Concerning the Moral Obligations of the Wealthy

I have come under some criticism of late for being uncharitable toward the rich. To be more precise, I offhandedly wrote, alluding to Ester’s piece on trust fund kids, that my policy concerning people born rich is to distrust them. Commenters took me to task for that, and rightly so: it is foolish and wrong to suppose that affluence, in and of itself, defines character. As one commenter noted, mine was “exactly the kind of ignorance several writers on the Billfold would preach against if it were any other kind of discrimination.”

I think that commenter was right, and I said so in comments and a note appended to the post in question. I also said, “We could have a separate discussion about whether there is any moral imperative on the inheritors of wealth to do something selfless and worthwhile with their money, or about the attitudes that may or may not prevail among them about whether they deserve their good fortune.” Several commenters later suggested that yes, that is a discussion worth having. This came to mind over the weekend, when I was engaged in that most proletarian of leisure activities, camping and reading the New Yorker. So let’s start our discussion about the moral obligations of the wealthy with a focus on how they help people with acute need.

I suppose I should not expect a worldview untouched by a certain elitism when I read the New Yorker, but more and more, I notice that there is an archetypal story about rare diseases and how progress is made in their cures. It goes like this:

1. An upper-middle-class couple notices something unusual about their infant child. 2. Doctors are either flummoxed and unhelpful or convinced that it is a terminal illness. 3. The parents refuse to accept the doctors’ assessment and devote large sums of money to (a) organizing and lobbying for more research on the illness; and (b) making all kinds of costly changes to their home, lives, and routines to accommodate their ill child and make the child’s life more enriching. 4. Progress in treatment results from the parents’ tireless efforts.

This sequence became clear to me while reading Seth Mnookin’s piece, “One of a Kind” in the July 21, 2014, issue. The article focuses on a couple, a college professor and an M.B.A., whose son has an extraordinarily rare genetic disease, and their ultimately successful quest to push the medical establishment toward more data-sharing and collaboration to develop treatments. (Spoiler: the disease isn’t quite as rare as previously believed.) The article is great and fascinating: in addition to following a family with the surname Might and involving a glycobiologist who is actually named Hudson Freeze, it illustrates how more base human motivations (researchers’ desire for sole credit on publications; institutions’ need to compete for scarce funding) can impede medical progress. It also has a happy-ish ending: the Mights’ son is showing surprising progress as he gets older; research is progressing.

But all that progress is predicated on the fact that this terrible disease befell not just Matt and Cristina Might’s child, but the child of Matt and Kristen Wilsey as well. The Wilseys, we learn, “are one of the most prominent families in San Francisco.”

Everything I Need to Know I Learned Before Kindergarten

Here’s some ba-dum-ching! for you from the New Yorker shouts and murmurs blog, a Commencement Address for the Preschool Class of 2014:

As a fellow Excelsior alum, I see a preschool class that is uniquely equipped to solve the problems our world faces. I read some of your admissions essays to get a clearer sense of who you are, and wow. It’s inspiring to see how many of you aren’t afraid to defy convention. The number of you who drew abstract representations of yourselves instead of submitting a boring personal statement—that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes you exceptional. …

If you want your parents to know how grateful you are, learn how to code. It’s time to harness the skills you’ve gained from swiping on your mom’s iPhone and sending all of those cryptic e-mails to her co-workers. I’m not going to sugarcoat reality: the competition out there is fierce. For every time you sat on Dad’s iPad and almost broke the screen, other preschoolers were out there building touch screens that don’t even crack. Figure out coding, and you’ll be able to pay your own way through college or, best-case scenario, you won’t even need to attend. Think big picture: you’ll run your house by the time you’re thirteen, and your parents won’t be able to say no when you’re invited to Calliope’s boy-girl sleepover.

In other words, study #STEM! Or get a PhD and someday you too can earn $63,000 as a writer-editor for the Smithsonian.

Though this is funny, the idea of children as young as five being separated out into “gifted and talented” programs is not a joke — New York City public schools start tracking in kindergarten. WTF, NYC? Is that really necessary, or just a way to keep rich parents in the system? Also, wah, I’m totally being mocked: my daughter’s middle name is Calliope.

Mavis Gallant’s ‘Hunger Diaries’

Beloved short story writer and Canadian ex-pat Mavis Gallant died on Tuesday at 91, at her home in Paris. Mavis left her job as a journalist and moved to Paris to write when she was 28 years old. She published her first short story in the New Yorker when she was 29, and then traveled around Europe writing fiction. Word is, though, she always dreamed of being a pregnant blogger who was rejected from all the MFA programs she applied to. I know! I was as surprised as you are.

Dress Like You’re Too Cool For The Job You Have

While we were away on holiday hiatus, the New Yorker ran a story that is relevant to our interests (jobs, casual dress, the rich and powerful, using casual dress to trick people into thinking you're rich and powerful). Called "Why Mark Zuckerberg Gets Away With Hoodies," Matthew Hutson walks us through recent studies showing that "deliberate nonconformity shows that you can handle some ridicule because you’ve got social capital to burn." I buy it.

