How-are-the-mighty-fallen! dep’t: Bob McDonnell and the corruption that flows from inequality

The sad part about the McDonnell scandal is that the Governor of Virginia needed a Rolex as a status symbol.

I won’t pretend to be sad about the indictment of former VA Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. If I have any compassion to spare, I’ll use it on the children of poor families in Virginia denied medical coverage by McDonnell’s refusal to accept Federal money to expand Medicaid. I hope McDonnell and Chris Christie share a prison cell and come out dedicated advocates for correctional reform.

But there’s one deeply, deeply twisted element to the story that ought to worry all of us. McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, the successor of Jefferson. And he wanted a Rolex watch.

Now, I can understand a salesman who wants a Rolex to show that he’s a successful salesman. Money is how salespeople keep score, and without expensive wristwatches and suchlike how is anyone going to be able to tell a successful salesman from a wannabee? But if you’re the #$!@ing Governor of Virginia, what on earth do you need a Rolex for? As a status symbol? Isn’t t he title “Governor” pretty good status indicator?

One of the many problems that flows from increasing inequality of income and wealth is that the standards of the rich become the ruling standards. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford, when all the fundraisers’ wives – to say nothing of the female fundraisers – would be wearing a large fraction of the median annual household income. Does that excuse her committing extortion to get an Oscar de la Renta dress? Of course not. But it testifies to a corruption of manners that goes far deeper than corruption in office.

The extreme wealth of the rich is as great a public menace as the poverty of the poor, and great wealth is a greater problem than high income. Some of the way that money is made is destructive, and much of the way it is spent is even more destructive.

It would help if, at official functions such as inaugurations, our elected leaders and their families discouraged conspicuous waste among their guests and refrained from it themselves.

My $15 wristwatch from Target keeps excellent time, and – to my eye – looks pretty damned elegant.

wristwatch

But if I were a surgeon or an investment banker, I couldn’t afford to wear it. That, I submit, is a problem. And one part of the solution is for the President of the United States to wear, and let it be known that he wears, a cheap wristwatch. Not as important as restoring the estate tax, of course, but it’s a start, and it could be done tomorrow.

Update Lots of interesting ideas in comments. It’s certainly right that inequality increases the means of bribors as well as the vulnerability of bribees, but that’s a different point. It’s certainly wrong that status anxiety is simply “envy and spite,” though it might easily be a cause of envy and spite.

The most important point raised in commments that was missed in the original post is that one’s perceived need for display wealth depends strongly on one’s social group. If you hang out with rich folks, you look bad if you don’t have rich folks’ sort of stuff. The dominance of money in politics requires politicians to hang out with rich folks; otherwise they lose the “money primary” that filters the candidates in every election.

To apply this to my own case: If I were (which God forfend!) a dean rather than a professor, it would be professional malpractice for me not to drive a more expensive car and not to wear fancier clothes. And I doubt it would take long for my tastes to adjust to my behavior, to the point where I would feel ill-dressed in what I now regard as my go-to-meeting getup.

Yes, some people have tougher moral fiber than others: that’s a personal characteristic. How much strain is put on that fiber is a social question. Our current system increases the strain. That doesn’t keep me from disapproving of the McDonnells, but it does lead me to ask what we could do to decrease the pressures they felt and the pressures others similarly placed feel. That’s one reason the Clinton Global Foundation, for all its good works, creeps me out.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

77 thoughts on “How-are-the-mighty-fallen! dep’t: Bob McDonnell and the corruption that flows from inequality”

  1. This looks backwards to me. My income, like most people’s, is far less than the Governor’s. The inequality of wealth even greater because a larger fraction of my income must be directed to bare survival. I have friends whose incomes are far greater, they live in mansions, can take expensive vacations, while I live in a modest suburban home, and take “staycations”.

    But I don’t steal a Rolex, or commit any sort of crime, corrupt or not, to try to match their conspicuous spending. Most people don’t.

    I think you’re discounting two important factors here.

    The first is opportunity, which in this case may be spelled, “p-o-w-e-r”. Power, famously, corrupts. Not inequality. Power represents the omni-present opportunity to be significantly corrupt. The little guy, even if he were tempted, lacks the opportunity for major corruption.

    The second, and by far the more important, is personal morality. A moral person, placed in a position where they could profit from corrupt acts, none the less doesn’t commit them. It may not even occur to them to commit them, to be rejected.

