Envy and resignation in IKEA-land

Teresa Giudice of ‘Real Housewives’: a vessel for others’ fascination and contempt. Teresa Giudice of ‘Real Housewives’: a vessel for others’ fascination and contempt. (Bravo Photo)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / December 21, 2010

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WHAT HAS happened to our national standards? Usually, the holiday season is the time when we hold hands and think heartwarming thoughts together. But now, we’re being told that we’re a bunch of envious loafs, filled with irrational hatred for the rich.

Or so goes the complaint, from assorted conservative talk-show hosts, about the Democrats who opposed Congress’s tax-cut compromise. President Obama is no better, they say, since he said he would have preferred to raise the top tax rate by 4.6 percentage points. Talk about unbridled vengeance and fury! And now, look — an arsonist on Cape Cod has spray-painted “[Bleep] the rich’’ on a fence!

Well, let’s play fair. If the Tea Party gets a pass on racists at rallies and Bill Hudak, then proponents of a progressive income tax don’t get the blame for the fires on Cape Cod. Truce?

Still, the question of what to do about the richest rich is indeed a quandary — especially for people mired in the middle tax brackets, who struggle with day care costs and fret about the mortgage. For those of us in the IKEA set, there’s an element of longing, and also resignation: Different career paths lead to different spoils; and as long as you have a measure of comfort, you have no reason to complain.

Yet as the headlines scream about the broadening income gap, there also is an inescapable sense that some excess is too much, and too much excess serves nobody well.

Maybe it’s worth making finer gradations when it comes to how much to tax whom; and to lump both a $250,000 household income and a hedge fund manager’s gazillions together under the word “rich’’ obscures some important distinctions.

While some people are prosperous, others define success as the ability to collect and count unspendable sums of money. That’s why CEO salaries routinely cross the line into absurd. It’s why some baseball fans were baffled when Cliff Lee chose $120 million from the Phillies over $150 million from the Yankees.

We in IKEA-land don’t exactly begrudge those pay scales, in part because we know that wealth can turn into productive investment, and even ostentatious spending leads to jobs in the luxury-goods-and-services biz. But we do have trouble fathoming the sheer mathematics of fabulous wealth — for instance, how the widow of one of Bernie Madoff’s investors can turn over $7.2 billion in fraud-gotten gains, and still apparently have $200 million to live on.

The psychology of wealth is confusing, too. Take the Wall Street brokers and traders who are apparently in a furor over the fact that they won’t get bonuses this year. They aren’t actually losing money — their base salaries have gone up — but they feel more poor. It’s not as easy to buy a house on impulse when you can’t plunk down $10 million in cash all at once.

Is it hatred, then, to sit at our Björkudden kitchen tables with our Färgrik plates and shake our heads in disbelief? Or is it the American way to view the rich with equal parts envy, fascination, and contempt? TV is clogged with series like “Real Housewives of New Jersey’’ because they feed all of those needs at once. We can watch Teresa Giudice declare that her new house will be made of “marble, granite, and onyx,’’ and then watch with equal glee as she heads off to bankruptcy court.

And if she bounces back with a book deal? We’ll probably love her again. Aspiration is a way of life, and rising from poverty to great wealth is generally seen as a virtue. That’s why John Boehner turns on the waterworks every time he remembers sweeping the floors in his father’s bar.

And it’s why the accusation that we hate the rich stings a little bit. We don’t hate them so much as want to be them, with the assumption that we’d do it better. Spend more tastefully. Give more away. Would we be willing to pay more taxes, too?

We’ll let you know when we get there.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at