During last fall’s presidential campaign, I listened as a woman from Marin County told talk-show host Gene Burns of KGO why she and her husband could not support Barack Obama. Their chief concern was Obama’s vow that in his administration taxes would rise only for those earning more than $250,000 per year. Her family’s income was roughly $360,000, she said, and there was simply no way they could afford to give any more money to the government.
As the call continued, it became clear that they were really scraping by, these people. While each of the three children had his or her own car, one child was mortified, because his car was nearly a year old. Some days, he was too embarrassed to leave the house. The kitchen remodel had been put off for almost three months, and the wine collection was not growing: they could no longer in good conscience entertain friends. The husband was under great strain, struggling to pour sufficient sums into the various civic, sports, and fraternal organizations that required his membership. They had recently had to wait several weeks before outfitting each member of the family with the latest Apple releases. The situation had grown so dire that some nights they now had to eat dinner at home.
Burns eventually exploded, lighting into this woman like a leveller. He had no sympathy for her. I, on the other hand, did. I know Marin County, and it is not easy to live there, on any amount of money. Marin is a vortex that can easily swallow all dollars thrown into it. I am sure that to this woman all of her family’s expenses seemed justified. Money induces in those who possess it a sort of special relativity: the more that is available, the more “needs” arise on which it “must” be spent.
I remembered this woman when I read about “luxury watchmaker” Yvan Arpa’s latest creation, a timepiece fashioned of dinosaur dung. It sells for $11,000. Now, I am sure that the Marin woman mentioned above would not “need” such a watch. But somewhere out there is somebody who does. Somebody also, I have no doubt, “needed” Alba’s “Crisis Tourbillon,” which was created as a “crisis-defying” response to the 2008-2009 world financial meltdown, and which retailed for $175,000. That is the watch pictured above. I myself am intrigued, for the sheer absurdity of it, with Arpa’s timepiece wherein he “created the first ‘watch’ which does not tell time. That piece, which costs 300,000 [Swiss] francs, only tells day from night.” I don’t happen to have 300,000 Swiss francs, also known as $282,805.44, at the moment, so, for the present, I don’t “need” this watch.
Arpa had previously infused dust from the moon and rust from the Titanic in his timepieces; with his dinosaur-dung watch, “I decided to take it a step further and use the forbidden material—coprolite.” The excrement he used came from an herbivore; his people are currently diligently at work attempting to identify the exact species. Arpa maintains that the $11,000 price-tag is “reasonable.” It is “unique,” he says, and “contains a piece of history.”
Dinosaur parts had previously been placed in watches by Jean-Marie Schaller, who turned out a timepiece featuring fragments of bones from a 150-million-year-old herbivore that once snuffled around North America. Schaller asks about $293,000 for his watch, which comes with a certificate authenticating the bones.
Schaller and Arpa seem to be in some sort of competition. Schaller has used meteorites and pieces of the Rosetta Stone in his watches. In response, Alba has taken to blasting the casings of his watches with lightning strikes, or electric blasts of up to one million volts.
Divorce trials can provide an interesting window into the nature of human monetary “needs.” Back in 1983, when he was covering the Florida divorce of Roxanne and Peter Pulitzer, Hunter S. Thompson:
spent a lot of time poring over copies of the Pulitzers’ personal tax returns and financial ledgers submitted as evidence by the Pulitzer family accountants, and I have made a certain amount of wild sense of it all, but not enough. I understood, for instance, that these people were seriously rich. Family expenditures for 1981 totaled $972,980 for a family of four: one man, one woman, two four-year old children, and a nanny who was paid $150 a week.
That is a lot of money, but so what? We are not talking about poor people here, and a million dollars a year for family expenditures is not out of line in Palm Beach. The rich have special problems. The Pulitzers spent $49,000 on basic “household expenditures” in 1981 and another $272,000 for “household improvements.” That is about $320,000 a year just to have a place to sleep and play house. There was another $79,600 listed for “personal expenses” and $79,000 for boat maintenance. “Business” expenditures came in at $11,000 and there was no listing at all for taxes. As for “charity,” the Pulitzers apparently followed the example of Ronald Reagan that year and gave in private, so as not to embarrass the poor.
There was, however, one item that begged for attention. The figure was $441,000 and the column was “miscellaneous and unknown.” Right. Miscellaneous and unknown: $441,000. And nobody in the courtroom even blinked.
Frank and Jamie McCourt, owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, are currently in the midst of divorce proceedings. Jamie McCourt has told the court that she “needs” $988,845 in spousal support. Per month.
Of course, there are certain human needs that money sometimes cannot satisfy, no matter how much there might be of it. This is illustrated nicely in a little story told by Victor to Arkady, in Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Stalin’s Ghost.
Victor said, “A New Russian goes into an expensive boutique and asks the clerk what to get his wife for her birthday. Cost is no problem. He’s already given her a Mercedes, diamonds from Bulgari, a full-length sable coat.”
Arkady asked, “How long is this joke?” It was six a.m. by his watch. A little early for a call.
“Not long. The clerk says, “There’s nothing left to buy. Do something personal, something intimate. Give her a written certificate good for two hours of wild sex, fulfilling any fantasy or desire.’ The New Russian says, ‘Yeah!’ It sounds like a win-win to him. He pays a calligrapher a thousand dollars for an inscribed certificate worth two hours of sex, all fantasies fulfilled, no questions asked.”