    A third factor, but I think not as important, is envy. One of the reasons that I don’t do anything awful to try to match my friends’ spending is that I don’t envy them. I have a nice life myself. It could be nicer, sure, but it’s nice enough. I don’t particularly need more, and I know it. I’m happy as I am.

    And, frankly, I think a lot of the concern about income inequality, as distinct from actual poverty, is a product of envy and spite.

    Now, we have a corrupt political class in this country, no question. Didn’t Mark Twain say that Congress was America’s only native criminal class? So it’s not a new development. But I don’t think that’s because members of Congress are paid too little, or because other people are allowed to be more prosperous than they are.

    I think it’s because of power, and because we tolerate corruption in our politicians. We have a serious double standard going on. We tolerate politicians lying. They make a promise, they get in a position to fulfill it, they don’t, and it’s excused. Well, it shouldn’t be, it’s proof they’re dishonest, and we shouldn’t want to be governed by dishonest people.

    Somebody gets elected to high office, and on a moderate salary, their net worth goes from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in a few years. And we don’t react to this the way we would if the same happened with a bank teller, auditing them, and asking hard questions about where the money came from.

    Relatives of politicians get high paying jobs that don’t involve actually being qualified, or working. And it goes mostly unnoticed, instead of being identified as a form of bribery or extortion.

    In short, we have allowed our political class to create a system where they can get away with being criminals.

    And that’s got nothing to do with income inequality.

    1. While much of what you say above is true or partly true, you missed his point.

      First, regarding personal morality, while I vehemently disagree with you on nearly everything, I think you’re a more honest, moral stand-up guy than the former Governor of VA. Not everybody is, however. A, what a piece of work is man! There is variance. Also, we’re discussing a job (politics) that probably selects for (on average!) people with a certain moral flexibility (as a great Cusack character once called it).

      So there’s that, but also: do you regularly hobnob with ultra wealthy people? I rather doubt you do. I certainly don’t. I work with and socialize with middle class and upper middle class people. In that crowd, I can certainly be made to look like the guy who wears cheap stuff or wears stuff until it’s a bit threadbare, but never to the point of embarrassment. I feel no pressure to take my wardrobe up a notch or three. And that’s fine. I sit in a cubicle and deal with insurance claims all day, and nobody gives a damn what I’m wearing. So I experience no pressure. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back under those circumstances (indeed, one can even take pride in one’s frugality, and pat yourself on the back for *that*). But what if I was regularly tested? I think I’d pass – I do pride myself on being a decent, honest person – but I’m not 100% sure. It’s like people who just can’t get how professional athletes cheat on their wives. First, it’s a moral failure, certainly. But opportunity counts. Guys like us don’t have beautiful women throwing themselves at us all the time. If we did, would we be tempted? Would we, if going through a bad stretch in a marriage, hold true? I *think* I would (after all, I promised and I take promises very seriously), but I think it’s a bit arrogant, really, to assert confidently that I certainly would under any circumstance. This does not excuse, say, Tiger Woods. There are faithful husbands in the world of professional sports. That isn’t the point. There are virtuous people and amoral/immoral people in all walks of life. If you take the same distribution of personal morality and subject the group to different circumstances, you’re likely to get different results.

      The concern over inequality is about a lot more than envy. There is a massive misallocation of resources going on, and that has negative consequences even if people aren’t envious. [also, too: if people are really as envious as you say, I think we’d see much more violence directed at the rich. This basically doesn’t happen in the US.] I get that you couldn’t care less about that, but that does not mean that those who do are being driven by envy. I do not envy people richer than me – I’ve got it very good.

      I have no disagreement with you on the way corruption is tolerated in this country. Sadly, I think we’re probably actually better about it than in the past! The 19th century is choc full of absolute whoppers. As usual, the scandal isn’t what laws are broken but what is legal and accepted.

      1. I don’t know that it’s actually that we’re better at it, so much that the media are today more complicit in covering up for it.

        But, anyway, “But opportunity counts.” Sure it does, that was one of my points: That power is the opportunity to be corrupt.

        So, maybe we should consider not piling up huge heaps of power, the way we do?

          1. Sure, I’ll take about that.

            Government “power” is categorically different from monetary “power”. Bill Gates himself could not force me to do something I’m unwilling to do. Even Soros would be in deep doo doo if he locked me in a room against my will.

