American Materialism In Power
Greed is at least as old as prostitution, but its current iteration is not. Hero of democracy Teddy Roosevelt blasted the slimeball tactics of the “haves” a century ago, railing against businesses exploiting workers and colluding to manipulate markets. These concerns seem particularly timely now, with the King of Bain seeking the throne, but the goals of profiteering have changed. Today’s robber-baron replacements are less concerned with building a lasting empire than with cashing out.
However, this is not all on Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, David Koch, Sheldon Adelson or any of the other name-brand wealthy humans and humanoids running our businesses and buying our elections. Certainly, they deserve plenty of blame, but they don’t live in a vacuum. They can only operate within the acceptable parameters of American culture, and our values have also shifted to fully embrace short-term material gratification.
Kris Jenner has assumed the role of America’s Mom. I know what you’re thinking—I racked my brain trying to come up with an alternative, hoping this wasn’t true, but it is. Kris was a flight attendant in her early twenties who met and wed future celebrity lawyer Robert Kardashian, who would become famous as O.J. Simpson’s personal attorney. After that marriage ended in divorce, Kris was able to springboard up the social ladder and remarry to high-profile, well-connected Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner. Kris achieved her current reality TV stardom as the end result of a process that began with her daughter Kim, friend of heiress Paris Hilton, releasing a sex video she made with R&B singer Ray J.
This is how these heroes for young (and young at mind) people across this country became famous. Opportunistic marriage and a sex tape. They remain famous because millions of Americans see something in them and their way of life that they enjoy being around and want to relate to. There’s probably some influence the other way too; the Kardashians could only incubate in a certain environment.
The House of Kardashian, for all its (airbrushed) flaws, is just the industry standard. The remarkable thing is that what they do and represent has achieved full industry status. There’s The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, The Real Housewives of a handful of metropolitan areas, Basketball Wives, Millionaire Matchmaker, The Choice and, I’m sure, dozens more popular TV shows that I’m not even aware of.
Marrying blatantly for money or status is nothing new, and truthfully, it works for some couples. Its social acceptability in its bastardized fantasy football form as an admirable and praiseworthy life choice for women (and men), and its new professional circuit on reality television (a step up from the minor leagues of cocktail lounges and strip clubs) is unprecedented.
We have officially entered the age of the groupie-industrial complex. There have always been butlers and drivers to serve the super-rich, but now there’s this whole world of “personalities” and “socialites” who are, for all practical purposes, fully employed in doing little more than trying to occupy the same space and latch on to celebrities, millionaires and the people who have sex with them.
There is now a full-fledged commodities market in status-chasing, complete with double dealing, hostile takeovers, nebulous transactions and talking heads discussing whose stock is up and down and rumors about entities looking to do business together. Occupying Wall Street while ignoring its pushers along Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Rue Saint-Honoré, and the Dubai Mall, not to mention all the average Americans going their local malls buying clothes they can’t afford on credit cards they can’t pay off in an attempt to become the stars they idolize, is like killing the roaches but leaving the eggs.
When the people we desire are influenced by the groupie-industrial complex, they have the same expectations, demands and stimuli as their heroes on cable television. Since humans are conditioned to want to please people we are attracted to, the suitors will become more baldly status-focused themselves. This is why Wall Street compensation packages and economic policy discussions in Congress can’t and don’t exist independent of this influence. You can’t quarantine culture from politics, especially in a democracy, and particularly in the information age.
Some of the ladies of professional basketball were profiled in an article released last week, in which we learned more about what makes these elegant young women, many of whom are television personalities and role models, tick. Laker legend Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa, whom he met when she was a high school student and music video background dancer and whom he placated with a $500K ring when he was caught with his pants down, provided this gem:
“I certainly would not want to be married to somebody that can’t win championships. If you’re sacrificing time away from my family and myself for the benefit of winning championships, then winning a championship should happen every single year.”
Vanessa’s phrasing says it all. It’s sufficiently self-centered for her to say something like “if Kobe has to spend all that time away from me and the kids, I’m going to be disappointed if he doesn’t win the title,” but that’s not what she said. She deserves a champion, whether it’s Kobe or a replacement tall rich athlete. Vanessa Bryant is a princess awaiting her prince. It’s a Cinderella story, but if her crystal slippers were clear heels.
