There was a magazine in my driveway this morning, in a plastic wrapper. I’m not a subscriber. Someone had just tossed it there. It was printed on heavy, slick paper and was full of photos of attractive women and men in elegant clothes and elegant houses, wearing elegant jewelry. I guess whoever owns the magazine has convinced its advertisers I’ll want to buy those nice houses, clothes and jewels.
I have two reactions to this. The first is that I’m being economically profiled. I feel a bit like I imagine I might if I were dark skinned and wearing a hoodie on a dark night and was stopped by a cop as I walked home from the robotics club.
My second reaction is that there shouldn’t be magazines like that. They celebrate glamor, which is alluring in the abstract but nothing more than expensive in reality. They don’t celebrate virtue, even though there are spreads covering black-tie galas for worthy causes. They celebrate wealth. They celebrate things most people can’t afford.
There have always been Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, of course. Hearst Castles and Biltmore Mansions. One way to look at the lifestyle of the rich is that it offers us something to, if not exactly aspire to, dream of. A kind of grown-up fairy tale.
Maybe it’s just me that’s changing, but somehow depicting conspicuous consumption now, at a time when income disparity is greater than in many generations, when the middle class is steadily losing ground economically, when food stamps are being cut and expanding basic health care for the poor is being resisted in half the states, seems offensive. Marie Antoinette might be the publisher.
I’m not a communist. I love capitalism. I don’t want to conscript anyone’s fortune or nationalize any industry someone has worked hard to build. But I am, I have to admit, an income redistributionist. We get rich in this country in no small part because of our national infrastructure: good roads and rails for shipping; plentiful electricity for factories; a relatively well educated workforce; tax incentives for business investment; the position of the dollar as the global reserve currency; easy access to credit and capital.
But most don’t get to enjoy the full benefit of those imbedded advantages. That goes disproportionately to those well placed by birth, ingenuity or good fortune, or all three. I admire success, but we all know that those who enjoy it have not done it alone. They have used our national resources, and they should pay a fair rent for them. With marginal tax rates at near historic lows, with the tax code a swiss cheese of deductions and benefits for the rich, they are not doing that now.
I can hear some of my friends now: My God, man, do you want to punish the entrepreneurs, the job creators? I understand how they feel. I do. But I don’t think of it as punishment. To me, it’s more like an aristocratic matriarch reminding her heirs of their responsibility to care for the less fortunate. Give up an antique carpet, she might say, or one of your diamond brooches. Have one less horse in the stable. Make a comparatively tiny sacrifice, one that won’t affect your quality of life one iota, so that a child might not starve, so that another might go to preschool, so that a young man might keep his dignity long enough to stay out of gangs and complete his education.
I hope I don’t get any more free copies of that magazine. I don’t want to see it, or the ones like it that crowd the newsstand. I don’t want to be reminded of how dazzled we are by opulence, not just because most of us can’t afford it, but because when we are flipping through those glossy pages, we are kidding ourselves about the world we live in.