“Envy Malaise” Grips Awestruck Journalists

Today we give thanks for something that American journalism is doing well of late: allocating resources to examining jealousy in the economic stratosphere.

With Thanksgiving nigh, let us take a break from the journo-scolding for a moment to give thanks for something that American journalism is doing well of late: allocating resources to examining the ways in which the bottom of the top 1 percent of American earners envy the top of the top 1 percent of earners.

As Gawker pointed out yesterday, the New York Times appears to be “fomenting class war between the least neediest,” what with Tuesday’s A1 article by Katie Hafner (headline, “In Web World, Rich Now Envy the Superrich”) coming on the heels of Sunday’s Week in Review piece by Eric Konigsberg (headline, “A New Class War: The Haves vs. the Have Mores”).

For her part, Hafner reported yesterday on “envy” as a “powerful driving force in Silicon Valley, where technical achievements are admired but financial payoffs are the ultimate form of recognition.” And how do wealthy high-tech entrepreneurs cope with their envy of even wealthier peers? Hafner pointed to James Hong, a man so rich he never has to work again who nonetheless found himself “succumbing to the envy malaise,” which he promptly checked by downgrading from a Porsche Boxster to a Toyota Prius, explaining: “I don’t want to live the life of a Boxster, because when you get a Boxster you wish you had a [Porsche] 911 … And you know what people who have 911s wish they had? They wish they had a Ferrari.”

On Sunday, Konigsberg playfully put forth that 2006’s “special contribution to the canon” of “chatter about the magnitude of year-end bonuses in the financial sector” might be the gathering battle between “two highly distinct groups, the merely rich and the superrich.” While the rich (those in the top 1 percent) brought home $940,000 per taxpaying household in 2004, it seems, the superrich (the top tenth of the top 1 percent) garnered $4.5 million — but both can pity themselves when compared to the $20 million-a-year income of the top hundredth. The article went on to explain how lawyers “earn a lot of money” but less than bankers, and how investment bankers make less than hedge fund managers — and so the professional classes (“the merely rich”) are irked.

One more piece, Gawker teased, and the Times will have met “the all-important ‘three makes a trend’ rule.” But, as is often the case with the Times and trends (think: mustaches, man-dates, and folks who eat cereal), other people were on to this one well before this past Sunday. (Konigsberg cops to this in his piece, citing a recent wave of articles on class warfare in Slate, New York, and Fortune.)

And yet, before all of these think pieces, business columns and A1 reports there was … Details.

Back in June, on a cover featuring tanned TV heartthrob Josh Holloway (and his chest), Details was also “Introducing the New American Class System,” as the tease at the top of the cover promised.

Doing its part to stoke “the envy malaise,” Details warned readers, “Giga-billionaires are climbing the ladder and pulling it up behind them. Your six-figure salary won’t even get you on the bottom rung,” and provided a handy sidebar list of “books to feed your bitterness” (books with titles like, Is the American Dream Killing You? and American Mania: When More Is Not Enough).

While the Times blandly dubbed these Persons To Be Envied the “superrich” or the “have-mores” and Fortune went with the “ultrawealthy,” Details coined the slick term “luxocrat” (defined thusly: “A luxocrat is enormo-rich, robber-baron rich, 21st-century rich, swelled up with a wealth of such magnitude that it suggests the American class system would have to undergo a wholesale restructuring in order to accommodate it”).

Indeed, months before Hafner reported in the Times on “the fickleness of this latest wave of sudden wealth, creating some huge paydays but a small circle of winners” as compared to “seven or eight years ago … [when] the finger of fortune was generous — and democratic,” Details’ Jeff Gordinier mused: “If the nineties boom felt sunny and democratic, backlit by a perception that a rising stock market would fatten all 401(k)s, this, the latest chapter in American growth, comes across as creepily aristocratic. Private planes, private chefs, private clubs, private islands — is this nothing more than a flukey societal fad, or are we witnessing the reassertion of long-dormant feudal hierarchies, a fresh, modern way to make sure that the lords don’t have to mix it up with the vassals and serfs?”

We’ll just be thankful when the “envy malaise” in our newsrooms becomes “envy malaise” fatigue.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.