David Brooks Went on a Trip.

Sorry, David Brooks again. (Promise, it’s the last time). But I almost missed this piece in NYT magazine last weekend. It’s a cool read.

As I mentioned earlier, I like David Brooks. But occasionally, this student of bourgeoisie shows such a misunderstanding of his own subject that I can’t pass by quietly.

Recently David Brooks went on an $120,000 world-wide tour as an assignment for NYT. He was surprised to find that people who can spend that kind of money on a trip weren’t behaving like rich assholes. He was almost disappointed.

What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between the single-digit millionaires and the double- or triple-digit millionaires. The people on this trip were by and large on the lower end of the upper class. One had a family carpet business. Another was an I.T. executive at an insurance company. There were a few law partners. There was a divorce coach who’d worked in finance, a woman who’d started a telecom business with her ex-husband and the vice chancellor from a medium-size university. Very few of these people were born to money. They did not dress rich, talk rich or put on airs. They have spent their lives busy with work and family, not jet-setting around or hanging out with the Davos crowd.

In other words, they were socially and intellectually unpretentious. They treated the crew as friends and equals and not as staff. Nobody was trying to prove they were better informed or more sophisticated than anybody else. There were times, in fact, when I almost wished there had been a little more pretense and a little more intellectual and spiritual ambition.

 

Of course they treated the crew as friends, of course they were not trying to prove anything! They don’t need to! The proof is in the fact that they are traveling in this manner. Nothing else needs to be said or done.

I mean, what did he expect: top hats and frocks and Oxbridge accent? The rich, for a long time, have not looked like that. In fact, the rich love to dress unpretentiously (I mean he described it in his own book, Bobos in Paradise). They love to pretend to be one with the people. The powerful don’t like to think of themselves and to look like powerful at all. They manifest their status by the access to exclusive services that regular folks not only haven’t heard of but can’t even conceive in their dreams (like a livered valet insisting on bringing a second bottle of champagne in Brooks’ room), not by what they wear or by how they speak. These days if you fly first class you’ll make sure you look like a bum. In fact, a folksy demeanor is almost a must-have, a way of underplaying one’s status. By Brook’s logic if one sold his company for $100 mil or made a partner at some investment firm he must immediately display it in flashy clothing items and change his manner of speech. On the contrary, such success usually behooves him to assume a role of a regular guy even more. I saw Lloyd Blankfein a few months ago near Columbus circle, walking among the crowd on the sidewalk, in unpretentious baseball hat and some dull jacket he probably got for free at some conference. That’s how the power dresses and behaves in public. Don’t look at me – the message is – I’m just like you.

Comfort, time-efficiency, exclusivity and privacy – that’s what modern-day luxury entails, not the ability to buy an expensive piece of clothing. I would think Brooks, of all people, would understand that.

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Our Cult of the Underdog.

In a modern-day America, a good modest origins story is as necessary an attribute of a public figure’s self-identity as a Birkin bag is a necessary attribute of an Upper East Side trophy wife. As political season heats up and the candidates elbow each other to ingratiate themselves with the little guy, we should ready ourselves for the bi-annual onslaught of personal hardship stories. But come to think of it, the underdog story is a permanent American staple, election season or not.

Election year, however, offers a great insight into the power of such narrative, where political candidates, most of whom were born to uninspiring circumstances ranging from middle-class families to political dynasties, compete for ‘the shittiest childhood’ spot. There’s a problem there, as the candidates, raised in the postwar, economically prosperous America weren’t exactly subjects to a Great Depression or a WWII level upheaval. Here, lacking a true personal hardship story, they pivot to the story of their immigrant parents and grandparents, as if the suffering of ancestors is somehow a proof of one’s own hard life. How was it hard? Was he a barefoot 12-year old forced to work in a coalmine to feed his family? On genetic level? Damn, if only one could buy a crappy childhood!

To admit privilege, to admit the possession of power or influence, is to put oneself into a weaker argumentative position and to invite criticism. The privileged know this even if on merely subconscious level – they never miss a chance to tell a self-deprecating story. This strategy kills many birds with one stone, it deflects the critics and endears the narrator to an economically struggling audience.