            The government can take money from me, can lock me up in a room, can threaten me with violence, can even kill me. That is the sort of power that corrupts. Not being able to buy a billion Happy Meals.

          2. In real life, Brett, money does convey power to do things that the average Joe/Brett/Rob cannot get away with. Why? Because Power corrupts, as you say. Money buys power, and thus is power. Rich people can bribe others, and do. They buy politicians, legally or illegally. Local officials know who not to mess with, and so on.

            Governmental power is a real thing, and abuse of it is a problem. But you’re blind to private power, which is the core problem with libertarianism.

          3. Brett skrev:
            Bill Gates himself could not force me to do something I’m unwilling to do.

            See, that’s where you’re fooling yourself.

            In real life, Bill Gates could

            – hire a law firm to sue you on some completely specious claim, and then drag out the proceedings with motion after motion until you are faced with acceding to whatever demand he makes and also settling the suit, or bankruptcy followed by continued legal persecution

            – buy out your landlord and evict you (if you rent)

            – buy all your neighbors, buy the city council, get your land rezoned, and erect a hamburger stand over your dead body

            – hire a private eye to find whatever is disreputable or illegal in your background, or the background of someone you love

            – hire Louie and Fingers from Jersey to burn out your business. Or your house. Or your daughter’s house.

            Great wealth does all these and more every day in America.

      2. I think this is the main point. Because of our completely nutso system of campaign finance, most politicians are forced to suck up to rich people if they want to continue to have a job. No matter how idealistic they start out, or even manage to remain, if they can work out a kind of Robin Hood psychological self defense. But that will take energy. I think this same thing is behind the salary creep for uni presidents too. If they didn’t get paid a “respectable” amount of money, they wouldn’t feel comfortable socializing with the rich, and coaxing out taxpayer supported donations.

        We are still animals and money is power, and we instinctively fear those who have it, especially when we are dependent upon them. Since we don’t like to admit this, we pretend it is envy, as if we really wished we were the rich a**hole. I don’t think that’s completely true though. We most of us also have a desire for equality and justice. There was a part at the end of one of Rand’s novels where the heroine realizes that this freedom could exist, and how it made her feel much happier and more kindly disposed towards the other humans. Of course, Rand is only half-right about what creates the feeling, but at least even she she recognized its possibility. It isn’t that everyone has to have exactly the same size bank account. It’s that people need to have enough that they don’t feel beholden or afraid. And folks, I think that means Scandinavia or Western Europe style government. For a while in the US we could bumble along, but I think that’s over. Now, we need actual policy changes.

        1. F.e., going back to the campaign finance issue. We don’t need to have all candidates spend exactly the same $$. We need a publicly financed system that makes it so challengers can spend enough to be viable, and yes this means if the self-financed rich guy drops a big media buy, then the challenger needs to be able to defend him/herself.

          Too bad the Supreme Court is now filled with eggheads with such limited life experience that to them, such a system was seen as inflicting some imagined kind of harm on the poor little rich candidate.

          I think someday this error will be fixed though. When, I have no idea.

    2. I half agree with this. Thirty-some years ago, when I was working in local government, my boss (the head of the department that included zoning) commented in a speech that in 30 years as a public official, he’d never been offered a bribe. He said he wasn’t sure whether no one thought he’d accept, or if no one thought he was worth bribing.

      A governor is worth bribing.

      But increased income inequality increases both the number of people with the means to bribe him and, potentially, the number of people with an incentive to try. I read Mark’s analysis as being as much (or more) about the bribing class as about the potential bribees, (Or, as an economist, I’d say that the demand to bribe is income-elastic.)

      Of course it takes sleazes for bribing to work. And *perhaps* people who run for political office and are therefore in some sense consciously seeking power are more susceptible, but I don’t know that that’s true. But, I would argue, increased income inequality increases the size of the *bribing* class, and thus in all likelihood increases the number of the bribed.

      1. This is a good point as well. When you have a massive pile of money, buying a politician starts to seem doable (of course, your personal morality matters a great deal as well). And we allow lots of ways to quite legally purchase politicians.

        1. I remember the 19th century definition of an honest politician:

          “An honest politician is one who, when he’s been bought, stays bought.”

          1. I am reminded of the story of the judge who, at the beginning of a trial, called counsel for both sides into chambers.

            The judge solemnly announced, “Gentlemen, I have been paid off in equal amounts by both sides of this lawsuit. I am accordingly going to decide the case strictly on the merits.”

