Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

Rich and poor alike share expectation anxiety
I never thought I would feel the same way about the rich as I once felt about the poor.
But just like the bad old days of subway beggars and park-bench homeless, it’s impossible today for a middle-class person to venture from home, read a newspaper or turn on the TV without being confronted by people who live under unimaginable economic conditions.
Sure, the aesthetics of a burgeoning overclass beat the blanket-lined cardboard boxes of the underclass lifestyle. Still, the overexposed rich provoke much the same reaction as the overexposed poor: shock at their ubiquity, combined with the queasy recognition that life is unfair.
The rich are always with us. But must they be with us quite so much?
Fortunately, there’s good news for those who have watched Steve Balmer’s net worth bound up and down on the CNBC Wealthmeter one time too many. Money does not buy happiness; indeed, lots of it at once can make you downright miserable. From Silicon Valley, land of homelessness on $50,000 a year, comes Sudden Wealth Syndrome, the Epstein-Barr of the rocket-to-riches crowd.
Typical victims of Sudden Wealth Syndrome are successful entrepreneurs and middle managers whose vested stock options have vaulted them into the ranks of the rich.
Symptoms include feelings of guilt and unworthiness on one hand and invincibility on the other.
Sufferers find themselves compulsively thinking about money, the one worry from which their wealth should set them free. They fall victim to anxiety attacks and fears of losing control. Then there are those dark nights of the soul when the hapless multimillionaire wakens and realizes anew he never has to work again–thus plunging into existential despair.
According to the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute of Kentfield, Calif., these tortured souls need to confront their issues “like an alcoholic facing his drinking problem.”
With Silicon Valley producing 64 new millionaires a day, I can’t blame the local shrinks for trying to get in on the action. It is just like our therapeutic society, however, to classify normal reactions to a rather drastic change in lifestyle as a disease.
The fact is that anyone raised in the bosom of the middle class who is suddenly worth zillions has created a chasm between himself and his nonrich nearest and dearest. If he didn’t feel a little alienated and disoriented, there’d be something wrong with him.
While Sudden Wealth Syndrome makes the newly rich a little crazy, it drives the rest of us absolutely nuts. Some of us have-nots wallow in Schadenfreude, like celebrity hounds who delight in their icons’ drug busts and messy divorces. Others sniff that everyone knows that money does not buy emotional wealth, so those shallow moneybags get what they deserve. We are torn between “How dare they?” and “Serves them right.” Plus, everyone believes Sudden Wealth Syndrome always happens to somebody else.
When asked, all my nonmillionaire friends and acquaintances assured me that, unlike those Silicon Valley crybabies, they could easily survive a ton of money dropped on their heads without suffering a spiritual scratch.
If we took SWS more seriously, we might actually learn something from it. Social critics decry government lotteries as the opiate of the people, distracting the working poor from their true social condition with dreams of sudden wealth.
But one can understand why the poor would devote so much of their limited resources to the fantasy of instant riches. With little education and few skills, nothing short of a lightening bolt from the blue could transport them to Easy Street.
What’s odd is that the jackpot mentality has infected social strata which do have the resources needed to create a comfortable existence–and even real wealth–over a lifetime of working. Somehow, that’s not enough.
Once “rich” is defined as net worth with seven zeroes or more, the poor slob who makes do on a six-figure income starts to feel like the hamburger flipper at the fast-food joint looking for a windfall to set him free. How much difference in thinking is there between a minimum-wage worker who buys 30 lotto tickets a week and a salaried knowledge worker who jumps from job to job looking for the stock options at the end of the rainbow–except the odds of the knowledge work are much better? Both are praying for their number to come in.
It’s not as simple as money does not buy happiness. Stranger still, prosperity has infused the middle class with the attitudes of the poor, whose only economic hope lies in hitting the jackpot. The rich and the poor are not so different after all. We all think like the underclass now. K