The Ways We Don’t Talk About Wealth
Dollar sign by Maximus Chatsky
By the end of 2012, I will most likely have made just shy of a million dollars in three years. It’s not pure profit, but for a girl who felt dizzy when she first made $40,000 in a year, it’s a staggering realization.
The “how” of this benchmark is salacious enough to distract from any other aspects of its achievement, so best to dispatch it immediately: I work as an escort. And while there are women who charge more than I do and who have surely made more than me, financial success in this field must always be disclaimed as extraordinary lest one glamorize such a base profession. I also pay taxes, contrary to popular assumptions about sex workers, and the reality of taxes tends to detract from the glitz of cash — everyone pays more than they want to, particularly the people who pay the least, those who often preface confessions of prosperity with, “I’m not rich, but…” This is something only rich people say or ever think to say. I had never heard it before I started spending time with the wealthy.
Numbers, independent of tone, seem to indicate bragging, an assertion imbibed with smugness, callousness, and a sense of superiority. Only in rarified circles will “I made a million dollars” be interpreted as an inoffensive statement of fact. And plenty of people would laugh heartily at my identifying myself as rich with so “little” money to my name. (Recall CEO Gary Kremen telling The New York Times that, with his worth of $10 million, he’s “nobody.”) This is not to say that living with my economic reality is hard. But given the sociopolitical climate of the past four years, my income has confounded how I think of myself. It has created dissonance in spite of the fact that I don’t believe my work is wrong or creates oppression or deprives others of resources or rights. Having a lot of money creates a sense of responsibility — or at least, it should — as well as vulnerability. The knee-jerk “I’m not rich” refrain is fundamentally a denial of that responsibility, a deflection: I’m not the problem, though I may be implicated in a problematic system. There are people of far greater worth who are far more culpable.
Witnessing richness usually means witnessing a profound loss of perspective. An infamous study in early 2011 found that 42 percent of American millionaires didn’t “feel” rich. In 2009, it was 46 percent. Back in my 40k days, a friend (also a sex worker) commented to me that she was running out of things to buy. I was too, but that’s because we were both operating on our former 12k-a-year, minimum wage appetites, and those would soon morph into a hunger to match the harvest. Years ago, someone told me once that if he were to pursue his passion, he would be a physics professor. I asked him why he wasn’t. He replied that professors only made $90k a year to start, maybe $110,000, and “you can’t live on that.” The average American household income at the time was $50,000.
It’s well established that as families ascend through income brackets, so too do their tastes and spending habits, meaning that one’s lifestyle always feels more average than extravagant. As wealth accrues, it creates a new normal, again and again as required. My current annual income brings a pleasant blindness; I don’t have to actively worry about my finances, and I can be impulsive and carefree in how I spend. While in some respects I remain resolutely frugal, even downright cheap, it’s mostly a matter of principle (or neuroses.) I’ve been good about saving from the beginning, so when I sit down to check my bank statements and I see the numbers of what sits in my account, I’m always surprised. Aside from fraud-check sessions, I never bother to look at my balance. When a bank rep asked me last year if I was planning to buy a house with my savings, it took me at least a full minute to digest his question.
Speaking honestly about money is among the last remaining taboos in contemporary American discourse. Politics, religion, assaultive crimes, sexual proclivities, family secrets, and even health problems (including those involving bowel movements) will all be more warmly received into a conversation than the topic of what everyone in the conversation earns. It’s shockingly bad manners to bring it up. But even social censure isn’t trusted as a powerful enough deterrent: some companies contractually forbid employees to disclose their compensation to colleagues. (It’s obvious how this benefits employers, most notably when gender discrimination is at play.)
I largely rely on my own estimates to plot the incomes of my clients, who range in net worth from hundreds of millions to, I suspect, a paltry one or two. Several have salaries listed on Forbes.com, and a handful have told me what they make. (Admittedly, there are considerations encouraging them to tamper with that figure, in one direction or another.) Location plays a large role in how rich they feel or will acknowledge that they are. New Yorkers in particular are simultaneously expansive and beleaguered when it comes to cash flow, which is no surprise given that Manhattan is our country’s most expensive place to live. Many are fussy about my rates even as they share stories of vacation homes, art purchases, long international trips, children’s trust funds, and politicians whose friendships they purchased at a rate far higher than mine. If their wealth is a source of social distress, if it weighs on them as being unfair or unwarranted, none of them have ever disclosed that to me. They are afflicted instead with a paradoxical abundance that barely suffices — or fails to.