    3. And, frankly, I think a lot of the concern about income inequality, as distinct from actual poverty, is a product of envy and spite.

      SMH. You are never going to understand the people you’re arguing with so long as you insist on believing that. This urge you have to think that your enemies are evil is blinding you.

    4. And, frankly, I think a lot of the concern about income inequality, as distinct from actual poverty, is a product of envy and spite.

      I agree but I think it’s a very different problem than you do. Much, if not most, of the spite is shown not by the poor who are envious of the rich, but by the rich who want to ensure that the poor must remain subservient to them. Income inequality is the vehicle through which they express their spite.

    5. Brett: “Power, famously, corrupts. Not inequality. Power represents the omni-present opportunity to be significantly corrupt. The little guy, even if he were tempted, lacks the opportunity for major corruption.”

      Inequality of income and wealth leads to inequality of power. In general, the people who are in a position to get such favors have lots of money for bribes.

  2. Good analysis Mark. It’s also a very American scandal in that wealth is so tied to status here, whereas in a more artistocratic society such as Britain a bankrupt Lord was always considered superior to a millionaire whose dad was working class.

      1. I didn’t read Keith as saying the British point of view was superior to the American, just that it was different.

  3. I admire watches for their artistry and craftsmanship, and I wear a $600 Movado. I see minor pro athletes around town wearing $100,000 watches, which I think are about as foolish as the $350,000 cars that they drive. They are young, a lot of them, and they think they are going to have Lebron’s money any day now. The “fool and his money” has never been more apt–I often think of the financial regret that these guys must have when that football career ends abruptly at age 28

    The President frequently wears a Jorg Gray chronograph, a very nice watch that was a legitimate $350 gift from his Secret Service guys. He also has a New Balance sports watch that he’s said to really like.

    The difference is that the Virginia governor and his wife felt entitled to luxury goods because of their position, and were willing to do incredibly stupid things to get them. It’s just a very sad narrative on the state of public service in the new century: it seems that most of our politicians choose public office as a mere way station on the road to fortune in consulting, lobbying, writing, speaking. The hubris is in thinking that in the age of instant information and the indelible electronic record, they would get away with it. I hope the charges stick.

    1. I had no idea what watch the president wears or from whom he received it. I gotta say though, it is a better tradition for employees *not* to give gifts to employers. You could say $350 is modest given who they are, but I think it sets a bad example. Of course I don’t mean that he should have refused it — that would be rude. But isn’t there a whole army of people who just do protocol???? Where were they? Cheese and crackers.

      1. If my security detail wanted to give me a $350 watch, I wouldn’t do anything to honk them off. I’d take the watch, say a big thanks, and wear the thing.

        1. Yeah, that way they could keep track of you with the embedded GPS, microphone, and miniature camera….

    2. The article suggests that at least Mrs. McDonnell felt not so much entitlement as compulsion. She tho0ught she needed a hugely expensive dress. My point is that steps should be taken to reduce the pressure on everyone, but especially on officeholders, to ape the spendthrift wealthy.

      1. Mrs. McDonnell felt not so much entitlement as compulsion. She tho0ught she needed a hugely expensive dress

        Following in the footsteps of Nancy Reagan, who famously “brought style back to Washington DC”.

          1. “brought back”

            Between Kennedy and Reagan, we had the Johnsons and the Carters, neither of which were exemplars of high style — and Carter urged the nation to give up ostentation. The courtiers hated that, and hated Carter.

            I suspect that much of Mrs. Kennedy’s clothing was not purchased on the taxpayer’s dime — the Bouvier and Kennedy families having been, um, rather well off, even before JFK ascended to the Senate.

          1. Nancy is much of the reason that Reagan became a conservative — when he was married to Jane Wyman he was head of a trade union, the Screen Actors Guild!

    3. Perhaps the regular federal ethics rules do not apply to the president, although I think that they should. Subordinates giving gifts to their superior is absolutely forbidden in the rest of the executive branch, with very narrow exceptions (value less than $10, or on a milestone occasion such as marriage or retirement).

      1. I don’t think the rules of ethics preclude the group, acting together as a group, giving a gift to the boss.

        1. I’m sorry to be so uptight — I don’t really think any of them intended any harm at all — but … what if one of them didn’t want to give? How comfortable would one of them feel *not* chipping in?

