I know a lot of people who hate rich people.
I also know a lot of rich people.
In my line of work, crossing the class divide is common, often several times a day. This was my main thought as I stared Abe Lincoln in the face and lifted my crystal goblet of water.
I should explain. I work in fund raising for a major museum. One of the companies that sponsors us is in the finance business and they decided to host a little soiree for all the nonprofits they support.
Everything about this soiree was perfect. It was engineered that way. We met in a giant walnut-clad hall where generations of businessmen have debated the fate of the world and the best brand of cigar. The aforementioned Abe sat opposite me, in the form of a spotlit oil painting. He couldn’t stop staring, that Abe.
A Free Financial Forecast
The ostensible purpose of this event was for the company to offer a “state of the economy” address, so to speak. It’s actually a really nice thing. I mean, if Apple wanted to share their product with us they’d give us free iPhones. For a finance company to share their product, an hour of expert predictions followed by free drinks is actually kind of awesome.
The talk started in general terms. The idea is that, as a financier, the company has three main types of customers they can loan dollars to: the US Government, individual consumers, or other corporations.
Of these, the worst prospect (we were told) is the government. It routinely spends more than it makes, and it funds programs that will never yield a return. However important those programs may be (schools, for instance), they look bad on paper to a loan dealer.
The second least appealing prospect is the American consumer. They’re a better bet than the government, because they generally don’t throw money into unprofitable ventures on purpose. And in the past couple years of recession, consumers have roped in the excessive spending. We used to spend more than we had, but now we’re a more careful lot. B+ on paper.
The most appealing prospect, we were told, was Corporate America. As bad as the recession has been, corporations immediately tightened their belts. If they couldn’t increase profits they cut costs until they were profitable. They weren’t afraid to make a sacrifice to stay soluble. On paper, this is the perfect customer: A+. Let’s get this guy a loan!
What was never mentioned was that one of the unprofitable programs funded by the government was the corporate bailout. It was never mentioned that American consumers spent recklessly when they were given near-unlimited credit by finance companies. It was never mentioned that the “cost cutting” from the responsible corporations usually meant layoffs.
On the Inside It’s Safe
Throughout the talk I couldn’t help but notice the faces around me. Nonprofit workers are more or less a liberal lot, and we were being offered the full conservative “roots of the tree of capitalism” speech. There was no spin, just a blunt explanation: businessmen have to put the corporations ahead of the people or the government. It was practical and well-reasoned. I looked around for signs of muted anger or brooding disgust.
But I saw deeply interested faces.
I realized that many of these people—underpaid and overeducated professionals—had never actually heard rich people explain what it’s like to be rich. What it’s like to have so much money you can loan a few million out to others on a gamble, or what you have to do to make sure you don’t lose it all. To some of my colleagues, this was first contact.
At the same time, my surroundings were a literal bastion of old Boys Club life. Solid stone structure, wood-paneled interior, lush carpets and tapestries that completely dampened any sound. A respectful, dignified air of capitalist success hung over the hall. I mean, it’s a hall. In here you’re safe from the masses. There was no whiff of failure and no stony stare of poorer eyes.
In here, no one in Egypt was dying for their freedom.
I had to wonder what it would be like if these people could get together more often. What if we invited each other into our worlds? What if it wasn’t this one-off visit, but a regular exchange?
What could a company vice president learn from spending time on the ground with the desperately poor, as so many of my nonprofit colleagues do?
What could a struggling parent learn from spending a week in the board room, and seeing how decisions are made?
Do we really stand by our ideals, or are politics a product of environment?
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