Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dear Prudence

Today's dueling banjos of Ben Stein and Frank Rich plunk familiar melodies in dreary counterpoint. The theme, of course, is economic pain and the feeling thereof. Stein sings the not-terribly-sympathetic blues for the usual reckless nouveau riche asshole fallen on hard times somehow, someway:

She lives in a lovely home in a stylish inland enclave. It has an interest-only mortgage of about $2.2 million that requires a payment of $12,000 a month, very roughly. It was last appraised at $2.7 million, but who knows if it’s now worth anything remotely close to that price.

The woman, whom I’ve known since she was a teenager, has no job or other remunerative employment. She has a former husband, an entrepreneur whose business has suffered recently. He pays her $20,000 a month, of which roughly half is alimony and half child support. The alimony is scheduled to stop this summer.

She has a wealthy beau who pays her credit card bills and other incidentals, but she is thinking of telling him she is through with him. She has no savings and has refinanced her home repeatedly, always adding to indebtedness and then putting the money into a shop she owns that has never come close to earning a dime. Now she is up all night worrying about money. “Terrified,” as she put it. She wanted me to tell her what to do.

Gee, I dunno -- brush up on job skills, figure out where the remaining $10k/month after the alimony stops might get you another place, decide whether you want to be a kept woman with some rich guy paying for your shit or not. Christ almighty, this is not an existential dilemma, except for these narcissistic assholes who think they're entitled to all their toys and privileges just because they're so damned special. But it is a decision to be made, and to paraphrase some smart guy, her choice not to make a decision in a more timely manner still qualifies as a choice.

We know why most people have no savings and have continuously refi'd their homes to make ends meet -- because they are not paid enough money at their jobs to get them by, much less ahead, because income disparity is a sport in this country. But if you're paying an interest-only mortgage on a $2.2 mil house, and not putting away a dime of your household income, you're a fuckin' moron. Maybe you can take it in the shorts and live in a measly one million dollar house, live within your means, sock away part of the difference. If she thinks she's terrified now, wait till she sees what the other 99% of the country have already been going through, how they live day-to-day. Since her life has been a lark anyway, perhaps she can continue down that road and make some serious cash, instead of dumping it into her money-pit boutique.

I'm not sure why we're supposed to feel much sympathy for people who lived as if they thought gravity would never apply to them, and to his credit, I don't think Stein sympathizes much beyond the normal bounds of friendship. Still. This is a person who, despite what she thinks, has options beyond the literal destitution that faces a lot of Americans right now. It's just that she may have to work for her living, and live within her means, which is actually easier to do when your income is earned rather than merely glommed or absorbed. Better to eke by on macaroni & cheese on your own than to fuck some guy with a platinum card 'cause he takes you to Le Dome.

But what's really kind of hilarious is Stein's pale hints to his son, who sounds like a bit of a layabout:

These gloomy thoughts have been compounded by the holiday newsletters I have been getting from old pals and classmates. I have been getting them for about 45 years. This season, for the first time I can recall, the talk in the newsletters is not the usual tales of world-beating triumph by genius children, but of jobs lost, homes in jeopardy, children whose jobs have vanished and who are on the road looking for work.

And all of this is compounded again because my handsome son, age 21, a student, has just married a lovely young woman, 20. You may have seen on television the pudgy, aging face of their sole means of support.


I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me. I wish I could teach them that money is a scarce good, worth fighting for and protecting. But I very much fear that my son, more up-to-date than I am in almost every way, is more of a modern-day American than I am. To hustle and scuffle for a deal is something he cannot even imagine. To not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength. Of course, that’s my fault. (I have learned that everything bad that happens anywhere is my fault.) And I hope to be able to leave him well enough provided for to ease his eventual transition into some form of self-sufficiency.

I guess the rich really are different from the rest of us, because in my family, you don't get married until you have some means of supporting yourselves, unless of course you knock her up and have to do the right thing. But it's funny that Stein, who began his career in the Nixon administration, and has pontificated on "conservative" values ever since then to the passive mass of rubes, has himself apparently raised an overprivileged veal. Young Vealstein is capable of getting Daddy to put him through finishing school and pay his way through life until he lands a sweet gig as Jonah Goldberg's intern, but apparently unable to fathom the very idea that his own father and grandfather made their careers propounding -- that there is no free lunch, that all your toys and treats are not entitlements, but must be earned.

It's hard to find much besides disdain and embarrassment for people whose raisin-detree is preaching the values of hard work and thrift to the peons, yet are completely incapable of passing those things on to their own progeny. Rules, as always, are for little people, the better to keep them from waking up and crashing the gates.

Stein's "kids today" plaints fall on deaf ears here. I started working when I was thirteen, pushing around a roto-tiller bigger than myself in 100┬║ heat for three bucks an hour. I give far less than a fuck about Junior's Blackberry and cell privileges, or if he has to work a night job to get through school. You just know Stein's inclination is to use his connections to get the kid a gig at one of the winger welfare clinics, but like his profligate female friend, Stein has to decide whether he wants his kid to actually contribute something of value to society, or just be a puling, useless pud who never has to earn an honest living.

Now, Rich's countermelody initially sounds the usual anti-fat-cat tocsin as if he assumes Obama is serious about doing something meaningful about it all.

