• Wed, Oct 19 2011

Bullish: Actually, We’re All Kind of the 1% (And How Not to be a Jerkface About It)

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests with much interest. (See last week’s Bullish: Occupy Wall Street Will Affect Your Career – How to Succeed Without Being An A**hole)

Who, exactly, are the 1%? Apparently, anyone who makes $350,000 a year, although there’s a pretty huge difference between your average anesthesiologist, who can certainly make that much, and someone who gets a several-million-dollar bonus made up entirely of taxpayers’ bailout money that’s been folded into origami swans by children in a Chinese factory.

It has also kind of occurred to me that maybe complaining about “the 1%” — valid as those concerns might be — makes us look like douchebags to the rest of the world. Because aren’t we … you know … kind of …

Well, actually the U.S. is 4.48% of the world’s population, and as I’m sure we’ve all heard countless times, we’ve got 92% of all the stuff and make 97% of all the garbage and supply 100% of the Real Housewives.

Did you know that 1.3 million people in India make a living by picking up shit with their hands? (Times of India: Gandhi Carries Night Soil, or just google manual scavenging).

So, I’ve always been interested in the question of what, exactly, to do with privilege. If you’re reading this, you’ve got at least some: living in an industrialized nation and having been taught to read, for one.

Furthermore, if you are white and live in New York, I’m sure you have experienced a store owner suggesting that you jump the line. This has happened to me when I’ve been dressed nicely and when I haven’t. I’m sure about what’s happening. It’s a pattern: it’s usually an Asian store owner, offering to help me in front of the (non-white, non-Asian) person ahead of me. And I say, “I think this lady was here first.” And then someone’s Puerto Rican grandmother picks up her laundry or a rotisserie chicken, and I am sad. And if that’s just what’s obvious to me, then dear god: I’m sure there’s more that I can’t see.

In 2002, I was living in Virginia, my company was failing, and I was being sued by my office landlord. I showed up to landlord-tenant court wearing a suit, and was ushered into the building without being metal-detected, like everyone else, because the cops assumed I was a lawyer.

While waiting for my turn in front of the judge, I was approached by another defendant — a guy who barely spoke English, and who was accompanied by his wife and many children, all in sweatpants. His kid peed on the floor while he plaintively (also thinking I was a lawyer) explained to me his situation: he worked in a fast-food restaurant and had been paying rent on a horrible, mold-infested apartment. When the apartment began to make his pregnant wife sick, he brought in an inspector, who agreed that the apartment was uninhabitable, at which point the man broke his lease and moved someplace else, which is a feat in itself on a fast-food “salary.” Now the landlord was suing him for back rent.

The man hadn’t thought to get any documentation from the mold inspector, so here he was in court with no English skills, no lawyer, no documentation — and a very reasonable case. I told him I wasn’t a lawyer but that he should explain to the judge that he would like to delay the case until he can bring in proof that the apartment had toxic mold. I gave the man a sentence to say and had him memorize it and repeat it back to me twice. Someone came to get him. He went into court and came out literally three minutes later, and was ushered off to the cashier’s office, which is where they try to make you pay damages on the spot.

Later that year, a date I went on with a lawyer ended after I told this story and he laughed. What the fuck is funny about that? (This is why I will never have a rich husband and why, therefore, you have so many Bullish columns about how to make your own damn money.)

I talked in Bullish: How to Use Your Career to Make the World A Better Place about using, and chasing, access to power:

Once upon a time here in the green, liberal-artsy woods, I attended an event about feminist workplaces. There was a bit of a generational disconnect. The panel consisted of Dartmouth grads of a variety of ages; they talked about working in an all-female workplace, forging your way in a male dominated workplace, etc. But it was like they were speaking Klingon; it seemed that most of the attendees wanted to be full-time activists, and had attended in hopes of being assured that they didn’t have to get big, dirty “jobs” after college.

After some talk about how it would feel like a betrayal of women’s causes to leave activism (the kind where you do stuff on a college campus in the middle of the woods) for the working world, I finally just kind of exploded. “You have an Ivy League education and most of you — statistically speaking — have wealthy and powerful dads. Don’t you think you could do more good for more people by, you know, getting a job as an investment banker and giving the money to a battered women’s shelter? And then maybe that job at the shelter that pays $9 an hour could go to … you know … one of the battered women?”

