Helaine Olen: Heads, the rich win; tails, the poor lose
The rich, to mangle F. Scott Fitzgerald slightly, they rationalize differently than you and me. Whether they succeed or fail, they’ve always got a pseudo-scientific excuse. If they do well, it’s because their habits are better than those of the rest of us peons. If they do badly, it was their upbringing, since wealthy parents too readily substitute lucre for love.
Don’t believe me? Let’s turn to the headlines.
Last month, personal finance and self-responsibility guru Dave Ramsey posted a list on his website entitled, “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day,” originally written by New Jersey accountant and certified financial planner Thomas C. Corley, who, according to his website “studied the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 people living in poverty.”
The list, which quickly went viral, was filled with the self-improvement tropes that could be called “Why the Rich Deserve Their Money.” Prosperous people eat less junk food than poor people. They read more books. They watch less reality television and make their children volunteer more time to charity.
It should come as no surprise that the country that brought you the myth of Horatio Alger should love such bits of wealth-building advice. We have a history after all, probably one going back as far as Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, which offered up such words of wisdom as “a penny saved is a twopence dear,” now widely remembered as “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
Franklin, however, lacked access to modern market research techniques. As a result, the modern iteration of this way of thinking really begins with the publication of “The Millionaire Next Door” in 1996, a book that posited that the wealthy might be our neighbors but they really aren’t like us. They are thrifty, luxury-eschewing self-made men; they drink Bud instead of merlot, and most certainly do not give too much to their children.
Do they really? Who knew? Authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko based their findings on a self-selecting group of millionaires willing to answer a 249-question survey in return for $1, not exactly a representative group. But no one cared. The success of the book (it spent more then two years on the New York Times bestseller list) spawned hosts of imitators ranging from “The Top Ten Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class” and Today show guru Jean Chatzky’s “The Difference,” which studied the financial habits of the wealthy to better advise the rest of us.
And now, courtesy of the Internet, we get lists. On Yahoo, there’s the “Daily Habits of Wealthy People.” Lifehack could support a vertical devoted to the topic, with posts including “10 Habits of the Richest People in the World,” “7 Reasons Why You’re not a Millionaire” and, my personal favorite, “11 Sleep Habits of Successful People.”
Even if you take these lists at face value, all they are doing is confusing access with virtue. Take the popular meme about how the poor don’t prepare healthy meals. There are solid reasons those lacking funds might purchase less-than-nutritious offerings, and lack of discipline is only one item on the list.
First, lower-income people all too often lack easy access to affordable outlets. Poverty struck Camden, N.J., already deemed a “food desert” by the federal government, which saw its last supermarket, a Pathmark, close its doors this past fall.
Or think about this: how many times have you purchased fresh fruit or vegetables, only to have them turn before they can be consumed? That’s not a problem with boxed macaroni and cheese — and that’s something someone reliant on food stamps to get by needs to contemplate when tossing food into the shopping cart.
No matter. Subtlety is not required on these lists. The subtext to all these conglomerations of sometimes-dubious statistics is the same: the shiftless poor deserve their fate. Never mind unemployment, and full-time jobs that don’t offer a living wage. Just eat an apple a day and floss your damn teeth.
But if the wealthy don’t engage in proper behavior — well, they’ve got an excuse.
Let’s discuss affluenza, which could be deemed what happens when the poor little rich boy or girl syndrome meets the DSM, or at least meets someone who thinks such a condition is officially recognized by the psychiatric community. (It’s not.) Supposedly caused by wealthy parents who neglect their children, or use their money to allow their sons and daughters to avoid facing the consequences of their actions, affluenza leaves sufferers lacking self-discipline and impulse control, or much of a sense of self.
The term is now in the news, thanks to the Texas teen who killed four people earlier this year while driving drunk. After a therapist indeed testified the boy suffered from affluenza, a sympathetic judge sentenced him to probation so he could receive needed treatment. And what might that be? A long-term stay in a four-star luxury rehab facility in southern California reportedly costing $450,000 annually where his recovery will possibly include horseback riding and time spent in a “state-of-the-art” gym.
But what is affluenza? Well, in something that should come as no surprise, it originates in the whims of a wealthy. Fred Whitman, a San Francisco blueblood, coined the term in the 1950s. In the early 1980s, he sponsored a survey by the Bay Area C.G. Jung Institute, one that used the term to demonstrate the downsides of inherited wealth. The term gained traction quickly. Future happiness and emotional intelligence star Daniel Goleman soon wrote an article on the topic for the New York Times and, in little more than a decade, a PBS special was devoted to the concept, which was pitched as something anyone who tried to keep up in the consumption-happy United States could suffer from.
Yet, at its heart, affluenza is little more than an excuse for bad habits and awful behavior. But that’s not something that goes mentioned by our modern self-help gurus, who are, apparently, simply trying to make themselves or their clients feel they are among the righteous.
No one, after all, ever asks how the wealthy could have both better daily habits that ensure wealth and manifest the behaviors that cause affluenza. But we don’t need to wonder why that is so. As French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote, “As long as there are rich people in the world, they will be desirous of distinguishing themselves from the poor.” It can go without saying that such sentiments will always benefit those with power and assets over those without access to either.
Helaine Olen is the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.”