Good-b Gift: “Portals of Power” by Guy Trebay in the New York Times Sunday Styles Magazine detailed an “unashamedly over-the-top” private club catering to New York’s “privileged class” and reminds readers of the 20th century Greed-is-Good ethos that has thankfully died a quick painful death along with the subprime mortgage securities market.
“She looked like money; the woman with the sleek long legs tanned a light toast color, with a mane highlighted by honeyed streaks…” He continues, “Her shoes were Manolo Blahnik because she not only did she look like money, she was money.” The June 18 Sunday Styles front page article depicted an unhip Gordon Gekko 1980s world of self-indulgence updated only with digital media. It reveals how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
Trebay, who is primarily a fashion writer, seems to represent a world that has missed the giving-back-to-make-the-world-a-better-place boat. The Club, frequented by “fat-cat hedge funds guys” and ostensibly women that look like hundred dollar bills, is an East Side “democratic” haven open to anyone with the $50,000 initiation fee and $3m plus income. To be seen here is well…to be seen here – seems to be the point of drippy prose.
Poetic license aside, money, in any form never looks human—it is usually made of a linen-like paper with green, white, blue or shades of pink depending on the country of origin. There is no such thing as tanned money, because money has no skin! But perhaps this odd retro article in our post-crisis “Doing Well, by Doing Good” 21st century reveals a deeper truth than its author intended. As a culture, we have somehow equated this soulless paper called “money” with genuine human experience. Ah, but the story, as they say, is as old as civilization itself!
Before there was money, there was greed. Self-absorption, self-indulgence, self-interest are ancient character traits that have followed humankind through the millenniums. Back in the Old World, the first recorded civilization in Ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) greed dominated society and created no small amount of misery and suffering. In my upcoming book, Conversations with Wall Street: The Inside Story of the Financial Armageddon That Was and How to Prevent the Next One, I devote a chapter to the origin of money and detail how before money was even “invented,” there was a system of barter that enriched a few and oppressed large portions of the population.
Remarkably, nearly four thousand years ago, a loan trading system and Ancient Wall Street existed that created such extreme degrees of inequity in the distribution of wealth that the society collapsed under its weight – reminiscent of the mortgage market collapse in 2008 and beyond. We have been here before and undoubtedly, will be again.
Which brings me to our current state of affairs and the Times’ rhapsodic tribute to that icon of Power and Privilege: The Birkin.
For those of you who are ignorant of such an important cultural symbol of “success”- the Birkin is in fact more precious than Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Chanel, Jacobs or even some might say: gold. Precisely, because it is even more rare. The female (presumably human) who looked “like money” carried her obvious symbol with “deliberate nonchalance” announcing her great wealth to all who cared to see. Writes Trebay: This was, “Not an ordinary Birkin, something basic valued at $10,000 in calf leather…[but a] 40-centimeter model in single skin crocodile tinted in subtle brown—sells for about the price of a new Lexus sedan.”
The Birkin is a woman’s handbag – yes purse—made by the fabulous French fashion company Hermès that costs somewhere between $10,000 and $120,000 new. It is a 20th century status symbol exuding excess and extravagance that somehow manages to breathe life into an outdated keeping-up-with-Paris-Hilton lifestyle. Granted Hermès (ladies scarves, men’s ties and shirts) is something of a New York-Paris fashion exchange, but a pocketbook costing two and half times the New York and U.S. median family income gives one more than moral pause in economically-distressed America. It seems to indicate that the haves have more and more and those without have less and less. It smacks of the ultimate in decadent and hedonistic taste of days gone bye-bye. The Birkin in its raw and unadulterated state is a 1999 flashback.