Though the income gap between the 1% and the 99% is great, it’s dwarfed in absolute terms by the disparity between the 1% and the .01% , those who make $5.2 million to $7.5 million a year as opposed to $380,000. The same imbalance replicates itself at both points of stratification. The superrich set the aspirational bar for the merely rich, those families who take a commercial flight (albeit business class) to vacation in Barcelona instead of using their private jet to take them to Barcelona — and then to Cannes, and Maastricht, and any other city that might offer a few days’ diversion.
It’s true that many of my clients are incredibly bright, highly skilled at their jobs, and have labored for years on a minimum of sleep. It’s not that they’ve made no sacrifices or put forth no effort, nor are they unkind or unpleasant people. But it’s fruitless to debate whether they have “worked hard” enough to justify income disparity. Such personality and work-ethic arguments are red herrings; it’s clear that one can work very hard and not make much money, and that we each have different ideas as to what constitutes “hard” work.
Still, those who depict our national situation as one in which a few ruthless, meritless individuals have co-opted the country’s wealth simplify the truth at the future’s peril. We are right to fear corrupt individuals with outsize power and the money to buy even more of it. But singling out members of the wildly rich (preferably bankers) for a personal reckoning isn’t a plan, no matter how cathartic such a course would be. It’s not wrong, per se, to hate the rich so much as it is ultimately impotent.
Of course, not all or most or even many Americans necessarily “hate” the rich. The Occupy movement’s purpose was hardly to complain that rich people are bad; those who argue otherwise are being disingenuous or simply ignorant. However, the common claim that Americans are fascinated by the wealthy people and aspire to be like them, so therefore cannot dislike them, is equally foolish. As any adolescent girl blacking out the teeth of a Neutrogena-ad model can tell you, being drawn in and repulsed often happens in the same beat. We desire while we resent our desire, despise those we want to imitate. There is real animosity building, born out of injustice and frustration, and it’s much easier to be angrier at a people than at a system.
While conservative media outlets constantly rail against liberals who “hate” the rich, so do less elegant liberal outlets regularly use “rich” indiscriminately as a synonym with crooks. (“10 Ways to Force the Stinking Rich to Share Their Wealth”; “6 Ways the Rich Are Waging a Class War Against the American People.”) Within such an atmosphere, copping to my wealth makes me feel villainous, a wolf in sheep’s clothing lurking among friends who don’t have health insurance and who periodically lose their cell service.
No one wants to be, as the New York Times puts it, “on the wrong end of a new paradigm.” Whatever pleasure I take in acquiring so much money is dampened by a nagging sense of guilt that donating to nonprofits and voting as progressively as possible does nothing to alleviate. (“Who do they think donates to all the charities?” one of my conservative clients said when complaining about those who complain about our country’s outrageous income gap. I did not assume the Herculean task of explaining to him that some citizens dream of a world in which their health and sustenance wouldn’t depend on the sporadic mercy of the affluent.)
Many one-percenters refused to be interviewed for that Times article, citing fear of protesters showing up at their home or even violently attacking their family. Are they paranoid? Or are they aware that unsustainable inequality threatens the stability of all Americans, theirs included? In light of our broken government, there are few avenues for mediating such emotions as fear and anger on either side of the income gap and few avenues for cooperation, as those strong emotions foster isolation. Some rich people say they would be willing to give up their Social Security or pay more taxes, but regardless of their sincerity, these offers come across as lip service more than proof of solidarity and compassion. When Anne Hathaway showed up at Occupy protests, she was regarded as an activism tourist, not a legitimate participant. Her wealth set her apart definitively.
Support The New Inquiry. Subscribe to TNI Magazine for $2To speak honestly about money, it is not only necessary to enlarge our perspectives. We must also start speaking out loud. Perversely, I’ve found that the more I make, the more I want to talk about what I make. My mounting tallies create a pressure that I release with inappropriately glib or self-deprecating remarks. But there’s no intrinsic value in not talking about it other than perhaps preserving an illusion of shy modesty, adhering to those aforementioned social mores, and keeping on the metaphorical sheep costume. The truth of my richness remains, and the richness of those who have made me rich endures and expands. Silence benefits only those on top.
Part of me is proud, yes, and surprised, and wants confidants to help anchor the strangeness of it all. But another part of me is anxious. There is a strong gender-related self-censorship in effect for women, since women are traditionally not encouraged to express rank ambition or to speak baldly about the ways they excel. It is infinitely more distasteful for a professional female model to say, “I’m beautiful” than it is for a professional male athlete to say, “I’m the best in the game.” But nothing is more offensive than a woman saying, “I’m rich.”