The Magazine

THE TRAGEDY OF SID

May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By DAVID BROOKS
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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.