Say It Loud, You’re Rich and You’re Proud

“ADMIT IT, YOU’RE RICH.” Thus begins a new advertisement appearing in the March 26 New Yorker (and also the March 25 New York Times Magazine and the April Atlantic Monthly). “Yes, you,” it continues.

No, it’s no use looking surprised. Somewhere along life’s meandering road you managed to pass that certain point, and here you are. One of them. One of those people who “normal” people whisper about, under their breath to their friends, and say politely, but with an undeniable trace of envy, “You know so-and-so, well they’re pretty well off, comfortable, affluent, wealthy, rolling in it, (or simply) rich.”

Recently, in the course of examining the pathologies of the idle rich (click here and here and here), Chatterbox briefly mentioned that the problem had spawned a burgeoning recovery movement. Until now, though, this movement had tended to lurk in the shadows, presumably because a great many non-rich people were liable to get angry if told that it was a burden to be wealthy. Now, just in time for congressional debate over eliminating the inheritance tax, that movement has come out of the closet.

The advertisement (click here to see it) is for U.S. Trust, a management and trust company founded in 1853 in order to advise that era’s nouveaux riches on how to invest their millions. The “admit it, you’re rich” ad is devised to speak to today’s self-made millionaires. This throws Chatterbox for a loop. Based largely on his reading of The Millionaire Next Door, he’d come to believe that people who inherit vast fortunes are crazy spendthrifts but that people who create them are preternaturally sane penny-pinchers. Now he must consider the possibility that self-made millionaires are crazy too, though in a less gaudy way. They feel guilty about being rich! When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Many are, after all, baby boomers, and therefore likely to entertain fantasies about having overthrown the hierarchical society of their parents. In much the same way that our culture has encouraged baby boomers to deny that they are now grown-ups (but I don’t feel grown-up!), U.S. Trust assumes it has also encouraged rich people to deny being, well, rich:

BUT I DON’T FEEL RICH!” you protest. “Why, I still hunt for bargains at the store, my favorite meal is a burger and fries, I can’t remember how old my watch is, I still have to walk the dog at midnight, and the only chauffeur in our family is me.”

Ah, but you are rich:

As an exercise, get out all the brokerage account statements you’ve stuffed into that old file and start adding them up–your mutual funds, IRA, 401(k), any deferred compensation, stock options, and if you’ve really been fortunate, whatever you made from that nice IPO. Now after you’ve tallied it all up, take a moment to consider your total. Underline it a couple of times. Then ask yourself this question. “Is this amount of money, I have worked hard for all my life, something I am truly capable of handling on my own?”

On one level, of course, this pitch is unbelievably icky. But on another level, it’s socially quite useful. It won’t do, after all, for the self-made rich to be crazy. Unlike their coupon-clipping heirs, these people run the country! Let’s get them some help! Moreover, there’s nothing more annoying than an obviously wealthy person trying to poor-mouth himself into the middle class. Better that this person own up to being loaded.

On the other hand, the suggestion that rich people need to learn how to assert themselves can’t help but offend the rest of us, even if it’s true. Echoing Jesse Jackson’s “I am somebody!” and James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” the U.S. Trust ad importunes plutocrats to “Go ahead and say ‘I am rich’ one more time. It should feel a little better now.” OK, they should say it. But could they say it a little more quietly?