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Billionaires Think We're Jealous of Their Wealth? Gag Me with a Silver Spoon

Change your tune, plutocrats. Contrary to your fantasies, we are plagued by reality, not envy.

Here on our whimsical island off the coast of the Eastern Seaboard, we have a company called Manhattan Mini Storage that is as famous for the semi-snarky wit of its billboards and subway posters as it is for the spaces it rents to we New Yorkers who live in apartments so small the mice are stoop-shouldered.

The sacrifice we make for living here is that we have no room for all our stuff; this storage facility exists to bridge the gap by renting out the urban equivalent of an attic or cellar where we can stash our junk until our next move, new relationship or death.

Some of its advertising addresses this problem directly — “Your closet’s tinier than a runway model’s lunch,” one read a couple of years ago; “When he’s a keeper but his stuff isn’t,” was another favorite. Yet most of the notoriety the firm’s ads have achieved has little to do with their product and much to do with pride of place and politics.

“NYC: Tolerant of your beliefs, judgmental of your shoes,” is a New York state of mind that even those of us who favor sneakers and loafers over Louboutins can get behind. Others are more candidate-specific. “Rick Perry: The voice in your head is not God,” said what a lot of us were thinking and, “If Mitt had storage, he’d be able to find his tax returns,” actually does manage to deftly combine product placement with a point of view.

But their current ad really catches the eye:

“The French aristocracy never saw it coming either.”

“It,” of course, is a revolt of the 99 percent, the thought of which seems to have elements of the one percent so freaked out they can barely choke down their Salon Blanc de Blanc. But apparently, whenever the American elite contemplate the possibility of open rebellion against income inequality it’s not peasants storming the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution that they see — it’s Nazis jackbooting into mansions and searching the premises for yacht owners.

How else to explain venture capitalist Tom Perkins’s infamous comparison of what he called “progressive war” to Kristallnacht? And now we have Home Depot tycoon Ken Langone telling that as far as populist sentiment goes, “I hope it’s not working, because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Langone subsequently has apologized — sort of. So did Perkins — sort of. But the foul deed is done, the smear is smeared and it won’t be the last time this particular straw dog barks. Because a lot of the time, it works.

Nor will this envy and jealousy meme disappear any time soon because it, too, seems to have captured the imagination of the plutocracy. “It’s safe to conclude that a national shift toward envy would be toxic for American culture,”  Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote in the March 2 edition of  The New York Times.

Indeed such envy might do just that, but beyond Internet trolls and covetous cranks, where is it? As the headline of  Jonathan Chait’s recent story in  New York magazine notes, vast public envy is an “imaginary epidemic.” The closest we have come politically, he writes, “was a brief upsurge in populist anger for a short period of 2009, following news reports of bonuses handed out to employees at bailout recipient AIG.

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