          And technically, I’m not actually sure who exactly the agents work for. In the movies, which is where I get most of my information ; > , the president has to do whatever the Secret Service tells him. And I think they work for Treasury? So, technically I might be all wet.

          But I still think it sets a bad example. I just don’t like to see this sort of thing. And when bosses give gifts, they should have the good taste to make it a bonus, with a nice thank-you, and maybe some time off. *Not* “hey do you want to come to my (awkward) holiday party?”

          Of course there can be genuine affection, but we don’t want it to get too mixed up with the actual work, on either side. Work is work.

        2. The rules do indeed prohibit the group giving a gift to a superior. From the U.S. Office of Government Ethics:

          Unless an exception applies, an executive branch employee may not give (or contribute toward) a gift for the employee’s official superior; accept a gift from another employee who receives less pay U.S. Government pay; or ask another employee for a contribution toward a gift for an official superior.

          The exceptions are as I noted above. The Secret Service used to be under the Treasury, but was transferred to Homeland Security when that department was created. In any event, the President is the official superior of every employee of the executive branch of the Federal government.

          1. The exemptions are the President and Vice President. From a Congressional Research paper by Jack Maskell, Legislative Attorney:

            “Because of the considerations relating to the conduct of their offices, including those of protocol or etiquette, the President and the Vice President may accept any gift on his own behalf or on behalf of any family member, provided that such acceptance does not violate §2635.202(c)(1) or (2), 18 U.S.C. §201(b) or 201(c)(3), or the Constitution of the United States.19”

            https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42662.pdf

  4. I understand the fancy inaugural dress, it’s big, easily seen, will probably be written about. I don’t understand the Rolex. Jesse Jackson Jr. got one too. Maybe it’s just that I’m not that observant?
    The description of how he got the Rolex – the first lady telling the CEO that he should give it as a gift sounds like a power play. Maybe the watch did not matter but the submission did?

    The pressure to be “properly” dressed happens at lower levels of income too. It is beautifully described in the novel “Howard’s End”.

    Perhaps we should bring back sumptuary laws.

  5. Good analysis, Mark, but I think your solution begs the question. For the President to wear modest clothes or accessories (as the First Lady already has, having being seen in dresses from Target and H&M) would only affect people’s sense of what acceptable gladrags consist in if high public office in America conferred high social status. But as you argue, it doesn’t, or not by itself. In order to change our luxury consumption patterns, inexpensive watches would have to appear on the wrists of CEOs and Goldman Sachs partners. And I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.

    1. A lot of tech executives seem to take pride in wearing downright Belichickian clothes to work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their watch choices were more functional than fancy.

  6. Another thing wrong with those ridiculous watches — they often come covered in diamonds.

    Thus, as one does not wear diamonds in the day time, and one does not wear a timepiece to evening engagements, officially according to etiquette a diamond-covered watch does not exist.

    “Manners before morals!”

      1. That’s mostly backward, I’m afraid. It is semi-precious stones that are acceptable by day; diamond solitaires in rings and stud earrings are OK in daylight as well; but certainly not rivières, cuffs, etc., of diamonds, rubies, and/or sapphires, or any other large showy jewels in daylight.

        Anything heard differently is likely to have been cooked up by the diamond marketing board, or by the very rich and vulgar. That recent effort doesn’t change the rules.

      2. That’s mostly backward, I’m afraid. It is semi-precious stones that are acceptable by day; diamond solitaires in rings and stud earrings are OK in daylight as well; but certainly not rivières, cuffs, etc., of diamonds, rubies, and/or sapphires, or any other large showy jewels in daylight.

        Yes, pearls are correct by day, but not if mixed spectacularly with diamonds.

        Anything heard differently is likely to have been cooked up by the diamond marketing board, or by the very rich and vulgar. Those recent efforts don’t change the rules.

        1. Though we were strictly middle class, my mother told me never to wear a watch with black tie. She said to do so was to suggest to the host that one’s time might be better spent elsewhere. If you have to check your watch, you’re not having fun.

          Nary a one of my rich acquaintances knows this rule. Always with the $30k Pateks and Breguets…and now, thinking of who these people are, I’m realizing why the Guv needed that Rolex so badly. Sad state of affairs, friends.

          1. Well, I don’t think very many people of any class know this rule anymore. I only know it because I read it somewhere, I think. Black tie doesn’t really come up much. IIRC, is it all social engagements? Or just black tie?