“God, please strike Victor dead.”
“Patience. A certificate for two hours of wild sex. Her birthday comes. He gives her pearls, a new Mercedes, a Faberge egg as usual and finally an envelope with the certificate inside. She takes it out, reads it, her face turns red. A smile breaks out. She clutches the certificate to her breast and says, ‘Thank you, thank you, Boris. This is the most wonderful present I ever got. I love you, I love you!’ She grabs her car keys. ‘See you in two hours!’”
While New Russians become accustomed to Bulgari diamonds, and Jamie McCourt tries to scrimp by on $988,845 a month, and Yvan Arpa rakes in the coin from those delighted to lay down $11,000 for a watch containing dinosaur poop, one billion people on this planet tonight will go to bed hungry, and 40,000 children won’t go to bed at all, because they will have died at some time during the day of starvation.
Children dying of starvation in a world of plenty is of course nothing new. Richard Crashaw wrote about it some 400 years ago:
Go, smiling souls, your new-built cages break,
In heaven you’ll learn to sing, ere here to speak,
Nor let the milky fonts that bathe your thirst
Be your delay;
The place that calls you hence is, at the worst,
Milk all the way.
That was back when it was assumed that children who starved to death went straight up to heaven. We know better than that now. George Orwell several times in the final years of his life observed that the great problem of the coming century would be for human beings to learn to treat each other decently without the goad of a god. The results, obviously, have been mixed. Atavists among us argue that this would be a kindler, gentler world if there were still more god in it. But all of history teaches us that this is not true: Crashaw’s poem, for instance, was written amid one of the innumerable slaughters during which people cleaving to one chimera of a god butchered those cleaving to another. And wrong-o to consider monotheism the problem: Buddhists in Cambodia and Buddhists in Thailand have been shooting each other over a disputed temple for years now, and the most God-awful, breathtakingly selfish people I have ever met in my life have been Americans who consider themselves Buddhists. Having absorbed the lesson that life is suffering, they reach the wrong conclusion: since nothing can be done about it anyway, it is okay to visit suffering upon others, so long as the ersatz Buddhist attains greater comfort thereby.
Everyone of course has the right to be comfortable, but not at the expense of others. In the Buddhist faith, as in all spiritual systems and secular philosophies, is that central notion which in Christianity is expressed as “the Golden Rule”: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,” a.k.a “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Hewing to this world-view, one would not step over hungry, homeless bodies to spend $11,000 on a watch made of excrement. Figuratively, though, that is what many Americans do each day: in a world that would require the resources of 5.3 earths for everyone to live as an American, it is clear that not even Americans should live as Americans. But each day the radio is rich with voices urging Americans to continue to inure themselves to the suffering of Others, to “rejoice in the tents of prosperity”:
it is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
and in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn
it is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
to speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer
to listen to the hungry ravens cry in wintry season
when the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs
it is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
to hear the dog howl at the wintry door,
the ox in the slaughterhouse moan
to see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast
to hear sounds of love in the thunderstorm
that destroys our enemies house
to rejoice in the blight that covers his field
and the sickness that cuts off his children
while our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door
and our children bring fruits and flowers
then the groan and the dolor are quite forgotten
and the slave grinding at the mill
and the captive in chains and the poor in the prison
and the soldier in the field
when the shattered bone hath laid him groaning
among the happier dead
it is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity
thus could i sing and thus rejoice
but it is not so with me
Louis XV of France would certainly have purchased and worn a $282,000 watch that did not tell the time—maybe one on each arm. He would not have regarded $988,845 per month as an exorbitant amount to lavish on one of his favored mistresses. And Louis himself certainly spent far more each year on “miscellaneous and unknown” than a mere $441,000. Like people who live in Marin, he had a lot of “needs.”
This is the guy who famously remarked, “Apres moi, le deluge.” Or, “After me, the deluge.” There seems to be some controversy as to whether he was uttering a prediction—the French Revolution broke out 15 years after his death—or simply observing that he didn’t give a shit what happened after he exited the planet. Considering the way that he lived, I lean towards the latter. Louis could have everything he wanted in life, so he took it. He broke his country in the process, but that mattered little to him. Eighteenth Century France was still somewhat a place of faith, but it is not unlikely that Louis assumed he had nothing to answer for in any afterlife: he certainly outranked everyone on earth; maybe he figured he could pull rank on God, too.
Still and all, with all that he had: was the guy happy and hopeful? That’s his portrait, there to the right. See what you think.
Louis XV was carried off by smallpox, a disease respecting no rank, which struck him on April 27, 1774, while he was dining in Versailles with mistress Madame du Barry, who would later lose her head to the Revolution. Within two weeks, Louis’ entire body had become one big black scab. No one would go near him. When finally he perished, his “pestiferous remains” so spooked the court that he was not embalmed, as was royal tradition, nor was his heart cut out and separately encoffined, as had been the hearts of his ancestors before him. Instead, alcohol and quicklime were liberally poured over him, and one lone courtier hauled the boxed monarch to the Saint Denis Basilica. The deed was done.
Smallpox is a disease, unique to humans, that humans succeeded in eradicating from the earth. Almost. Samples of the virus persist to this day, in two laboratories. One in Atlanta, one in Siberia. Just in case.