In the 1980s, I was briefly married to a woman whose mother was one of the twenty richest people in the country. It was a dazzling, disconcerting experience. There were mornings when I woke up in Paris and flew the Concorde to New York, then rushed to teach my screenwriting class at NYU. For shorter flights, there was the company's G-4 -- "the only plane we never miss," my mother-in-law joked. It took me a while to find a connecting thread in the stories I collected in my new life: A great fortune is protection from all unpleasantness.
My life is so different now that I rarely think of those years. But "Rich People Just Care Less," a recent piece by Daniel Goleman in the New York Times, made me look back. Goleman cites research that suggests the very rich lack empathy because "people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power."
Translation: The rich don't give a damn about anyone who's not rich.
I can't confirm those findings; by virtue of marriage, this son of a middle-level executive was granted an astonishing upgrade in status. I experienced none of the social disregard Goleman describes. I was never made to feel as if I'd won the lottery. Once inside, I was an insider.
"There is no off-the-record," Hunter Thompson said. In the hermetic circle of the rich, there is. That is how, at a 1984 party in Southampton, a billionaire told me, "If you have less than $700 million, you have no hedge against inflation." This wasn't said as a caution to me -- it was assumed that, as the heiress's consort, I shared her fortune -- but out of concern for others in the room.
That is the first of two truths I learned about the very rich during my marriage. The first is that they never feel they're rich enough. Even at the top tier of the Forbes 400, I saw a rarified pecking order; very wealthy people were painfully aware that there were women with better jewels, men with surer instincts for investments. The second truth is that this gnawing envy is matched by a fear of a dramatic reversal of fortune; for the very rich, having to dip into savings looks to them like the beginning of the end. Every so often, when I would hear about acquaintances who sold the big apartment and the house on Gin Lane and moved to a quiet little town in another state, I noticed that they were never heard from -- or spoken of -- again. As David Patrick Columbia, editor of New York Social Diary, says, "The only thing that gets you shunned in New York society is poverty."
There was a party given this week for Diana Taylor, who is Mayor Bloomberg's girlfriend, at the home of Steve Schwarzman, the co-founder of the Blackstone Group who is notorious in certain circles for comparing the prospect of higher tax rates for private equity firms to Hitler's invasion of Poland. A large topic of conversation, Women's Wear reported, was the likelihood that Bill De dlasio, a progressive who leads his Republican opponent by 50 points, will be the city's next Mayor. Ms. Taylor declined to be interviewed, but others were quick to share their fears of impending disaster.
"New York is a city of financial entrepreneurs, of genius stock traders and bankers," a guest said. "It would be a smart idea to keep it that way. It's not a city that's going to benefit from high taxes because people who have substantial incomes have a choice. They have a choice of venues. New Jersey beckons. Florida beckons. All kinds of other states who do better at job creation. We are really biting the hand that feeds us. No question about it."
Give that woman points for honesty. Her hot-button issue isn't Obamacare, or the deficit, or the debt ceiling. It's taxes. This is not surprising; many rich people seem to believe they are job creators and therefore shouldn't be taxed at all.
This woman would, I think, be surprised to learn that New Jersey isn't the dynamo she claims -- since February 2010, when Chris Christie became governor, New Jersey hasn't ranked higher than 35th of the 50 states in job creation. (New York, where taxes are higher, ranks 18th.) And I doubt that she knows how much her husband pays in New York City taxes each year -- I suspect it might be less than I do -- or that his tax burden won't beggar him if De Blasio is elected.
Goleman describes a social elite that lacks empathy. No doubt some snootballs do sneer at people so beaten down they still cook for themselves. My experience suggests another reason that the very privileged are as remote from reality as the tea party. It's not that they have a snob's disdain for the little people. It's that, insulated by their money, they don't know any.
[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]