23 October 2008

Three Things on Money

1. On the plane I caught up on my publications. 'Cause I read all of them, all the ones that are put in front of me. I had one of those rare moments of clarity while reading this article from the New Yorker's Politics Issue last week. Basically, one of the things the reporter talks to this two-job-working, two teenagers at home, single Ohio woman about is which candidate speaks to her economic interests. The whole article is trying to understand why white working-class voters so frequently vote against their economic interests (overriding answer is often racism, but there are complexities). It is her response that kills me. She doesn't trust any of them (understandable) and she dislikes McCain and Bush immensely. And she doesn't believe Obama's tax policies or that they will help her. She has bought into enough of the anti-tax rhetoric to assume that her small amount of money from her receptionist and office-cleaning jobs will be taken away in Obama's tax plan. Why? Because he promises not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000. She finds this ludicrous, because as she says, "how many people do you know that make that kind of money?" Since she said this to a New Yorker reporter, we can assume the answer is lots.

In a McCain speech last week, he actually plays on this fundamental misbelief by implying that only raising taxes on people making more than $250,000 couldn't possibly raise enough money to match their spending promises. The painful thing is that this Ohio woman really believes that there are only a handful of people who make $250,000 and even less who make, say, a whole million. Like, there's Bill Gates, and there's one or two other folks, and then there's all the forty-thousand a year people. She fundamentally can't believe that there are enough people with insane amounts of money because it is so foreign to her experience. And I understand this because I didn't grasp the reality of wealth in this country until I went to New York and then that school in Cambridge and met the scions of seriously rich families and people who considered themselves "middle class" whose parents had more than one million-dollar home. It's not that they are twenty percent of the population. They just control that much of the country's wealth. And since she can't imagine that, she can't believe taxing just the over-250,000 crowd would raise any money.

2. My cab from the airport to the hotel the fellowship foundation is putting us up in (more on that below) was interesting. The driver was Tibetan, and was very chatty. We started off having a good conversation about the cost of taxi licenses in NY and Chicago. I asked him how his night was going, he said he just started his shift, I asked when it ended and he answered "when I have a hundred million dollars!" Then at some point we started talking about the election. He told me that I was very wrong for supporting Obama, because "Bush is a great president." Really, I knew the twenty percent were out there, but I didn't expect to meet them in Chicago. He told me Bush is great because all other countries in the world hate America, Bush is scary and willing to go to war, ergo he's the only thing standing in the way of the rest of the world killing us. He also informed me that white people are the smartest people in the world, apparently as the Japanese are to the rest of Asia. But each time I disagreed (as I did with everything he said), he would wave his hand dismissively and essentially call me an idiot. I guess the subtext was really that white men are smart, 'cause he thought I was pretty foolish. He said McCain was superior to Obama mainly because McCain had already made money and Obama needed money. Since McCain had millions already, he was a safer bet. But Obama doesn't already have eight houses, so he was in the election to get stuff, so went his argument. I was really trying to engage in a debate with this guy because it's been a while since I had a conversation with someone who had such opposing beliefs to mine. Then, as we were debating whether all anyone in the world wants is money, he dropped me off at the Trump, which seriously undermined my argument. Embarrassing, but in keeping with the theme of the whole weekend. Money, money, money.

