I’m a financial reporter for a certain paper of record, tasked with monitoring the daily mood swings and professional machinations of the Wall Street overclass. Yet I must periodically affect an air of professional puzzlement—about the masters of the universe who make up my beat, about the larger, destructive drift of the speculative paper economy, and about the best way to justify my glorified courtiership. And like all practiced petty cynics, I need to blunt any chance that my ruminations might create any real moral or cognitive dissonance with an exculpatory mood of ironic detachment.
So on a lark—duly approved by my editors, and subsidized by the discreet providers of luxe personal services, who ache to have their carriage trade identified with the .01 percent—I’ve donned all the fripperies and acquired all the emollients of the ultrarich for a day, as part of my paper’s stupendously tone-deaf and section-long celebration of wealth for wealth’s sake. Just to give you a sense of how clumsy and unselfaware the whole enterprise is, we have christened my feature “Rich Like Me,” in a ghastly misguided homage to the undercover reporting of Southern journalist John Howard Griffin, who lived as a black person for six weeks in order to expose the workaday dehumanization of Jim Crow racism. (Griffin, in turn, had cribbed the title for his project from a poem by Langston Hughes, an African-American socialist—now, that’s irony for you.)
And naturally, my paper has contrived an ingenuous theoretical justification for my one-day project of passing as a plutocrat. “The experiment illuminates a paradox,” I write in its pages, in the classic tone of a patiently didactic reporter introducing a complicated thought that is anything but. “In the era of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when the global financial elite has been accused of immoral and injurious conduct, we are still obsessed with the lives of the ultrarich. We watch them on television shows, follow their exploits in magazines, and parse their books and public addresses for advice. In addition to the long-running list by Forbes, Bloomberg now maintains a list of billionaires with rankings that update every day.”
Close readers of that enabling brief will recognize that it contains a universe of professional shame. You might note, for instance, that the evidence I’ve cited to demonstrate our collective adulation of the wealthy is paper thin. It is, indeed, entirely composed of the cynically produced content of media corporations like mine, which desperately chronicle the antics of the hyperaffluent in a bid to market their own readerships to advertisers as robustly “aspirational”—i.e., easily suckered. (Further weakening the case for any spontaneously conceived popular romance with all things plutocratic, companies like mine try to relieve the sheer monotony involved in such coverage by dwelling on the rich’s trademark peccadillos, megalomanias and legal trespasses, all rendered in an inertly lurid tone of vague moral disapproval. If this counts as obsession or fascination, it renders the “paradox” at the heart of my piece’s conceit pretty much a dead letter.)
Finally, you’ll note that I try to seal the case for the widespread forensic infatuation with billionaireship by name-checking two publishing empires that are, in fact, named for, and owned by, billionaires, and serve up breathless rankings of the world’s billionaires to make their brands seem still more exclusive.
Still, such methodological blasphemies are not, if you’ll pardon the expression, a luxury I can afford. No, to hew to the various rickety pretenses of my assignment, I must resolutely skim the surface of the wealth question. I convene a “power breakfast” at Manhattan’s exclusive Core Club—but I only meet with the club’s founder, the aptly named Jennie Enterprise, who burbles over her clientele thusly: “They’re people who want to change the world—though not always for a noble purpose. It would be for profit, and potentially a great deal of profit.” And the Core is there to grant these missionary souls a kind of free-standing spiritual rubdown, while skimming its own world-changing profit share, to the tune of $15,000 a year, on top of a $50,000 initiation fee: Core clients “want someplace that respects their privacy,” Enterprise enthuses. “They want a place that they can seamlessly transition from work to play, that optimizes their time.”
Well, now that’s all settled! On to another infomercial-style interview aboard a hedge fund manager’s private jet! My host requests that he remain anonymous in my piece—and small wonder, since once we’re safely ensconced on his Gulfstream IV, I’m grilling him with searing questions like “what it’s like to be among the richest people in the world.” And here’s the journalistic paydirt I harvested in return: “I think all it does is make things easier . . . I don’t think it changes you that much. The happy guy who makes tons of money is still happy. If someone’s a jerk before, he’s a jerk when he’s got a billion dollars.” At last I’ve run down a source who can explain why the American power elite is so banal! If only I’d been able to get him on the record!
Back on the ground for a business confab in Georgia, Mr. Gulfstream continues effortlessly exuding privilege; a mechanical failure stalls out the Mercedes convertible that fetched both of us from the airport, so he simply swaps it out for another. At one point, I notice, “warm chocolate chip cookies magically appear”—just in case my day in the overclass hadn’t yet infantilized me enough. How can all this doting luxury possibly be justified? “Somebody’s got to live this life,” my host grandly instructs me. “God decided it should be me.” Oh.
As it happens, at the end of the same week I recounted my great billionaire adventure, my paper published a rare front-page dispatch on the trials of the less divinely favored members of the U.S. economy. Jason DeParle, the Times poverty correspondent whose byline should by rights be a regular front-page fixture in the throes of the worst economic downturn of the past seven decades, reported on the recent wave of abrupt cancellations of state income–support programs for poor families—and on the way that cash-strapped state governments now routinely use federal welfare block grants to mend other unrelated holes in their budgets. This punitive bit of social cruelty masquerading as social policy has kicked poor mothers who’d previously relied on welfare payments to the curb: They now sell groceries obtained on food stamps to pay rent and utility bills; they send their kids on dumpster-diving expeditions for returnable bottles and cans; they sometimes drift into the underground economy of shoplifting, robbery and petty theft.
But everybody knows that these kind of downer stories are nonstarters. Meanwhile, I’m putting out Twitter requests for readers to submit their own billionaire fantasies. (See—we really are obsessed with the wealthy!) And I’ve got a new suit—after all, you never know when the hedge funds are going to start hiring again.