In real life we’ve all met manifestations of such underdog mindset when we heard a successful person boast about how hard he worked to get where he is (usually a soapy immigrant story), and then, without missing a beat, complain about how it’s tough to live in a world where his tax dollars support all kinds of riff-raff. You see the trick here? While he’s eager to convey his success story he’s careful to mask it in a certain degree of martyrdom.

Positioning oneself as an underdog is a low-risk, high-reward strategy. Kim Davis, a Kentucky public official who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples knows this. Her ostensible underdog bona fides, validated by the stint in jail, were cemented at the moment of her release, in a surreal but too delicious to watch spectacle. The visuals of the event – the Eye of the Tiger soundtrack, the politicians jockeying to insert themselves into a photo-op with a bunch of country bumpkins, the crosses, the main character’s triumphant posture, arms in the air, akin to a pastor about to deliver a sermon to her flock, her husband in denim overalls and the scarecrow hat – were just too awesome. A fiction writer would kill to conceive and write a scene like this. But the scene was real and unscripted and thus powerful – there was no hint of irony in the entire show. Clearly, Kim Davis fancies herself to be a scrappy Rocky Balboa defeating, in an uneven and bloody fight, an all-powerful Ivan Drago. And that gives her power. She would not have that power if she merely performed her governmental duties, because a government official cannot be an underdog. What’s also interesting here is that one doesn’t even have to put up any sort of a real fight to achieve the accolades. These days one can achieve the glory of David fighting Goliath, without doing all the work. You don’t have to defeat the Goliath, you just have to bait him, make yourself into an underdog and take a stand, and next thing you know there are TV cameras and politicians and a cult following. Whether you’re in her camp or not you watched that scene in awe. The genius of that scene is undeniable. It could not have been conceived and executed as preplanned. It was a sporadic, organic display delivered in the most dramatic fashion to the hungry, rapturous audience. Somewhere, Karl Rove is biting his nails in envy.

As much as this Kim Davis’s kind of underdoggery is entertaining and attention-drawing, it can’t do much harm. 6 months from now we won’t even remember who Kim Davis was, like we don’t remember the outrage surrounding Rachel Dolezal a few months back.

It is the low-profile underdogs that worry me. It is the true elites with power, pretending to have none, that can do real harm. The greatest cache of low-profile underdogs can be found on Wall Street or among the billionaire ranks. I would argue that, among these elites, a quest for a personal narrative is as strong a motivator as monetary rewards. A smart billionaire with politics and a gospel to spread knows that denial of power is a power in itself. Acknowledgment of being in privileged position, of possessing power, would then require some kind of stewardship, a responsibility. But denial of power frees one from responsibilities. What kind of stewardship and responsibility can we expect from the majority of Wall Street players and hedgies who, with multi-million dollar paychecks, with an army of lobbyists, with a direct line to and an ear of lawmakers, still insist on describing themselves as ‘scrappy kids from Brooklyn’ – a tired metaphor, sure, but still a dominant sentiment among the finance crowd, doggedly resistant to self-reflection?

Such resistance – to the acknowledgement of one’s membership in a power elite – reveals a deep desire to be free from responsibility, to remain a child in essence, to be an immanent, passive participant, who merely reacts to events unfolding before him. Again and again, in the aftermath of the crisis, we heard one bigwig after another, defend themselves with “I didn’t know nothing” and “beyond my control” fables. They knew that to be in charge is to be accountable. To be perceived as a winner, to be transcendent, is to invite all kinds of unwelcome scrutiny. But when you’re an underdog you can use it as a shield from critics and a niche from which to attack others. Folksiness and bootstraps stories are immune from attacks by nosy journalists and Vox.com eggheads. It’s a smart positioning. One has to be a Trump to revel in the spotlight and the “winning.” But Trump has a rare quality of not giving a fuck, unlike many self-conscious “winners” on Wall Street, who feign modesty and shroud themselves in ‘poor me’ stories. Is it any wonder then, that the public, correctly, perceives them as the biggest douchebags?

Unbelievable Blindness.

So extremists parties all over Europe are poised to win elections. It is making the Davos crowd nervous.

And what else did you expect? This year income inequality is all the rage and everyone is positioning themselves as defenders of the common folk. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, a $160bn hedge fund, bemoans the danger of extremists parties emerging and urges the moderate parties to “do something about it.”