This did not make me popular. So, yes, I am one of those people who thinks that protests are even more effective when you make an attempt to observe some of the cultural norms held by the people you want to convince (so, no djembes, please). I think that, if you have access to power, you should cultivate and use it.

A colleague asked me a question once about what, exactly, he was supposed to do with his trust fund. (Ooh, trust fund! Dirty!) I can’t even reveal his name, because obviously he’s a bad person, right? Because his parents gave him some money?

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Of course, for every young college grad struggling to get by on an entry-level job in New York and hating Trust-Fund guy, there’s someone your age delivering takeout on a bicycle who feels exactly the same way about you, because your parents paid for at least some of college, and have your childhood bedroom lovingly preserved in case you should ever need to move back in while plotting your next move.

I did have some answers about the trust fund. Apparently, some of his friends seem to have implied that he should “give it all away.” Which is an option — one that would seem pretty stupid once he or anyone he cared about got cancer. You know that feeling of helplessness you get when an election is going badly or when someone you love is sick and you can’t do much or when something bad is happening halfway around the world? Actually, money is totally awesome for those things. Even people on their deathbeds have money troubles — many are concerned that even their funerals will be a financial burden on their loved ones. Someone I know died recently of a long illness, and her partner expressed on Facebook that someone had sent a gift that had made life so much easier in those last weeks — a giant Freshdirect gift certificate.

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  • Uma

    This is the best thing I’ve read all week. WORD.

  • kari

    I just forwarded this to everyone. This is awesome.

  • Alice

    This column is why I come back to the gloss everyday.

  • Kelly

    My gnat-length internet attention span always takes a vacation for Bullish articles, which I read immediately and in full. I just wanted to make sure you knew that.

  • Erin

    Fantastic!
    My friend just showed me this website and this column yesterday. I’m so happy I have it in my life now.
    Can we be friends and have hilarious meet-ups please?

    • Jennifer Wright

      I keep wanting to have meet-ups, but I’m frankly terrified of just sitting around in a bar all by myself approaching every woman saying “you’re a gloss reader?” and having none of them, you know, be Gloss readers and then, basically, the world would end! So, yeah, that sounds awful.

      Sometimes I think about posting my apartment address on here and just saying “stop by anytime!” but then I remember everything I ever learned about safety.

  • Jamie Peck

    Part of me agrees with you, and part of me is trying very hard to look at the bigger picture. Sure, you can use money to do good things under the current system that we have. But even if you were the richest person in the world, it would still only be a drop in a huge bucket of fucked-up-ness, much of which is caused by uncontrolled capitalism, colonialism, etc. In an ideal world, the government would be able to step in and provide a humane buffer against that corporate greed (even Adam Smith thought this was perfectly appropriate), but it’s pretty clear that that’s never going to happen in any meaningful way. It’s easy to think that reformist, incremental changes are the way to go, but that’s a position born of privilege. The more I learn about the world outside of my own privileged bubble, the more I think that radical solutions are the only truly practical ones. I’m not totally on board yet with it yet, but I’ve been thinking pretty seriously about it. “It” being a non-hierarchal revolution of the people that de-couples democracy from capitalism(!!!)

    • Jennifer Wright

      At TheGloss, we’re into bias. We like dissent. And we’re down with conflicting opinions. We also dig on people who have different positions and politics and who own them.

      Off to my Young Republicans meeting!

    • MR

      Yes, economic democracy – and to achieve it one must first not live above their means. Wealth means ownership. No wealth than no ownership. I have always lived below my means and invested the difference. My goal, starting 20 years ago, was to one day have my investments grow to a size where combined they would generate an income equal to my job income. I achieved that about a year and a half ago, and had a great 12 months starting mid year last year where the return on my investments was more than triple my job income. Now anybody can do this, it just takes the discipline, in my case over a 20 year period, to not live above your means. Now I own of piece of Wall St; it doesn’t own me.

  • Jinx

    Wonderful article.

