The Rich Really Are Different. They Can Shelter In Nicer Places | New Hampshire Public Radio

The Rich Really Are Different. They Can Shelter In Nicer Places

Apr 15, 2020
Originally published on April 16, 2020 9:21 am

The coronavirus, we are sometimes told, is a great equalizer, preying on both the elite and the ordinary, the well-heeled and the downtrodden.

"It doesn't care about how rich you are, how famous you are," Madonna assures us in her latest video, sitting naked in bathwater laced with rose petals.

But being rich sure does let you ride out the pandemic in much more pleasant surroundings.

Hollywood billionaire David Geffen recently told his Instagram followers that he was hanging out in the Caribbean to escape the virus. He hoped everyone was keeping safe, he wrote.

For good measure, he included a picture of his 454-foot super-luxurious yacht, the Rising Sun, apparently shot from a drone.

"I think tone-deaf is an understatement. As many people noted, this is an individual whose net worth is reportedly $8 billion," says New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan.

The backlash was ferocious, with thousands of ego-shredding comments pouring into social media. "This is just shameful and grotesque," tweeted Meghan McCain, co-host of The View. Singer John Mayer even wrote a song called "Drone Shot of My Yacht."

Geffen quickly deleted the post and took his account private.

The social media pitchforks also came out after TV star Ellen DeGeneres told a joke comparing life under quarantine to being in jail. The problem? She was telling it from inside a plush, well-appointed mansion — one of several she owns.

Episodes like this underscore a central fact of the current pandemic, says Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

Rich and poor people are experiencing it in much different ways.

People with money can escape the virus more easily, Piff says. It buys them social space. They have large apartments and second homes, and they're more likely to have a job they can do from home.

Working-class people, by contrast, depend more on public transportation, where they're at greater risk of contracting the virus. They're less able to afford to stock up on weeks of food and supplies. And they're more likely to have service jobs that need to be done in person.

"They almost necessarily involve social contact. Who is it that's delivering your food or driving ride-shares? It's the people who don't have the means to do otherwise," Piff says.

Indeed, some evidence exists already that working-class neighborhoods in New York City have been hit much harder by the pandemic than wealthy areas.

Piff, who studies the psychology of wealth, says nothing is really unusual about this. Some people have always had means and others haven't.

But at a time when the ability to separate yourself from the crowd is literally a life-and-death issue, it's probably not a good moment to show off your yacht.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In these strange and unsettling times, sheltering in place means one thing for the rich - it means something altogether different for everyone else. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Madonna probably meant to say something uplifting and profound when she did her latest video. In it, the 61-year-old pop star sits naked in a tub in bathwater laced with rose petals hugging her knees to her chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADONNA: That's the thing about COVID-19, it doesn't care about how rich you are, how famous you are...

ZARROLI: The coronavirus, she says, is the great equalizer. Which is true - even Tom Hanks and Prince Charles got it. But being rich does let you ride out the pandemic in much more pleasant surroundings. Hollywood billionaire David Geffen did an Instagram post last month about how he was self-quarantining in the Caribbean. He included a picture of his yacht, apparently shot from a drone.

MAUREEN CALLAHAN: And this is a super-yacht. I mean, it looks like the size of a cruise liner, almost.

ZARROLI: New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan says the post didn't come off well.

CALLAHAN: I think tone-deaf is an understatement. As many people noted, this is an individual whose net worth is reported to be $8 billion.

ZARROLI: Geffen appeared to mean well - he said he hoped everyone was keeping safe. Still, he found himself pilloried for the post. Singer John Mayer actually wrote a song about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRONE SHOT OF MY YACHT")

JOHN MAYER: (Singing) Drone shot of my yacht. It's all I got. I'm all alone on the water. But let me flex these specs - 450 feet - six or seven decks.

ZARROLI: Geffen isn't the only rich and famous person whose efforts to express solidarity with regular people have come off as clumsy. Recently, Ellen DeGeneres did her talk show from home. She said lots of nice things about health care workers and her crew. Then, she told a joke comparing quarantine to prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")

ELLEN DEGENERES: This is like being in jail is what it is.

ZARROLI: Out came the pitchforks on social media, largely, because she was speaking from one of the plush mansions she owns. Paul Piff of UC Irvine, who studies the psychology of wealth, says episodes like this underscore a central fact about the epidemic.

PAUL PIFF: In times of crisis, you see class differences come into kind of stark contrast.

ZARROLI: Rich and poor people experience it differently. People with money, he says, can escape the virus more easily. They have the privilege of social space.

PIFF: It buys you distance from others.

ZARROLI: Working-class people don't have that luxury. They rely more on public transportation. They can't afford to stock up on weeks of food and supplies, and they often have service jobs that need to be done in person.

PIFF: They almost necessarily involve social contact. Who is it that's delivering your food or driving bride shares, right? It's the people who don't have the means to do otherwise.

ZARROLI: There's nothing unusual about this, he says. Some people have always had means, and some people haven't. But at a time when separating yourself from the crowd is literally a life and death issue, it's probably not the right moment to show off your yacht. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.