I Want to Live Like Common People

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from Ernie Smith, the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. In another life, he ran ShortFormBlog.

Why rich people really love to pretend to be poor every once in a while, just like in Pulp’s “Common People.”

The greatest six minutes that the British band Pulp ever put to wax pulled off a lot of small victories as it leaped into a larger one. “Common People” highlighted the lingering definitions of class that the U.K. still hasn’t managed to shake; it drew a vibrant character sketch that few songwriters can put together in a single album, let alone a pop song; and it broke through to the mainstream at a time when most British music buyers were focused mostly on Blur and Oasis. It’s still highly regarded, and Jarvis Cocker’s masterwork still generates cultural discussion. But more than two decades after the song reached its peak on the U.K.’s Official Singles Chart, I have to admit to being curious—are there people like the Greek college student who likes slumming at grocery stores and swilling working-class pubs? Are there people who pretend to be lower-class just because they dig being poor? We have to start it somewhere, so we’ll start it there.

Who's Rich?

It's been estimated that 40% of respondents with more than $5 million in assets do not consider themselves rich, according to a 2013 UBS study. The study, which emphasized that lacking stability was the key cause of this opinion, also found that 50 percent of respondents considered a lack of financial constraints as the key signifier of wealth.

Russia’s richest man likes hanging out with the regular folk

Vladimir Potanin with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. (Image credit: The Presidential Press and Information Office)

Vladimir Potanin may not be Russia’s richest man for much longer—he recently divorced his wife, Natalia Potanina, and she wants nearly half of his $14.8 billion fortune for herself.

But Potanin, the chairman of the conglomerate Interros and a major beneficiary of Russia’s move away from communism, is totally cool with hanging out among the public rather than primarily hanging around people at the same financial level as him.

So when he goes out, he skips the bodyguards; he says he doesn’t need them. Instead, he tries for a more approachable strategy.

“It is not good to demonstrate your luxury and your wealth: to rub it in the faces of others is insulting,” he said in a 2012 interview with Reuters. “So you should be modest, try not to insult people by showing that you can do what they cannot.”

That doesn’t, of course, mean taking the Metro; he draws the line there, according to the Reuters interview.

Beyond the snarking, it’s worth pointing out that Potanin’s divorce could have a pretty big impact on the philanthropy scene. As one of the signatories of the Giving Pledge, he had promised to give away much of his wealth before his death.

“I also see it as a way to protect my children from the burden of extreme wealth, which may deprive them of any motivation to achieve anything in life on their own,” he said in his letter.

Time will tell if his wife feels the same way.

Slumming

“In London ‘slumming’ has assumed the guise of a reform enterprise. While the squalor and poverty of certain districts here are under better then regulation than in the in the English metropolis there is much good work to be done by ‘slumming’ here. It is a good work in which we can all engage.”

   — An 1884 New York Times article discussing the then-recent popularity of “slumming” among the London elite. The article has a number of fairly absurd lines, but this one takes the cake: “What a pleasure it must be to a sufferer imprisoned in one of these tenements, to receive a flower with its color and its green leaves and stems!” A 2009 Times piece on the phenomenon noted that the “slumming” trend remained popular until immediately after World War II.

The director of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective gave up butt jokes … and his fortune

“I was standing in the house that my culture had taught me was a measure of the good life. I was struck with one very clear, very strange feeling: I was no happier.”

Director Tom Shadyac had recently been in a serious bike accident, causing a head injury that nearly killed him. On the road to recovery, he had a revelation: He didn’t actually like the fame and fortune he had earned as the director of hit films such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, and Bruce Almighty. So he started shedding all of it.

Tom Shadyac (Image credit: Flickr user Mitchell Weinstock)

He got rid of the massive house and moved into a trailer park. He put nearly all of his money towards funding charitable efforts like a homeless shelter, and instead of directing another big-budget Hollywood film, he instead decided to focus his energy on the kind of project that barely even stands a chance of making back its budget.

The film I Am, which came out in 2010, is basically a story about Shadyac’s search for deeper meaning. He spends the film talking about deep stuff with high-profile intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann, and ultimately, his search for answers turns into more questions. (If you’re curious, Roger Ebert called the film “as watchable as a really good TV commercial, and just as deep,” but then Shadyac was never a critic’s filmmaker, anyway.)

Though it’s been rumored as recently as 2013 that Shadyac might make a return to the director’s chair eventually, he’s more recently been trying something else on for size—becoming a college professor at the University of Memphis. He’s teaching a storytelling course there—which definitely seems like a bit of an upgrade from the usual adjunct.

“The job of an educator is to teach students to see themselves,” Shadyac told USA Today College back in March. “That’s my highest hope—to awaken students to who they are, and to provide the tools to walk their own unique path with courage and conviction.”

And since Shadyac moved from Los Angeles to Memphis, he's worked to become an important part of that community, launching a radio show last year and later announcing the creation of a development project in the city's Soulsville neighborhood. (The history of philanthropy runs deep in Shadyac's family—his father was closely associated with St. Jude's fundraising efforts.)

His fame hasn’t faded too much despite his move to get rid of the fortune—in 2013, he wrote a best-selling book. But there’s a lot to like about the strategy. If you’re willingly trying to shed the material stuff, follow the Tom Shadyac school of minimalism.

The Texas oil tycoon who gave away his fortune

“To the contrary, all I have is what I have given away.”

   — George W. Carroll, a Texas oil tycoon who gave away his fortune, responding to someone asking if he wished he had kept any of his money. Carroll had a change of conscience about his extreme wealth after seeing how it was affecting his local community and leading them into decadence. So he took a different road; he gave all his money away and got involved in politics, at one point running for vice president on the Prohibitionist ticket. When he died in 1935, he passed on in a tiny room inside of a YMCA building that his fortune had built.

Glumming

In late 2013, Stephen Colbert created a term that gets to the truthiness of the matter here. At the time, a South African resort was receiving some international criticism for its “Shanty Town” experience, which allows up to 52 people at a time to stay inside huts built from corrugated iron sheets.

(YouTube link)

If that sounds like the worst thing ever, just wait until you read this quote from their website: “This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with wireless internet access!”

Anyway, Colbert, doing what he does best, cut to the heart of the matter, and described the situation as “glumming,” or “glamorous slumming.”

There’s a difference between glumming and jumping in with both feet and giving it all away. One suggests it’s all about what you’ll get out of it; the other suggests that it’s a variation of normcore—a fashion style, the equivalent of hitting a dive bar because the scene fits your mood. As soon as you get home, the dinge of the pub is like a long-ago memory.

The director of Liar, Liar deciding that the wealth isn’t for him is admirable. But I think we can all agree that spending a week in a fake shanty town is pretty awful—almost as bad as killing a lion for the thrill of it.

Oh, the stupid things you’ll do, because you think that poor is cool.


A version of this post by Ernie Smith originally appeared in the Tedium newsletter, which tries in vain to make dull topics slightly more interesting. You can follow along on Twitter or Facebook.


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