Elusive Trope's picture

    Born Rich: Romney and the Taboo Topic


    Why is Romney having so much trouble talking about his taxes and his wealth?  It isn't so that he is uncomfortable with talking about it (which he is); it is (in my opinion) that he is literally not used to talking about it. 

    Below is a synopsis of the documentary Born Rich by Jamie Johnson, one of those like Mitt who was born into an affluent family.  You can watch the documentary here.

    Mitt was born into a culture which just doesn't discuss money.  For the rest of us, who talk about money all the time (usually about how we don't have enough); the uberwealthy do not. They live in their own world as we all know. To get a sense of what it is like, I think we can compare it with many Americans are with talking about death or a parent talking to their kids about sex.

    The key point is that it isn't that one is raised in a family that doesn't talk about the subject matter.  It is the culture itself doesn't "talk" about it.  We grow up and become adults without seeing good examples of it around us.  We literally don't know what to say.

    First-time filmmaker Jamie Johnson, a 23-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, captures the rituals, worries and social customs of the young Trumps, Vanderbilts, Newhouses and Bloombergs in the documentary special, Born Rich.

    Offering candid insights into the privileges and burdens of inheriting more money than most people will earn in a lifetime. Narrated by Johnson, a history student at New York University, and filmed over a three-year period, Born Rich spotlights ten young adults who came into the world knowing they would never have to work a day in their lives.

    These society-column names speak frankly about the one subject they all know is taboo: money. With his unfettered access to this rarefied subculture, Johnson explores topics such as the anxieties of being cut off, and the misconception that money can solve all problems.

    Most wealthy people are told from a very young age not to talk about money, notes Johnson. Consequently, they are extremely reluctant to speak to people about their backgrounds. Also, many of the subjects in my film already have more public recognition than they may want, and have very little to gain by receiving more.

    Newt has for the moment turned his inner psyche of rage and sense of entitlement into an asset.  Mitt, on the other hand, is unlikely to turn this facet of his psyche into one.  And it isn't something one can just learn to do with some coaching from one's handlers.

    Mitt with the topic of money, and specifically his own money, is like Palin or Cain talking about foreign policy.  He is like the parent talking to their kid about the birds and the bees  armed with a page of bullet points.

    He must be feeling something like this:


    There was the scene in the Aviator where Katherine Hepburn's materfamilias tells Howard Hughes that they don't talk about money. "That's because you have it," was his reply.

    I used to often arrive home towards the end of Oprah Winfrey's show, and quite a few years ago, I saw a few minutes of her interview of Jamie Johnson and one of Warren Buffet's granddaughters. Johnson was very unpopular with the J&J family for drawing attention to them, but he still stood to inherit a lot of money. The granddaughter stood to inherit nothing because Buffett doesn't believe in inheritance, but did receive a comfortable childhood and a first class education. My wife and I thought the two of them would have made a cute couple.

    It would be telling if the antiRomney fervor led to real cracks in the anti-Envy mantra of the haves and their willing followers, but Gingrich's Food Stamp comments make it seem more likely that the GOP will keep blaming the poor for their poorth rather than the wealthy for their wealth. IOW, pretty weak Tea.

    I hereby render unto Trope the Dayly Line of the Day Award for this here Dagblog Site, given to all of him from all of me for this really really fine gem:

    Mitt with the topic of money, and specifically his own money, is like Palin or Cain talking about foreign policy.  He is like the parent talking to their kid about the birds and the bees  armed with a page of bullet points.

    I now have to change my bib. hahahahahah

    I can see money, from my house!

    Johnson is understandably too accepting of this little problem for the hyper rich.  That's partly because he's trapped in it, and partly because he's 23 and he's naive.

    The rich don't talk about their money so much because they don't want it taken from them.  They don't talk to normal people about it because if they go on and on they're likely to find themselves locked in a Coen Brothers scenario.  They don't talk to each other about it because a Goldman client and his money are soon parted.

    It's a defense mechanism.  Romney didn't refuse to release his tax returns because he was raised to shut up about his money.  He refused to do it because he has nothing to gain from revealing his techniques of wealth preservation.  At best, it will tick people off and cost him votes.  At worst, it will inspire people to change the tax code so that people like him can't so easily obtain such a low tax rate for themselves.

    This silence about money is meant to maintain the status quo, I think.  It's about keeping the rich rich and everyone else working for a living (or not, because in the end, who cares about the little people?)

    That Johnson would make a movie about, "the misconception that money can solve all problems," is pretty annoying to me.  Enough money can solve 99% of the problems that the 99% have now. What can't it solve?  It can't find you true love and it can't make you immortal.  Well, not having money doesn't exactly do those things either, does it?

