Ward Three Morality: Too Poor to Paint, and Too Proud to Whitewash

David Brooks’ piece on Ward Three Morality has me thinking:

The essence of the problem is this: Rich people used to set their own norms. For example, if one rich person wanted to use the company helicopter to aerate the ponds on his properties, and the other rich people on his board of directors thought this a sensible thing to do, then he could go ahead and do it without any serious repercussions.

But now, after the TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus package, the Fed rescue packages and various other federal interventions, rich people no longer get to set their own rules. Now lifestyle standards for the privileged class are set by people who live in Ward Three.

For those who don’t know, Ward Three is a section of Northwest Washington, D.C., where many Democratic staffers, regulators, journalists, lawyers, Obama aides and senior civil servants live. Thanks to recent and coming bailouts and interventions, the people in Ward Three run the banks and many major industries. Through this power, they get to insert themselves into the intricacies of upscale life, influencing when private jets can be flown, when friends can lend each other their limousines and at what golf resorts corporate learning retreats can be held.

To my mind, it’s an old money/new money conflict brought back to life.  Or more frequently a no money/new money one.

My New Orleans raised grandmother–who really impressed me with what it meant to be a product of multi-generational success–used to refer to people as “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.”  That expression came from the New Orleans between the Civil War and World War I.  Like most plantation economy Southern states, Louisiana was grievously affected by the Civil War.  That was compounded by the ruin of the Francophone aristocracy that was so prominent through French and Spanish rule and into being a part of the United States (they actually stood down the Feds on an “English only” controversy, AFAIK our country’s first.)  All of that has contributed to Louisiana’s complex and frequently demoralising politics and economics that have fuelled such things as the rise of Huey Long and the abject disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

In any case, those who once did well frequently found themselves in genteel poverty, with deteriorating houses that they (in theory at least) couldn’t afford to paint, but would not stand to have whitewashed as this was beneath their station.  They looked down on the “tasteless nouveaux riches making a statement” who propsered around them.  That last point is the common lot of people whose families have been successful in the past, but which success has eluded them in the present.  It’s a recipie for resentment, an emotion which is usually associated with people like Sarah Palin and others in the religious right.

My guess is that many of these “Ward Three” types are replicating this kind of resentment against the tasteless nouveaux riches who have dominated the upper economic strata since the 1970’s.  And it’s also my guess that many of these Ward Three types are products of what we would call “old money” but who have moved into new positions of prominence in society.  And now it’s payback time.

Sometimes I stop and think that I too could have ended up in Ward Three if I had taken my prep school’s suggestion about going to the Ivy League and other “smart” moves.  As much as I find nouveaux riches hard to take, I have had better things to do with my life.  It’s too bad that others in Ward Three haven’t come to this conclusion.  Barack Obama is promising a renewal (one of these days) of economic growth and upward social mobility, but he’s about to find out that, with Ward Three (or any other static aristocracy) in the driver’s seat, nothing moves up.

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