In my last post, A Tale of Two Summer Camps, I described, in a rather pejorative way, the ostentatious look and vibe of the parents of kids who were attending a ritzy sleepaway camp along with my daughter. A couple of commenters on my OpenSalon blog remarked that I was perhaps stereotyping Haves and Have-Nots and that there were plenty of nice Haves and plenty of nasty Have-Nots–that the issue was less about money and more about values and personality.
Which got me to thinking about my own complicated, thorny feelings about money, privilege and power.
I grew up in an elite, Old Money northeastern town and attended an exclusive K-12 private school where, it seemed, most of my peers’ families belonged to country clubs and owned second and even third homes in Nantucket, Barbados, or Vail. It was not uncommon for me to visit friends’ mansions and get lost wandering through the wings. One of my earliest memories was asking my mother why we didn’t live in a house with stairs. We were, in fact, renters; I was in high school before my parents could save up the money to buy a home, and even then, it was a tiny one.
Although I had the cerebral chops to matriculate from my academically rigorous school, I felt like a fish out of socioeconomic waters. My parents didn’t socialize with the other parents. While friends’ families were spending winter break schussing down ski slopes, we were vacationing dirt-cheap in an off-the-beaten-path town in Mexico. The only reason I was able to attend my school was because my mother taught there, so tuition was virtually free.
My parents were southerners and their “people” had had money a few generations back. My mother liked to boast that her great-grandfather grew cotton on his plantation in South Carolina. My father’s grandfather had been the mayor of a small southern town, and his family had made and lost modest fortunes.
My parents didn’t have money, but they had a kind of gentility associated with Old Money. They loved art, music and literature. They read the New York Times religiously. They would not have conceived of sending my sister and me to public schools, or entertained the possibility that we would not go to prestigious colleges. They took us to museums, Broadway productions, and to lunch at the Tea Room at Lord & Taylor’s. They filled our shoebox-home with handmade (never machine-made!) Oriental rugs and antiques from shoestring-travels abroad.
My mother liked to say that even though we weren’t rich, we were “to the Manor Born.” That meant we had good breeding and manners and dignity, and, truth be told, a certain refined air edging towards haughtiness. She liked to point out people who were not to the Manor Born, individuals who, rich or not, gave limp handshakes and said “lay down” instead of “lie down” or decorated their homes with wall-to-wall carpeting and cheesy art reproductions.
In my family, it was important to have class but not money. There was, at times, a reverse snobbism towards the rich. Mom believed that “people who have a lot of money are suspect.” Her father was a former banker who left the world of commerce to become a Presbyterian minister. He felt that you couldn’t make a fortune and love God at the same time and that the truly noble would choose God over Money any day.
This was before the current era of capitalist, mega-church pastors who preach that God wants people to be loaded.
I think my parents, especially my mother, used their Money-is-inherently-bad Absolute as a way to buffer themselves against the slings and arrows of financial insecurity–and living among people who hadn’t known a day of it.
I don’t remember a time when my parents weren’t worried about money. I would lie in bed at night, listening to them in their adjacent bedroom, speaking sotto voce about how they were going to stretch the budget. To cut down the water bill, my mother washed dishes by hand, sighing, sometimes crying, as she scrubbed. We rarely ate dinner out or entertained. We didn’t have a cleaning lady. When I asked my mother why we didn’t have a house with stairs, she threw her arm over her face, burst into tears and sobbed, chest heaving, “This is the best we can do!”
Perhaps I got the message that not caring about money didn’t make you noble, it just made you tired and weepy. Or perhaps I grew up believing that deep down I was a member of the landed gentry whose family had inadvertently misplaced their land. Or perhaps I just knew more rich people than middle-class people. Whatever the reason, I tended to date rich guys and ended up marrying, the first time around, a man from an insanely wealthy family. A five-house-owning, nine-hole-putting-green-in-the-backyard, private-jet-flying, here-junior-here’s-$250,000-to-float-you-through-a-lean-year kind of family.
It should come as no surprise that Prince and I had radically different relationships to and value systems around money–a philosophical clash that eventually drove a wedge between us. I had been raised to think about people less fortunate, and I knew what it was like to live paycheck to paycheck. It was not my nature to manipulate immigrant workers into accepting insultingly low hourly wages, or withhold payment to vendors as long as possible by demanding that they re-submit more detailed invoices. I believed that people should be compensated fairly and paid on time.
I simply could not understand why Prince, who had grown up in a world of abundance, and who stood to inherit multimillions of dollars, was so spectacularly irritated by having to pay hard-working people for their services that he made them beg for it. Whenever I tried to get him to empathize with those who were desperate for their paycheck, Prince told me I didn’t understand money and that was why he needed to control all of it.
Never were our divergent views on money more starkly apparent than at dinner at a pricey restaurant during a Machiavelli family vacation. The topic of conversation was corporate bonuses. The conversation went something like this:
Machiavelli #1: “CEOs deserve as big a bonus as the market will bear.”
Me: “But that leaves less money for mid-level employees and support staff who keep the company running.”
Machiavelli #2: “Companies need to offer big bonuses to attract the best executives.”
Me: “Even if those executives are driving their companies into the ground?”
Machiavelli #3: “It doesn’t matter. Companies have to offer big bonuses to attract top talent.”
Me: “What about top teachers? They’re not paid anything near what they’re worth, they work like dogs, and without them, who would teach future executives?”
Machiavelli #4: “What’s for dessert?”
I don’t for a minute mean to suggest that all rich people are like Michele Bachmann and all poor people are like Mother Theresa. But I do believe it is incumbent upon those with privilege to give back so that the world is more habitable to all; Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who have launched a campaign to convince billionaires to donate half their net worth to charity, are good examples.
Most of my close friends, while not in the billionaire category, are affluent. They are progressive, Jon Stewart-watching, social justice-seeking rich people. They enjoy the lifestyle their wealth makes possible, but they respect the rights of others. Our wallets are different sizes, but our values are the same.
Here is where my feelings about money get two-faced and make me feel like a hypocrite. I’m immensely grateful for the Machiavellis’ money–despite knowing what they did to get it. Their money means my children will be able to go to any college they want, live in beautiful homes in good neighborhoods, afford the best medical care, and retire someday instead of working till they keel over. Their money means I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to give my kids a leg up in this increasingly stratified world or feel sorrow because I can’t.
What I do worry about, however, is the strings that will be attached to the money. Inherited mega-wealth can–not always, but can–cripple people. It can keep them from developing a work ethic and the self-esteem that comes from making one’s own way in life. It can keep people from forming opinions separate from one’s parents, or the voice to express them. It can deprive people of the freedom to pursue the career and mate of their choosing. It can keep them ignorant, sealed off from others not like them.
In the extreme, it can hinder the development of empathy and social responsibility. It can, and it has, created a society in which the Haves think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Have-Nots to eat cake.
Despite my fears of what inherited wealth can do, and given the scary economic state of the country, I’m relieved my kids will always be Haves.
I just hope they’ll be the nice kind.