Paul L. Caron

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Schadenfreude at the Hampton Inn

New York Times:  Waiting for Schadenfreude, by Judith Warner:

[I]n the whole winner-take-all-era ushered in by the boom years of the late 1990s ... [t]he model for success narrowed. The goal posts marking success grew more out of reach. For all the people who did something with their lives other than doggedly, single-mindedly — and successfully — pursuing wealth ... life got harder and scarier and more confusing.

Many of us who’d proudly decided, in our twenties, to pursue edifying or creative, or “helping” professions, woke up to realize, once we had families, that we’d perhaps been irresponsible. We couldn’t save for college. We could barely save for retirement. If we set up a “family-friendly” lifestyle, we threw our financial futures down the drain. ...

So, like just about everyone, we worked hard and treaded water, but felt we were entitled to do better than that. And if we lived in the New York area, or another similarly wealthy area where the spoils of the new Gilded Age were constantly thrust in our faces, we felt ... a little something more: we knew that we were losers.

For those of us who have hated this period — the wealth worship, the wealth gap, the elevation of everything suspiciously shiny and irrationally bubbly and stupidly ebullient, there should be some feeling of vindication. But it just isn’t coming. A great emptiness — and a gnawing kind of fear — has taken its place. ...

Schadenfreude is impossible because the fat cats — the ones who bent the rules, the ones who pushed the envelopes, the ones who paid lower taxes because capital gains were most of their income, the ones who opposed regulations on the banking and mortgage industries — are taking us down with them. ... We’re all losers now. There’s no pleasure to it.

Tom Smith responds in "We Are All Losers Now":

[P]eople so tormented by relative financial unsuccess that they end up crying do not appreciate how costly it is in personal terms to commit oneself to making a lot of money. ... []n Plato's Republic, or perhaps another of his tedious dialogues, ... Socrates says to some rich, old gent something like "I observe you are not an asshole. Am I right in thinking you inherited your money rather than made it yourself?" He then goes on to say people who made a lot of money are overly fascinated by it and their own skill in having gotten it. In my experience, that is really true. I also observed older men making what looked to me terrible sacrifices, especially of their families, in pursuing their careers at the big DC law firm I was at. One story that made the rounds was of an associate who took a call from the daughter of a top partner. She was in the ICU after a suicide attempt. He was working to finish something for a client, and refused to take the call, which had been put through to the conference room. He sent an associate to take the call and tell her he could not come to the phone. The daughter pleaded with the associate, the associate went back to the partner, but she could not get him to come to the phone.

The thing is, markets are pretty efficient. Wealth has a price, and it's far from free. To get it, you have to compete with others who not only have as much brains as you do, but who may well be willing to give up more than you to get it. I used to think I liked money more than most people, but that was before I met the people who really like it, or really want it anyway, and are willing to do a lot more than I am to get it. ...

Fight Club got that right in its excoriation of working in a job you hate so you can buy shit you don't need. ... But honestly, this attitude of, I became an artist, non profit worker, teacher, writer, whatever, and now I'm not rich like the guys who went into banking, boo hoo hoo -- I mean, honestly, cowboy up and get a life. If you feel this way, more stuff is probably the least of what you need.

This really resonates with me, as I am on the first of many college trips with my kids over the next two years.  I picked my son up after he took the SAT yesterday, and we drove ten hours listening to and debating Bob Woodward's State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III.  As I sit typing this in a Hampton Inn, following a a dinner at Applebee's, there is no place I would rather be.

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