            These days, I think mobile phone use is a much bigger problem.

  7. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford,..

    Too bad. She could have taken pride in the equivalent of “a good Republican cloth coat.”

    Then again, that didn’t turn out so well either, in the long run.

    1. Hmm. Well, otoh … I think the Nixons are looking better and better these days, by comparison. (With, of course, a tragic flaw or two.)

    2. I know that Keith has turned off comments in his entries, but this thread reminds me that if there weren’t any comments a=nywhere, I probably wouldn’t read the blog at all. The signal-to-noise ratio is generally high, and the witty-to-nasty ratio is very positive.

      1. I don’t read any blog entries that have comments turned off. The writer should be open to others’ opinions.

        I take it as a sign that even the writer doesn’t believe what he wrote.

        1. The Internet is a cesspit, and comment maintenance can be an onerous task. I like comment sections, and I’m always keen to have someone do something nice for me for free, but I am already grateful for the work of competent bloggers, and I completely understand the unwillingness to police the trolls.

  8. I hope I’m remembering this right, but didn’t Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter try to bring a plainer, simpler lifestyle to the White House, and didn’t their efforts bring them widespread media ridicule?

    1. Yes, you’re correct. I recall a cartoon of Carter coming to the front door of the White House to admit visitors, barefoot. Of course what Carter did that was really unforgiveable to the villagers was to try to reduce the importance of alcohol at White House events.

      1. “Of course what Carter did that was really unforgiveable to the villagers was to try to reduce the importance of alcohol at White House events.”

        There was a comment about the Clintons which also applied to the Carters, that the Village rejected them as a foreign body. I imagine that any president who doesn’t glorify the Village will have the same fate.

        1. I think you’re on to something there. Just the other day I heard a bit of NPR saying that the feeling is quite strong that Obamas aren’t playing the social party scene as expected. The President rarely meets socially even with top Dem operatives, and POTUS and FLOTUS are not supposed to refuse the invites of certain Georgetown hostesses.

    2. I think it was Hugh Sidey of Time who was so grateful Ron and Nancy brought “class” back to the White House after the Dark Times. I suppose that’s one word for it, for a courtier.

  9. I’m wearing a Timex Ironman wristwatch. I’d wear it proudly even if I had Faisal al Saud’s petrodollars (is that going to be lanthanide-dollars in the near future? But I digress…) because it’s the watch my son wore during his tour in Afghanistan.

    It isn’t the only watch I own, but it is the one I wear most frequently.

  10. So people just cannot get enough.

    Even when they have more power AND money than 99% of the folks around them. And the president wearing a cheap watch will have zero affect on people who just can’t get enough.

  11. I don’t think that the problem Mark is trying to identify is related income inequality, per se. It is easy to imagine a world of great income inequality and great status heterarchy. Think of US Grant, who had no good way to translate his tremendous status into wealth. Or the Great Victorian Triad: Marx, Freud, or Einstein. That era was a period of enormous income inequality: probably worse than ours. But wealth and status had a limited overlap. Some forms of wealth were relatively low-status back then.

    The problem today is that we have a society with a one-dimensional status hierarchy: wealth. Accumulating wealth is not necessarily the only path to status, but accumulating status through other means pretty much assures wealth (e.g. Bill Clinton.) And no form of wealth is low in status.

    Mark’s problem, I think, is more ideological than material. Which is not to encourage income inequality. Income inequality is bad enough, but can exist quite independently of our current craze for Mammon-worship.

    1. “but accumulating status through other means pretty much assures wealth”

      Accumulating status through politics seems to assure wealth. Most other sources of status aren’t quite so reliable in that respect. Being a really good violinist, for instance, might get you status, but money doesn’t start falling from Heaven into your lap.

      That’s a big part of my complaint. People take public office, in jobs with decent but not fantastic salaries. After a period of a few years, it develops that they have become remarkably wealthy.

      If this happens with a bank teller, audits and seriously tough questioning follows. If this happens with a politician, unless they’re really clumsy, bundles of cash in the freezer clumsy, it gets ignored, rationalized away.

      Politicians sell worthless books for huge advances, which then get bought by the pallet load, and dumped in warehouses to rot.

      Politicians’ relatives end up with well paid no-work jobs.

      Politicians have an insanely good record at day trading and investing in stocks. Impossibly good.

      Politicians launder money, and we pretend they actually came by it legally.

