Class dismissed.
November 27, 2007 7:25 AM   Subscribe

How rich is rich?

Becker and Posner debate billionaires. (They're rich, right?)
How rich is too rich for democracy?
Maybe the problem is that we're all middle class.
Check your facts.
posted by anotherpanacea (53 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

the overall inequality in wealth also declined greatly in the US, UK, and other western European nations during the first 60 years of the 20th century. Inequality has increased significantly since then, but it is still less than at the beginning of the century.

Color me unimpressed. The early 20th century was an extremely turbulent time socially at least in part because of the inequality between rich and poor. And our pace back in that direction shows no sign of slowing.
posted by Slothrup at 7:48 AM on November 27, 2007

People always say they just want enough to be comfortable. Perhaps that's because the concept of wealth has built in connotations of greed and excess that everyday people can't relate to. So they altruistically imagine a world in which they could be just "comfortable", as if one could cultivate the drive to acquire more and more for the years necessary to arrive at their goal and then just shut it off.

I had dinner recently with a group of media industry executives who all own homes in or around New York City and who each probably make at least five times what I do. At one point when they were discussing property they wished to buy, the conversation turned to what they would do if they were "rich".

I know it sounds like sour grapes but really all I hear when people fantasize about money is, "I want to not have to think very hard about what I do and what I consume." I think at it's root, it's not money they crave, it's an acknowledgment of the impossibility of the civilization we've inherited, and a craving for one in which the needs of an individual or a family really CAN be sustained with reasonable effort.

As for me, I'd just be happy if I knew I could be stricken with a serious illness without probably having to wind up moving back in with my parents.
posted by hermitosis at 8:10 AM on November 27, 2007 [10 favorites]

As for me, I'd just be happy if I knew I could be stricken with a serious illness without probably having to wind up moving back in with my parents.


*strikes hermitosis with serious illness while arranging it so he doesn't have to move back in with parents*
posted by languagehat at 8:12 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well said, hermitosis. People don't want to be "rich" ... they just want to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and consume the planet. It's time for a return to stoicism.

It's all relative, of course.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:13 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a house with enough bedrooms for everyone in my family, a reliable car for everyone who drives, enough money to pay for water, electricity and even cable television. I have a nifty laptop and and a high-speed connection. I've never had to wonder if I would have enough food.

By any standard that makes sense to me, I'm bizarrely rich. When everyone else in the world gets to the point that they, too, never have to wonder if they are going to eat today, maybe then I'll start thinking about what else I would like to have. For now, I'll just funnel my excess wealth into meals for the starving.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:18 AM on November 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

*strikes hermitosis with serious illness while arranging it so he doesn't have to move back in with parents*

Did languagehat just get me pregnant and then marry me?
posted by hermitosis at 8:26 AM on November 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

languagehat writes "*strikes hermitosis with serious illness while arranging it so he doesn't have to move back in with parents*"

Nonono, he'd be happy if he knew it, not if it actually happened.
posted by Bugbread at 8:38 AM on November 27, 2007

Their how rich are you thing has to be broken... According to them I'm in the top 260,000,000? I guess I might be doing better than I thought.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 8:49 AM on November 27, 2007

Nice! Can I borrow some monies, mastercheddaaarrrrr?
posted by Mister_A at 9:00 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of the 'financial stresses' test: if you worry about money, you're not rich. Even if you're a businessman who makes seven figures, has a yacht and a house on both coasts, you're not rich because of those anxiety dreams about having a fat wife and shopping at Wal-mart.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:13 AM on November 27, 2007


I have heard that same line ("If I were rich...") from a CEO of a GE division (he reports directly to Jeff Immelt). This guy flies all over the world on the GE private jet, mind you and he actually has the cliched "villa overlooking Nice".

Me? I would just like to buy a "newer" used SAAB to replace my 900.
posted by wfc123 at 9:15 AM on November 27, 2007

Overlooking a nice what?

/willful stupidity.
posted by Mister_A at 9:17 AM on November 27, 2007

Did languagehat just get me pregnant and then marry me?

Offer not valid in the US (except MA, and SF maybe). Welcome to Toronto, you crazy kids!
posted by bonehead at 9:23 AM on November 27, 2007

Rich means making twice what you're making now.
posted by delmoi at 9:26 AM on November 27, 2007

self-made rich people are sufficiently self-disciplined not to waste time on the internet like we do.
posted by bruce at 9:30 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Say what you will about the United States, but there's currently no law against a man getting another man pregnant and never has been. I love this country!!
posted by hermitosis at 9:33 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fuck you money.
posted by Relay at 9:35 AM on November 27, 2007

Fuck-you money apparently originates from an article by Chicago journalist Mike Royko, who was talking about a wife, dissatisfied with her marriage, getting a job and telling her husband to fuck off. It got picked up by the baby bulls in the late nineties, which is where Stephenson got it: "Enough money so that if you needed to, you could tell your boss, 'Fuck you,' and you wouldn't be eating Alpo afterwards."
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:03 AM on November 27, 2007

what about those of us who want to be able to bathe in saffron and wear solid gold clothes?
posted by Stynxno at 10:05 AM on November 27, 2007

Like you, Stynxno, I am a simple man. All I want is a solid gold toilet and a Ferrari.
posted by Mister_A at 10:10 AM on November 27, 2007

All I want to do is shit solid gold into a Ferrari, maybe we should all get together on this and knock up some kind of timeshare.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:23 AM on November 27, 2007

hermitosis: "I had dinner recently with a group of media industry executives who all own homes in or around New York City and who each probably make at least five times what I do. At one point when they were discussing property they wished to buy, the conversation turned to what they would do if they were "rich". "

That's how I feel a lot of the time... I mean, by their standards, my bosses aren't rich. But they own multiple properties, many vehicles for the business. They're buying a new house. They aren't hurting, put it that way. Yet they think they don' have a lot, by any stretch. To them, they're middle-class, and maybe they are.

