxury vacation is something you can afford literally every day of your life. By the time you're a billionaire, Brooks' vacation is about as expensive for you as a dinner out is for the average American couple.

Compare this to the final passage, where Brooks reveals his notion of luxury:
The caviar in Russia was really nice. So was the beautiful hotel pool in Morocco, the sweet staff at every stop and the little cubes of Turkish delight. And yes, over the course of the three days at the Four Seasons in Istanbul, I did drink both bottles of champagne.
None of this is even particularly luxurious. It's a cartoonish imitation of luxury, the sort of thing you see Scrooge McDuck do in a children's comic book. Of course Brooks thinks that being rich is about eating caviar in Russia and Turkish delight in Morocco; if they flew him to Paris, I'm sure he would've had the nicest frog legs the Four Seasons can buy. There is, meanwhile, a reason why Jay-Z raps about million dollar vacations and gloats that "what you call money / I pay more in taxes" - if you want to learn about wealth, listen to someone who's actually rich.