The Normalization Of The Very Rich

It’s not like I expect Two and a Half Men to be a documentary, but there’s something profoundly strange about the way CBS is framing Ashton Kutcher’s character on the show, who will debut this fall in the wake of Charlie Sheen’s messy exit. The character, named Walden Schmidt, is apparently an “Internet billionaire with a broken heart,” who, for reasons unbeknownst to me or the gods of plausibility, is apparently moving into a Malibu house with a divorced single-father chiropractor and his son to whom he is in no way related.

Now, rich people do strange things. They spend money on products of questionable utility that don’t actually sound enjoyable. They hire people to handle the most intimate details of their lives but get paranoid about their privacy even though they’re giving it a lot up. They do things like start private spaceflight companies (which, given how our government’s cut down on space exploration, may end up being a real public good). If they’re depressed, they hire expensive therapists, and if they’re single and don’t want to be, having billions of dollars (as well as looking like Ashton Kutcher) is a pretty easy way to find a pool of candidates to help you solve that problem.

The thing that’s annoying about having a very rich character (it doesn’t sound from this description like Kutcher’s character will have lost his money in recession or anything) move in with friends or relatives is not that it’s implausibly wacky. It’s that it’s implausibly wacky in a way that makes a very rich character seem more like characters of low to moderate incomes. If it’s scandalous when Eric Schmidt, Google’s married CEO, is seen out with a woman not his wife, it would be profoundly and stock-price-affectingly odd if a billionaire just moved in with a chiropractor and his kid for kicks. I’m sure being a billionaire has its inconveniences, but needing to move home or in with roommates is not one of them. Given how much of our politics is devoted to the idea that the very rich are somehow put-up, or that they’re just like everyone else, when in fact their resources mean that they don’t have to face the same challenges and concerns as everyone else, this kind of fantasy may not be uniquely damaging, but it does reflect something pernicious.