We all know that the point of the NY Times Style Section is to fellate the rich. That is, to reflect back on our New Gilded Age overlords an image that both flatters and also, if possible, justifies their existence.
Because that’s what our betters want. And giving it to them means that every week tens of thousands of well-manicured fingers will page or click through the Style Section, viewing the insanely expensive ads for insanely expensive luxury goods that only this small group can possibly afford.
It’s one of the few growth businesses in newspapering these days, and the Times has a lock on it.
That said, for all its ability to generate cash, the Style Section is a persistent embarrassment. And this week’s best/worst Style Section article is one of the most embarrassing things to appear in the paper in … at least three weeks. Or maybe two, actually.
The piece, which you can read here, is about Dennis Jones, a standard-issue ultra-rich man with a boat. A very large, absurdly expensive ($34 million), and painfully tacky (judging by the pictures) boat.
Dennis Jones wants to talk about the social meaning of his very large, expensive, and tacky boat. And for some reason the New York Times is providing precious column inches for him to do so. (Just how many fancy lunches did the Times reporters eat at the expense of the zillionaire’s publicist?)
In any event, the Times dutifully fellates Dennis Jones, but you can tell that there’s no love in it. Why? Because the pitch that Jones’ publicist demanded is so transparently ridiculous that even the writers and editors at the Style Section, a group with deep experience in writing puff pieces about unattractive and inconsequential rich people, can’t really pull it off.
The piece argues, in essence, that if you’ve been suffering under the illusion that Dennis Jones’ decision to spend $34 million on a yacht is the nautical equivalent to public masturbation, think again! Yes, a $34 million yacht may seem like at best a giant waste of money and at worst a conclusive argument for punitively progressive taxation. But really it’s not. It’s a social good!
Why? Because by spending $34 million on this toy, super-hero Dennis Jones kept a struggling builder of luxury yachts afloat. And so, if you think about it a little bit (but not too much), it’s Dennis Jones, the new Tribune of the Working Class, who really pays the salaries of the shipwrights and cabinboys and yachtscrubbers, etc. etc. etc. who must pool their efforts so that Dennis Jones has a place that floats to store his Viagra.
All of which is nothing more (or less) than a particularly obnoxious form of the tired old trickle-down economics argument. Old rich guy spends zillions on mega-yacht — and the floodtide of cash lifts all dinghies!!!
Yes, that is ridiculous, for a bunch of reasons. Here’s one:
Imagine we had a rational tax system in this country, one which taxed the super-rich at more than the 15% rate on carried interest that many of them pay, or the 20% maximum rate on capital gains that the rest of them pay for most of their income.
And then imagine that we take all that money that higher taxes on the wealthy would raise and and give it to working people. Directly. Through lower tax rates, perhaps on payroll taxes (i.e., Social Security and Medicare), which every working person pays and which are anti-progressive (rich people pay far less, as a percentage of income, than working class people do).
What would that money do in the hands of the working class? It would be spent. And in spending it, the working class would be *creating jobs*.
Do you see the implications? It’s not rich people who create jobs. It’s consumer spending that creates jobs. Rich people only *seem* to be creating jobs because they have all the f*cking money to spend. If the working class had more disposable income, their spending would do the same socially beneficial work. Not that the Style Section would give a shit. Money is only interesting to them when pooled in large amounts in the bank account of one random dude.
I’ll take the argument further. If the working class spent the money, rather than a few ultra-rich yacht-buying a-holes, we’d all be far better off. A few extra dollars worth of consumption means a lot to a working class family struggling to put food on the table and heat the house. That’s especially true given that middle class household incomes aren’t “stagnating”, as commentators often claim. They are dropping. According to a study underwritten by the Russell Sage Foundation and just released this week, the inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household fell 36 percent in the 10 years ended in 2013. That means that the typical American family is in excess of one-third more miserable than they were a decade ago. Frankly, I would not have thought that to be possible.
The 1%, on the other hand, are rolling in it. Over the same period virtually all of the economic growth that we’ve experienced in the United States has gone to the people at the top. And that means that as the rich get a lot richer, the next dollar means comparatively little in the life of the super-rich — they already have all the money they need to buy all the pleasures they have time for. Economists call this the “diminishing marginal utility of wealth.” But no need to put a fancy label on it. Everyone knows that any non-sociopathic person gets a lot more happiness out of buying his first Mercedes versus when he already owns nine and toddles off to buy his tenth.
So taxation and redistribution of wealth from the very top, at least up to the point of outright confiscation, is good policy. It barely hurts those from whom we take and provides an enormous boon to those to whom we give.
And don’t give me any crap about “freedom”, etc. No ultra-rich person has a right to any particular rate of taxation. No rich person has a right to a $34 million yacht. Or to a private jet. Or to any of the other things that the Style Section exists to justify and celebrate. If rich people live that way in our society, it’s because we allow them to. If we decide to tax away great wealth there’s nothing to stop us.
One final note … The Times article tells us that since 2000 Dennis Jones has donated $34 million to charity, precisely the same amount that he spent on the yacht. As if that’s some kind of mitigating factor.
It’s not. Philanthropy is vastly overrated as a social force. Private philanthropy didn’t end poverty among the elderly — Social Security did. And it didn’t end untreated illnesses among the elderly — Medicare did. And it won’t solve our healthcare crisis, or our homeless crisis, or stagnating middle class wages, or our malfunctioning education system, or really any other social problem of note.
Philanthropy serves two functions in our society. First, to put a fairly small band-aid on a bunch of bleeding wounds that we could do a much better job healing if we had the political will to tax our way to a real European-style social welfare state. And second, to give rich people in New York City a series of parties to attend, which the Style Section will cover. Because a party among New York 1%ers is never just a party — it’s always about a “cause”. More precisely, it’s about spending a zillion dollars on gowns and Hamptons estates and other frippery to raise a lot less than a zillion dollars for charity.
Let’s just raise taxes on the rich. It’s much more efficient.
So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.
I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.
It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.
It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.
This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”
This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father’s memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.
This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.
I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents’ vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.
This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.
If you didn’t get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.
The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn’t do it alone.
(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of nonviolent resistance, and taught the practices of nonviolent resistance.)
So what did they do?
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.
Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.
If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.
They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.
And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn’t that bad.
Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?
These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.
That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.
Please let this sink in. It wasn’t marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.
This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.
I think this is a really important quote for white people to read. For anyone who is in any group that systematically oppresses another. You think that other group doesn’t have it that bad, but that’s only because you don’t know all the work that is going on behind the scenes - all the things they are doing to keep you thinking everything is OK.
All the things they are doing to keep you from going berserk.
And it really really doesn’t matter that not ALL white people (or not ALL men, or not ALL cis people etc.) were going to go berserk. The point is that a significant number probably would, and so black people had to do what they could to protect themselves.
I cannot imagine the bravery of standing up to that. And please don’t misunderstand me. I made a point that expands this to other oppressed groups. But that is not to say that the oppressions are the same. Each is different. And the way that black people were treated is quite horrifying. And the bravery of standing up to that is something I am ashamed to admit that I am not sure I could manage.