Richard Cory and How the Other Half Lives

Does anybody else remember that early Simon & Garfunkel song “Richard Cory”? (I just heard somebody ask, “Who’s Simon & Garfunkel?” Somebody else is looking them up in Martindale. <Sigh> I feel old.) Check out this video:  two guys in jackets and ties, one mic, one guitar… and that raw 60’s revolutionary edge. Here are the lyrics:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

Chorus:
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

Chorus

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

Chorus

The song was inspired by a poem of the same name, by Edwin Arlington Robinson, himself the son of a wealthy New England businessman:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

miuccia-prada-quotes-27338“How the other half lives.” My dad used to say that when he encountered someone who was, by his standards, rich. He would have said that if he had ever met Richard Cory.the devil wears prada

The song and poem drip with irony. Irony is an educated, acquired taste — something someone like Miuccia Prada might appreciate — yes that Prada, the kind the Devil wears. My dad didn’t qualify for irony, I guess. If he had, he would have noticed the irony in how he used the phrase.

This is from Wikipedia:

“How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) was an early publication of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future “muckraking” journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes. This work inspired many reforms of working-class housing, both immediately after publication as well as making a lasting impact in today’s society.”

Yet another irony is that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel probably went on to become wealthier than Richard Cory was himself.

And here’s one last irony for us all:  After all those UVA and Gallup and United Nations surveys I’ve been writing about, plus all those opinions and analyses of eminent economists like Adam Smith, Richard Easterlin, and Angus Deaton, and all those quotes by rich and famous people about money and happiness… most of us would still side with the factory workers and townspeople — we would still trade places with Richard Cory, given half a chance.

What is up with that?

Money, Happiness, Wealth, and Meaning

The ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to one vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

One reason money doesn’t make us happy is the stress of making it. The following is from Plutocrats:  The Rise of the new Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland (2012):

plutocrats“Until a few years ago, the reigning theory about money and happiness was the Easterlin paradox, the 1974 finding by Richard Easterlin that, beyond a relatively low threshold more money didn’t make you happier.

“But across countries, what millions of immigrants have always known to be true really is:  the people of rich countries are generally happier than the people of poor countries.

“The latest contrarian finding, however, is that moving to that state of greater wealth and greater happiness is decidedly unpleasant. As Angus Deaton, in a review of the 2006 Gallup World Poll, concluded, ‘Surprisingly, at any given level of income, economic growth is associated with lower reported levels of life satisfaction.’”

Freeland also cites Angus Deaton for showing that “the richer you are, the more covetous you become” — not a likely prescription for happiness.

A 2014 U of Virginia/ Gallup study weighed in with similar findings — Emily Esfahani Smith discussed them in The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, (2017:

power of meaning“Though the study was enormous, involving nearly 140,000 people across 132 countries, it was also straightforward. A few years earlier, researchers from Gallup had asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their lives, and whether they felt their lives had an important purpose or meaning. [Prof. Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of Gallup] analyzed that data by country, correlating the levels of happiness and meaning with variables like wealth, rates of suicides, and other social factors.

“Their findings were surprising. People in wealthier regions, like Scandinavia, reported being happier than those in poorer ones, like sub-Saharan Africa. But when it came to meaning, it was a different story. Wealthy places like France and Hong Kong had some of the lowest levels of meaning, while the poor nations of Togo and Niger had among the highest, even though people living there were some of the unhappiest in the study.

I.e., the ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to this vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

Analogizing from these findings to the legal profession, we would expect that, because the legal profession runs on the higher side of financial wellbeing, lawyers would report higher levels of happiness than less well-paid workers, but would also suffer from meaning malaise. And, since one of the wellbeing factors used in the survey was rates of suicide, we would also expect lawyers to have a correspondingly higher rate of suicide.

The high lawyer suicide rate (third highest among professionals, after doctors and dentists) has been well documented, and as we’ve been seeing, lawyers as a whole aren’t generally happy with their lives either, despite their profession’s higher rate of wealth.

We’ll look more into the meaning part of the equation next time.

Richard Easterlin is a professor of economics at USC. Sir Angus Stewart Deaton, FBA, is a British American economist and professor at Princeton. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.

For a summary of the UVA/Gallup study, see ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013:  “Residents of poorer nations find greater meaning in life.” For the original study, see S. Oishi, E. Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, 2013