The Magazine

THE TRAGEDY OF SID

May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By DAVID BROOKS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The editor had triumphed. All through a long New York spring evening, it had been John Updike this and Norman Mailer that. He'd kept his tablemates at the Freedom Forum's annual Free Expression Dinner in a state of conversational bliss, and when the meal was over everybody at his table was in such high spirits they decided to go down to the lounge for a few drinks. The Regency Hotel has a little room called The Library, where the martinis are $ 11. The editor was joined by an investment banker from Morgan Stanley and a lawyer from Wachtel Lipton and his wife. And he was just as amusing in the bar, filling the night with publishing tales. Feeling expansive, he decided to pick up the tab, putting it on his expense account, and when the whole group stumbled outside to the corner of 61st Street and Park Avenue, he was seized by his high spirits and called out, "Does anybody want to share a cab?"

The lawyer looked uncomfortably at his wife. "Actually, we're walking distance, just up on 65th," he said, motioning up Park. The investment banker said she lived just a block and a half away, toward 5th Avenue.

The editor decided not to splurge on a cab after all. He caught a cross- town bus at 57th Street and then waited nervously near the token booth for the number 1 subway train at Columbus Circle. A foul-smelling homeless person shouted something at him until the train finally came, taking him up to 103rd Street and Broadway. He walked over to his apartment building, which had a check-cashing place downstairs and a storefront operation offering low phone rates to El Salvador. The elevator (with a bare lightbulb flickering overhead) took him upstairs to his scratched steel door. He opened it and was in his dining room. The people who live on Park and Madison have foyers, foyers so long you're tired by the time you reach the living room. But the editor couldn't afford an apartment with a foyer. He stepped over the threshold and found himself looking across his cluttered table into the kitchen and wondering where he'd left the cockroach spray. Suddenly he was feeling miserable.

Our editor, a composite, was suffering from Status-Income Disequilibrium (SID). The sufferers of this malady have jobs that give them high status but low income. They lunch on an expense account at The Palm, but dine at home on macaroni. All day long the phone-message slips pile up on their desks -- calls from famous people seeking favors -- but at night they realize the tub needs scrubbing, so it's down on the hands and knees with the Ajax. At work they are aristocrats, Kings of the Meritocracy, schmoozing with Felix Rohatyn. At home they are peasants, wondering if they can really afford to have orange juice every morning.

Status-Income-Disequilibrium sufferers include journalists at important media outlets, editors at publishing houses, TV news producers, foundation officers, museum curators, moderately successful classical-music performers, White House aides, military brass, politicians who aren't independently wealthy, and many others. Consider the plight of the army general, who can command the movements of 100,000 men during the week but stretches to afford a Honda Accord for weekend outings. Or of poor John Sununu, who ruled the world when he was White House chief of staff but had to feed, educate, and house eight children on $ 125,000 a year. The disparity is not to be borne.

There are two sides to the status4ncome equation. On one end is the Monied Class, those with plenty of dough who can use it to acquire status. But I am concerned with the Titled Class. Historically, when we think of the Grand Titles, we think of Prince, Duke, Earl, and Baron. But in the age of meritocracy, the Grand Titles are Senior Fellow, Editor in Chief, Assistant to the Secretary. Or titles that include an employer's name -- the New York Times, the White House, Knopf -- in which case it scarcely matters which position the individual holds.

The Titled Class has always resented and secretly envied the Monied Class. But for journalists, writers, and politicos, the pain now is acute. Until recently, a person who went into, say, the media understood that he or she would forever live a middle-class life. But now one need only look at Cokie Roberts or David Gergen to see that vast wealth is possible. Once it becomes plausible to imagine yourself pulling in $ 800,000 a year, the lack of that money begins to hurt.

Furthermore, the rich used to be remote. An investment banker went to Andover and Princeton, and a radio producer went to Central High and Rutgers. But in the new media age, the radio producer also went to Andover and Princeton. The schlumps she wouldn't even talk to in gym class are bond traders on Wall Street with summer houses in East Hampton. The student who graduated from Harvard cum laude makes $ 85,000 as a New York Times reporter covering the movie business. The loser who flunked out of Harvard because he spent all his time watching TV makes 1.2 million selling a single movie script.

