What Money Buys — Aspen, Co

I’ve been in Aspen, CO mingling with the 1% for a couple of weeks. Each day I drive by a boutique airport of private jets. The folks who keep them keep an extra car too, often a Bentley or Ferrari. One need only go through airport security once to realize that wealth buys agency. Well dressed, clothes pressed, polite airport employees ask a rhetorical question, “you don’t have any of these things right?” A pointing finger is aimed at a sign of banned items, a nod will do, access granted.

While here I am trying to maintain a mindset of non-judgement. After all wealth does not directly equal greed though having it may indicate a willingness to trade life energy for money, a willingness I don’t have and that does make me fundamentally different from those who are willing to make the deal. Some of the 1% inherited. One has to wonder if they lack drive (having had everything handed to them), and are disconnected from reality.

My observations while in Aspen tell me that the 1 percenters domestic goods are on a shorter use cycle. From cars to clothing, bikes to electronics, their stuff is new, all of it, all the time. Aspen’s people are well put together. Signs of wear are few. Their demand on the production of goods is in shorter cycles than those who hang on to things longer (often by necessity), and this requires frequent harvesting of raw materials. At this point it’s well known that used goods that are donated hurt the economies of underdeveloped countries and over burden the world’s waste stream. The value of good that donations generate is not more than a false conscious clearing for today’s donor.

I attended a private dinner along with 200 of the 1%. I heard the word acquisition more in one night than in my entire life and wondered about how discerning folks were about the businesses they flip. Do they consider contribution to life and ability to diminish it? One woman casually told me she’d made her money selling and promoting coal as a energy source to Columbia. No apologies. I heard about projects that I consider to be trite, created with social value in mind but likely engaged in to reduce boredom and impress friends. These are creations of people who don’t need more money — hobbies that have in common that they enable their founders to say they’re, “saving the world.” Theses small companies sell goods that use phrases like peace and love in their marketing and brands, they are start-ups that build meditation and yoga into the work day and treat employees a better than what’s become standard. Some offer healthy on-site cafeterias. These projects point to a kind of ignorance, after all saving the world requires getting into messy and ugly sh*t. Saving the world requires being vulnerable and very uncomfortable. It means staying where no one is experiencing peace or love or will be any time soon. It means looking at what missing opportunity and lack of access to resources has done to people who appear half dead from the experience of surviving rather than living. It’s not pretty and it has nothing to do with wishful thinking or fluffy phrases.

Aspen’s culture has made me feel good about my “choice,” in life — I chose time (and quality of life) over money. But it is only because I am privileged — having been raised in the suburbs of New York in an environment of affluence — that I can say this. Just watch a New Yorker try to change the time of their dental appointment. You can’t say no to them. They’ll fight until they win. People who have had affluence have a belief that poor people just don’t have. Poor people don’t believe that they can affect the world through their actions. This is a convenient truth if you like inequality. Logically this leads to people gaming the system that they know they can’t affect: theft, violence, etc., the smart things to do if you understand that your standing in front of an immovable obstacle. Some people having nothing to loose explains everything we complain about and say is ruining quality of life “for the rest of us.”

Slum lords know this well. They deny poor people terms longer than month to month in their leases. Out of fear of being thrown out of their home and having no where to live, tenants tolerate leaky ceilings, and broken windows, mold, and g-d knows what else. Adding insult to injury, their rent is paid by the government directly to the slum lord. So disregarded by both parties, money does not even pass through them. Unlike those boarding airplanes at the Aspen airport, they lack agency.

I’ve noticed that as people’s wealth increases their lives scale to meet it. If one had spent $50 on shoes, with new wealth they may spend $250 on something presumably better and often more trendy. I’ve done this myself. It’s a natural thing to do. Who would deny a merino wool sweater is better than a polyester one? Does anyone not like cashmere? But there is a ceiling. There’s only so high a level of quality one can obtain before it’s just another cashmere sweater, albeit a good one. And then what? Someone will always make a claim and try to sell a cashmere sweater that’s so much better, so much more stylish, that it warrants being 10000X the price of an ordinary one. But really, unless you jump from Bentley to jet, to space ship (and today there are folks who can do just that) there’s a limit to how much better life gets from throwing money at it. Worry starts to replace luxury, eventually. This is where the rubber meets the road, where even the 1% can not deny that poverty has a cost to them.

Privileged folks often support helpful ideas with money. Donating money to the ACLU aids an important cause. But it also keeps the wealthy and underserved far apart, too far for real understanding that is capable of producing meaningful empathy and change. The distance is like leaving Aspen for an afternoon and returning again which feels like being cast in the film Wrist Cutters which posits that after committing suicide one is returned to a world exactly like the one they fled only everything is shittier, they sky is more grey, life is dulled, things suck more than they did in the original version of life. One gets used to fine textiles and fancy cars. It feels more right to not have homeless people. It is more right. The bubble would be great if it weren’t a bubble.

Empathy is only be felt when we stand in the shoes of another. It’s easier to give up what money buys when one has had the ability and opportunity to obtain it. That’s choice. Until one is offered options, one strives. Likewise, one can not understand the plight of suffering that comes with poverty from a safe, comfortable, and tidy distance.

Because it is not yet self evident to everyone that the health and safety of all increases when everyone has enough to live, humanity will inevitably manifest a reality in which these two worlds are forced to meet and it won’t be pretty. It’s happening today. This week, from my particular perspective — hanging out in Aspen (wealthiest 1%) while living in Truth or Consequences NM (poorest 1%) — I can see that the bubble is an illusion that is permeable and vulnerable, and capable tremendous harm. Those who live in it can only maintain a bubble-life through a combination of willing blindness and ignorance.

I’m sensitive to complaint without suggestions on what to do. But I write as a way of thinking and discovering the world, as an exercise, and this is different from solution-seeking. Where I’m standing I see one outcome… with nothing to stop capitalism from driving us further into demoralizing class structures, the American democracy in tatters, and the wealthiest 1% unwilling to vote against their financial interests (and for social values) the poorest 1% will have to lead a revolt. “Viva la revolution!”

Habits — Contemplation, Embodiment, Art. Author of The Good Life Lab