What Would You Pay?

‘The Velvet Rope Economy’

The Velvet Rope Economy, by Nelson D. Schwartz, offers a detailed look at the most recent separation of the haves from the have nots in our country, and reveals what all that new money is good for in the 21st century. Schwartz spends a great deal of time on what the Velvet Rope Economy gets you at a modern sports stadium—a private suite for the game, sushi brought to your table, the players running by you as they file onto the field. This all seems infantilizing, like money buys you freedom from tantrums over things that should not be tantrum-inducing. I buy sushi every time I go to a Mariners game. If I ever had to wait for it, I got over the pain.

Velvet Rope Economy

But a rich person might not recover from disease, and that’s where their separation from the rest of us reveals the starkest contrast. Schwartz recounts the story of David Sager, who as a one-time executive at CNN had all the money in the world, but a cancer diagnosis in 2011 led to his doctor informing him that he had six months to live. Sager didn’t give up.

He hired Private Health Management, a company expert at researching optimal care in places the rest of us wouldn’t know to look. Private Health Management sifted through pages of convoluted FDA data to discover that Sager had the right genetic makeup for an ideal clinical trial. Sager’s cancer has now been in remission for five years. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t call the total out-of-pocket bill of $150,000 not money well spent. It’s easy to envy people with such access, and it only comes to those of certain means.

Health aside, people typically allow themselves financial extravagances for their children, and Schwartz’s section on the industry that helps teenagers get into elite colleges offers a glimpse at what the rest of us are up against should we aspire toward Ivy-League offspring. Kat Cohen of IvyWise is one of the consultants who—for a minimum of six figures—will guide your child from the end of junior high toward the best possible chance of acceptance at Harvard or Stanford. With total acceptance rates of roughly five percent for both institutions, all inside tips are welcome, and through their complex system of consultation and personal essay editing, IvyWise clients boast an acceptance rate at Harvard of over 30 percent. Such a big odds jump makes their services worth it for wealthy parents who will do anything this side of Lori Laughlin to make it happen for their children.

Schwartz also takes an extended look at the other side of the velvet rope, touching on trends such as the profligacy of dollar stores over the past decade and its deleterious effect on small-town grocers. “When we started surveying rural grocery stores in 2008,” says one researcher, “the biggest competitive challenge was Walmart. We don’t hear that much about Walmart now. In the last three years, it’s been Dollar General.” I didn’t even know dollar stores sold food, which proves Schwartz’s main point: even those in roughly adjacent social strata know little of each other, and the lack of empathy that ensues should be obvious. Freedom from knowing what goes on at places that hold no interest for us seems to be what our privilege buys us. It would be nice to think we didn’t want it.

(Doubleday, March 3, 2020)

Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

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