The Breakfast Table

New Money vs. Tasteful New Money

Populism is dead for the time being, I agree, and it was put to death beginning in the ‘80s, which in this sense (and most significant senses) was a seamless Act I to the ‘90s’ Act II. But while you and I may wish that rich people were willing to give more of their wealth to poor people and may disapprove of certain kinds of extravagant expenditure, don’t we also believe, in the end, that people should be entitled to make as much money as they feel like and spend it as lavishly as they wish? In the Hamptons and elsewhere? I believe that, anyhow.

Old Money’s antipathy toward New Money isn’t really the issue, of course, since whose money is really old in America? (I guess you can count Brooke Astor’s since the original John Jacob Astor was the richest—and most hated—man in America when he died 154 years ago, but he arrived here 218 years ago from Germany with $25.) And besides, during the 1980s and ‘90s, as American populism was dying, didn’t American Old Money, such as it is, pretty much abandon its hatred of New Money?

What’s interesting (that is, contradictory and funny) in our topsy-turvy dialectical age is that Tasteful New Money, like your old boyfriend with his ragged sweater, affects an Old Money aesthetic. Tasteful New Money, and stylish meritocrats generally, by definition aspire to a slightly Yankeefied aristocratic style of the Martha’s Vineyard/Fisher’s Island/pre-’80s Hamptons kind. Just as yuppie heterosexuals, beginning in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, acquired what had previously been a largely homosexual definition of domestic good taste.

I had no idea you were on a corporate board. Your presence on one seems to me as unlikely as my presence on one—which happened, in my case, during the year 2000, coinciding precisely with the before-and-after of the dot-com bust and the merger of “my” public company with another one. The merged company is not, like yours, bankrupt, but the stock price went from $25 pre-merger to 35 cents today. And my experience pretty much conforms with yours. At best, boards of directors are to corporate governance as grandparents are to child-rearing.

Yes, I read Ron Rosenbaum in this morning’s Observer. And apart from the substantive issues involved in his apparently brand-new feud with Leon Wieseltier, I know that Rosenbaum is a good guy without any apparent invidious personal agendas, whereas Wieseltier is not. I haven’t read Wieseltier’s NewRepublic piece, but I have read Rosenbaum’s two earlier “Second Holocaust” pieces. The first one I found magnificent and galvanizing, particularly on reflexive European anti-Israeli-ism and anti-Semitism; the second, which was an attack on a dovish New York magazine cover article, I found less magnificent.

But my favorite story was in the Wall Street Journal: Henceforth, the SATs, starting with my eldest daughter’s cohort (high school class of ‘06) are going to be one-third math, one-third verbal, and one-third composition, including a 20-minute essay. Hooray, huh?