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October 08, 2007

Whatever Robert Frank may think, the rich don't live in another country, argues Richard D. North: Richistan - Robert Frank

Posted by Richard D. North

Richistan: A Journey Through the 21st Century Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich
by Robert Frank
Pp. 263. London: Piatkus, 2007
Paperback, 12.99

Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - takes issue with Robert Frank's claim that the concerns and lives of the rich are so removed from the rest of us that they in effect live in another country.

The rich are different to you and me. But are they another country? Robert Frank tries to persuade us with his very title that there is this other place where super-affluence goes on. It's a proposition which flows from his noticing that,

by 2004, the richest 1 per cent of Americans were earning about $1.5 trillion a year - greater than the total national incomes of France, Italy or Canada.
This is about one tenth of the US's GDP. Accordingly, the rich
had built a self-contained world unto themselves.
It provides, he shows us, butlers, gardeners, and yachts. These yachts, by the way, are a bit of problem. One chap he meets notes that his boat is the size of another's yacht tender: and so we have a little sermon about the envy which afflicts the rich more even than the poor. Private jets are another problem, but one even middle class people can understand. Once one has owned a jet, commercial airliners seem infra dig. But don't those of you who have ever flown business or club resent turning right ever after? Envy is a human condition, and not reserved for Richistanis.

So here are the book's two main errors: to over-sell the idea of the separateness of the very rich, and to repeat without much question the proposition that they mostly buy themselves a world of problems. Even the egregious Oliver James can't make the latter of these ideas stick, as we have discussed here previously, and Frank - who does not emphasise the issue nearly so much - is bound to fail at it.

The book has another major fault. Frank sets out like a Defoe or a Swift to explore this new territory, but his jaw is too often dropped. Perhaps for public consumption and to satisfy an urge for sales, the excesses of Richistan consumption are piled on very thick. The extravagances which hundreds of millions of dollars will buy a person are heaped up one on top of another. At one level, the trick works: when Radio 4's sober-sided You and Yours focused on wealth in August, they did it with all the gob-smacked incredulity of Victorian urchins pressing a snotty nose against a pastry shop window. They had Frank on to describe what outrageous consumption is like, up close and personal.

With these gripes in mind, we can get on to the very interesting book which lurks within these pages. It is an essay in how varied and complicated the having of wealth is. That's to say: it takes people in different ways. Frank doesn't really have theories and he writes his book as a series of encounters with different and rather varied Richistanis. (In this, it is like James's adventures amongst the well-off.)

But some themes do emerge. One is that the modern rich are not snobs. They do not aim to ape or be any kind of aristocracy. They are not even concerned to be an elite. This is quite new, and it suggests an ordinariness in the modern rich. They are unembarrassed, and feel almost obligated to show off what they have long desired to have, and which they know the rest of the world also desires. So whilst the new-rich are not exactly integrated with their neighbours, they are less like the citizens of another country than Richistan's title supposes.

They do have to keep themselves to themselves. They fear burglars. But even more there is the problem that their less affluent friends pose a constant headache. This was the theme of Friends With Money, the nearly-good Jennifer Aniston movie previously reviewed here. The rich can't complain about their lives to anyone less rich than themselves. And middle class people are always aware that a rich friend could solve their problems by writing a cheque. So it is natural that rich people seek each others' company.

Some of Franks' most interesting pages are about the clubs they form. These clubs are new because they are not primarily social. They are worlds away from the leather-bound stuffiness which the snobbier rich have aspired to. They seem to be mutual support centres, where the well-off can talk freely about their anxieties. These seem to be the same as everyone else's: what to do about the kids and how to maintain their economic position. In these pages we seem to be at the heart of the thing. Most of the very, very rich have made money by starting firms (often very improbable ones), and then selling out. Some of them are obsessives, but really they now have nothing to do. Others understood their own businesses quite well, but have no idea about investing their wealth in anyone else's.

Surprisingly, most seem to find that they find it hard to maintain their stratospheric relative wealth: their money earns money less fast than the costs of being rich rise. In this sense, the idea of a Richistan seems to make sense: it is a country which earns its money in the rest of America, but is prone to a rather specific price inflation. Whilst the goods and services most of us want get cheaper, the things the rich want don't. Worse, of course, the purveyors of the most expensive aspirational goods just keep on shoving the price of the best up. (Think of Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God.)

And of course, the rich have always feared not merely being less rich but also being less more rich than everyone else. What's more, there is much less stability amongst the very rich than might supposed. It is wise not to place too much emotional stock in being fabulously more well-off than the next man (it's mostly men), granted that at the highest echelon there are many newcomers and that others have to drop off the perch to accommodate them. Frank says that not many very-rich actually become poor, but nonetheless they may be more prone to humiliation even than the rest of us.

There is a very good chapter about some of the children of the rich and the problems they face in establishing their own worth. Here, one is inclined to worry about the absence of a class system. Imperfect as it was, the old scheme of things brought with it the idea that wealth entails a certain status and certain obligations. In Britain in particular, class laundered the nouveau riche very quickly: many turned from entrepreneurs into county stalwarts in less than a generation.

Frank shows us that in the US an even better system may be emerging. The new classless very-rich include many people who have got their heads screwed on. Aware of the dangers of their new position, they turn to philanthropy and politics in ways which seem very interesting.

It is often remarked now that giving is becoming more entrepreneurial, and Frank introduces us to several very rich people who think they have found new way of spending their money and above all of making sure it does good. Some talk nonsense about charity being an "investment" rather than an act of kindness, as though it made a conventional return, and what's more a return to the donor. Anyway, the new givers often think they know how to be more efficient in their virtue. Actually, this may be a sub-species of the older arrogance of generosity. They may not be right, but they certainly add to the variety of good being done and in that sense alone are funding social experiments at home and abroad.

Politics attracts some very rich people and Frank takes us to meet people whose involvement both with Republican and Democrat politics is novel. We meet individuals who do not want power and do not want to be at the top table in formal politics. Rather, they have (some of them) socially liberal attitudes and seek to back candidates of whatever party will promote them. Many have a commitment to the social mobility of which they are prime examples, and so want to work to improve public schooling. Often, it seems they will assess which party is likely to win at whatever election is in question, and then work out which candidate is the least-worst for their particular cause. This is miles away from commercially-self interested lobbying - indeed it is interesting to see how Frank's rich people seem to have quixotic or romantic hopes of their political involvement.

If much of this is true, then both charity and politics will be influenced by an influx of new wealth. Of course, these activities are rather unaccountable, and that has dangers. But the tendencies seem likely to add to the variety and even the gaiety of the nation.

Actually, and in direct contrast to the marinas and estates and private jets which are on every other page, it is the seriousness and usefulness of the Richistanis which really dominates this book. Whether the very-rich are swank or not seems to make very little difference to their strong sense of a work ethic. They also seem, most of them, to have a rather engaging - a rather normal - sense of what real worth consists in. This is why it is wrong to think of them of coming from another planet, let alone another country. The very rich are mostly rather ordinary and interesting - even likable - Americans.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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