Consider the situation of our composite editor. He's earning $ 110,000 a year as a top editor at, say, Time magazine. His wife, whom he met while they were studying at the Yale drama school, is a program officer at a boutique foundation that offers scholarships to Brooklyn high-school students. She makes $ 65,000. In their wildest imagining they never dreamed they'd someday pull in $ 175,000 a year.

Or that they'd be so poor. Their daughter turned 10 last year and needed a separate bedroom from her brother. They were lucky to get a fairly bright three-bedroom for $ 2,750 a month, even allowing for the dingy neighborhood and the cockroach-infested building. Jessica's tuition at Dalton is about $ 18,000, once you throw in the extras, and it costs at least $ 16,000 to send Max to the Ethical Culture School. The parking spot for the 1988 Camry is $ 275 a month, the part-time nanny who picks up Max from school costs about $ 12,000 a year (off-the-books cash; there goes any chance of serving as Attorney General), and after throwing in the costs of various ballet (Max) and rock-climbing (Jessica) lessons, the family is left with an after-tax disposable income for food, laundry, subway tokens, clothes, and leisure of about $ 600 a month. Which explains why the editor hasn't bought a new tie in three years and why he wakes up at 4 in the morning wondering where next year's tuitions are going to come from. It explains why he can't face his accountant, who knows that out of his $ 175,000 annual income, he gave a grand total of $ 450 to charity.

Members of the Titled Class are good at worrying about their reputations. All their lives they've mastered the art of having other people think them smart and wonderful. But the person who suffers from Status-Income Disequilibrium can scarcely spare an hour worrying about his reputation because he has to spend all his time worrying about money (when in fact all he wants from money is to have enough so he doesn't have to worry about it).

And it is not as if the Titleholder these days fills his mind with thoughts about truth and beauty, or poetic evocations of Spring. It is not as if he is compensated for his meager $ 110,000 salary with the knowledge that he can spend his days amidst the Higher Things. If he's in publishing, say, he spends his days thinking about market niches, the same thing those summer- house-owning executives at AT&T think about. When a book comes in, he wonders first which market it will serve: the Jewish market, the gay market, the depressed women's market? If every day he could publish a memoir by a neurotic lesbian Holocaust survivor with her own syndicated radio program, he'd have his own imprint in a year.

And it's not as if he is less ambitious than the partners at Skadden Arps, or that he does less schmoozing than the muni-bond traders at Kidder Peabody. The media person is in business just like $ 600,000-a-year smoothies in Fortune 500 executive suites. It's just that they are working in big-money industries and he's in a small-money industry.

The Titleholder is at the tail end of the upper class. Our composite editor is rich enough to send his kids to Dalton and Ethical Culture, but all the other parents make as much in a month as he makes in a year. When his wife wasn't working, she used to pick up Jessica from Dalton. She'd wait outside on the sidewalk, she and 150 nannies. She'd try to arrange play dates with the other kids, but their nannies weren't willing to travel all the way uptown to 103rd Street, so they'd end up going to the playgrounds off Central Park West. And she'd sit, a little uncomfortably, with the nannies on the benches that ring the playgrounds, trying to find common conversational ground. If a Martian were to land in a Manhattan playground, he would conclude that human beings are white as children and grow up to be black with Trinidadian accents.

Eventually, the kids of a SID sufferer begin to notice the income difference between their family and all their classmates' families. It happens around birthday time. The other kids in the class have birthday parties at Yankee Stadium (they've rented out a skybox) or at FAO Schwartz (they rented out the whole store for a Sunday morning). The SID kid has his party in his living room, with a picture of a donkey on the wall and a 69- cent blindfold you can peek through if you really want to.

Often, the child of a SID victim will get invited for play dates by classmates who live in the Dakota or on Central Park South, big, high- ceilinged places with servants' wings and dining rooms the size of tennis courts. These are the apartments of those who live in the forest canopy, where everything is light and clear and odorless and most of all uncluttered. People who live in the canopy enjoy wide-open spaces. Their apartments are filled with long expanses of counter space, wall space, settee space, table space, and floor space, all of it luxuriously spare. And it's just the same in their offices. People in the Monied Class have big offices and luxurious wood surfaces. And they have secretaries to route the paper flow, and their secretaries have secretaries to file things away, so there is nothing left stacked up to cover the wide-open expanse of a Monied person's desk. The briefcases of the Monied Class are wafer thin, with barely enough space to squeeze in a legal pad -- because their lives are so totally in control they don't have to schlep things around. They can travel luggage-free to London because, after all, they've got another wardrobe waiting for them in the flat there.

