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After Madoff: Blaming the Rich?

The backlash is upon us. We’re done, at least for the moment, with the urban elite’s obsession with the rich and powerful; or more specifically, done with how that obsession was flaunted and insinuated into the forefront of the popular … Read More

By / January 13, 2009

The backlash is upon us. We’re done, at least for the moment, with the urban elite’s obsession with the rich and powerful; or more specifically, done with how that obsession was flaunted and insinuated into the forefront of the popular imagination through every conceivable medium. 

Recently, I received a link to a Daily Beast story (more of a wrenching sob-worthy saga, really) penned by Madoff victim Alexandra Penney, a New York artist and former editor of Self magazine, who describes her thoughts after learning she’d lost everything:

I began to think about my options: I’d have to sell the cottage in West Palm Beach immediately. I’d need to lay off Yolanda. I could cancel the newspaper subscriptions and read everything online. I only needed a cell phone. I’d have to stop taking taxis. And who could highlight my hair for almost no money? And how hard was it to give yourself a really good pedicure?

Then there is my jewelry. I’ve always collected nice watches and pearls. In the back of my mind I’d think, "Buy good stuff because if you’re ever a bag lady, you can sell it." It might have been a rationalization then-but here I am now: The nightmare may be coming true.

On an individual, person-by-person level, the only appropriate reaction to such hardship is one of compassion and sympathy. But Penney also talks about how she became involved with Madoff, which brings us to the larger socio-cultural level, which is repugnant.

I suddenly had a lot of money. I was in my late 40s, and I felt that I was just too old to have it in a plain old bank account. But I was a creative person, not a savvy investor, so I asked around and talked to my smartest friends with Harvard and Wharton MBAs. There appeared to be a secret society of Madoff investors. A friend who was older, wealthier, and more established somehow got me in. I’ve always had good luck, and I thought it was another stroke of good fortune to be invested with the legendary Bernard Madoff.

Every month I got detailed statements, and my money looked to be growing around 9 to 11 percent. It didn’t seem greedy because I knew people other people who were making 15 or 20 percent. I thought, "This is just a very smart investor."

The reaction to Penney’s tell-all has been venomous. And from the passage above, it’s not hard to understand why. In two paragraphs, Penney unwittingly serves up a buffet of nearly all the revered iconography of a culture that has thrived for the last twenty years: financiers as the new rock-star heroes, addiction to a pornogaphry of meritocratic emblems and pedigree (Wharton! Harvard!) as a sign of our lust for social power, exclusivity and the promise of "secret societies," and the no-guilt thrill of making more and more money.

The venom Penney is experiencing is nothing compared to people’s reaction to Alex Kucynski’s December New York Times Magazine story detailing her experience hiring another woman to bear her child. Kucynski’s marriage to a hedge-fund billionaire – the totem of this period’s bonfire of grotesqueries – provides the appropriate backdrop for the now-infamous photographs that accompanied the story. The powderkeg was an image of Ms. Kuczynski holding her new child surrounded by her black nanny on the lawn of her massive Southampton estate juxtaposed with photographs of the surrogate, barefoot and alone, on the rickety porch of her house in Pennsylvania.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank found Kuczynski’s story an example of just how "profoundly ugly" American society’s "massive inequality" had become. "At long last, our national love affair with the rich is coming to a close," he wrote. "The moguls whose exploits we used to follow with such fascination, it now seems, plowed the country into the ground precisely because of the fabulous rewards that were showered on them."

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