THE BLOG
08/31/2010 07:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Status Symbols and the American Express Black Card

As a seventeen-year-old student at Rabbinical college, a riddle was put to me. A beggar is invited to a billionaire's home for dinner. The homeless man has never had such scrumptious food. He throws his entire being into slopping down his soup and devouring his chicken. Meanwhile, the rich man puts a napkin on his lap, sticks out a pinky, and eats with meticulous etiquette. The question, which of the two men is more attached to the food? I answered, 'Why, the poor man, of course. He's wolfing the stuff down as if it's his last meal.' 'Wrong,' my teacher told me. 'The rich man is much more attached. Want proof? Try taking the food away from each. For the poor man its easy-come-easy-go. He ate on the street yesterday, he'll find a way to make do today. But the rich man? Just try taking away his meal. His butler will assault you, the police will be called, his lawyer will sue...' You get the picture.

As America endures its worst recession since the great depression, a cleansing of sorts is taking place. All the status symbols that give our lives meaning -- designer clothes, fancy cars, expensive jewelry -- are becoming outside our reach. Now status symbols are strange things. Who would have thought Dolce and Gabbana on our backside, Prada on our feet, and a $9,000 Birkin bag on our shoulder would make us feel so good about ourselves. But, curiously, we spend our lives pursuing these ephemeral and flimsy objects that somehow lend significance to our lives. Descartes may have said, "I think, therefore I am." But in America we respond, "I have, therefore I am."

But in this recession, our status symbols are under threat. How attached have we become to these things? Will our egos survive their absence? Most importantly, will we finally fill the void with new status symbols of greater depth and more lasting endurance?

Tiger Woods just lost his wife. His career is also going down the toilet. Which makes him feel worse? The answer, of course, depends on which was the real pillar of his self-esteem, his money and celebrity or his family.

Values, of course, create character. A love of money creates a greedy character while a love of people creates a nurturing character. But what is often overlooked is how values also determine a culture's status symbols. A culture that values wealth will develop super-expensive cars and gold encrusted watches that people compete to purchase. And a culture that values virtue will develop status symbols based on public service.

After Ted Turner pledged $1 billion in 1997 to the UN, he made the valid point that the Forbes 400 list prevented many of his friends from following suit. They feared that if they gave away a large portion of their wealth they would fall off the list. For many, status is attained through the hording of wealth. But a little over a decade later Bill Gates and Warren Buffet obliterated that model by creating a new status symbol: giving away half your assets in your lifetime, making it almost embarrassing to remain on the Forbes list with all your assets intact.

A conversation last week with an executive assistant to American Express CEO Ken Chenault, gave me an epiphany about my own susceptibility to shallow symbols of status, even though I decried all such nonsense in my 2009 book about the near-collapse of the American economy, The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger.

In 1994, while serving as Rabbi at Oxford University, I took my wife for our wedding anniversary to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. After an evening event we found ourselves in a freezing village late at night with no way to get back to our hotel in Oslo. I saw a bus passing and it stopped to pick us up. Turns out there were several British executives from American Express on board. One was charged with launching a new card -- a black card -- in the UK as a pilot. The Centurion Card was meant to be American Express's most elite card and, though the necessary earnings and spending were completely outside my reach, the executive and I became friendly and, having heard that my organization regularly hosts world leaders lecturing to Oxford's students, he found what I do interesting and offered me the card. Since it was a few years before the card made it into the US, it was a novelty to all who saw it. I was reluctant to ever show it off. Still, I knew I had it in my wallet.

Turns out that amid the status it was far from the blessing I thought it would be. Every year American Express raised the membership fee it until it was completely outside our budget (unbelievably, the policy is to keep the fee even if they cancel the card). Were they crazy? And especially for the abysmal service it offered. A concierge that was often incompetent, travel 'professionals' who were well-meaning but so often inept. Account managers who were impossible to reach. I complained numerous times and was apologized to by the head of Centurion in the US, who acknowledged the poor service I had received and promised to make it better. Regardless, the mistakes continued and the service remained highly substandard.

