Why Are Rich People So Mean?

Call it Rich Asshole Syndrome—the tendency to distance yourself from people with whom you have a large wealth differential.

What if most rich assholes are made, not born? What if the cold-heartedness so often associated with the upper crust—let’s call it Rich Asshole Syndrome—isn’t the result of having been raised by a parade of resentful nannies, too many sailing lessons, or repeated caviar overdoses, but the compounded disappointment of being lucky but still feeling unfulfilled? We’re told that those with the most toys are winning, that money represents points on the scoreboard of life. But what if that tired story is just another facet of a scam in which we’re all getting ripped off?

In 2007, Gary Rivlin wrote a New York Timesfeature profile of highly successful people in Silicon Valley. One of them, Hal Steger, lived with his wife in a million-dollar house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their net worth was about $3.5 million. Assuming a reasonable return of 5 percent, Steger and his wife were positioned to cash out, invest their capital, and glide through the rest of their lives on a passive income of around $175,000 per year after glorious year. Instead, Rivlin wrote, “Most mornings, [Steger] can be found at his desk by 7. He typically works 12 hours a day and logs an extra 10 hours over the weekend.” Steger, 51 at the time, was aware of the irony (sort of): “I know people looking in from the outside will ask why someone like me keeps working so hard,” he told Rivlin. “But a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

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