The life of a SID sufferer, by contrast, is cluttered. He's got a little cubicle at his newspaper or magazine, or a little office at his publishing house or his foundation. And there are papers everywhere: manuscripts, memos, yellowed newspapers, magazine clippings. And at home, the kitchen of the SID sufferer has jars and coffeemakers jamming the available counter space, and pots hanging loosely from a rack r on the wall. The SID sufferer has books jammed all around the living room, some dating back from college (The Marx- Engels Reader), and there are magazines and frayed copies of the New York Review of Books lying on the bedstands.

The contrast is clear when it comes time for the annual class dinner. One pair of parents take it upon themselves to throw a dinner for all of the other parents of the kids in their daughter's second-grade class. The host parents are inevitably executives at Goldman Sachs or CFOs at some media conglomerate. The affair is catered (Little Dorothy Caterers -- with the slogan "We're not in Kansas anymore"). And everybody else gets to come admire a dining-room table that can seat 26.

When a Titleholder with a household income of $ 175,000 a year enters a room filled with Monied persons who earn $ 1.75 million a year, a few social rules will be observed. First, everyone will act as if money does not exist. Everyone, including the Titled person near bankruptcy, will pretend it is possible to jet off to Paris for a weekend and the only barrier is finding the time. Everyone will praise the Marais district, and it will not be mentioned that the Monied person has an apartment in the Marais, while the Titled person stayed in a one-star hotel somewhere in the suburbs. The Titled person will notice that the Monied Class spends a lot of time planning and talking about vacations, whereas all the Titled person wants to talk about is work.

These conversations between those who are Titled and those with Money are fraught with peril. For example, a person who has made $ 10 million in the garbage-collection business has to defer in conversation to an editor at Esquire. On the other hand, an editor at Esquire has to defer to a person who has made $ 300 million in the garbage-collection business. A TV producer who went to Yale and Oxford is higher than an apartment-building owner who went to SUNY-Binghamton but lower than the owner of a hot restaurant who went to Brooklyn Community College. You've got to be sensitive to the invisible social hierarchies.

And at the back of the Titled person's mind there is the doubt: Do they really like me, or am I just another form of servant, one who provides amusement or publicity instead of making the beds? The sad fact is, the rich tend not to think this way. The millionaires think it would be neat to be a think-tank fellow and appear on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Look at Mortimer Zuckerman, who owns the New York Daily News, the Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, and a goodly chunk of Manhattan. He'll drive out to Fort Lee, New Jersey, so he can do a taping for the cable channel CNBC. It's not enough to have more money than most countries. He wants to be a pundit.

I don't know about Zuckerman, but most people in the Monied Class who fantasize about becoming a public intellectual can't actually fathom what it would be like to make less than $ 300,000 a year. They, like everybody else, suffer from Bracket Amnesia. As soon as you reach one income bracket, you forget what life is like in the lower brackets (in the way women forget about the pain of childbirth). The Monied know that the middle classes can't afford any dress they fancy, or ski when they please, but this knowledge is an abstraction.

Still, the rich feel a lack. First of all, they have to pay for all the foundation dinners they attend, while the Titled people go free. The rich are the johns of the foundation dinner-party circuit. Second, the Titled people are, in effect, paid to be interesting. They are paid to read and think and come up with interesting things to say (it's astonishing that so many do this job so badly). And the rich feel vulnerable because despite their vast resources they still rely on the publicity machine for their good reputations, which these professional dinner-party ironists control.

For their part, members of the Titled Class react in diverse ways to the pressures of Status-Income Disequilibrium. Some try to pass for members of the Monied Class. First, they dress the part. They buy those blue shirts with white collars and, to go with them, bright paisley ties that make it seem like the wearer has 100 electrified sperm crawling up his chest. Or, if women, they'll scrounge together enough dough for a Chanel suit. They keep their shoes polished daily, so that the sheen almost matches that of their hard briefcases. They buy glasses with large-ish frames, in contrast to the tiny " artsy" frames of the rest of their media friends. In this way, they believe, they can walk into a society restaurant like Mortimer's and nobody will think they are just a bunch of editors trying to pass as moguls.

