Mauve Gloves & Madmen, 2010 Version

Sociology told through household accounts


[See update below] Self-pity is the great vice. Or entitlement, to give it another name. It's socially un-useful, in making people grasping and uncharitable. And it's personally bad too, in focusing attention on what's not there rather than what is. One of many things I enjoy about modern China is that the average self-pity level there is pretty low.

The occasion for this homily is a modern counterpart to Mauve Gloves & Madmen. Thirty-plus years after I first read it, I vividly remember that short story of Tom Wolfe's. Its set-up was a stylish and popular and liberal-chic writer going through his checkbook and revealing his life through the deposits and the canceled checks. After the jump, a sample passage.

Mauve Gloves was in the tradition of great realist or naturalistic fiction that presents character through material circumstances. And now we have an unintentional modern counterpart, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has (unwisely) taken to the internet to explain why, on a household income that must be substantially above $300,000, he is feeling put-upon and strapped.

The details are here, in the original unwise confession; and here and here, in a merciless dissection by the economist Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley. (Earlier by Michael O'Hare here.) DeLong also very clearly explains how the ever-polarizing distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. makes it easier for everyone to feel deprived. Sample:

>>By any standard, they [the law professor and his doctor wife] are really rich.

But they don't feel rich.... 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.... [DeLong comes up with the $200 meal analogy etc; it is not in the original lament.]

But why does he think that that is the way things should be?

And here is the dirty secret: Professor Henderson thinks that that is the way things should be because he knows people for whom that is the way it is.... 

Professor Henderson in 1980 would have known who the really rich were, and they would on average have had about four times his income--more, considerably more, but not a huge gulf....

Now fast forward to today.... He doesn't say: "Wow! My real income is more than twice the income of somebody in this slot a generation ago! Wow! A generation ago the income of my slot was only twice that of somebody at the bottom of the 10% wealthy, and now it is 3 1/2 times as much!" For he doesn't look down at the 99% of American households who have less income than he does. And he looks up. And when he looks up today he sees as wide a gap yawning above him as the gap between Dives and Lazarus. Mr. Henderson doesn't look down.

Instead, Mr. Henderson looks up....  He knows who the really rich are, and they have ten times his income: They have not $450,000 a year. They have $4.5 million a year. And, to him, they are in a different world....

And this makes him sad. And angry. But, curiously enough, not angry at the senior law firm partners who extract surplus value from their associates and their clients, or angry at the financiers, but angry at... Barack Obama, who dares to suggest that the U.S. government's funding gap should be closed partly by taxing him.<<

The original statement is worth reading, and has the chance to make the author's name live in a way he didn't intend. After the jump, some Mauve Gloves.

UPDATE: As of September 20, the University of Chicago law professor, M. Todd Henderson, has taken deleted his posts and associated comments and critiques. Brad DeLong retrieves some of them from the web archives, and adds discussion, here.

From Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, by Tom Wolfe, 1976. The scene begins with a famous writer at his desk. (To sound plausible today, all the numbers would have to be adjusted by a factor of, what, ten?):

>>Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of his turtleneck sweater, and authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi's, which are the authentic Original XX Levi's, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand's store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on "The American Dream: Myth and Reality." No small part of the latter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi's, means work & discipline. Discipline! As he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends or write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours. Discipline, Mr. Wonderful!

But on the desk in front of him--that's not a manuscript or even the beginnings of one . . . that's last month's bank statement, which just arrived in the mail. And those are his canceled checks in a pile on top of it. In that big ledger-style checkbook there (the old-fashioned kind, serious-looking, with no crazy Peter Max designs on the checks) are his check stubs. And those slips of paper in the promiscuous heap are all unpaid bills, and he's taking the nylon cover off his Texas Instruments desk calculator, and he is about to measure the flow, the tide, the mad sluice, the crazy current of the money that pours through his fingers every month and which is now running against him in the most catastrophic manner, like an undertow, a riptide, pulling him under--

--him and this apartment, which cost him $75,000 in 1972; $20,000 cash, which came out of the $25,000 he got as a paperback advance for his fourth book, Under Uncle's Thumb, and $536.36 a mouth in bank-loan payments (on the $55,000 he borrowed) ever since, plus another $390 a month in so-called maintenance, which has steadily increased until it is now $460 a month . . . and although the already knows the answer, the round number, he begins punching the figures into the calculator . . . 536.36 plus . . . 460 . . . times 12 . . . and the calculator keys go chuck chuck chuck chuck and the curious little orange numbers, broken up like stencil figures, go trucking across the black path of the display panel at the top of the machine, giving a little orange shudder every time he hits the plus button, until there it is, stretching out seven digits long--11956.32--$12,000 a year! One thousand dollars a month--this is what he spends on his apartment alone!--and by May he will have to come up with another $6,000 so he can rent the house on Martha's Vineyard again chuck chuck chuck chuck and by September another $6,750--$3,750 to send his daughter, Amy, to Dalton and $3,000 to send his son, Jonathan, to Collegiate (on those marvelous frog-and-cricket evenings up on the Vineyard he and Bill and Julie and Scott and Henry and Herman and Leon and Shelly and the rest, all Media & Lit. people from New York, have discussed why they send their children to private schools, and they have pretty well decided that it is the educational turmoil in the New York public schools that is the problem--the kids just wouldn't be educated--plus some considerations of their children's personal safety--but---needless to say!--it has nothing to do with the matter of . . . well, race) and he punches that in . . . 6750 . . . chuck chuck chuck chuck . . . and hits the plus button . . . an orange shimmer . . . and beautiful! there's the figure--the three items, the apartment in town, the summer place, and the children's schooling--$24,706,32--almost $25,000 a year in fixed costs, just for a starter! For lodging and schooling! Nothing else included! A grim nut!<<

It goes on, and is a fascinating parallel to the law professor's lament, which is written in all earnestness very much the same way.

Housekeeping note: why am I putting >> and << marks at the beginning and end of indented-quote passages? Because apparently the indent is lost in many RSS feeds, and I've had the embarrassing situation of people assuming that I myself had written something that I was quoting as a specimen.