3. This hotel. It is ridiculous. Like, I could imagine in my lame way what a "luxury hotel" would entail, much like the lady from Ohio could imagine that there might be one or two people making more than $250,000, but not how much more. But I really couldn't have guessed, because why would you need such things? It's been the single most consistent topic of conversation among all the grad students here, because really, this is not how grad students live. Here is a partial list:
- The minute you come in, there are about five different sets of doors to go through. A different and ever more deferential person is there to hold each and every door open. It was all very Eliza Doolittle. One of the greeters came out from his front desk after I walked through the first door held open by another guy to walk me through the second door (held by another guy) to the concierge desk. Then after she checked me in, the concierge walked out from behind her desk to walk me through yet another held-open door to the elevator. It reminded me of how they roll at Nordstrom.
- Everyone who works there memorizes your name instantaneously and uses it in every interaction from then on. It's actually a little freaky. I realized by the third day that I was walking around downtown with this subtle added confidence that is only explained by the amount of deference the hotel kept providing. Even though I know it's fake, even though it was only a few short days, even though I've spent far more time on the deferential retail side where I know full well they're thinking many other things (I would be thinking, what are these losers doing staying here?), it doesn't matter. You cannot experience that kind of constant unearned deference and not have it build up your ego a bit. Imagine living your life like that. Why would we ever want to elect anyone rich? Their brains are damaged by this kind of crap.
- One guy at the conference forgot to bring his ID out with him to a bar downtown the second night. He had one of the hotel's complimentary umbrellas with him, emblazoned with the logo, and the bouncer literally said, "ah, I see you're at the Trump. Don't worry about it, come on in." Money really does buy everything and anything.
- The room has the standard enormous plasma TV, of course with DVD, etc. In the bathroom, however, (which is the size of my living room at home and completely over-the-top) the enormous mirror has a shadowy rectangle in it just below eye level. It just looked like some weird geometric mirror design to me. And there's a remote and channel list by the faucet. It took me several minutes to actually figure out there was another TV screen built into the mirror. So you can watch the stock market plummet while in the shower. Critical.
- The kitchenette is equipped with a personal espresso/latte maker with a range of different espresso blends to use.
- There is a pillow menu with ten different pillows, including body pillows of varying densities and handmade satin Himalayan aromatherapy pillows with handpicked herbs.
- The room service menu includes a $1000 Donald Trump dinner of his favorite foods and fancy wine. Also available on the menu, every imaginable kind of tea with a spectrum of water temperature options, Ivanka Trump's caviar breakfast for $625, and on the more "reasonable" side, snacks and "cocktails" for your cat or dog that cost five times what I will spend on my lunch at the airport today. Of course, the hotel also has a special service that makes you a $40 lobster sandwich (or whatever else) prepared for you to take with you as an in-flight meal. God forbid you be subjected to airport food!
- The turndown service comes in at night (after the room is cleaned and all your stuff is almost embarassingly organized for you during the afternoon) while everyone's at dinner and turns down your blankets, puts soft music on the Bose stereo with Ipod dock, puts the lighting on dim and the TV on a soothing aquarium screen saver.
- The gym equipment in the spa is entirely custom-made by Ferrari. There's a spectacular pool, naturally.
- The view from everywhere in the hotel is incredible. Overlooking downtown, it's beautiful. But the hotel is literally right smack on the river, probably the single most expensive piece of real estate in the city, I would guess. The gym looks out from the 14th floor over the riverfront and the city. Our dinners and receptions were held in ballrooms with thirty-foot ceilings, from which we could watch the Friday night fireworks along the river in awe. It really was gorgeous.
- I do enjoy the fact that I don't think the Trump or any other luxury hotel is overflowing on occupancy these days (it just opened this year) given the state of the market. Turn it into public housing, I say.

And now? I'm really, really happy to be home. No hotel, however fancy, can compare. In fact, I'm glad I don't have that weird lifestyle on a regular basis. I firmly believe it warps people's characters. And I wish that woman in Ohio could get a glimpse of the disproportionate wealth held by some in this country. I think she'd be all about taxes then.


Dolce Vita said...


I keep trying to add to this, but I just come back to wow.

Oh and I think your point about the Ohio woman is right on.

Trust in Steel said...

I see you enjoyed the lovely american dream of conspciuous consumption. I hope you took advantage while you could, there's little chance for wealth and luxury in academia. Don't let your moral code be upset by the absurdity of it, sometimes good people deserve to be pampered! Everyone knows bad people enjoy the benefit all too often.

jessica said...

I keep talking about that same new yorker article! I think all voters should get paid leave from work and funded trips to Trump hotel & Palo Alto, just to paint the picture...
Love the hotel descriptions - I had no idea. Very helpful to have your girl-on-the-inside report.

Hey how did your conference presentation go?