On Tuesday the new president pointedly widened his indictment beyond the sins of his predecessor. He spoke of those at the economic pinnacle who embraced greed and irresponsibility as well as the rest of us who collaborated in our “collective failure to make hard choices.” He branded as sub-American those who “prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” And he wasn’t just asking Paris Hilton “to set aside childish things.”

Ahem. I don't recall Obama even asking "Paris Hilton" to set aside childish things. Instead, he seemed to be referring to it in the collective sense, as if we were all in this together. And we're not; I have no interest in bailing out bookies. The problem is, unless there is proportionate accountability -- that is, rather than spreading the pain and making sure everyone gets a fat dose, real accountability is doled out according to the level of venality or stupidity that caused the problem -- Obama's homilies are a meaningless rhetorical wave.

The millions of Americans who played by the rules, worked hard, paid their bills, lived within their means, kept their eye on the ball, should not be asked to pay for John Thain's $1400 wastebasket. Thain should either be pushing ass out of prison for the next few years, or figuring out how to live out of that fucking wastebasket, rather than simply having to recalc his net worth from eight figures to seven and figuring out how to get by on such a pittance, while the rest of us bail out his worthless ass. I hear a lot of complaining about them, but so far, no substantial proposals for what to do about them. These people are thieves; fuck 'em.

It's not entirely unfair to bring up a useless cipher like Paris Hilton (whose hotel chain, let's recall, was snapped up by the Blackstone Group before the latter's insolvency), a person whose very presence is a reasonable indicator of the malignant narcissism of the culture overall. There's a broad streak of self-regard, without any self-awareness, undergirding popular culture and perception. That does need to change, and it appears that it will, much to the unwitting chagrin of people like Ben Stein's hapless acquaintance, unsure of life on the outside without weekly mani/pedi visits and therapeutic shopping sessions on her sugar daddy's titanium card.

This is the moral and intellectual paradigm, this rigorous asceticism that Stein and his ilk have been tediously preaching about ever since their Atlas Shrugged circle jerks back in college. Well, some of us knew these things already without being lectured by hypocrites, without going through life expecting everyone else to pick up the tab when it came due. It's their soggy biscuit; let them choke on it.


woodguy said...

Very well put, as always.

All of the people like Stein and his porcine parasitic clones are about to learn a hard lesson; those of us that HAVE actually worked all of our lives and made it on our own have grown strong and confident in the belief that hard work well done will keep us in good stead as the pampered elite fall by the wayside and lack any clue as to how to survive in the real world.

Personally, I look forward to stepping over the supine bodies of those who have contributed nothing of value to this world. I'll laugh my ass off as they exhibit no clue about how to house, feed and clothe themselves. In fact, I wish Stein would supply the address of the useless parasite he describes in the beginning of this piece so I could personally loot her house and laugh aloud at her plight. These people are long overdue for a rude wake up call.

Harsh, no?

People like Stein and his friends are a blight and should be marginalized whenever and wherever possible.

Heywood J. said...

It's pretty galling. I'm sure she's "terrified", but not because she'll have to move into a cardboard box on the sidewalk. She's too far ahead in the game for that, unless she continues to be really stupid about money. It's the prospect of losing her toys and privileges, of dropping in status. I'm don't know how these bozos got the impression that living high on the hog and way out on the margin was a god-given right, but yeah, they're in for a rude education. It's not downscale mobility for her; it's a mathematical correction.

Stein is correct in his assertions of fiscal conservatism, no doubt, but he fails to live those principles or pass them on sufficiently, rendering them worthless. The point of fiscal conservatism, as he'd know if he's honest about it, is not to be miserly, but to find greater efficiency in the distribution and use of capital.

A better use of Stein's disposable income, seriously, would be for him to have, for example, endowed a scholarship fund to send inner-city kids to state university. Even if he pays for ten kids and only half of them graduate, that's still more of a net benefit than bankrolling his own lazy-ass kid through Pepperdine or wherever, to pedigree him for the same sort of bullshit jobs these people usually groom their idiot progeny for.

It all depends on what Young Vealstein wants to do with his life, of course, and many of us haven't gotten that far when we're 21. But he didn't sign up for that war his daddy supported, and he doesn't sound too inclined to get with the program that everyone else is having to get used to.

I might be assuming too much about the whole thing, but Stein's own writing points to a substantial disconnect between what he preaches and what he actually does, so you're right, people like that oughta be marginalized when they fail to walk the talk. But Stein also illustrates a very common syndrome among American households, this strange dysfunctional relationship many of us have with our money.

Joe Blow said...

Whatever faults Paris Hilton has, above being born into scads of money, she at least has some entertainment value and contributes, in her own way, to the general happiness of a certain segment of the population.

And she has not just rested on her toned and tanned behind, she launched certain products and is rumored to be re-doing some hotel or something.

and she made that commercial during the campaign, which naturally had a big mistake about when oil from offshore drilling would be available but in any event made more sense than McCain or 96.2% of the rest of the republican asswipes.

Heywood J. said...

Say this much for Paris Hilton -- she isn't pretending to be something she isn't. Which is ironic, I guess, from someone whose entire life appears to be a happy, empty contrivance.

She seems comfortable with her vapidity, and has no higher aspirations. Somewhat irritating considering her fortunate circumstances, but no worse, really, than your average hypocritical teevee blowhard.