And they use their expense account to the max. Like an asthma sufferer taking the cure at an Arizona resort, a SID sufferer can find temporary relief from his affliction while traveling on business. He can stay at the Ritz-Carlton for $ 370 a night, with phones and televisions in every room in his suite. Hotel dry-cleaning will be as nothing; a room-service omelet will arrive every morning at 7:30 sharp. He will rent a Mercedes, or hire a car and driver, and for once he will be able to slide through life like one of the elite, in the clean, elegant world he so richly deserves.

But then the business trip ends and it is back to earth.

Which explains why other members of the Titled Class go the other way and aggressively demonstrate that they reject the luxuries the Monied Class enjoy. You will see them wearing Timberland boots with their suits, a signal that they haven't joined the Money culture. Their taste in ties and socks will tend toward the ironic; you might see them wearing a tie adorned with the logo of a local sanitation department, a garbage truck driving over a rainbow.

At home this sort of SID sufferer will luxuriate in his poverty. He will congratulate himself for the fact that he lives in an integrated neighborhood, though he couldn't afford the pearly-white neighborhoods along Park Avenue. He'll note proudly that he is in touch with normal Americans, since he, unlike all the elites he works with, still cleans his own dishes, still scrubs his own toilet. (In fact, the distinction between normal Americans and SID sufferers is that it never occurs to the former to congratulate themselves on their populism every time they do the dishes.) Most of all, he will congratulate himself on choosing a profession that doesn't offer the big financial rewards, for his decision not to devote his life to money grubbing. He does not mention to himself that in fact he lacks the quantitative skills it takes to be, say, an investment banker, and he is unable to focus on things that bore him, the way lawyers can. There never was any great opportunity to go into a more lucrative field.

How can we alleviate the suffering of those who suffer from Status-Income Disequilibrium? For SID sufferers who are politicians or leading public offxcials, the answer is LEEP, the Lifetime Earnings Equalization Plan. The big lobbying firms, which hire politicians and top officials when they retire, could simply begin paying the politicians a decade or two before they actually go to work for the firms. That is, instead of making $ 125,000 a year for 20 years in public life and then $ 1.1 million for 10 years in private industry, the public figure would have his income equalized at $ 600, 000 a year for the entire 30-year period.

For journalists, media types, and other SID sufferers, there is no easy solution at hand. One can envision the rare high-income/high-status people -- William F Buckley, Martin Peretz, Lewis Lapham -- getting together to form charitable organizations to benefit their deprived brethren. These organizations could give out prestigious awards to low-status billionaires. Or they could give six-bedroom homes to high-status/low-income types.

But the needs are so great, I fear that only the federal government has sufficient resources to address them. In most cities, people are perpetually $ 1,500 a month away from happiness. Whatever their income, they imagine that an extra $ 1,500 a month would give them everything they need. But in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, where SID is found in its greatest concentrations, people are $ 250,000 a year away from happiness. It will take a lot of money to bring these people's incomes into line with their status. Only the federal government has that kind of money.

Under the federal plan I envision, anybody who could prove that five of his reasonably close friends earned seven times more than he, would be eligible for federal aid. This aid would not come in the form of a cash grant. Under a cash program, some SID sufferers would lose the work ethic and simply try to scrape by on the federally provided $ 250,000 a year. But a targeted in-kind benefit -- mortgage stamps -- would have the right effect. The government would send out monthly mortgage stamps to pay the cost of any newly bought home valued at more than $ 1.1 million. The recipient would still be responsible for paying tuition costs, ski-trip costs, wardrobe costs, and other essentials. He would preserve his high-status career, but he would not feel ashamed when he returned home at night.

Ultimately, such a program would benefit the entire nation. Because SID sufferers control the American media, government, and the terms of civic discourse, their anxieties dominate the national culture. Their bad mood depresses everybody. If they were richer, the entire country would feel better about itself. And this would have a positive impact on the lives of American children everywhere. This would once again be a country in which little boys and girls could dream of becoming the literary editor at Elle and still be secure in the knowledge that they will be able to do their work from a six-bedroom apartment overlooking Central Park.