Discomfited by displays of wealth

A high school graduation party I attended was held in a backyard in an affluent suburb. The yard seemed to me as big as a football field, but having a balcony as my basis of comparison, I no doubt exaggerate. At any rate, the backyard was large enough for several seating areas, which were furnished with the outdoor living room suites popular now.

I am uneasy around conspicuous wealth, and in America wealth is most conspicuously displayed with real estate. Whereas others ooh and ahh over features like outdoor living rooms and closets the size of bedrooms, the judgmental part of me comes to the fore. My thoughts run along the lines of how many bathrooms and bedrooms does a family need, and what do the clergy in this town preach about social justice?

Maybe they don’t say much about social justice in a community where Republicans outnumber Democrats two to one. Republicans generally don’t have a problem with wealth and its trappings, and social justice issues aren’t known to be Republican priorities.

But real estate gluttony isn’t confined to Republicans. Barack Obama, erstwhile leader of the Democratic Party, and Michelle bought a nine-bedroom, 8½-bath, 8,300-square-foot house in Washington. I’m an admirer of the Obamas, but still: what do they and Sasha and Michelle’s mother do with nine bedrooms?

The antimaterialism of my ’60s generation remains with me, and not having more than I need is almost like a religion. And then there is religion, the Gospel message about its being harder for the rich to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

I don’t know how an expensive house could not send a message about the divide between those who have made it, or have it made, and those who haven’t. Especially in this age of growing economic inequality, when I see more and more homeless people on the street, displays of wealth seem unfeeling.

I know I sound judgmental. I’m honor-bound to say that none of my friends and relatives who have more than I do have ever treated me as a lower-class person. They all generously give and share. If I were really true to my ostensible values, I wouldn’t be so eager to take advantage of my sister’s second home on a lake. Maybe my feelings about wealth are best described as ambivalent and confused. 

The hosts at the graduation party were gracious, friendly, nice people. If I’d met them in another setting, I wouldn’t have thought that they live in a house with seven bedrooms and 5½ baths. Nearly everyone there was from the suburb and thus probably real estate rich, and they all behaved like just folks. I’d bet that many of them give a greater percentage of their incomes to charity than I do.

Considering all the good that Bill and Melinda Gates are doing with their billions, they’re entitled to a 40,000-square-foot compound. But I really admire Warren Buffett for remaining in the house he bought in 1958 for $31,000. Okay, 6,570 square feet doesn’t describe a modest home, but billionaire Buffett obviously isn’t living in as much as he can afford.

I don’t think I’m jealous. I could have bought a larger condo if I’d wanted one. Noting that makes me realize that my issue is more with the appearance of money than with the possession of money. I would feel like I was showing off if I lived in a mansion.

But is it any more moral to invest your money in retirement funds than in real estate? Maybe not, but it is easier to dodge the issue of how much is too much when your money is in mutual funds. It’s invisible, easily put out of mind. When you do look at financial statements, you tell yourself that you don’t know what’s going to happen down the road, whether you’ll need hundreds of thousands of dollars for many years in a long-term care community.

“Why I’ll Never Live in a Rich Neighborhood” was the headline on a blog post by entrepreneur and online marketer Neil Patel. Praised as a top influencer on the web by the Wall Street Journal and a top young entrepreneur by President Obama and the United Nations, Patel probably couid afford to live most anywhere. Writing about living in “a ritzy area like Bel Air or Newport Coast [California],” Patel said, “I just won’t fit in! Now, if I really wanted to, I could probably fit in, but it just isn’t me. Once I have enough money, I would rather use it to try to change the world.”

I don’t expect my retirement funds to grow sufficiently to be able to have a significant impact on the world, but in the next redo of my will, I hope to identify charities to which to leave whatever is left after my old-age needs have been taken care of and my survivors get a share. Leaving everything to my relatives will not help anyone who is hungry, homeless, and without means. My siblings might not agree, but it seems to me that they too have enough.



“I know no matter who wins this series, no one wants the invite anyway. So it won’t be Golden State or Cleveland going.”

— LeBron James, after Trump disinvited the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House, on whether the NBA champions would go


Leave a comment
  • fb_avatar

    Their choice, of course. But how expensive and exhausting to clean a house that size. I hope -- if the market crashes tomorrow -- they can keep it.

  • Of course you're uncomfortable, you're from a working mans blue collar suburb. It's what South Side Pride is all about. People who live in large houses in nice suburbs probably think this is normal. We're all middle class , aren't we? According to an article in Crain's Chicago Business, Chicago attracts more young affluent professionals than any other city except New York. Yet unemployment of young black men is at an all time high on the south side and west side. This sets up a scenario of social unrest because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

  • I think you're right about me, but curiously, I know others from the same blue-collar town who have no trouble with wealthy status symbols now.

Leave a comment