But him and other Davos attendees – all billionaires and movers and shakers – don’t take it one step further. They don’t call on themselves to stop fucking with the politicians, stop lobbying, stop asking for favors. They refuse to admit that the current scheme works like this: business interests lobby the politicians –> politicians act on it –> common man gets squeezed (asked to work harder, study more, take more loans, take more pay cuts, etc.) –> economy dives –> businesses ask for more favors and loopholes –> common man gets fucked even more –> politicians bring on austerity –> common man gets fed up – >extremist parties win.

But Ray Dalio doesn’t see it that way. He think that he stands outside from all this mess and just does his business. He thinks he can just ask mainstream parties to get its shit together and when they will everything will be back to normal. But the cycle has to run through. So when the extremists win the Davos crowd will have no one to blame but themselves.

Fuck’em. Try to do business with Syriza and Sinn Fein and UKIP. See how that goes.

The Failure of the Elites.

“Elites, by definition, are often brilliant and attractive-looking people who, because of their own sophistication and social confidence, welcome cosmopolitanism in all its aspects. For they are never insecure in the midst of exotic environments. But most people in this world are not brilliant, not terribly attractive and therefore not confident. Their lives are full of struggle. So they naturally take refuge in family, community, religion or some form of solidarity group. And in an era when mass communication technologies foster a vulgarized assault on traditional values — whether directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly — the sense of alienation among the masses intensifies, leading them deeper into such exclusivist beliefs.”

This is the quote from this article that I couldn’t get out of my head for days. You can apply the points made in this article to pretty much all global political events that happen today, including Ukraine. I find Ukraine events to be a symptom of other, more global geopolitical shifts. Today, I’d like to explore one of the reasons for this global turmoil. It’s the failure of the elites.

It doesn’t really matter if the elites are liberal or conservative. No matter how open-minded they consider themselves they still remain isolated from and thus blind to the real world. They ask themselves: “Why can’t others be like us?” To which they quickly find an answer: “Why! Of course they can, if only they do X, Y and Z! And we should encourage them to do that.” That’s how they fashion themselves into benevolent citizens of the world. But no one mentions that to become like them you have to be born a Romney, have rhetorical talents and political prowess of Clinton, the looks of Gwyneth Paltrow or the money of Arianna Huffington or simply be at the right place at the right time. This blindness is stunning. Maybe the elites are more concerned about appearing like they care rather than actually caring? All these bullshit self-help and spirituality and new age crap books just confirm my hypothesis. “Look at me, I’m so spiritual and so successful, I found balance and wisdom and so can you.” I mean, seriously, Arianna’s recent cause is “mindfulness and spirituality”; Gwyneth is now a lifestyle guru who hands out diet and lifestyle advice on her blog. But let’s think of who is their target audience? Is it their own fellow elites? But that would make them look “elitist” – a label they surely would reject. Or is it the rest, the rubes, the 99%? Here we are talking about people who commute hours to and from work, do some repetitive menial or administrative tasks, then go to a second shift just to make ends meet, counting pennies paycheck to paycheck. And you’re telling me in order to make their lives more fulfilled they should take yoga and spinning classes, eat tofu and try to get an afternoon nap? Or, as conservative elites prefer, they should go to church and get a kick in the butt that they need so bad to get off the couch? What the fuck?

I’m sure meditation helps to those who practice it. Having free time to practice mindfulness is a luxury that the middle-class doesn’t have. I’m not against people having spare time to sit and stare and meditate. In fact I do want the people to have as much free time as they need to become “spiritual”. But let’s face it: they don’t have the freaking time to do all that fancy shit. And let’s stop pretending that they can find that time, if only they could, you know, cut their working hours. Conservative elites for instance, like future presidential candidate Paul Ryan, believe that the rubes don’t work hard enough. So, I guess, cutting the workload is out of the question.