In 2011, only months before the end of the world as we know it, a social transformation is taking place. The worship of material objects that represent greed and indifference is not only passé, but remarkably unenlightened. The new template for wealth is not how much we have, but how we made it. If that Birkin is the result of Deutsche Bank’s billion dollar CDS hedge or David Einhorn’s sinking of the great Lehman Titanic, then you might want to tuck it away and pet your crocodile only in private. Because creating your wealth from something worthy of our human intellectual and social evolution is the new hot market—a social contract that demands you put as much or more into the world than you take out. Think Hsieh, Gates, Brin, Page…
The newest status symbol and icon to wealth is how much you give away—and not to your blonde-maned mistress or Fekkai stylist—but to those who need it most: single mothers, struggling families, hungry children and disenfranchised portions of the population whose entire yearly earnings are less than half the value of your pocketbook, the outside—not the inside.
In the end, all the buzz about Birkins results in the same thing. We live; we get old; we die. Not to be so graphic about it, but all of us, no matter who we are and how many Blahniks, Birkins, or Rolexes we own, end up in the same place—a bag of bones in a box, or more flatteringly perhaps, as thick dust in a gold diamond encrusted heirloom urn on a stately carved marble mantle. A place where no Birkin has tread before.
So I have a thought. What if we start a Give-A-Birkin Campaign? For every Birkin you own, you give one away. That way you can enjoy the perks of your wealth, but create balance out the inequity. Probably every Birkin owner has given lots away to charity, but this would be a direct way to give back. Birkin for Birkin. In our post-crisis 21st century America, conspicuous consumption and ostentatious material accumulation seems as outdated as the 1990s and as old as say –Mesopotamia.
Here Two Important Ideas for Direct Giving in New York City:
The Fiver Children’s Foundation Empowering Children to Make Positive Life Choices…
Founded by a former Head of Fixed Income at Lehman Brothers, Tom Tucker, this program gives children in urban New York the 10 year lifeline they need to make a crucial difference in their lives and then pay it forward. Fiver kids come from families with annual incomes of less than $38,000. The founder Tom (a personal friend) is a dedicated mentor and visionary for the dozens of Fiver children that are the foundation’s best success stories. Fiver has ways to get personally involved in their midtown offices as mentors or direct supporters. Or you can donate simply by writing a check or sponsoring a child’s year-round program. Fiver also has a “wish list” of things that the kids and their teachers/counsellors need. One Birkin could send 10 Fiver kids to the upstate New York summer facility that teaches confidence, character and college prep. Or one Birkin could support six kids year-round at camp and in the afterschool program in NYC. Fiver helps city and rural kids leave behind the challenging and compromising choices they are faced with daily to learn alongside the inspiring tutelage of the talented Fiver team and discover that there are other uncompromising paths that life has to offer.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol Shaping a new organization of Black and Latino Youth
A Harlem-based organization that brings hope and the world of possibility to Black and Latino children ages kids 8-22 “through comprehensive, holistic and long-term year-round support programs…The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is not simply an organization; …it’s a way of life. Providing youth with an opportunity to explore their ideas, identity and future among peers, with the support and guidance of their immediate elders…Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a Harlem-based organization with a mission to empower Black and Latino young women and men to develop into critical thinkers and community leaders.” Featured on “Oprah,” Brotherhood/Sister Sols sends children to Africa and Latin America for 4-week summer leadership development intensives. Donations are used directly for the children’s benefit. (Full disclosure: a couple of B-S board members advise Good-b.) One Birkin can send 40 kids to B-S Sol day camp. One Birkin can provide 60 kids with 10 weeks of afterschool meals. One Birkin could supply 8 kids with roundtrip airfare for a life-changing experience immersed in a culture away from their own. Participants embark on cross-cultural research and community service projects. B/S Sol also has an afterschool program and summer day camp for younger children, and provides life guidance and job-training for older children.
Monika Mitchell is a serial entrepreneur and as CEO of Good Business International, Inc. a leader in the “business for a better world” movement. She is the co-author of the upcoming book: “Conversations with Wall Street: The Inside Story on the Financial Armageddon That Was and How to Prevent the Next One.”