Lately there has been a lot of anger and indignation about income inequality. Some blame this on … income inequality. I blame it on rich people in T-shirts.
I won’t mention Mark Zuckerberg by name. But, honestly, young man, you’re almost 35 years old, worth $72 billion, and you’re wearing your underwear in public.
Yes, I’m also going around in an untucked “My Kid Went to College and All I Got Was This Lousy … .” But I’ve earned it. Or, rather, I haven’t. I can’t afford a Savile Row morning suit, Turnbull & Asser dress shirt, Hermès cravat and pair of bespoke John Lobb Oxfords. And — taking out the trash, gassing up the car and ordering an Egg McMuffin at the drive-through window — I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing them.
But Zuckerberg in his Fruit of the Looms seems too comfortable. And this makes us mad.
There was a time when wealth was distributed far less equitably, but we weren’t as resentful of the rich. We resented our poverty, but we were relieved that we didn’t have to put on striped pants and spats to have breakfast.
Being rich looked very uncomfortable. Rich people’s clothes were stiff and starchy, and they wore lots of them. Rich men were choked by tall collars and pinched by high-button shoes. Rich women were corseted to the point of kidney failure, constrained in so much crinoline and brocade that they might as well have been wearing off-the-shoulder burqas, and encumbered by bustles large enough that they couldn’t turn sideways without knocking over a footman and the parlor maid.
Now we have Jeff Bezos in a New Kids on the Block bomber jacket, Bill Gates outfitted in Mister Rogers’s sweaters and Gloria Steinem’s old aviators and cutting his own hair, Elon Musk smoking pot on a live internet show, and Richard Branson looking like the guy at the end of the bar muttering lines from “The Big Lebowski.” That’s not counting the various plutocrats caught in Us and Star magazines wearing nothing much at all.
If rich people start getting any more comfortable, police will be shooing them off park benches.
Rich people are also having fun — launching their own rocket ships, sending lewd selfies, buying private islands (Manhattan, for example). Having fun was something rich people didn’t used to do, at least not as far as we poor people could tell.
They went to the opera. It was like vaudeville except without the tap dancing, acrobatics, magic tricks, jokes or entertainment.
Rich people — and there were supposedly only Four Hundred of them — gathered in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. They waltzed like sticks in the mud to music that would put the dead to sleep, and ate and drank tiny things from tiny plates and glasses. They never knocked the bung out of the beer keg or danced a polka.
Being rich meant living in a big drafty house with no privacy because the footman and parlor maid you clobbered with your bustle were always poking around.
You had to wait to eat dinner until 8 p.m. Table manners were complicated. Which knife do you use to eat peas? And strange foods were served — terrapin soup (boiled turtle), shad roe (eggs that not only weren’t fried but came from a fish) and pheasant under glass (dangerously breakable).
Rich people trying to have fun didn’t look like much fun, either. They got soaked in their yachts, broke their necks on their polo ponies and wore themselves to a frazzle walking all over tarnation hitting little white balls with a stick for no reason.
Even when relaxing they had to get dressed up according to strict social protocol. If you arrived at a yacht race wearing plus-fours and a tam o’shanter, Commodore Vanderbilt would dunk you.
These days rich people are behaving just like the rest of us. Or just like the rest of us would if we were rich. The trouble is we can’t afford to be rich slobs the way rich slobs can. (The wash-that-gray-away skivvies Zuckerberg sports are actually custom ordered from Brunello Cucinelli for upwards of $300.)
The rich aren’t satisfied with having all the money. They want all the fun, too. And that’s not fair.
Let’s make rich people uncomfortable again. Maybe tax the dickens out of them. But somehow taxation never enriches me. Let’s require everyone with a net worth over $100 million to wear a top hat at all times. This does nothing to fix income inequality — but what a swell target for snowballs, brickbats and rotten fruit.
P.J. O’Rourke is the editor in chief of American Consequences and the author, most recently, of “None of My Business: P.J. Explains Money, Banking, Debt, Equity, Assets, Liabilities, and Why He’s Not Rich and Neither Are You.” He wrote this article for the Washington Post.