The Self-Delusions of the Wealthy: Are They Really Worth What They’re Paid?

“If the wealthy had to work as hard as the janitor, they’d demand enough money to hire someone else to do the job.”
— Richard Sherricky

As summer slides into fall, if not the financial fall that’s eventual, some things haven’t changed, such as the investment bank aristocracy of Wall Street, already wallowing in obscenely large salaries, apparently believing they actually earn their pay for continuing to peddle worthless paper and hoodwinking their own customers. This addled belief, however, is nothing new.

Having misspent a part of my youth as an advertising executive at a publishing company, I once had an opportunity to encounter wealthy people at business lunches and social functions, and noticed a few habits of hypocritical thinking most of them had in common:

— To a man — and they were all men back then — they believed, even the silver-spoon trust fund scions and coddled bosses sons, that they were ‘self-made’ and everything they had was attained by their own hard work, even if their wealth was derived from dividend income, the result of a long-dead relative fortunately picking the right investments or starting a successful business.

— Speaking of hard work, when these CEOs and corporate presidents drifted in at 10 or 11 in the morning to check the mail and sign a few letters, left for a two-hour lunch at 12:30, and then went golfing for the rest of the afternoon, leaving their overworked and underpaid secretaries to run the place, they would still insist that they had ‘worked hard’ all day. The trust fund scoundrels were even worse; they’d sit in a quiet bar in the afternoon hunched over a drink, or lounge at home in their bathrobe, and their ‘work’ for the day consisted of a few calls to the office to see if everything was all right. As usual, a secretary or senior manager was running the company.

— Whatever their educational institution, Ivy League or state university, they all thought they graduated because they ‘studied hard’ and ‘put their noses to the grindstone’ even though some would laughingly brag, after a few too many cocktails, about how they had hired poor ‘scholarship brainiacs’ or ‘eggheads’ to teach them how to cheat on their tests.

— While most of them abhorred any publicly-funded program that enabled poor kids to get a better education, and especially affirmative action, they were blind to their own advantages, beyond just being born white. If Uncle Joe picked up the phone to make sure they got into the ‘right’ college, or Daddy was once a student and fast-tracked their ‘legacy’ acceptance into a good university, that was fine — just the way the world worked. Of course, left unsaid was how they would have been able to make their way through college if such financially-strapped ‘scholarship brainiacs’ were not there to help them cheat, just one of many mental cul-de-sacs that these sons of privilege passed by quickly, lest they get caught on their own conundrum.

— Although most of them supported the war in Vietnam, none of them came close to serving in it. They either received school draft deferments like Dick Cheney; or, like Rush Limbaugh, had a note from the family doctor describing some dread condition that made them militarily unfit, but somehow didn’t interfere with their golf game. Others had a family-friend Congressman intervene to keep them out; or, like Junior Bush, had the Old Man pull a few strings to get them ‘Weekend Warrior’ duty in the National Guard. Privately, they had little regard or compassion for the troops in the field; in fact, they believed them stupid and that the grunts should show gratitude for the opportunity that military service provided to raise their lowly selves out of the ghetto or trailer park. Should they die or be maimed for life during this process of elevation – well, that’s just the price they pay for not having the foresight to be born in better circumstances.

— Most of them hated paying taxes, the hatred much more intense than that of those lower on the income ladder. Like Leona Helmsley, they thought taxes were fine — for the ‘little people.’ A couple of them were even said to spend more money on lawyers and accountants to avoid paying taxes than the amount they owed in taxes. But they didn’t mind one bit freeloading off poorer folks by using roads, highways, airports, parks, sewer lines and other public facilities partly paid for by the taxes of the non-rich; and they took it for granted their class would receive preferential treatment from cops and firefighters they didn’t want to pay taxes to support. I won’t even get into the courts, prosecutors, and military all arrayed to protect their property that they also didn’t want to pay to uphold — suffice it to say that they didn’t believe in any taxes for themselves, even for those things that benefited them greatly. It would be a mistake to take this as any sort of reasonable consideration on the subject of taxation; it was not – it was a nearly-hysterical emotional reaction born of mindless greed or sheer obtuseness.

Because of my position at the time, I couldn’t easily debunk or refute their various delusions and fits of psychological zoanthropy; to do so might affect my company and my employment there and, frankly, I needed the job. While I would pose a mild question or two — nothing too challenging or confrontational — I mainly just listened to their hallucinations. Two of the great common myths of American culture are that you can’t be too rich or too thin. Anyone who has seen a person dying of anorexia knows the first is false, and anyone who has encountered the wealthy as I did knows that an excess of money can be just as harmful to a healthy mind as eating nothing but candy is to the body. One thought, unexpressed, went through my mind repeatedly as I listened and watched these well-heeled business acquaintances go through the motions: what exactly do these people do that is worth so much money? One-thousand dollars an hour or more for calling into the office or letting your secretary handle things? Doling out a few million to someone who cured cancer would seem appropriate; but paying that to a man who rarely worked and took months off for vacation while begrudging his employees a slight raise and a couple of weeks off for a holiday? It was outrageous and the situation has worsened in the decades since these events happened. Then, top executives received about 50 times more than the average worker; today, it’s about 700 times. Yet, are they working any harder than the top execs of the mid-70s? I’d bet Lloyd Blankfein’s yearly salary of $55 million they aren’t.

(Incidentally, I’m exempting here those who really did start their own businesses from scratch with next to nothing. They worked hard getting the place running and deserve to be paid for their effort if they succeed. That said, I don’t know if that effort is worth billions, but that’s a question for another time. Also, I’m not taking a swipe at artists, entertainers or sports stars; most of them also worked hard to get where they are, generally have brief professional lives, and merit compensation for their talents since it’s usually based on public approval rather than a board of directors stocked with your cronies.)

Until executive compensation is brought into line with actual worthwhile work done, and the wealthy have to pay their fair share of taxes, including payroll taxes and capital gains taxes commensurate with what the average worker pays, I don’t think we can resolve our current economic mess.

That aside, the thread running through all of this is the massive degree of self-delusion practiced by those with wealth. It’s scary enough when they know they’re lying to make a buck; it’s pathologically dangerous when they buy into their own fantasies about themselves as have, it seems, the current crop of Wall Street bunco artists and banking grifters. In this case, it won’t end until Richie Rich, ensconced in an office at Goldman Sachs, dreaming up the next fraudulent financial instrument for his firm to foist on the gullible markets, hits bottom – an inevitability since they refuse to learn from their mistakes — and seeks another ‘loan’ from the contemptible ‘little people’ who pay taxes via the federal Big Daddy and, to mix metaphors, the cupboard is bare.

Then these Masters of the Universe will learn the tough lesson the cosseted Junior Bush as president had to endure: there are times when even Big Daddy can’t save you from the hard consequences of acting like a spoiled brat with too much for your own good.

© 2011 RS Janes.

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