Lazy Sexy Money, Or Why the TV Rich Don’t Work

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Writing about economics gives me plenty of chances to zig when everyone else zags. The rest of the blogosphere is going to be telling you about last night’s Republican debate. So I’ll talk about what’s on TV tonight: Dirty Sexy Money, the new ABC show about the mega-rich.

Yes, I know. This probably means my Serious Journalism License will get taken away. Fine, I’ll just keep practicing without a license.

For those of you haven’t seen it, the show is about a lawyer who takes over his father’s practice representing “the Darlings,” the country’s richest family. There’s a possible murder, too, but let’s not go there right now.

From the point of view of a column about the economy, one thing that’s interesting about Dirty Sexy Money is that at least in the first two episodes you don’t get to find out where all that money comes from. That might be because the creators noticed that, on a deep level, we’d rather not worry about it.

The Darlings’ fortune is just there, like the Kennedys’ money (Ever thought about where that’s from? Probably not so much.) Usually when TV does the mega-rich, you know how the fortune was made–Dallas, oil; Falcon Crest, wine; CBS’s new Cane, sugar–but you don’t really see the characters visiting any oil wells or stomping grapes. So it’s actually refreshing to have a show that dispense with the whole business of labelling the source of the cash and just says “Who cares?”

A promo for Dirty Sexy Money–and no, ABC didn’t pay to put this here

But it’s worth thinking about why TV’s ultra-wealthy don’t do much professionally but have affairs with each other, musical chairs style. You could speculate it’s because how they make their money is not that interesting, but that’s just not true. There’s a lot that’s absorbing in how fortunes are made, and you can see that play out in movies like Wall Street or even Trading Places–the latter, by the way, counts as one of my favorite business movies and slyly parodies the real story of how the Hunt brothers tried to corner the world silver market. You don’t get to find out much about how Gatsby makes his money in The Great Gatsby, but you do want to know. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, you get to know about every last ruble of Prince Oblonsky’s fiscal ups and downs.

Nor is this really a fair depiction of the lives of the rich. Clearly many of them work hard–even if occasionally, as with Bill Ford, the more they work the more millions they manage to lose.

Now, it could just be a convention that the super-rich don’t bother to work is just one of those TV things, like the convention, before Married With Children and Beavis and Butthead that no one on TV watched television.

I’ll bet, however, there’s more going on. I think the writers of Dirty Sexy Money and other shows about the rich have noticed that idleness is one of the great taboo fantasies of American life. It’s a desire that dares not speak its name. It’s more common, more illicit, and just as strong as the fantasy of power. Wanting to run things is a fantasy you’re supposed to have. Wanting freedom from responsibility is a fantasy you’re not.

As far as I know, no national survey has asked people “What would you do with a billion dollars?” but if one did, the response “Leverage it to take a controlling stake in a large corporation,” wouldn’t make the top five answers.

There are lots of surveys that have asked people how they feel about work, but that’s a tricky question. There’s a lot of social pressure to say, and maybe even to think, that your worklife is pretty good. In this poll by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of Americans said that they were entirely or mostly satisfied with their jobs. That’s a number so high that it may tell you more about how folks answer surveys than about what they really think. Or it might mean that the bar for counting a job as “satisfying” is low. I mean, 89 percent? That’s higher than the percentage of people who love their mothers.

People say they like work, but they also (I rely on that same Pew survey, but you probably don’t need a poll to tell you this) think that work is harder, less secure, and more stressful. I’ll speculate here and say that, just between them and the TV, more people want a life of leisure than want to run a company. That might even include some of the folks who do run companies. In theory, we want the rich people on TV to have a job. But we don’t really want to go to the office with them.