The rich are different from you and me

The title of this post is a commonly used paraphrase of what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1926 short story Rich Boy.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

In one episode of the radio show Fresh Air from April 13, Nelson Schwartz says that the lives of the rich are becoming ever more insulated from the rest of us, resulting in them not having to actually come in contact with those not in their class. He refers to this as the ‘velvet rope’ that separates them from us. This difference is showing up even during this pandemic, exposing the hollowness of the claim that the virus is a great equalizer affecting rich and poor alike.

COVID-19 attacks indiscriminately: Young or old, rich or poor, it seems like everyone is vulnerable to the virus. But New York Times economics writer Nelson Schwartz says increasing economic inequality in the U.S. means that, as a group, the country’s wealthiest one percent are likely to fare better during the pandemic than everyone else.

“One of the most striking aspects of the emergency of coronavirus is the inability to get tested,” he notes. But Schwartz says that concierge doctors — primary care physicians who charge several thousands of dollars a month for access to care — have been able provide their patients with COVID-19 tests that might otherwise be impossible to obtain.

“One concierge doctor I spoke to rounded up viral swabs ahead of time,” Schwartz says. “He was able to arrange testing for his clients when others couldn’t get tests.”

In addition to having better access to COVID-19 tests, Schwartz notes that the rich are more likely to have flexible private transportation services and second homes — which can ease the burden of “social distancing” to avoid the virus.

Schwartz catalogs the many other ways in which the rest are getting increasingly better treatment than the rest of us, way beyond even what they used to get in the recent past.

One of the interesting things about very wealthy people is that they paint a rosy picture of what the life of the poor is like, similar to the way that supporters of slavery liked to paint the lives of the slaves as free of worries because their basic needs of food and shelter were provided for, however abominable their conditions were. While the wealthy spend huge amounts of money living a lavish lifestyle, they seem to think that poor people need very little to live on. Take for example treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, a very wealthy person, who thinks that the checks of $1,200 sent to some people as part of the stimulus package should last them for about 10 weeks. That is probably the amount that he and his friends spend on a single meal at a fancy restaurant and yet he says that people should be able to pay their rent, utilities, and other expenses for 10 weeks on that amount.

Mnuchin also authorized creditors to seize the checks deposited in people’s bank accounts (a practice known as ‘garnishing’) to settle their debts, leaving nothing for those families to pay rent and utilities and buy food, which was the purpose of the checks.

The Treasury Department last week gave U.S. financial institutions the go-ahead to seize coronavirus stimulus payments to pay off individuals’ outstanding debts, and one of the nation’s largest banks is reportedly already taking advantage of the green light.

“USAA, the veteran-serving financial institution, took $3,400 in CARES Act payments from the family of a disabled veteran to offset an existing debt, denying the family emergency funds during a time of personal economic stress,” David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, reported Thursday.

Carrie, a 22-year-old mother of two from Minnesota whose husband was injured while serving in the military, told the Prospect that she doesn’t “know where rent is going to come from” now that USAA has seized her family’s $3,400 payment.

“It was going to help my 18-month-old get her meds,” Carrie said. “I’m at a loss for words, they don’t care.”

Common Defense, an advocacy group that represents veterans, called USAA’s seizure of stimulus payments “absolutely unacceptable” and urged Congress to “make it illegal.”

The CARES Act explicitly gives Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin the authority to exempt the coronavirus relief payments from debt collection by banks, but Mnuchin—a former Goldman Sachs executive—has yet to exercise that authority despite pressure from Democrats in Congress and state attorneys general.

As a result of all the negative publicity from the The American Prospect and ProPublica reports, USAA bank said it is no longer going to garnish the checks.

This behavior by the wealthy is not new. Kathryn McKinley writes that the behavior of rich people during this pandemic has an eerie resemblance to their behavior during the bubonic plague Italy in 1348, as described by in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.

The coronavirus can infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality rates between rich and poor.

The wealthy work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes, while the urban poor are packed into small apartments and compelled to keep showing up to work.

As a medievalist, I’ve seen a version of this story before.

“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.

In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls.”

Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day” and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas, laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with never a doctor to attend them.”

One key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and advantage can impair people’s abilities to empathize with the hardships of others. Boccaccio begins the forward with the proverb, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who are afflicted.” Yet in many of the tales he goes on to present characters who are sharply indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own drives and ambition.

The rich are definitely not like you and me. Ernest Hemingway reportedly quipped that it was because they had more money which is true enough. But it is also because many are sociopaths who lack empathy for anyone outside their immediate circle.


  1. rrutis1 says

    Is there a pathology/term for something worse than sociopaths, because I think we need one to describe the people currently acting like this. In the distant past at least the wealthy did not have 24 hour news cycles and social media to inform them of what us poors were doing.

  2. machintelligence says

    I sometimes wonder of “poor but honest” should read “poor because honest.”

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