The whining rich

By Felix Salmon
September 20, 2010
Todd Henderson's whine about how he's only scraping by on $450,000 a year in his million-dollar Chicago house is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere.

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Todd Henderson’s whine about how he’s only scraping by on $450,000 a year in his million-dollar Chicago house is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere. (Tyler Cowen says that “this number seems not to be true”, but Henderson isn’t clarifying things, and it’s very hard to come up with a substantially lower number which would result in his family still paying “nearly $100,000 in federal and state taxes”.)

Tyler says that the rich have just as much right to whine as the poor, which is a fair point. But it’s also reasonable to examine this particular law professor’s argument closely. For instance:

If our taxes rise significantly, as they seem likely to, we can cut back on some things. The (legal) immigrant from Mexico who owns the lawn service we employ will suffer, as will the (legal) immigrant from Poland who cleans our house a few times a month. We can cancel our cell phones and some cable channels, as well as take our daughter from her art class at the community art center, but these are only a few hundred dollars per month in total.

Here’s Brad DeLong’s fantastic response:

The big expenses in the Henderson family budget–their $60,000 a year in contributions to tax-favored retirement savings vehicles, their $25,000 a year savings building home equity, their $55,000 for housing, their $60,000 in private school costs, even their $10,000 a year for new cars–are simply out of reach for the overwhelming majority of Americans…

By any standard, they are really rich.

But they don’t feel rich. They have a cash flow problem. When the bills are paid at the end of the month, the money is gone–and they feel that they have to scrimp…

Professor Henderson’s problem is that he thinks that he ought to be able to pay off student loans, contribute to retirement savings vehicles, build equity, drive new cars, live in a big expensive house, send his children to private school, and still have plenty of cash at the end of the month for the $200 restaurant meals, the $1000 a night resort hotel rooms, and the $75,000 automobiles. And even half a million dollars a year cannot buy you all of that.

But if he values the high-end consumption so much, why doesn’t he rearrange his budget? Why not stop the retirement savings contributions, why not rent rather than buy, why not send the kids to public school? Then the disposable cash at the end of the month would flow like water. His problem is that some of these decisions would strike him as imprudent. And all of them would strike him as degradations–doctor-law professor couples ought to send their kids to private schools, and live in big houses, and contribute to their 401(k)s, and also still have lots of cash for splurges. That is the way things should be.

The first thing to note here are Henderson’s priorities: for him, it seems, it’s more important to spend $60,000 a year on retirement savings, and to send his kids to private school, than it is to have a cellphone. That alone marks him out as very unusual among Americans, most of whom will spend money on a cellphone long before they send their kids to private school or put that fifty-thousandth dollar into their retirement savings.

And in reality, I doubt that a four-point increase in the tax that he pays on any income over $250,000 is going to stop him from hiring someone to mow his lawn. And it’s certainly not going to make him give up his cellphone.

But what’s very clear here is that Henderson doesn’t feel rich. As DeLong says, he’s not comparing himself to the hundreds of millions of people who earn less than him: instead he’s comparing himself to the handful of people who earn vastly more than he does. People who don’t seem to worry about money at all. Who have multiple houses. Who charter jets. He looks at those people and thinks that they are rich, and that therefore he, with his monthly budget, isn’t.

There’s no doubt that people earning $250,000 or more are rich. The simple ability to dismiss a whole class of expenses as “only a few hundred dollars per month in total” makes you rich.

But by the same token, many rich people don’t feel rich, and so describing them that way gets their backs up. And in fact it’s good that the rich don’t feel rich: it means they have more incentive to keep on earning and producing and adding value.

So maybe we shouldn’t be so rude about the likes of Todd Henderson: without rich people constantly striving for extra dollars, America would be in an even worse position than it is. But equally, we shouldn’t take their pleas seriously.

For most people, “rich” starts at roughly double whatever their own household income is. It’s the hedonic treadmill: you race towards it, but you never achieve it — even when you’re living in a million-dollar home and pulling down something north of $400,000 a year. Or, I daresay, when you’re living in a $4 million home and making $1 million a year. It’s just that above a certain income, people (Ben Stein, of course, always excepted) tend to have the good sense not to whine in public about how hard their life is.

Update: Henderson has now taken down his post, saying that an “electronic lynch mob” has “caused untold damage to me personally”.

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