Tear Down This Paywall: The New Yorker Opens Its Archives

Yesterday, in addition to launching a redesign of the New Yorker “Web site” — that’s how they say website in exalted magazine-speak – the famed, august, taste-making institution also threw open the gates to its archives. Well, sort of, and for a limited time:

the New Yorker announced plans to massively overhaul its website and to significantly alter its digital model, at a time when the Guardian and the New York Times are also implementing changes to their online presence. The prestige magazine, owned by Condé Nast, will move to a metered paywall system. It is is also making all of its articles since 2007* available for free for a three-month period, in a bid to entice new subscribers. After that, a limited number of articles will be available for free, before readers are required to subscribe. The current print circulation for the magazine is about 1 million, with 12 million unique visitors to its website.

In a “letter to readers” introducing the new website, the New Yorker joked that “editorial and tech teams have been sardined into a boiler room, subsisting only on stale cheese sandwiches and a rationed supply of tap water” in a bid to get the new site up and running.

Gather your rosebuds while ye may! This profile of Janet Yellen from the most recent issue is available in full for free. So are lots of features by two of my favorite contributors, Elif Batuman and Burkhard Bilger, as well as others. Before you know it, the new metered paywall will descend and we’ll all have to figure out whether or how to pay for our fix. My method, as I’ve mentioned, is to subscribe to public radio at the $120/year level and get a subscription as my thank you gift. But everyone has their ways.

The article originally said the archives went back to 1997, but that was a mistake on their part, and we have both now corrected it. 

Image via the New Yorker and Beyond The Times

The Woman Who Would Smuggle You Stateside For $35,000

In Requiem for a Snakehead, Patrick Radden Keefe writes a quick and fascinating profile of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, for The New Yorker. Sister Ping, who died of pancreatic cancer in federal prison last week, operated a "sophisticated immigration-smuggling ring" that brought thousands of people from Southeast China to the U.S. She is a hero, a villain, or both, depending who you ask:

Duh, Amazon is Bad For the Book Business

George Packer has a really long, really gossipy and great story about Amazon in the New Yorker right now. It is DARK, or it is dark if you love books and care about literary culture and are scandalized by things like this, even if you already knew it, but just to see it spelled out so clearly, my god.

Zadie Smith On Tipping Your Delivery Person

Zadie Smith has a charming little essay in the New Yorker -- is that the most insufferable phrase I've ever typed? -- about ordering delivery in London vs. New York. Of course, the focus is on tipping, a topic that just may never get old. As far as I am concerned Zadie Smith can write charming little essays about whatever she wants and I will read them.

The Things You Own, Own You: Fitbit Edition

David Sedaris has apparently tired of writing comedy and switched to horror. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, he chronicles his adventures with a Fitbit, a device one wears on one’s wrist to track one’s steps and also, in a larger, metaphysical sense, one’s “health.” We pay for accessories to make our lives more enjoyable, or, failing that, at least to make them longer. We do not expect our gadgets to go all HAL 9000 on us. Unfortunately, in Sedaris’s case, that is what happened:

During the first few weeks that I had it, I’d return to my hotel at the end of the day, and when I discovered that I’d taken a total of, say, twelve thousand steps, I’d go out for another three thousand.

“But why?” Hugh asked when I told him about it. “Why isn’t twelve thousand enough?”

“Because,” I told him, “my Fitbit thinks I can do better.” … At the end of my first sixty-thousand-step day, I staggered home with my flashlight knowing that I’d advance to sixty-five thousand, and that there will be no end to it until my feet snap off at the ankles. Then it’ll just be my jagged bones stabbing into the soft ground.

I not only understand but identify with this: I too have the kind of obsessive personality that would make a Fitbit ($99.95) not a helpful toy but a cruel taskmaster. If you’re into cruel taskmasters though there are plenty of other options. Wirecutter recommends the Vivofit ($130). I recommend walking as much as possible and saving both your money and your sanity but YMMV. Literally.

 

Feeling Weird About Being a Video Game Millionaire

For The New Yorker's Elements blog, Simon Parkin talks to some of the beautiful weirdos whose indie video games made them millionaires, often overnight. A lot of them feel really conflicted about it. Or depressed! Or afraid. Or just guilty.

Open Offices: Pros and Cons (Mostly Cons)

All these studies cited on the New Yorker's Currency blog yesterday that suggest we'd all work better behind closed doors definitely resonate. But practically (architecturally?) speaking, how would that even work? Don't all roads lead to cubicle?

If You Only Read One 10-page New Yorker Profile Of A Country’s Richest Woman Today…

Let it be this one about Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart.

Is she an heiress? Inarguably. And yet she has, by hard work and guile and historic luck, multiplied the value of the business she inherited several hundred times over. The “h”-word seems to be partly a gender thing. The male scions of Australian family fortunes, such as Lachlan Murdoch (the eldest son of Rupert), are not routinely described in the press as heirs. Rinehart is the only woman among the rough lot riding the mining boom at tycoon level, and none of the others probably have to read much in the papers about how they really should be able to afford a hairdresser or a personal trainer.

Oh but there is so, so much more.