    That Johnson is an insider (trapped in it), that even at 23 he is still a little naive and a little too accepting of the "little" problem is part of what makes his documentary interesting to those who are outsiders. In part I think because we have images of those who (as HBO put it) insanely rich to be constantly discussing their wealth.

    (and there non-verbalizing drives them to find concrete symbols of their wealth:

    During Christie's Auction on April 19 2002, Faberge scrambled the senses when its "Winter Egg" sold for $9.58 million, breaking the previous record for a Faberge egg at $3 million.)

    But, and I just looked Johnson up, he didn't just stay naive:

    Johnson's second film, The One Percent, was premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival on April 29, 2006. The 80-minute feature discusses the challenges America faces as a society in which one percent of the people control nearly half the total wealth. The film features Robert Reich, Bill Gates Sr., Milton Friedman, and many others, coming from various socioeconomic strata, including residents of Chicago's Cabrini–Green housing project and Hurricane Katrina victims. When Johnson interviewed Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Friedman accused Johnson of advocating socialism and abruptly ended the interview.

    So the first movie was part of his awakening in a sense.  We can't expect people to take off their culture like one would take off a jacket.  And that is what I am driving at - this is a deeply engrained facet of the insanely rich's culture.  They truly are not like us - we cannot understand how they see the world ($9.5 million for an egg) and they cannot see how we see the world.  Just as, while I might be very sympathetic, I cannot truly understand what it is like to grow up in real poverty of some shanty town or grow up in a war zone and witness atrocities, whether it is rebel soldiers executing fellow villagers or a drone taking out a dozen relatives.

    But Johnson as himself as the example offers some hope.  The 1% can come to understand they are the 1% and this is not necessarily a good thing.

    I would say their silence is more than keeping the status quo (although there is that - in a way similar dynamics of the silence in a dysfunctional home that will not openly acknowledge that daddy gets drunk and beats mommy).  There is a guilt, that deep down they "know." They rationalize, they deny, just like an addict.  No one wants to feel shame.  No one wants to look back like a drunk looking at the wreckage in their lives which they have created and say 'gee, my whole family, generations of my family have been complete asshats"

    I think Johnson and his coming to his senses, so to say, is that not all of the rich are of the let-them-eat-cake at their core.

    The example I think is pretty similar is whites during the Civil Rights Movement.  Many whites (north, south, east, west) went blissfully along, somewhat aware of the plight and discrimination of the blacks in this country.  But it didn't really cause them to lose any sleep.  They could look in the mirror every morning.  The CRM changed that.  Suddenly white in places all over the county awakened to the fact that this status quo was not acceptable.

    The point here is that most of these whites were not only not consciously maintaining the status quo, but also deep down (and sometimes one had to truly dig down to find it) they didn't find the status quo regarding race in the country acceptable - even though they were participating in a system that perpetuated the plight and discrimination of blacks in this country.  It was just part of the culture - they couldn't see it or if they did they could look away.  And it wasn't something they talked about.  No one talked about it.

    (There was a shame and a guilt about it, such that it took some time, and still is continuing, for a coming to terms with our past.  And hearing people say racism is no longer really a problem in this country on such programs like NPR because no one they know are racist....tells me that some people are still trying to deny daddy is getting drunk and beating mommy.)

    You make some excellent points, Trope.  I see a bit more intentionality than you do, just because the laws are what they are.  But whether its conscious, unconscious or a mix of the two, we do have a hard time discussing wealth in America.

    I'd add that while the rest of us talk a lot about money (how to get it, save it and spend it) that it's still considered pretty uncouth to, say, talk about getting less than you deserve or than you may have worked for.  Musn't sound jealous, or you'll be dismissed.

    Enough money can solve 99% of the problems that the 99% have now. What can't it solve? It can't find you true love and it can't make you immortal. Well, not having money doesn't exactly do those things either, does it?

    Spot on.  I tell you what, Mr. Johnson.  You give me all your money and in, say a decade or so, I'll let you know if I agree with you.

    Nicely done, Trope. Great image.

    Having, as a poor relative, luxuriated on occasion with the super rich, my experience is that the last thing they ever do is talk openly about money.

    But there are great surrogates. One is where the ladies come to the same conclusion as to who the best caterer on the island is. He will be lined up two years in advance for a really special occasion, like an Anniversary Then at the function, they will fawn over him as a true celebrity. Access to this chef/caterer and the pecking order is most likely a good indication of relative wealth among the super wealthy group.

    Generally speaking they are interesting. 

    I was never tempted to take up seriously with a wealthy woman. As a friend of mine said, "Don't ever marry a woman for her money because you will have to earn every cent you get."

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