Matters came to a head when a temporary hold was put on the card because of a bicycle I bought from my brother's business and American Expresses' simple inability to distinguish between me, the cardholder, and my brother, an American Express merchant of many years. The hold was, of course, quickly removed but rather than the apology I had requested from Mr. Chenault's office, so that he be made aware of the considerable problems with Centurion, what followed was a painful and arrogant phone call from an insufferable corporate type in the CEO's office which only reinforced for me all the negative stereotypes that Americans have about credit card companies and their contemptuous treatment of those who make their businesses possible.

It was then that I had my epiphany. The next day, as I discussed my unfortunate experiences with another of Chenault's executive assistants, she asked me, given my abysmal experience with the card, why did I even want it? I went silent. I wished to give her an honest response.

So here it is. For all the books and columns I had written about how the viper of materialism had coiled itself around the American soul, and for all the lectures I had given to audiences around the world about how we are drowning our children in an ocean of excess, and for all the resources I am prepared to put into giving each of my nine children a Jewish education in religious schools so that they have a values-based education, I somehow found this silly piece of metal edifying. I could not admit it to myself but, having fallen into a club outside my means, I had also fallen victim to a simple marketing ploy that told me that possessing a rarity reserved for exclusive members - however ridiculously exorbitant and useless - somehow made me special.

Lois XIV, of France, the Sun King, confronted a dilemma as sovereign. Kings earned the loyalty of Dukes and Barons by granting large tracts of land. But the grants depleted the holdings of the Crown and the taxes they brought in. How could he sustain the loyalty of his most powerful subjects without giving away the realm? He came up with an ingenious solution: create a new status symbol that will cost him nothing and will simultaneously display the subordination of the barons to the King. Thus was born the almost laughable spectacle in Versailles of the daily royal dressing, know as the levee (rising). The King would awaken and the nobles of the realm would compete to take away his chamberpot, remove his nightshirt, and dress him with his britches. Incredibly, the nobles actually purchased the privilege of grande entrée, which commenced when the king's nightshirt was pulled over his head. When it comes to status symbols you can make anyone your sucker. My black American Express had become my own royal chamberpot.

My experience immediately called to mind a recent, brilliant op-ed by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal entitled, 'We Pay them to Abuse us,' which followed Steven Slater's meltdown on JetBlue where passengers were subjected to his profanity-laced harangue after paying JetBlue to fly on the plane. Here, I was the sucker who had strained to pay a membership fee to be subject to corporate America's shocking arrogance and to endure degrading phone calls from their executive offices.

In the 1980's American Express conducted a smear campaign against the celebrated orthodox Jewish banker and philanthropist Edmond Safra, brilliantly chronicled by renowned journalist Bryan Burrough in his best-seller 'Vendetta: American Express and the Smearing of Banking Rival Edmond Safra.' Safra, who was a major supporter of my work at Oxford University and sponsored an annual lecture for my organization that each year featured a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, including Elie Wiesel and Mikhail Gorbachev, won an apology and $8 million from American Express, all of which he donated to charity. The case, with its insinuations of anti-Semitism from what was perceived at the time to be a Waspy American Express, did much to tarnish the reputation of the bank and ultimately led to a change in management. In 2001 Chenault became only the third African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

That is, of course, something to be admired. But it would be nice to know that the executives of America's most important companies change not only their personnel but their attitudes as well. Every company has the right to promote their status symbols and we, the public, have a right to either buy into them or rise above them. But in this age of Wall Street greed, corporate aloofness, and abusive employees, it would be nice to see companies that still believe, and insist, that the customer is king and should be treated with simple courtesy and respect.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of 'The Shmuley Show' on 77 WABC in NYC, America's most listened-to talk radio station. He is the international best-selling author of 23 books and was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium. As host of 'Shalom in the Home' on TLC he won the National Fatherhood Award and his syndicated column was awarded the American Jewish Press Association's Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Newsweek calls him 'the most famous Rabbi in America.' He has just published 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.