    I’m a first-generation immigrant from a poor third-world country (so…99%?). But I’m part of the 1% very privileged, rich minority who could actually afford to come to the US and go to university here. While my chosen career isn’t likely to make me much money (I’m studying to be a therapist), I plan to take over my parents’ business. Then once I’m rich and powerful, I can send scholarships and kittens to little girls in my country.

    • Jennifer Dziura

      I just noticed the “scholarships and kittens” in this comment, and thus I wanted to share my love of this comment.

      Jen

  • Genevieve

    I love the point about the activists, for the most part, having at least some college experience and a stable home to go back to if the protest gets tiring. I believe that the entire Occupy movement is a great example of poor allyship at its finest. Wouldn’t it be messed up to see a civil rights march led by whites? Why does this “class uprising” consist of people who have the leisure time (and expensive camping equipment/outerwear) to spend weeks speaking on behalf of the working class?
    Being an ally means letting the oppressed lead, for a change. Offering support and hard work where needed, but not insisting that their voices be the main ones. I believe that the class system in this country is pretty messed up, but I do not believe that it can be fixed by a scrappy group of (mostly) young, middle class whites yelling their own opinions about the matter.

    • Keely

      In fairness, a lot of the people who went to Occupy had the “leisure time” because they had no jobs because they’d been fired–or had just graduated–and couldn’t find anything in this economy. And I believe those who had (or could afford to buy) camping equipment shared it with those who didn’t (including the homeless).

    • Cassie

      I don’t know if you’re part of the generation that came of age under Bush. A lot of us did the two to four years of college thing, only to find out that the economy was now demanding four minimum, ideally a M.x. degree. This was for barely-a-living-wage work. The bar got moved while we were listening to outdated career advice in high school and college. This is partly why I’d like to become a guidance counselor: someone’s got to move with the bar. At least by the time Obama took office, parents knew their kids were going to have difficulties establishing themselves, and those kids will be able to plan accordingly. We couldn’t. So a lot of us do have an anomalous amount of free time on our hands, and some are using it to protest. Sure beats lying around watching daytime television.

  • Ellen

    Seriously awesome article, could have something to do with the fact that I agree with quite a few of your points. This is my first article @ TheGloss but I’ll definitely be following.

  • Jennifer Dziura

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

    I just wanted to share that the photo is by Nevin Sabet, and the woman pictured is Carly Jean at (or on her way to) Occupy LA.

    @Jamie, I completely agree that actual structural, legislative change is needed, but I’m a big believer in pushing forward on multiple tracks at once; we can push for a fair taxation system and campaign finance reform (for instance) while also kicking some ass.

    Sincerely,
    Jen

    • Jamie Peck

      I agree. I was talking to my boyfriend about this the other day at OWS, actually. He’s a communist and I’m still nominally a liberal (although I’ve been re-thinking that identity like whoa). Radical and reformist goals can coexist so long as things are this messed up. If we ever make any real progress, we can have debates with each other about where to go from there. It’s possible to deal with the world in which we live while at the same time pushing for a better one. I mean, he’s a communist opposed to the idea of wage slavery, but he also works three jobs, because he needs to survive in the meantime. Multitasking!

  • Kj

    Awesome post as always!

    I think your analysis of Rand is spot on. When I was a wee little critter of 18, I read it not knowing anything, and about halfway through I started to give it the side-eye…….. “Suuuuuuuuuuure, Ayn. I’m sure those awesome industrialists (WITH THEIR HARD STEEL!!) mined and forged that all themselves without the help of anyone.

    She does have some great points, particularly about people embracing mediocrity (and therefore shunning people who try to be better), and that made me feel better for being a shun-ee.

    My humble, semi-educated opinion is that change requires a balanced mixture of activism and work within the system. Protests are important because they are pretty much the most effective way of communicating en masse with politicians. However, real change really has to come from within, and if everyone is on the outside of the system, they will never have enough influence to improve the situation.

    The trick is to get into a powerful position without becoming indifferent or jaded, which I think happens a lot. As my mom (who worked in politics) always said, “power is like the Ring from Lord of the Rings. It’s hard to stay ethical once you have it in your hands.”

    • MR

      If everyone owns a piece of the economy, that is a piece of Wall St., then everyone has control over it’s structure. It’s kind of like communism, but the capitalist version.

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