      We need to stop giving them a pass on this. We need to stop having one standard that politicians get to live by, and a different standard for everybody else.

      1. Power and money. Money and power.

        If you have one, you can exchange part of it for some of the other. Works both ways. Always has, since the invention of portable wealth.

        1. Rape and murder have always happened, too. Doesn’t make an argument for approving of rapists and murderers.

          I’m not saying we can drive bribery and extortion down to zero. But I am saying we should change this policy of pretending it isn’t going on unless it’s really clumsy.

    2. To reinforce this point, I’d point at the diamond engagement ring phenomenon.

      Briefly, there is a vast difference between engagement ring customs in the Anglosphere and other countries with otherwise similar wedding customs (i.e., those with a strong Christian influence, especially continental Europe and South America). In North America and the British Isles, the custom is that the groom buys the bride a pretty expensive engagement ring. Elsewhere, bride and groom usually wear plain gold bands during their engagement (which then become their wedding rings).

      It is particularly interesting to see how much flak a couple can get especially in America [1] for the bride not wearing a diamond engagement ring (and not just in the upper income brackets). People will wonder if the couple has fallen on hard times, whether the groom is a cheapskate, etc. This is of course about the display of wealth as a status symbol, but hardly limited to the top 1%, i.e. something that exists regardless of inequality.

      (Whereas in other countries, following the American/British custom can be viewed as anything from a newly rich affectation to practiced misogyny.)

      [1] Though Brits seem to struggle with the very concept of men wearing engagement rings, too.

      1. My daughter did not care a bit until she found that people responded to her announcement by asking to see her ring. Any response was a downer.

        I think that a lot of that pressure is that one of the standard things to say when a young lady announces her engagement is “Oh, let me see your ring.” They probably do not really care but the only other things that enter their mind are questions about the suitability of the groom that they are trying to suppress.

        Babies also produce a lot of dumb remarks. (“Oh you had a boy, how wonderful.”)

        We need training in our schools for suitable alternative dumb responses.

  12. “Or the Great Victorian Triad: Marx, Freud, or Einstein”

    Never heard of this triad. Jacques Barzun wrote a serious and readable book titled “Darwin, Marx and Wagner” all of whom were actually mid-Nineteenth-Century figures. Einstein didn’t publish his first papers until 1905 and while beginning a bit earlier, I think Freud is also a 20th century figure.

    The point about different hierarchies besides wealth once existing is valid, but the tensions were evident even then. And Grant did attempt to turn his status into wealth, and was fleeced in the process, only redeeming his family’s solvency, from his deathbed, by writing his memoirs.

      1. Agreed that Twain helped with the deal, and to make sure the Grants got the money, but the prose and the personality were all Grant’s; his remarkable clarity as a writer was clear from the orders he would compose on the fly during the war.

  13. I don’t get the point of wrist-watches at all, in our day. Who doesn’t have a smart phone, or even a basic cell phone, that displays the correct time, more reliably even than a Patek Philippe?

    1. Pulling a phone out of my pocket to check the time strikes me as less efficient than a wrist-glance, but YMMV.

      Also, bringing it back to status and inequality, some folks are forbidden to take out their phones at work. It’s an invitation to idleness and time-theft.

    2. Some of us grew up in the days when telephones were hard-wired into the network. We became accustomed to having cameras that only took pictures, timepieces that only told time, and so forth.

      It’s simple force of habit that I look at my right wrist when I want to know the time. I can reach into my pocket, pull out the phone and check the time but it’s much quicker to check my wrist. What’s more, my watch continues to work when it’s out of range of cell towers. Here in New Mexico, that covers quite a bit of territory.

      1. And watches, whether Rolex or Timex, are a boon to us wrist-surfers who don’t wear watches because we don’t like the clutter or the feel. It’s much harder to take a quick look at someone else’s phone than at his/her wrist (though some ladies’ watches have dials too small to see from a distance.)

        Also: digital watches are not helpful for wrist-surfing either. Does anyone still have those? I think analog has taken the watch market back as digital has ruled the rest of the world.

  14. If you look a little deeper into the indictment, you can see the part where the McDonnells made an investment in vacation real estate that turned out to be foolish. So it’s not just the trappings of high office, its the general compulsion to keep up with what used to be merely an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

    I do wonder a little bit when and how the transition came between high public office as a substitute for great wealth and high public office as a means to great wealth.

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