Suze Orman once told me that “money is the physical manifestation of who you are.” It was a mantra that I thought no one actually subscribed to, but it came to mind last week when I read a New York Times story about Vanie Mangal, a landlord in Queens who was described as being under “tremendous financial strain” because she was unable to evict her unruly, non-rent-paying tenants. The reporter behind the piece called the ordeal “hellish.” It was the kind of human interest story that’s meant to make a reader think twice about something, in this case the eviction moratoriums that have kept millions of people in their homes during a global pandemic.
The Times also reported that Mangal is managing the house for her mother, who owns three other rental properties that serve as “investments for her two children.” Mangal’s family is clearly losing out on rental income compared to before the pandemic, and it genuinely sounds like her tenants are treating her poorly. The story’s framing, though, flattened the experience of an asset-holding landlord—one who could ostensibly sell off one or more of those assets if the risk-reward ratio wasn’t to her liking—and the experience of tenants faced with possible homelessness in the event of an eviction. When you think about how even before the pandemic, one in four renters spent more than half of their income on housing, and the median household income in 2019 was $68,000, the relative situation between a landlord and a tenant becomes even more stark.
These things aren’t the same, but Mangal—and the Times—wants you to know they feel the same.
This sentiment among the relatively well off is actually pretty common. A survey in 2019 found that only 13 percent of millionaires considered themselves rich. Another, in 2013, found that a majority of investors with more than $1 million in assets still didn’t consider themselves wealthy. (Almost half of those with more than $5 million in assets said the same.) These feelings have implications beyond philosophical debates about self-perception, and seem to trip people up when discussing policy in the United States. Arguments about what it really means to be wealthy tend to set the horizon on what’s politically possible: What does it mean to have enough, and how do you decide? Who deserves it? How do you pay for it?
These kinds of disparities in what actually counts as “scarcity” are more obvious when it’s someone like Jeff Bezos, who couldn’t spend his wealth over his own lifetime, patting himself on the back for making charitable donations or paying workers $15 an hour. Or when it’s Elon Musk tweeting about the “hope” that space represents for so many people, a sleight-of-hand that distracts from the reasons why our planet has become hopeless in the first place. But at a lesser level of wealth, the underlying question is often one of what it means to have enough: What is the rationale behind a Substack writer who’s landed a $250,000 signing bonus advertising a below-local-minimum-wage research position? Is a small landlord like Mangal well-off compared to her neighbors or under real duress? Can Amazon “afford” to pay its workers more? At a certain point, there is a common aversion to defining who or what is actually rich. If money is the physical manifestation of who you are, then it somehow manages to turn everyone who has it into “upper middle class” or the more common (and more evasive) refrain of “comfortable.”
While most of these people are far from experiencing actual scarcity, it’s not hard to understand where the mindset comes from—or at least why this argument is semi-persuasive to so many people who aren’t actually rich. Our system is meant to make everyone feel like they are on the brink of catastrophe. It’s true that, even for people with savings, one bad health emergency or unexpected layoff can drastically change their relative financial position. Since most benefits in America are tied to at-will employment, we are reminded of this fact all the time, even in moments when the country isn’t going through something like a global pandemic or a financial crisis.
This isn’t to say a family that collects passive income through four homes—and a woman who receives the “daughter discount” from her mother on her own apartment—shares the same kind of financial reality as a renter who is living paycheck to paycheck but rather that the illusion of scarcity is something that’s both reinforced by and reinforces our brutally individualistic economic system. Capitalism, by design, has winners and losers.
Most of these are examples of the petty ways in which scarcity is expressed among the well-off, but this mentality is reflected in bigger, more important manners in our policy debates. On the campaign trail, for example, Joe Biden promised not to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000, prompting The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler to dedicate a column to “fact-checking” his statement. A question that Kessler reiterates over and over again is whether Biden is referring to families or individuals making $400,000. (“The definition of ‘nobody’ is no person. The definition of ‘anybody’ is any person. Both of those words suggest individuals,” Kessler helpfully points out in the name of journalism.) The point, I guess, is that making $400,000 as a household puts you in a different material position than making that as an individual, but for the average family surviving on significantly less than that, it may be a distinction without much of a difference.
The obsession with taxation cutoff levels is a long-standing one among D.C.’s policy elites. Ostensibly, the point of this is to ask whether a politician is upholding their promise not to raise taxes on regular people—to design a policy that helps more than it hurts. Is $400,000 per household, rather than $400,000 per individual, encroaching on those who are not actually rich?
These kinds of questions refuse to see the forest for the trees. They don’t meaningfully contend with what we’re actually levying taxes for and what policies would make people financially comfortable beyond keeping their incomes intact. In this framing, which seems to dominate our politics, there’s a refusal to engage with redistributive policy as a process that creates a world with enough to go around—where these kinds of anxieties about being left with nothing no longer have to exist. Instead, we need to talk about how such taxes are additive, rather than reductive. What would scarcity mean, after all, when universal government programs are taking care of your health care, education, housing, child care, and other basic material needs? These are broad strokes, and refining these programs will take time, but we’re still stuck in a political trap that fuels scarcity—delusions of it from the wealthy, and the daily pains of it for everyone else.
Our conversations, both in small and profound ways, too often center around the idea of desperately holding onto what you already have even if you have more than enough. But to actually abolish scarcity—to create a safety net big enough to catch us all—we need to reject any policy decisions that are made based on the perpetual fearfulness of those who have the least to fear. The alternative is truly hellish.