If ever the conditions were right for a remake of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” it is now. I would love to hear Robin Leach narrating the script for one of Bill Gates’ residences, maybe the 66,000-square-foot Medina, Washington, estate with its high-tech toys. Sad to say, Leach is deceased, and the super-wealthy are not open to public inspection like those of 1980s TV, who were measly multimillionaires. And billionaires rightfully should be nervous about perceptions.
Analysts studying the economic effects of the pandemic say the super-rich are getting much richer. Forbes Magazine reports that 46 new billionaires were born this past year, putting the total for that super-wealthy club at 660. (Six more billionaires and the number will start to look seriously evil!) Don’t confuse millionaires with billionaires; they are as different as Dollar General to Oscar de la Renta.
According to Forbes, the richest man in the world (at this writing), Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, more than doubled his net worth to $177 billion during the pandemic — that is, so far in the pandemic. That is an ungodly amount of money, a number too big for our minds to visualize in ordinary money terms like the value of houses, cars, and land. Instead, we must think in terms of buying baseball teams or space programs or other countries or an iPhone 12.
Seriously, a gold-encased iPhone with an embedded hunk of pink diamond sold for $48.5 million to a billionaire’s wife in India (according to Matt McIntyre at wealthygorilla.com). Imagine, a phone worth more than her private jet! And consider the terror of I-can’t-find-my-phone!
Those of us protective of capitalism tend to defend the right to become insanely rich, and some people point out the enormous philanthropy of the super-rich who appear to be generous with mega-donations. In truth, billionaires need to do something to keep from having uncontrollable wealth. They can give away millions and millions every year (and to their own tax-escape foundations) but not keep up with the interest they are earning on investments. That must be exhausting! I imagine them sitting down to dinner, and the conversation going like, “How did it go today?” “It was terrible. Another billion. What are we going to do now!”
Parallel to the recent swelling wealth in the stratosphere of financial worth is the inconvenient statistic that the poverty rate in America increased, the “sharpest rise in the poverty rate in more than 50 years” as detailed by Forbes. They go on to say that the 660 billionaires have more combined worth (over $4 trillion) than the combined worth of the entire lower 50% of the population ($2.4 trillion). I am not an economist, but I believe what that is saying is that those 660 people do not have to wait until Black Friday to get a 55-inch TV.
One luxury we can afford now (probably not when we are both fully retired) is the Wall Street Journal. The occasional WSJ Magazine insert ads leave me dumbfounded. When we were new subscribers, I could not believe that anyone with normal intelligence would wear some of the ridiculous styles, much less pay the exorbitant prices for them. I was wrong.
The super-wealthy do most certainly pay $48,500 for a Patek Philippe watch or $3,800 for a Gucci house dress or $250,000 for a diamond-studded belt. They can easily afford a Burberry hoodie for $1,120. It’s nothing, nothing at all, like my going to a Belk end-of-season clearance for the 75%-off Christmas sweater costing $6.
I love rags-to-riches stories and the vision of America as the Land of Opportunity, but I fear that the goose that laid the golden egg is under distress. I am not a Marxist, nor do I believe that form of government serves its citizens well, as history surely illustrates, but neither will unbridled, greed-driven capitalism on this runaway train speeding past a $28 trillion national debt (at this writing). God help us.
Robin Leach ended his weekly episodes with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” Neither of those appeal to me, so how about coffee wishes and biscuits-and-gravy dreams? Do not expect it served on a yacht. I prefer the kitchen table anyway.