Pathologies of the Idle Rich, Part 3

Chatterbox has dedicated much of the past week to tracking down data and expert opinion concerning the pathologies of the idle rich as compared to the population at large. Click here to read “The Inheritance Tax and the Idle Rich,” here to read “More on Pathologies of the Idle Rich,” and here to read a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Melik Kaylan arguing for elimination of the inheritance tax because America needs great country houses. (A desire to obliterate Kaylan’s argument, which, many would argue, is ridiculous on its face, set Chatterbox’s investigation in motion.)

It is Chatterbox’s belief, and the belief of most of the people Chatterbox has contacted, that those who stand to inherit enormous sums of money are more prone to anti-social and self-destructive behavior than the population at large. A dissenting view comes from William Danko, co-author of The Millionaire Next Door. In an e-mail, Danko directed Chatterbox to consider

the work of Sir Francis Galton and his demonstration of regression to the mean in human populations in the late 1800s. The implications are that some wealthy children are well-adjusted, and some are not. Further, some less wealthy children strive and achieve, and others strive and achieve nothing remarkable.

Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin and the father of eugenics, but Chatterbox doesn’t think Danko meant to say anything creepy about the Anglo-Saxon race. Rather, Chatterbox thinks he meant to point out that a man who is highly skilled at amassing a vast fortune is statistically likely to sire a child who is somewhat less skilled at amassing a vast fortune. (Chatterbox guiltily confesses that he didn’t track down the four volumes of James Newman’s The World of Mathematics, whose commentary on Galton Danko instructed Chatterbox to read. Instead, Chatterbox looked at various Web sites, of which this was the most informative.) The argument that the rich son’s fate is determined by regression to the mean is different from Chatterbox’s argument, which is that the rich son is likely to be quite a bit less skilled than dad at amassing a fortune, or at doing anything else, for reasons that have less to do with his genes than with his cosseted environment.

Another dissenting view came from Nelson Aldrich, author of Old Money, an erudite (though not particularly social-sciency) book about inherited wealth. Aldrich doesn’t buy the parallel between the underclass and the idle rich (and, in fact, doesn’t much care for the term “idle rich”). However, during our brief phone conversation, Chatterbox came to feel that Aldrich is one of those people who, in explaining at length why he disagrees with you, demonstrates that he really agrees with you. “I don’t think that the maladies of the hereditary rich have anything to do with drugs, alcohol, or voluntary leisure,” Aldrich began.

They have to do with, and this is why they’re interesting … they have too many choices. Which means that they never have to commit to anything. Whether it’s a profession or wife or place of residence or a group of friends. They can always check out when the going gets a little difficult and not suffer any consequences for it. And in fact give themselves the illusion that they’re lighting out for the territories. … That sort of vast buffet of options is what keeps them uneasy, unproductive, and by and large focused on the one promise of wealth that this country understands, which is freedom.

This problem has gotten worse in recent years, Aldrich says, because in the old days the rich had three strong institutions to instill character in spoiled children of the rich: rigorous boarding schools, wars, and public service. Today, he says, what boarding schools remain are no longer rigorous, the United States is not at war, and “public service has no romance any more. The leisure class won’t really do anything without romance in it.”

A somewhat more medical view is set forth in The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, a sort of self-help book for anguished heirs by Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter to Charles Erwin “Engine Charlie” Wilson. (Wilson was president of General Motors and subsequently defense secretary during the Eisenhower administration and famously said, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”) O’Neill, a psychologist, coined the term “affluenza” to describe the debilitating effects extreme wealth can have on those who inherit it. She’s managed to turn this observation into an apparently thriving consulting business. (Click here to see her Affluenza Web site.) So, apparently, has Joanie Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram whiskey fortune. There is, in fact, a small network of groups aimed at teaching wealthy heirs to take charge of their money and their lives.

One study cited in O’Neill’s book is “The ‘Silver-Spoon’ Syndrome in the Super Rich: The Pathologic Linkage of Affluence and Narcissism in Family Systems” from the July 1988 issue of the American Journal of Psychotherapy. The author, Joyce LeBeau, doesn’t cite any statistics, but posits one plausible-sounding mechanism, which might be called “the babe problem”:

A wealthy man may use his power to attract a woman of great beauty, accustomed to adulation. Clinical observation indicates that such women tend to be aloof, uninterested, and self-involved as mothers; they can also be competitive with their daughters, requiring constant positive mirroring of themselves. Such women are poorly equipped to mirror and nurture their children through the many challenges of healthy development.

Another study O’Neill cites is “Sudden Wealth, Gratification, and Attainment: Durkheim’s Anomie of Affluence Reconsidered,” published in the American Sociological Review in 1980. This was a study not of wealthy heirs but of a group they somewhat resemble: lottery winners. The author was Mark Abrahamson, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut. “I was interested in the effect of winning on their attitudes toward success, getting ahead, working hard,” Abrahamson explained to Chatterbox. He found that the more money a lottery winner received, the more likely it was that he or she would fall apart. “It was after about two years–18 months to two years–that you began to see some effect,” Abramson said. “The more people won, the more they seemed disenchanted with conventional success, aspirations.” You can argue, of course, that lottery winners differ from heirs in the sense that they have less time to prepare themselves for the experience of being wealthy. But the longer you know you won’t have to work for a living, the longer you have to screw your life up.