Stone: Up to your rich guy in alligators
August 20, 2013
There was a story in the paper this week about one super-rich lawyer suing another super-rich lawyer for a million bucks.
It seems that one lawyer cut down a bunch of aspen trees on the other lawyer's property in order to improve the first lawyer's view. It was a rich man's chain-saw massacre.
Many of us — well, most of us … OK, me for sure — read that story and enjoyed a chuckle at the thought of two super-rich guys beating each other up in court. And we might or might not have paused to consider that the fight was over a stunningly beautiful view of Mount Sopris and that the trees in question were huge, old-growth aspens, 50 to 90 feet tall, trunks up to 2 feet in diameter.
One is reminded of that bit of African tribal wisdom: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."
Of course, in this case, it was the suffering vegetation that caused the pachydermal punch-fest rather than the other way around — but the general rule still applies: Stomp! Squish! Elephants don't care.
Then, even as I pondered how many trees would be cut down for the paperwork in this lawsuit over cutting down trees, I thought of another recent item about a scholarly paper titled "Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior."
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That paper was based on a university study, and the man who ran the study summarized his scientific findings like so: "The rich are way more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."
Now that's a scientist who can cut to the heart of the matter.
(Required disclaimer: Some of my best friends are rich. Of course, some of my best friends exhibit the characteristics we would stereotypically associate with assholes. So there you go.)
The study reported that people driving "fancy cars" (BMWs, Porsches, Mercedeses) were three to four times more likely to disregard laws about stopping for people in a crosswalk. Also: The rich were twice as greedy when presented with the opportunity to take candy that was supposed to be reserved for children. And they were four times as likely to cheat when reporting the results of dice throws when there was $50 on the line.
And, by the way, the results were the same across political lines: Rich liberals were every bit as nasty as rich conservatives.
The study did try to grapple with the chicken-and-egg question: Do people become selfish jerks because they're rich? Or do they become rich because they're selfish jerks?
Interesting question — but irrelevant. Because right now we have a rampant herd of super-rich rogue elephants running wild in our little slice of Paradise on the Roaring Fork, so we can't waste our time debating which came first, the elephant or the egg.
We have to focus. You know what they say about alligators in swamps: When you're up to your, um, rich person in alligators, it's hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp.
These days, what with elephants and alligators, Aspen has become an exotic zoo where ordinary folks can observe the strange rituals of the super-rich. Up close and way too personal.
And let's be clear: This is not a petting zoo. Personally, I'd rather pet a piranha.
Whoa! Cheap shot!
Sorry. Nothing in that study — or in my personal experience — would insist that all rich people are jerks.
But, as the study and the Aspen experience make clear, there are a lot of rich jerks out there.
And by "out there," I mean, "right here."
A couple of weeks ago, I went to an event honoring my old Aspen Times colleague Mary Eshbaugh Hayes.
We honored Mary's life as one of the people who moved here in the 1950s and 1960s and helped create the new Aspen, putting creativity and community ahead — way, way ahead — of wealth.
Sure, there were rich people here in those days, too. But they came here to be part of that community of creativity.
Then, over the years, the community changed as more and more rich people flooded in — eager to join the rich people who were already here and become part of a new community: the community of the wealthy.
And, along the way, creativity was kicked to the curb by those who were certain that their high bank balances mirrored their high IQs.
A woman I know, a member of the board of one of our major nonprofits, once recounted the vicious tongue-lashing she was given by a couple of billionaires on the board when she dared to disagree with them. ("I know your IQ is probably 20 points higher than mine … " she began. "Make that a hundred points," one of them sneered. Cute.)
In summation: The rich think they're better because they're rich — and they're rich because they're better.
A friend — not a billionaire, but still pretty smart — pointed out recently that the people who came here in decades past came to be part of the community that was already here, but the super-rich who have come recently don't care about what Aspen was. Or what it is. Instead, they are certain they know what Aspen ought to be, and they are determined to make the town over in their own image.
And it's not necessarily a pretty image.
Think of all those ruined aspen trees.
Allow me to quote a poem by John Updike, "Slum Lords."
The superrich make lousy neighbors —
they buy a house and tear it down
and build another, twice as big, and leave.
Does that sound familiar?
The poem describes neighborhoods once "called fashionable" but which, having been taken over by the rich, are "now like Wall Street after dark/or Tombstone once the silver boom went bust."
And then Updike concludes:
The essence of superrich is absence.
They like to demonstrate they can afford
to be elsewhere. Don't let them in.
Oops! Too late! As the little girl in "Poltergeist" said about the malevolent, destructive spirits, "They're hee-eere!"
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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