Now here’s Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, also speaking last week on the topic of her family’s taxes:
“We have been very transparent to what’s legally required of us. But the more we release, the more we get attacked. The more we get questioned. The more we get pushed. And so we have done what’s legally required—and there’s going to be no more—there’s gonna be no more tax releases given. And there's a reason for that. And that’s because of how—what happens as soon as we release anything. Mitt’s financial disclosures, when he was governor, are huge. If people wanna really look and see any question they have. The other thing they have to understand is that Mitt is as honest, his integrity is just golden. We pay our taxes. We are absolutely—beyond paying our taxes, we also give 10 percent of our income to charity. So—the—you know, we have no issues that way. And the only reason we don’t disclose any more is—you know, we’re just become a bigger target.”
It’s even worse on video. The condescending faces, the hand gestures, the “haters gonna hate” defense—it’s straight out of the Real Housewives playbook. She speaks of her finances with the entitled tone of a woman who married the third baseman and thinks she hit a triple.
Ann Romney ingratiated herself with the millionaire auto executive governor’s son while still in high school, and when Mitt went away on his Mormon mission, let it be known that she was ready to leave him for a basketball-playing student body vice president who would do. Maybe this was just a ploy, but it worked. The future problem-solving CEO quickly closed the deal with a fancy reactionary wedding with Michigan luminaries to remind Ann that he was still the top dog.
Mitt Romney is one of the most financially secure people in America (millions of dollars, no drug habits or illegitimate children), but it seems like the entirety of his self-esteem is tied to his balance sheet, and the fact that he pulled an overly attached rich boyfriend move to lock in a teenage fiancée has got to be tied to that.
I’m not saying Ann’s a gold digger. But she wasn’t messing with any low-status suitors. Mitt’s insecure response could not have helped in breaking down her princess complex. This is a woman whose husband bought her ponies when she fell ill. Ann acts like a princess because she almost is one; the Romneys are as close as it gets to American royalty, and she was the young bride of the family’s scion who fawned over her and gave her everything she wanted.
The difference now is that with reality television and social media, we have a window into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in a completely unprecedented way. Becoming a princess like Ann Romney, Vanessa Bryant or Kim Kardashian, who plunged right into a life of leisure and luxury on the strength of personality and fabulousness alone, seems more achievable than ever. Life almost always disagrees, but that reality doesn’t really affect the millions of people who blow off formal education and skills training, become a “personality,” and try to ride the lifestyles and consumer preferences of their idols to success.
A society that endorses the groupie-industrial complex and emulates its behavior is going to be one with a high tolerance for extreme avarice. At a time in which chasing status can rise to the level of a life pursuit or even a family business, and is for so much of our society intimately tied to self-esteem, preservation and enhancement of such status becomes that much more important.
When there is pressure at home to keep up with the Kardashians or accessorize like the Real Housewives, breadwinners of both sexes in more status-influenced relationships are going to feel the heat. The wealthier among them seem likelier to cut corners or engage in distasteful business practices just to hold serve with others in their social circles doing the same. More commonly, middle-class Americans are happy to live beyond their means to provide temporary satisfaction to those who love them conditionally. None of this is healthy, and it manifests itself not only in Wall Street scumbaggery but also in the unprecedented social acceptance of selfishness and materialism in the era of the “let him die” electorate.
Back when Teddy was spitting fire at the Mitt Romneys of his day, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote a series of essays about the financial industry that were published in a 1914 book called Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It. Brandeis begins one section on investment banking with this:
“The goose that lays golden eggs has been considered a most valuable possession. But even more profitable is the privilege of taking the golden eggs laid by somebody else’s goose.”
This is Mitt Romney buying, leveraging, draining and discarding businesses at Bain Capital and his buddies at JP Morgan with their failed discount double-hedge. It’s most definitely an appropriate analogy for some of Goldman Sachs recent practices.
But it’s also perfect for the Kardashians, Real Housewives and the entire groupie-industrial complex. It’s just that now the golden eggs are instagrammed to the world and the geese who lay them can tantalize the public just enough to keep up with the consumer arms race, while they laugh all the way to the coop. In a something-for-nothing culture that spawned a something-for-nothing industry, we should expect nothing less than unserious politicians who need to stuff their faces, lest they lose prestige, and leave others to pick up the tab.
Mitt Romney has a lot more in common with the Real Housewives than he might think. They almost certainly own many of the same high-end items, have been to the same vacation spots and eat at the same restaurants. They employ an array of domestic servants and travel in tinted limousines to private events where they enter through the back door. Our political elites and cultural icons have a shared bond in the deification of material success. We have failed to guard against the unwarranted influence of the groupie-industrial complex.
Reach Staff Columnist Matt Pressberg here.