Waiting for Schadenfreude
A couple of years ago, at the height of the boom, a friend in New York publishing described to me the indignities of being a five-figure employee commuting daily from suburban New Jersey on trains packed with traders, stock brokers and hedge-fund types.
“These were the guys who, in college, I used to step over on Sunday mornings when they were lying in a pool of their own vomit,” he said. “And now they’re earning millions and millions – in bonuses alone.”
The image, as you might imagine, stuck in my mind. For it summed up so well a certain kind of resentment and sense of injustice that a particular class of non-monied professionals in the New York area came to feel sometime in the late 1990s.
The feeling of injustice wasn’t just about money, though it was partly about being more than solidly middle class and still struggling to pay the bills, as New York writer Vince Passaro captured so well in his “Reflections on the Art of Going Broke” (“Who’ll Stop the Drain?”) in Harper’s in 1998.
It was, rather, about a sense that the wrong people had inherited the earth.
They had taken over everything. Their salaries (and bonuses in particular) had pushed real estate costs and living expenses sky-high. Their values had permeated every aspect of life. And their choices seemed to have become the only acceptable — even viable — ones possible.
In the 1970s, even in New York, it had been financially possible for a middle class family to survive if parents — even one parent — built a professional life around something other than purely making money. In the 1980s — even in the “greed is good” (which was of course meant to be a damning phrase) 1980s — it seemed respectable, honorable and, dare I say, valuable to do things other than make a lot of money. But by the late 1990s, in New York, if you weren’t in the financial industry, it was hard to survive.
And so it went, in a more general way, throughout the country, in the whole winner-take-all-era ushered in by the boom years of the late 1990s. The 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 (“You mean, some people’s jobs are just about making money?” Julia once asked me in the course of one of our “What the World is About” conversations), 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, like my friend on the train, a little something more: we knew that we were losers.
(“The Big L,” a friend, an art school grad turned design consultant, declared last week, calling me in tears after her stockbroker told her how little she cared about her modest portfolio. “Why not just brand it right on my forehead and be done with it?”)
This financial crisis is supposed to be a big moment of reckoning. “666-Mark of the Beast” and “Root of all Evil” the End-of-World Web sites are shouting, quoting prominent economists on the demise of the American banking system. “Wall Street, R.I.P.”, a headline in The Times proclaimed last weekend. “The Master of the Universe Era is over,” New York magazine chimed in.
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.
After 9/11, psychologists said that the tragedy and trauma would magnify whatever emotional state people were already experiencing. Depressed people would become much more depressed. Anxious people would become much more anxious.
The current financial crisis has, I think, proven to be a similar sort of emotional Rorschach test. People who felt impotent feel even more powerless. Those who felt lied to see new levels of conspiracy. Demagogues are engaging in even more demagoguery.
And those of us who felt, well, like losers, are feeling like even bigger losers, as we shove our unopened 401K or (if we’re double-loser freelancers) SEP-IRA statements into bottom desk drawers and wait for a cathartic burst of schadenfreude that simply refuses to come.
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.
The very wealthiest are, as always, likely to do just fine. Real, hard-core Wall Street, as Tom Wolfe reminded us last weekend, long ago decamped for the hedge funds of Greenwich. The political leaders who allowed this mess to develop have turned into the great defenders of “Main Street.” (If I have to hear the juxtaposition of “Main Street” and “Wall Street” one more time, I will be the one drowning in a pool of vomit.). It’s a whole host of other people — vulnerable middle class homeowners and small business owners and, now, universities unable to make payroll — who are hurting.
I called my friend in publishing yesterday to ask him how things were going on the train.
“There’s a lot of rueful chuckling. There’s a lot of talk about riding this out, about maintaining,” is all he had to say.
It was 23 years ago that Tom Wolfe introduced us to the Masters of the Universe. They were curiosities then — remote, very rich, and decidedly not like you and me. But now, the world of Wall Street has become our world; there is no outside to it, there is no other option than to pay and play. Our fortunes rise and fall together to a degree like never before, and our values are enmeshed like never before. The language of Wall Street — of cost-cutting and efficiency, self-interest, using each situation to maximize profit, is the language of everyday life and social interaction.
We’re all losers now. There’s no pleasure to it.