Jerome Zerbe was, if not the original café society photographer, at least one of the most celebrated from the 30s to the 50s. He had a regular gig at the Morocco, which was the classier version of the Stork club in New York. He was born into wealth, although not Mellonian wealth, and as time went on and his Dad died, the wealth decreased – which is how he came to take up café society photography.
So, he was around a lot of rich people. In an article about him by Brendan Gill in the New Yorker, he tells an anecdote about WWII, where Admiral Nimitz took a shine to him and made him his photographer. Zerbe wanted to be promoted to lieutenant, and Nimitz sent several messages to FDR to have this done by presidential decree, as it was a promotion that required executive order. FDR asked his son, who knew Zerbe, whether he should do it. His son said, “don’t give it a second thought. Jerry [Zerbe] already lives like an officer…”
Gill asked Zerbe whether he remained friends with Franklin, Jr., and Zerbe gave a classic response: “Friends,” said Zerbe, but I’ve never forgiven him for what he told his father. It’s what we talk about whenever we meet. Like all rich boys, Frank had no idea what the commission whould have meant to me in pay, pensions and the like. It wasn’t the rank I wanted, but the emoluments. I’ve never been rich, and all my life I’ve gone around with the rich, and I find that they lack imagination when it comes to how anyone less rich than they are gets along. They always mean to be interested, but somehow their attention wanders.”
Indeed. I thought of this anecdote when I read the howler of a column by Morgan Bank’s “global strategy expert”, Ruchir Sharma, in the NYT opinion page the other day. Like most opinions by people hired by banks to have opinion, it is all about how the rich have problems imagining how “anyone less rich than they are gets along.” Sharma starts out by pointing to the fact that things are so good economically we all should be dancing. The evidence for this is higher employment rates – after a decade of low ones – and low inflation. So, why aren’t we? Well, there’s nationalism, and populism, and people who aren’t rich turn out to be such haters that leaders like Trump, Macron and Merkel aren’t popular.
“Perhaps the most persuasiveexplanation is the rise of angry populism, built on a rejection of theestablished order and a growing focus on issues of culture and nationalidentity, rather than practical economic outcomes.”
Absolutely absent from Sharma’s article are such things as wealth inequality, lifestyle debt, declining public investment, structural racism, and the effects of allowing the wealthy to inflect – or perhaps I should say corrupt? - the justice system, elections, and anything else in their path.
After all, to the eye of the Sharma’s of the world, all us underlings are “living like officers” – no matter that to keep up the lifestyle, we have to make up for minimal wage increases, losses of status that translate into losses of economic power, the end of job security and pensions, and the consciousness that the business cycle is not only sharp and pointy, but that the people who cause the downturn – the people who employ Sharma – get rescued when their games all fall apart, while the hundreds of millions they screw remain screwed.
“Practical economic outcomes” can be translated as – bonuses for the CEO class.
When the worms in the apples think they planted the apple seeds, it is time to upset the applecart. For “practical economic reasons.”