I Want To Be a Billionaire: America’s Irresistible Desire

by Michael Blim

The scene is a country cottage about three weeks ago. Family are over for a birthday celebration. Three little nephews are running everywhere with their mother and my sister’s adolescent dog, a Golden Retriever version of Scooby Doo, running after them. Their young adult cousins are absorbed in checking their iPhones and Blackberries. All collide.

Caleb, an incandescent bulb of a boy age five, stops abruptly and turns toward the IPhoners. He starts to rap and vamp to the Travis McCoy’s “I Wanna Be a Millionaire” playing on the IPhone.

In case you don’t know it, the song goes like this (pretty much):

No matter that “Forbes” comes out “Ford’s” Magazine in Caleb’s rendition. He’s got the right idea. He knows who’s a billionaire. By five years old, he already has a little mental list.

So do we all. The rich perform a pageant daily in American life. Their comings and goings, heralded on the TV gossip shows and hawked in the supermarket tabloids and in the (rich and famous) people pages of our dailies, mark our own. Their quotidian facts become our memory sticks. The rich become celebrities, celebrities become rich, and both in disproportionate numbers become politicians and run the country.

From their post at the apex of society, they are the objects of our desires. Or rather having what they have would make us like them, and that put us at the apex of society too. Even a five year old gets it.

Tocqueville found American avarice both remarkable and disturbing. Walden Pond exiles aside, not much has changed since the early days of the Republic. If anything, as Americans generally have become poorer over the past quarter century, their desire for wealth has increased.

As riches are hard to come by for everyone save a few, celebrity has become the Holy Grail. Today’s run-of-the-mill game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are throwbacks to another era when a Groucho Marx joke and a couple grand framed the limits of our aspirations. They are quaint by comparison with the current reality show-contests. Contestants suffer every indignity imaginable in pursuit of fame, as well as of fortune. The hope is that one will deliver the other: even if being the “biggest loser” doesn’t make you rich, the celebrity gained in the contest might.

The failed fusion of fame and fortune for most of us does not settle the question of desire. Instead, we consume in ways that make it seem that we are rich. We imitate their lifestyle, even if what we obtain bear no relation to the “real” (read rich) things. The slavish devotion to rich things is most notable among the aspiring middle classes who strive to catapult their kids into the sacred circle of the rich through prep schools, Ivy educations, and the cultivation from early on of the sports and hobbies necessary for easy assimilation. At the bottom of the social ladder, people with no income and no chances often display the physical signs of wealth so that they too can enjoy the great American pageant parade, albeit from curbside.

I believe that the desire for celebrity split from the possession of riches gins up our quest for distinction. The late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses the term distinction differently from my use here. Bourdieu imagines that people accumulate status goods that amount to distinctions of the self from others, and that the distinctions become weapons in battles for social position.

I intend it differently. Most Americans don’t deep-down expect that they’re going to get rich. Surveys show that they believe that the rich in reality are rich because the game of gain is fixed.

Instead, I think Americans seek distinction, particularly with their bodies, to signify who they are, rather than create a personal chit in the war for social status. For years, I have been utterly at a loss to understand the widespread practices of body piercing and tattooing among people of forty years or less. Body-building and fitness fads became diffused somewhat earlier as a kind of all-purpose cure for physical and psychological ills, and on a less elevated but perhaps no less useful plane as one way to hook up. But piercings and tattoos, I confess, generally scandalize me as physical facts. It is only through the gentle criticism of my graduate students in their mid-twenties through mid-thirties that I have overcome my queasiness and been able to think more carefully about what people are doing when they have themselves pierced or tattooed, and why these habits have become so widely practiced among Americans.

Clothes in America no longer make the man – or the woman. We have made a world fashion style out of down-dressing. Presidents and billionaires disport themselves proudly in open-collared shirts, wash pants and jeans; sport coats signify dressing up. It takes the ridiculous Style pages of the New York Times to dress up the pretence that men’s khakis made by Ralph Lauren could really be worth $600 when an almost identical pair off the rack at J.C. Penney’s might cost $40. And maybe you wonder why logos on clothes have gotten bigger.

Women are still somewhat trapped by their bird-in-the-gilded-cage histories, but save for those Oscar awards runway gowns, they too have found informal dress their work-a-day friends. My impression (an impression only) is that stand-out, provocative dress has gone the way of love beads and tie-dying. We live in a neo-maoist dress world of mind-numbing uniformity, if my experience watching thousands stream by my 5th Avenue New York office on an average day is good evidence.

That’s where piercings and tattoos come in. They will not help you get a job running a Fortune 500 company. And I think that’s the point: they do not facilitate mobility, but rather indelibly (in the case of tattoos) mark unique identities. People are marking themselves in a desire for distinction that is as much a reaction to a society obsessed with wealth and fame as are the celebrity-starved masochists trampling their self-esteem on reality shows in front of millions daily. Piercings and tattooings, regardless of my occasional shudders, seem a better way with dealing with America’s biggest self-emptying desire. Marking one’s self in a distinct way rather than simply walking around in one of Winston’s 1984 tunics is a sane move in such a damaged society.

But back to Caleb and the Rich, and finally to Travis McCoy. After the first chorus, the song takes a turn away from bling and toward benevolence. McCoy imagines that the point of being a billionaire is to adopt abandoned children, share the wealth with people in need, and do a better job running the world than FEMA did with Katrina. His disposition toward Obama is ambiguous: on the one hand, he thanks the President for his etiquette; on the other hand, he beats the President’s men at basketball and gets some joy tossing “a couple milli in the air.” I leave it to McCoy to sort out Obama this week.

Robert Frank, Wall Street Journal journalist and blogger, reports on his “Wealth Report” blog that studies consistently show that while the rich lay claim to being great philanthropists, lower income and poor people are by far more likely to be generous, regardless of what little they have.

Despite America’s irresistible desire for wealth and fame, many Americans seem to find ways of resisting its destructive impulses. In light of this, the really rich might consider that they may have won the battle of the Great Recession, but they may not yet have won the war.

Caleb has already memorized verse two.

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