$1 Million Isn’t Cool. You Know What’s Cool?

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins waxes nostalgic about what $1 million used to mean to us as a culture, and how little it means — to the people at the top, anyway — now:

A million dollars used to be a magic number, a sign of permanent affluence. You’d made it! But now it won’t buy you lunch with Warren Buffett (the winning bidder in a charity auction paid $1,000,100) or even, it appears, a public defender. …

Most Americans’ reverence for the million-dollar figure is based on the fact that they do not have a million dollars themselves and are not seeing any signs that Barclays will want to give it to them for a year’s worth of consultation.

Somehow she gets away without quoting The Social Network. Maybe it’s implied?

As always, it’s about context. If you hang out with the super-wealthy, you want what they have. If you hang out with the destitute, you’re grateful to have anything. Members of Congress? Have long ago forgotten how to be grateful.

It’s not that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s that these days it requires a whole lot more than a million dollars.

More than half of all the members of Congress are now millionaires, but many of them don’t seem to be all that thrilled about their financial condition. “They feel: ‘We’re so underpaid,’ ” said Fred Wertheimer, the campaign finance reform activist. Once politicians get to Congress, they become acquainted with people who are truly rich. That’s pretty much a necessity because re-election is something else you cannot generally buy for a million dollars. Suddenly, they’re hanging out with folks who have private jets and four houses.

My prescription: Mandatory food-bank service for all members of Congress and at least eight hours of community service a week. Also, read your bibles, you hypocrites.

Collins also mentions several pop culture phenomena that make use of the million dollar figure, including the charming midcentury movie How To Marry a Millionaire, where Marilyn Monroe once more gamely pretends to prefer beta dudes with glasses. (This was a longstanding Hollywood fantasy: producers had her make the same assertion in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. One can only suppose it was their way of both harnessing her sexuality and making themselves believe they could get with her.)

Sadly Collins leaves off one of my favorites, the giddily entertaining slow-motion-car-wreck of a TV show “Joe Millionaire,” where women competed for the favor of a good-looking doofus under the impression that he was rich. The twist of course was that he was a regular guy. After he chose his lady love, he revealed that actually he had nothing to offer but his biceps. Was her love so true that it could survive having been built on a lie? But then, double twist, SHE revealed she was actually a 175-year-old Albanian sea-witch in the guise of a fortune-hunting starlet and asked would he still love her, frog-skin and all?

He looked pretty scared to cross a sea-witch, so he said yes, and she transformed back into her massive slimy self and grabbed him with her tentacles and dragged him away to her lair.

It was great television.

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