The Super Rich: Great Gatsby Redux

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Have you noticed that, while the stock market and corporate profits keep rising, so do the number of complaints by petulant billionaires? But none of this should come as a surprise to those who have read The Great Gatsby.

Think “Tom Buchanan” as you survey Joan Walsh’s summation of recent outbreaks:

From Tom Perkins comparing the ultra-rich to Jews during “Kristallnacht,” to tycoon and newspaper-destroyer Sam Zell insisting “the top 1 percent work harder,” to investment banker Wilbur Ross proclaiming that “the 1 percent is being picked on for political reasons,” there’s an epidemic of plutocrat self-pity afoot. Just last week ex-CEO of Morgan Stanley John Mack told the media to “stop beating up on” CEOs Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein after they got obscene raises from JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

And now here’s Tom:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be–will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—-”
“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.
“You ought to live in California–” began Miss Baker but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.
“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are and you are and—-” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod and she winked at me again. “–and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization–oh, science and art and all that. Do you see?”

As Walsh goes on to note, it’s not as though wealthy Americans are being actively threatened, with a few exceptions (such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio proposing to raise their taxes to pay for universal preschool). This class hasn’t had it so good since the Gilded Age.

In the puzzle lies the explanation. It’s not because they are being attacked for their privilege that they are whining. It’s because they are privileged that they feel people must be sharpening their knives. The wealth gap generates the paranoia. (I explored this idea further last month in Beowulf post.)

New York Magazine reporter Kevin Roose explains the psychology  in a remarkable account of the time he secretly crashed a party of a society of millionaires calling itself Kappa Beta Phi. What he saw were very rich people “making homophobic jokes, making light of the financial crisis, and bragging about their business conquests at Main Street’s expense.” Roose notes that many were from firms that had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And yet here they were

laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark. (Or worse, singing about it — one of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”) 

Roose could have been Nick Carraway watching Tom and Daisy only Tom doesn’t have a sense of humor. Here’s Roose trying to figure out the behavior he witnessed:

The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles. Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.

The second thing I realized was that Kappa Beta Phi was, in large part, a fear-based organization. Here were executives who had strong ideas about politics, society, and the work of their colleagues, but who would never have the courage to voice those opinions in a public setting. Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world. And the idea of a reporter making those views public had caused them to throw a mass temper tantrum.

The last thought I had, and the saddest, was that many of these self-righteous Kappa Beta Phi members had surely been first-year bankers once. And in the 20, 30, or 40 years since, something fundamental about them had changed. Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers.

Perhaps, I realized, this social isolation is why despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, one-percenters like Ross keep saying how badly persecuted they are. When you’re a member of the fraternity of money, it can be hard to see past the foie gras to the real world.

Roose’s summation is not unlike that of Nick’s assessment of Tom and Daisy:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .

Nick doesn’t even attempt to explain things to Tom, figuring that it would just be like talking to a child.

In our case, these people didn’t only create a mess. They’ve spent the last six years, along with their GOP enablers, trying to keep the rest of us from cleaning it up.

This entry was posted in Fitzgerald (F. Scott) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete