- In this excerpt from “How Money Became Dangerous: The Inside Story of Our Turbulent Relationship with Modern Finance”, Christopher Varelas and Dan Stone write that the American dream has changed.
- A day as a VIP at Disneyland, paying $300 an hour to skip interminable lines, made Varelas examine how wealthy Americans use their money: to buy exclusivity.
- This pattern extends beyond a day at Disney. Wealthy parents “skip the line” to get their kids into college. Wealthy patients “skip the line” to get on-call concierge doctors.
- “Special access is not a new concept” they write. “But never before has it been so pervasive, accepted, and sought after by such a large group of people.”
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I’ve never tired of returning to my old stomping grounds at Disneyland every couple of years or so. On a recent visit, the weather was scorching, and the lines were murderously long. Signs posted above the entrance to each ride estimated the misery: “Approximate Standby Wait Time 150 Minutes.” No one seemed overtly upset by this. Having paid hundreds of dollars to access the park, the guests had no problem standing for hours under the baking sun to board a ride that would last a few short minutes. Rumor had it that the new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction over in the adjacent California Adventure Park had wait times of five full hours.
Our group of ten had no intention of joining them. We stayed close behind our hostess, Michelle, who wore a plaid riding outfit — cap, breeches, boots, and all — as she led us around the waiting masses to the Pirates of the Caribbean exit, where we entered right away and took our seats in the boat. I felt a pang of guilt for skipping the line, but that quickly subsided as we drifted into the bayou among the fireflies, passing the old man sitting on the front porch of his cabin.
For three hundred dollars per hour, we had hired Michelle as our VIP hostess, which allowed us to skip all lines. Over the course of six hours, our group would go on every ride, have front-row seats for the parade, and enjoy a leisurely lunch at the Blue Bayou.
Most of the newer rides had hidden VIP entrances, so the people in line wouldn’t feel more bitter about their wait — seeing us coast by, of course, wouldn’t positively impact the guest experience — and for some rides we could enter through the exit; but since the park was not constructed with a VIP option in mind, the majority of the rides required us to cut directly in front of those who had been standing for hours. Michelle would raise an arm in front of the waiting guests and say, “Just one moment,” and our group would step into the next boat or car or spaceship or whatever.
We headed straight onto the Buzz Lightyear ride. The space cruisers were outfitted with laser guns for battling evil robots, and you racked up points for each kill. We made it a contest among our little group. As we came off the ride, each of us reported our results. I tallied a measly 55,000; my nephew got 60,000; my daughter 80,000; and my sister-in- law took the title with 110,000 points. I asked Michelle her score. “Two million,” she said with a smile. “An off-day. That’s not even close to the top scores for me or the other VIP hostesses.” Evidently she had a lot of laser gun experience and was a seasoned pro. Quite a few people must have been taking advantage of Disney’s “other line.”
As Michelle escorted us to lunch, we passed my old Café Orleans, which I pointed out to my daughter for the twentieth time. “That’s where I worked in the early ’80s, when I was barely older than you.”
“I know, Dad.” She’d heard all the stories.
Later, while dining at the Blue Bayou, feeling uneasy about cutting in front of waiting guests, I considered some of the reactions we’d gotten, which ranged from awe to envy to resentment, often accompanied by commentary: Wow, they don’t have to wait. How cool would that be? or: Why do they get to skip the line? What makes them special?or: That’s not fair. They should wait in line like the rest of us. One consequence of the other line is that it can make people in the traditional line feel angry or disadvantaged, as if the system is rigged against them. Most of the people standing in those long lines at Disneyland had carefully saved the money to be able to afford their visit. (A family of four might spend thousands of dollars for a long weekend in the Magic Kingdom.) Their visit was a special occasion, sometimes a once-in- a-lifetime occasion. So to see privileged people skip the line must have demeaned and debased the guest experience.
I wondered how I would have felt about Disney’s other line back when I worked there, before the notion of VIP treatment existed at the park. I couldn’t decide. Part of me thought I would have been perfectly fine with it, appreciating the pay-for-value proposition that now seemed to infiltrate every part of Disneyland. But I mostly felt that my eighteen-year-old self would have been shocked. Equality seemed a core tenet of the happiest place on Earth. Would Walt have approved? I wondered. Is the VIP experience consistent with the values that Disneyland was created to exemplify and promote? Would I even come to Disneyland if I had to wait in line? What is my daughter learning each time we skip a line?
A 2013 report by the New York Post found that wealthy Manhattanites were hiring people with disabilities as “black-market guides” for visiting Disney, paying them $130 per hour to pose as family members so the groups could skip to the front of lines. One woman who used the service was quoted as saying: “This is how the 1 percent does Disney.” In response, Disney was forced to change its policies regarding disabled guests, revoking their instant access to rides. It’s repulsive that there was a market for such a thing, but then again, there’s now a market for everything.
In our new culture of special access, bribery, and other lines, what has been lost? And why should we care? Is it more efficient to create a price list for every advantage, social need, desire, and activity? Or are we propagating a new class system that will only grow more extreme and divided in time?
The Disney VIP hostess is just one manifestation of a growing societal trend. As increasing numbers of people become wealthy, they look to spend that wealth, accumulating all the material things one could want. But what to do with their excess wealth? More and more often, they spend it on better access — the other line.
The other line can be better healthcare: For a monthly fee, you can employ an on-call concierge doctor who will use his or her contacts to get you the best treatment for whatever medical issue may arise. Large gifts to hospitals or medical foundations also secure priority access. And of course there are other lines in the political world, the entertainment world, the nightclub world, and so on. Special access is not a new concept. But never before has it been so pervasive, accepted, and sought after by such a large group of people.
A central objective of those in the other line — whether they’re conscious of this or not — is to reinforce and extend their privilege across generations, so that their children can maintain the advantages that they enjoy. Once the wealthy have attained all the desired access and material things, then they start to look at lengthening their legacy and making sure their progeny will enjoy the same lifestyle and benefits. One increasingly popular way to do so is through the development offices of education and philanthropic establishments, which sell access as a fund-raising tool. The price for “special consideration” at Stanford is said to be $25 million. “While a donation does not guarantee your son or daughter admission,” goes the typical line, “it does ensure that the admissions office will pay close attention to his or her application.” Students who are admitted with the help of a large gift now have a name: development admits. While upsetting, these are perfectly legal ways to grease the skids.
Other methods, which are not lawful and above board, are perhaps no less uncommon. In March 2019, the Justice Department arrested several celebrities and business moguls in connection with a vast college admissions scandal. A man named William “Rick” Singer, who claimed to run a college preparatory service, accepted roughly $25 million to fix standardized test scores and pay off coaches in order to land enrollment for undeserving students. Some parents were accused of having shelled out as much as $6.5 million to buy their child’s access to the “side door,” as Singer put it. Sitcom actress Lori Loughlin allegedly paid $500,000 to get her two petite daughters admitted to USC under the guise of their joining the crew team. One of the daughters, Olivia Jade — a social media influencer who decidedly does not row crew — approached college as a marketing platform, striking deals with Amazon Prime and launching a makeup line with Sephora. Before her freshman year began, she posted a YouTube video for her couple of million followers: “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend, but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying … I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” Since the scandal, Sephora has severed ties with Olivia Jade, and the public backlash has been spirited.
In order to make college available to more people, federal student loans were created in the 1950s. While that program started with good intentions — to assist those without the means to attend college — it later contributed to a financial and social ill. Rather than reward and encourage vocational careers, we have instead come to define success in relation to acceptance by a well-known college, with a greater emphasis placed on the institution’s brand name than on the actual education it provides. The student loan market has facilitated schools’ raising the cost of education astronomically, which in turn has made it even less viable for those unable to access loans and scholarships.
Our national education bubble has swelled to $1.5 trillion in debt outstanding — that’s larger than both credit card and auto loan debts, a consumer debt market smaller only than mortgage debt. Two million people in our country owe more than $100,000 in student loans. After being told their whole lives about the importance of a college education, then working hard to get into the best school they could, they graduated into a Kafkaesque existence, shackled to debts they have limited ability to repay while working jobs that leave them living at subsistence levels. Meanwhile, the children of the rich and famous are matriculating at even better schools, unburdened by financial considerations as they set up their cameras to plug new products and vlog about their glamorous lives.
Access to the other line is first and foremost determined by the birth lottery. Race, nation, and gender are all factors, as well as the socioeconomic status and psychological functionality and resilience of your family. I’d been lucky on those accounts. But if not for the Wharton MBA, I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunities and resources that offer entry to the other lines that now permeate all facets of modern life.
These considerations are not only for the wealthy. Today, many more people face the challenge of figuring out how to set limits in a society that makes it easy, acceptable, and often celebrated to yearn for special privilege. Anyone with some level of success grapples with these questions: What are the perils of chasing the other line? How much privilege should we take advantage of? What is the impact of the other line on our happiness?
What sort of lives do we want for our children? How much do we utilize the other line on their behalf? How much do we expose them to the negative effects of the other line? By exerting our influence, power, and money, are we hampering their development and understanding of how a healthy society should function?
On the other hand, incentives do matter. The fruit of our labors must be something worth working hard for. Expecting people to contribute to society and create value for reasons other than personal motivation has been proven untenable time and again. To imagine a world without the other line is unrealistic.
But where is the balance? Social currency used to be based on a combination of personality, integrity, intelligence, appearance, family history, demographics, and connections. And that currency could be wielded only in the limited circle in which one presided — a place of work, a community, and perhaps an extended social circle. Merit played a predominant role in determining our ultimate success. To achieve the American Dream, we believed, one must work hard. Merit has since been debauched, leaving access as the most powerful currency of modern times.
The world seemed a better and happier place when our experiences were punctuated by special, memorable moments, rather than the other line being an end in itself. We used to want a rewarding job, a nice house and car, and the ability to support a family, send the kids to college, and retire comfortably. But now we yearn for the most exclusive, private, elite luxuries. What has the American Dream become?
From “How Money Became Dangerous: The Inside Story of Our Turbulent Relationship with Modern Finance” by Christopher Varelas and Dan Stone. Copyright 2019 by Kantzas, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.