As a result, the poor and middle-class are trapped between “do yoga and meditate” and “work harder” messages coming from both sides of the political aisle. And the elites are upset that those unwashed show some unwanted tendencies like being too religious, or too lazy or too dumb to follow politics? That’s where the elites are stunningly detached. The problem is that, the other 99% are not as successful and beautiful and shrewd as the ones on top of the hierarchy. The elites, perhaps genuinely, want those at the bottom to break out of their circumstances, probably because many of the elites did it themselves, thus awarding ordinary people qualities they don’t have. Every time someone like Sam Zell or Sheldon Adelson goes on TV and delivers us a sermon on his scrappy childhood and pulling themselves by the bootstraps and how anyone can do it – that’s where it all breaks down. No, not anyone can do it. It takes a special person in a propitious situation at the right time with the right amount of resources. It also takes some noblesse oblige from the elites. But let’s stop pretending that these days everyone can do it.

Thus the ordinary people seek refuge in other things, like their self-identity, or belonging to a group, or religion. And the elites can’t complain, don’t have the right to complain, about the unwashed rubes who just don’t understand things. It is the elite’s job to understand those things and to show prudency and statesmanship and restraint and to not fuck things up the way they did in the last few decades. And then the elites act surprised when these people don’t vote the way we want them to vote.

Ordinary people, like the elites, want to be and feel special. But when they are denied access to real political and economic resources and get offered yoga or some worthless business advice instead, the soil is rich for social break down and various nationalists, separatists’ and populists movements. When that happens, the elites will have no one to blame but themselves.

Tom Perkins is an attention-seeking poseur.

If you are genuinely afraid of Kristallnacht, I mean really, seriously afraid that the unwashed will come to your mansion with pitchforks, then you should be doing something to avoid it. If you are not doing anything about it then you do not consider those threats to be serious and your goal is simply to grab headlines and upset a lot of people. If you are not a complete fool, you know that comments like this will piss off a lot of people and because you choose to do it anyway, I suspect you want to see the reaction. The public outrage that ensues is fitting to your worldview: you essentially create your own reality that didn’t really exist before you made those comments. People get pissed and you get to point finger at them and say: “See? I told you so. The 99% are intolerant of success.” Nice racket!

Anyway, I digress. I’d like to explore options for someone who thinks that Kristallnacht is really coming. Those option might include: leaving the country; try to make a deal with those in power; in some way placate those unwashed masses. Seriously, if paying taxes is as bad as a Kristallnacht, you wouldn’t think twice before packing, making a money transfer to Switzerland and leaving. When there is a threat to your life, even a profitable business won’t stop you, right?

Second option would include making a deal with those in power. The 1% would have to convince the Congress to pass a bill that will cut their carried interest tax rate from 20% to, well, whatever it is that they think is commensurate with fair treatment. Considering that 20% = Kristallnacht (a rather steep starting point, the next notch on that scale surely wouldn’t be a Civil Rights Act), a 15% would probably constitute an equivalent of Southern segregation (where the 1% would compare themselves to blacks) and a 10% – a soft discrimination and bigotry (where the 1% see themselves as women and gays). Because of the severity of the starting point, an almost vertical reduction in taxes would only be adequate to bring full satisfaction to those guys. There can be several reasons they do not pursue that option. There are not enough votes in Congress; Obama will veto it; there are plenty of loopholes to not pay even that 20% rate. Such lackluster approach is telling. I would expect a more forceful appeal to power if, you know, you were about to get killed!

Third option – placating the ingrates – seems like a viable one. The problem here is that the slogans from the 80s era that used to put a numbing spell on any signs of unrest among the working stiffs, stopped working in a past few years. It’s hard to accuse them of being lazy fucks and tell them to go get a job – a foolproof shortcut that used to silence any critic in the olden years. But today it seems like these lazy fucks want jobs after all. Now, again, let’s remember that the backdrop here is that your life and livelihood is on the line. You have billions in cash with nowhere to put it. Unemployed, like the zombies in the World War Z movie, are spilling over your fence, hungry for your blood. You put two and two together and throw money at them, in the form of employment. I mean it doesn’t have to be meaningful employment: you can create some stupid data entry or spreadsheet jobs for them for, like $30K a year. Who cares about the bottom line at this point? We’re talking about you staying alive!! The price for your life is a paycheck for those storming the gate.

Naturally, I’m engaging in extreme metaphors in seeking solutions, but only because the original parameters of the problem were just as extreme.

Because neither Tom Perkins, nor Sam Zell are inclined to do anything about it, except taunting the audience even more, is a proof that they are a bunch of attention seeking poseurs. If anything leads to “economic extinction” of Tom Perkinses, it will be Tom Perkins himself.