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Rights + Justice

Eating the Rich, Tasty!

Welcome to the golden age of schadenfreude.

Vanessa Richmond 14 Jan

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Madoff's walk of shame (from AP video on YouTube).

Mmmm, schadenfreude. Is there anything more delicious at this point of an economic cycle?

Why? At this point, doesn't everyone know at least one good, honest, hard working person who's lost a job or at least suffered a downturn? And though because economic forces are complex, it's impossible to blame just a few individuals, it's also almost impossible not to feel some satisfaction about the plight of a multi-billionaire who now has to fly economy instead of in the private leer jet. Poor thing. See -- I started out trying to explain the phenomenon and ended up relishing a rich person's misfortune. Hands up if you didn't enjoy it, too. (Bernie Madoff and his investors, put your hands down).

In addition to offering up economic news stories, forecasts and predictions, almost to the exclusion of other topics, the media is currently offering its readers various kinds of recession-related levity. To start with, there is a string of new buzz words: financiapocalypse, recessionomics, recessionista, inconspicuous consumption, recession chic, downwardly mobile image consultant, to name a few. But wit just can't provide the same level of emotional satisfaction as hearing about the undeserving rich get theirs, which is possibly why the New York Times has suggested this is the Golden Age of Schadenfreude (the word has appeared in their pages a record number of times of late).

That's right, bitches. While the rich have been flipping real estate or entire companies, the rest of us have been flipping burgers, or flipping between too many part-time jobs or benefit-free contracts. While the rich have five personal assistants, the rest of us have been doing the jobs of five people, all from [insert your workspace here]. While in the upswing of the cycle, it seemed brag-worthy to make heaps of cash without doing a whole bunch, now it seems more than a bit vulgar. And the question on most people's lips isn't how to get rich quick, but which of those naughty rich people are responsible for our woes and are they going to get any comeuppance?

A song for Madoff (on a tiny violin)

One of the top stories yesterday in newspapers and blogs was about Bernie Madoff sought to revoke his bail after he attempted to give away over a million dollars in jewelry and up to $300 million of investors' money to family and friends over the holidays. It just feels good to see someone get caught who thinks he's above both the law and other mortals.

Columnist Frank Rich thinks part of the reason readers are paying attention to stories like Madoff's is because with George Bush in office, the public has become so used to hearing about unpunished "corruption, injustice, cronyism, incompetence and outright theft" that they no longer even react. But hearing about justice really is new news.

Some cheese with the whine?

But it's not just tales of the über rich's misfortunes that are the subjects of pleasure. Just look at Tina Brown, (who created a tabloid empire, then went on to found The Daily Beast, an online publication). She recently ran a piece with a sympathetic take on how this recession is hitting "upper-class" people with high incomes. She coined a new term, The Gig Economy, and talked about the true victims of this recession: people with formerly cushy, salaried jobs, who now have to work multiple contracts, and have to (gasp) work harder for less, something a Gawker writer quips the rest of us have been dealing with for a generation. "It's called freelancing," he adds. The Daily Beast article glosses over the fact that people making less than $40,000 tend to work several part time jobs to make ends meet and always have. But people like "Tina Brown freelancing! Soon we'll all have to move out of our brownstones and penthouses and into the Thunderdome!"

Another piece this week in the New York Times, "Daddy's Home, and a Bit Lost" was about how "As the economy shifts, couples cope with the loss of a Wall Street salary."

"As unemployment has hit a 16-year high and Wall Street shakes off tens of thousands of jobs, affluent couples in the New York area find their families suddenly in flux. It's not only the high-flying income and the attendant abundance that have evaporated... One mother in TriBeCa, who is married, at least for now, to a Wall Street executive, put it rather bluntly: 'My job was to run the household and the children's lives,' she said. 'His job is to provide us with a nice lifestyle.' But his bonus has disappeared, and his annual pay has dropped to $150,000 from $800,000 a year. 'Let me just say this,' she said, 'I'm still doing my job.'"

Shall we set up post-divorced fund for them? No?

No more pay for partying? Shocking.

Even celebrities just don't have the cachet they did even a few months ago. Hard working A- through Z-list stars can't get paid to attend parties anymore. I know, tragic, right? And tabloids aren't handing out paycheques to celebs like Brittney Spears in return for interviews and access. I also highly doubt a tab would pay double-digit millions for photos of Brangelina spawn were they to produce some this month, even if they donated the money to charity. Some say readers have fallen out of love with celebrity gossip because it's vulgar and repetitive, but hasn't it always been? And isn't that the main reason people enjoy it?

No, celebrities are a bit out of vogue because in the upsurge of an economic cycle, they represent what's aspirational. They embody many people's hopes and dreams that they too might possess the magic glimmer that equals seven-figure pay cheques for very difficult and dangerous work like sitting in a trailer and attending premieres.

But now, of course, dear reader, we're in precisely the opposite time. Raking in undeserved millions seems suddenly like an unpalatable idea and, frankly, responsible for this mess we're all in. While the promise of unlikely yet supposedly possible riches used to inspire the worker drones, now the view seems much better down here. Vive la French Revolution! But because head chopping really does seem a bit vulgar, even in these times, the (online) town square is instead full of plebs swapping and relishing up-to the minute news about what other kinds of things those bad rich people have lost.

(Of course, scapegoating the rich also makes me feel like I have no responsibility whatsoever for the economic and moral state we're in. But let me deal with that later so I can enjoy my dish of schadenfreude while it's hot.)

The rich and famous have always been a kind of real life Greek drama. We're now at the part of the play when the bad rich characters get what they deserve, and the rest of us chuck rotten tomatoes at them from the morally smug, though slightly uncomfortable, cheap seats. Enjoy the show.

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