Monday, August 20, 2007

Retching Excess: Living in Richistan

A short while back, I blogged about the growing personal submarine business. Personal subs are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg - or the tip of the conning tower - of the goods and services being consumed by the super-rich.

Paul Harris reported in a recent article in The Observer on some of the goodies available to the growing cadre of billionaires in the U.S. (Up since 1985 from a paltry 13 to over 1000. Even adjusting for inflation - i.e., a billion ain't what it used to be - that's quite a growth spurt.)

Here are a few things that money can buy for those wealthy enough to inhabit the parallel universe of the hyper-rich, dubbed Richistan by WSJ reporter Robert Frank:

  • Time sharing at Solstice, where 80 members who pay $875,000 to join get to swan around to one of 10 swank places "fully staffed with cooks, cleaners and 'lifestyle managers' ready to satisfy any whim from helicopter-skiing to audiences with local celebrities." I wonder what the "local celebrities" get paid - or is the mutual preening enough: you're rich, I'm famous, ain't we got fun?
  • A $736K Franck Muller watch that makes a Rolex look like the $12 Timex I got when I graduated from grammar school.
  • A $700K Mont Blanc pen that can be carried in a $42K Louis Vuitton pocketbook. (You have to ask yourself whether a $700K pen writes better than, say, a $1K Mont Blanc-er - or even a measly $100 pen.)

At least these items are durable goods. How about the Algonquin Hotel's $10,000 'martini on a rock', which has a diamond instead of an olive. And I started getting unnerved when a glass of wine started running $10. 

We all know about the high-end Kobe beef burgers, that can run you more than $50, but Harris found a $1,000 omelette - probably a little more elaborate than the Western from Denny's.  I'm guessing caviar. And maybe the chickens are hand raised, free-ranging in $10M timeshares, and sipping from "Bling". For those who are still trying to assimilate the fact that half the bottled water they're paying for comes from a tap, "Bling" can run up to $90 a bottle. (Smart shoppers like Paris Hilton, who is said to give it to her dog, can get it for much cheaper than that, but if you want the really fancy bottles, you have to pay a bit more.)

Now, I appreciate that things that cost more are often of higher quality. A Lexus is more comfortable than a Kia and all that. But you do end up reaching the point of diminishing returns sooner rather than later. Water out of a $90 bottle is still water, after all.

There's an upside to all this, of course: butlers are in such great demand that butler school grads can make six-figures for popping open that bottle of Bling for the master.

But mostly, the growing population of Richistan symbolizes downside, not upside. Rich get richer, poor get poorer, the incredible shrinking middle class keeps shrinking, and even some of the super-wealthy (think Gates and Buffett, who probably aren't buying the $700K watches and pens) are questioning whether it's good for the country to have the level of wealth capable of dropping $1K on an omelette get away with being so lightly taxed.

We're told that keeping taxes down means that more money gets plowed back into the economy, but is this where we'd like to be see the plowing back occurring? Taxes that paid for improved infrastructure, better schools, parks and recreation, more widely available healthcare, and other share-the-wealth items would be plowing back, too, wouldn't they? And those taxes wouldn't have to be all that confiscatory, either.

It will be interesting to see how this story ends.

Nice to live in the land of opportunity, and all that, but as more and more people start feeling closed off from the opportunity they may start feeling a little more 'us and them'.

All this wretched, retching excess....

You know the old joke: One nobleman, seeing the mob gathering outside the castle gates with their pikes, says to the other, "The peasants are revolting."

"Yes," agrees nobleman two, "They certainly are."

Methinks that, these days, it's not exactly the peasants who are revolting.

1 comment:

Tiffany said...

Interesting post. The personal sub thing is hilarious - my boyfriend has said on multiple occasions "If I were ever that rich, I'd get one!" And I'm like yes. Or, erase hunger in an African nation. Whichever makes you feel better about yourself. And he says - well of course, if I had that much money, I'd do both. He would, of course, because he gives out of what he has already, and I suppose all people think they would. It's funny, though, how people are about wealth and charity. I've read that most wealthy people give the same percentage of their income to charity that they did when they weren't rich. Hm... Other than the Gates family and Rick Warren, I suppose. So maybe it's not all true. . .