Turning Over a Rock


It turns out some guy was coming up short and he decided to go public. This is quality clickbait. Some people will jeer at him, others will applaud his courage, and mainly, the Atlantic will harvest some advertising cash. Over here in the rat-faced world, we’ll take a page from Machiavelli and try to understand the meaning of his situation, not moralize over it. (By the way, it takes a special kind of idiot to spend all day moralizing while tens of thousands in debt with no prospects. We call these idiots “millennials.”)

 I made choices without thinking through the financial implications—in part because I didn’t know about those implications, and in part because I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive. I chose to become a writer, which is a financially perilous profession, rather than do something more lucrative. I chose to live in New York rather than in a place with a lower cost of living. I chose to have two children. I chose to write long books that required years of work, even though my advances would be stretched to the breaking point and, it turned out, beyond. We all make those sorts of choices, and they obviously affect, even determine, our bottom line. But, without getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.

This paragraph is the distilled essence of today’s broke “middle class.” (In quotes because, socially, sure, he’s middle class. But if you don’t have $400 to spare, NIGGA YOU BROKE NIGGA!) You can’t help but laugh at the mixture of humiliation and defiance. His decisions may have been fiscally careless, but he intends them to signal a certain nobility: he is devoted to his children, to the truth, to New York living, to a “profession” (or, as normal people say, “job”) that he wants us to believe he chose over something more lucrative (because it was more fulfilling, more personally meaningful, and thus more virtuous.)

And in some sense he thinks he’s better than you. After all, in the movies, it’s the guy who yells into his cell phone and focuses on his career who’s the jerk, which is by the way pretty funny if you know anything about business ventures in Hollywood. Yet he doesn’t have the money to get his transmission fixed. He wants you to both feel socially inferior to him and to feel that society has done him wrong (and needs to cure the ill by pilfering from you.) It’s all over the piece:

I lost my television job because, I was told, I wasn’t frivolous enough for the medium.

(I tell the M.F.A. writing students whom I now teach, part-time, that anyone can write a book quickly: Just write a bad book.)

I suppose I could have slashed the price sooner to bring in more would-be buyers—in retrospect, that would have been the wisest choice—but I wanted to cover what I owed the bank.

I made too much money for the girls to get more than meager scholarships, but too little money to afford to pay for their educations in full, and because—another choice—we believed they had earned the right to attend good universities, universities of their choice…

Notice a theme here? All the bad things that happened to him happened because he was too damn good. Sorry, I didn’t go the the university of my choice. Hope it was worth it, friendo.

Certain people cherish the myth of the beautiful loser. They believe that some people are too fine for this lousy world. Those people are too much in love to charitable or artistic work to really take care of themselves. And of course many such people actually exist (and they’re pretty pitiful.) Beautiful losers, however, need a functioning society to support them.  Without a functioning real economy, financial system, engineered systems, working municipal water supply, they wouldn’t be beautiful. They would just starve to death. A beautiful loser might be sensitive and sexy when everything works, but there’s nothing sexy about a jammed toilet or mold on the walls. Some can’t help but be this way, but what do you say to someone who could do something else but narcissistically chooses not to? A fake beautiful loser is such a gross kind of poseur, just loathsome.

Being a beautiful loser was maybe doable a few decades back, when America was so rich that it wasn’t really risky. But we’ve now turned “moving to New York to be a broke artist” into a life script for clueless middle-class provincials to aspire toward. It’s a high-status act from a certain unworldly, egotistical point of view. You’re more pure, thoughtful, special, intellectual than those boring people you went to high school with (even if they got better grades.) Those sad proles went into sales, majored in food science, they don’t know even know who Proust is! (Not that beautiful losers are going to do the work of reading Proust, even in translation, because that smacks of effort.) They can’t think your beautiful thoughts, consumed as they are with “materialism” (which is what the semi-educated call consumerism.)

And yet, if you really are motivated by a passion you can’t control, you’ll walk the walk and live in the cold-water efficiency and make your wife support you and whatever else. The problem is wanting to have your cake and eat it too:

In a 2010 report titled “Middle Class in America,” the U.S. Commerce Department defined that class less by its position on the economic scale than by its aspirations: homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year. By that standard, my wife and I do not live anywhere near a middle-class life, even though I earn what would generally be considered a middle-class income or better…

Financial advisers suggest that we save at least 10 to 15 percent of our income for retirement and against such eventualities. But the primary reason many of us can’t save for a rainy day is that we live in an ongoing storm. Every day, it seems, there is some new, unanticipated expense—a stove that won’t light, a car that won’t start, a dog that limps, a faucet that leaks.

In other countries, and in poorer times in America, people set their consumption in terms of their incomes. This guy, instead, sets a floor of  what “middle class” means to him, spends whatever it takes to get it, and expects that his writing gigs will make it happen. I’m not sure what to call this, but it’s not “humility” or “planning,” and “entitlement” doesn’t seem harsh enough. So let’s call it instead a severe mental block: the union of the beautiful loser esthetic and life plan with the expectations of the post-war middle class following a two-decade economic boom. The two couldn’t be more incompatible. The post-war boom was based on scaling up production, energy consumption per capita, and human capital quality. To the extent it happened, it needed more and better machines, engineers, scientists, bankers, executives and technicians. Posing as an intellectual doesn’t pump more oil.

We’re bringing up a second generation of these badly confused people. No surprise, then, that people brought up to be losers are failing. They are social climbing on a broken ladder, and an advanced degree sheepskin (from a TTT, most likely) is their Ghost Shirt — an attempt to conjure by magic what they couldn’t obtain by normal means.

As a rat-faced man, I don’t moralize. Maybe the broke guy really is better than me in some intangible sense. But in a concrete sense, he’s failed in getting to where he wanted to be. He thought he would have a competence and would always be able to afford the necessities. From his comfortable, well-heated living room, he would be able to jeer at the tasteless Babbitts scrambling to earn money only to blow it on chain restaurants, tract houses, corporate vacations and, in the popular cant phrase, “plastic crap from China,” a sentence that you’d think signal skepticism towards globalism but that in practice never quite makes it there.

But now the jig is up and he has real problems keeping up with his utility bills. You can’t be middle class with the power turned off, loser. He can’t monetize whatever it is he thinks he has, and his erstwhile confidence (“I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive”) has proven completely unwarranted. His feelings of superiority are now colored with uncertainty, unease and envy. If he’s smart, he might be realizing that he’s something of a sucker. Also, he’s now mooching off his kids.

(By the way, it takes a special kind of chutzpah for a baby boomer, a member of the luckiest cohort in history, to ask his kids for money. There are things even rat-faced men won’t do.)

A lot of people are poor because they don’t have any prospects. Growing up poor and with low horizons in a post-industrial hellscape haunted by roaming packs of Oxy addicts and juggalos, you’re busy thinking about basics and you can’t plan far ahead. Not the case for this guy; he could have tried harder for stability, but didn’t bother because he couldn’t handle the clash with his romantic self-image. And his judgment is beyond bad. Among other things, he managed to lose money in New York real estate, a truly George Costanza-level achievement.

The best way to not wind up like this guy is to be humble, be a saver, and acquire useful skills. Don’t do useless things, don’t status-signal, don’t be a romantic — those things are ultimately expressions of narcissistic pride and are a toxic form of lifestyle consumerism that will ultimately leave you begging for scraps. He can pose all he wants in the breadline, but the truth is he’s just another bum.

2 thoughts on “Turning Over a Rock

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