COLUMN

In defence of the freedom to spend

Do people like Fred Bruning genuinely feel like ‘chumps’ because another person spends money in a frivolous and profligate way?

BARBARA AMIEL October 23 1989
COLUMN

In defence of the freedom to spend

Do people like Fred Bruning genuinely feel like ‘chumps’ because another person spends money in a frivolous and profligate way?

BARBARA AMIEL October 23 1989

In defence of the freedom to spend

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

Do people like Fred Bruning genuinely feel like ‘chumps’ because another person spends money in a frivolous and profligate way?

It occurred to me as I was reading Fred Bruning’s column, “New standards of wretched excess,” in the Sept. 11 issue of Maclean’s that I had once met one of its subjects, Gayfryd Steinberg, wife of the New York billionaire Saul Steinberg. We were at a literary lunch together in London about two years ago. I don’t remember very much about Steinberg except that she was rather obviously engulfed by a huge necklace that appeared to be made of carved lapis and faux rubies and pearls that shimmered all the way down to her waist. I was entranced by it. Finally, I got up the courage to ask her whether it was by some new costume jeweller that I should know about. “Actually,” she said with some embarrassment, “my husband got it at an auction.” Afterward, I found out who she was and realized that there was nothing false about those rubies and nothing church basement about the auction. I had been breaking bread next to a cool million or two worth of jewels. “Isn’t that nice,” I thought, and went back to trying to earn an extra $2,000 staying up three nights writing a piece on Margaret Thatcher for Chatelaine.

Thankfully, my fellow columnist Fred Bruning was not at the lunch. Had he been, we would have needed the aid of paramedics to administer intravenous tranquillizers. I never realized how painful life must be for him until I read this lament on Malcolm Forbes and Gayfryd Steinberg. It seems Forbes and Steinberg had both thrown birthday parties (Malcolm for his 70th and Gayfryd for her hubby’s 50th) that had Fred in a state because of their extravagance.

Steinberg had spent as much as $1 million on her affair, which, Bruning related, included an air-conditioned party tent with a number of live models posing as figures in 17th-century paintings. Mr. Forbes had featured Berber horsemen, belly dancers and Elizabeth Taylor at his three-day Moroccan spectacle. The response of Bruning was to suggest that the “flaunted” opulence of these two parties might

have “seriously exceeded allowable limits.”

That took me aback. What, I wondered, would the allowable limits be for Bruning? How many Berbers? Further on in his column, I came upon the sentences that elaborated his anguish. “What Forbes did not perceive, nor Gayfryd Steinberg,” wrote Bruning, “is that profligate expenditure of ‘hard-earned’ money necessarily diminishes the work of those who for their labors, do not earn millions .... Forbes is not required to give his money to every needy person in the land. He is only required not to make those with less feel like chumps.” (My italics.)

I read that last sentence several times. Could envy have actually reached such pathological proportions, even among normally welltempered souls like Fred Bruning? Is it possible that such people genuinely feel like “chumps” because another person spends money in a frivolous and profligate way? Surely, I thought, this is not the matter for a column but something to be quietly discussed with his therapist. The point is not that one doesn’t raise an eyebrow or two at the notion of spending millions of dollars on birthday parties—an expenditure which may well be what commentators see as “wretched excess.”

The point, surely, is that before I could write that down to publish as an essay, the thought might flit through my mind that my own expenditures, whether for lipstick, underwear or compact discs, may well be regarded as wretched excess by the bus conductor who hasn’t been able to afford a night out at a good restaurant since he got married. On the basis of what an Indian villager could live on, anyone who goes bowling every Saturday night is indulging in wretched excess.

There is a point of view, held, for example, by The New York Times and quoted by Bruning, that the rich often give generously to charity “and are thus entitled to their private pleasures.” I do remember that Steinberg coughed up all the money necessary to hold a conference in Vienna of exiled writers in December, 1987. She is keen, apparently, on getting funds for dissident writers in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, which may account for her position as honorary chair of the annual dinner benefit for PEN International.

Still, I don’t believe this has a whisker to do with whether or not she should be “allowed” to give extravagant parties. You don't entitle yourself to freedom by giving to charity. Surely, we have not reached the point that before people can spend their own money however they want, it is not only necessary for them to pay taxes, but they must also further entitle themselves by charity work. You either live in a free society or you don’t. Of course, Bruning is perfectly entitled to have his opinion about how wretched this all is, but what a wretched opinion his is.

The key to his thought is his statement that people are “made to feel like chumps” by these parties. Are we? I hazard a guess that if any of us were to conduct a modest, unscientific survey among friends, acquaintances, salesclerks and strangers (“excuse me sir: did Malcolm Forbes multimillion-dollar bash make you feel like a chump?”), not one in 10 would answer yes. I should think they would answer, as did the cashier to me at the gas station in London, “Did it bother you, then? Wish I could have thrown a bash like that.” What offended me most of all in reading Bruning’s column was his assumption that his envy is universal.

Mind you, that is the great thrust of our age, isn’t it—the institutionalization of envy. Envy used to be one of the seven deadly sins, always regarded (rightly, in my view) as a vice or a sickness. Now it has been turned into an honorable emotion. Bruning and his soul mates seem proud that the mere fact that a few people show their fantastic wealth is a source of discomfort for them.

Myself, I would prefer a straight Marxist to this, the sort of person who would say, with Bertolt Brecht and others, that all private property is theft. That way, the “allowable” amount for Gayfryd and Malcolm to spend on natal days could be officially calculated by party commissars. That, at least, would have some internal logic in which the entire social arrangements of society might be questioned. Then all of us, lumpen proletariat each and every one, could feel like chumps together.