But to someone like me, who desperately NEEDS my paycheck on the day it's received, who maybe can wait a few extra days beyond that... Well, yeah, multiple properties IS rich, IMO... Compared to people who are actually struggling to keep one foot ahead.

Yes, I'd hate to get sick. My partner is permanently disabled, and I have no clue how we managed to survive between the time she lost her job and was able to collect disability. My sister is STILL in the process of trying to get disability, 3 appeals, my mother is the only one who is working (my father retired after a heart attack), my mom is 66 and should be retiring, but she has to bust her ass to support herself, my father and my sister... None of them own property. Sorry to get all personal, but it just burns me when people don't even think of how good they have it.

I can see the good things, I can be grateful for what little we have. The fortune that comes to me, I greatly appreciate. Would I like more? Sure. I love me some good video games. But I don't need or want to be a consumer whore. Living thrifty these past few years has taught me a lot on how I don't need to buy buy buy... But comfort to me is not having to worry about living paycheck to paycheck.
posted by symbioid at 10:26 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

They said "Son, it could all be yours, you just work hard and pay your dues.
Don't be content with what you've got, there's always more that you can want!
Everybody's on the make - that's what made this country great!"

So all I wanted in the end
Was world domination and a whole lot of money to spend
A little place to call my home, like a planet that was all my own
Well that's not much to ask, it's really not
Not much to ask, just the same as anybody else...

- New Model Army, "Great Expectations"
posted by nasreddin at 10:27 AM on November 27, 2007

Pater Aletheias: "By any standard that makes sense to me, I'm bizarrely rich. When everyone else in the world gets to the point that they, too, never have to wonder if they are going to eat today, maybe then I'll start thinking about what else I would like to have. For now, I'll just funnel my excess wealth into meals for the starving."

After watching a news piece on Plumpynut, I felt guilty about how much I eat. I know I eat WAY too much fast food, and it wastes a lot of my money, so what I've done to cut down is have my partner make a list, I tell her when and how much fast food I buy, she adds it to the list. I will then take the same amount I spent and give it to MSF to distribute plumpynut. This gives me 1) and incentive not to spend too much, cuz I'm spending double (which will make me think longer about impulse food buys like that), and 2) Know that if I do do it, I'm at least not just being a consumer whore and helping someone in the process. But I try not to overeat as much. Not a perfect plan, but it has helped me be conscious about my habit.
posted by symbioid at 10:42 AM on November 27, 2007

Think of the richest person you've ever known. Richest person I've ever known is probably worth, oh, I don't know, maybe $4M. From my informal conversations with friends, that seems about the average.

Now realize that, to be one of the top 0.5% of Americans who control 20% of our country's wealth, you would have to be worth 1000 times more than the wealthiest person you've ever known.

I think that if every American would take a second to think about this, and then think about the fact that our standard of living is only about 12th in the world, we would have some sort of revolution on our hands.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:51 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

In my opinion rich is when you have enough money to not work because your money is making you money. Make sense?

Of course this depends on your style of living and what your money is invested in!
posted by Black_Umbrella at 10:56 AM on November 27, 2007

Compared to people on tv, I'm not doing too well. I have to work full-time. I have to budget for trips, and I drive a 10 year old car. Compared to people in the 3rd world, I have a home with heat, comfort, clean water, and reasonable safety. I have reliable electricity and phone service. I have the luxury of having cable tv and broadband.

What makes me feel rich is having low debt, and being able to live someplace beautiful. What makes me feel poor is fear of having a health crisis in the US, with the mess that is our health care system. If I get sick and can't work, my health insurance will run out, and then I would be really screwed.
posted by theora55 at 11:12 AM on November 27, 2007

In my opinion rich is when you have enough money to not work because your money is making you money. Make sense?

Yeah, that's rich to me too. According to one of those articles linked up there, a million can make you 40k. That's more than enough money for me to not have to need any other income. I live now on 9k. And I don't feel guilty because other people in other places in the world have less financially. I think it's a luxury to be able to expend emotional resources to feel that guilty. There's nothing wrong with having that luxury from where I'm sitting.
posted by Danila at 11:33 AM on November 27, 2007

I can honestly say i'd be completely content with 500 dollars more a month. At this point in my life, anyway. I am 20, out on my own for the first time. 500 dollars a month extra means I wouldn't have to exist on ramen and instant coffee for the 4 days before each paycheck, and i could start saving money for the future.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 11:42 AM on November 27, 2007

My woman had some interesting information about the poor, middle-class and the rich, and how whichever segment you're born in, you have problems adjusting to one of the other segments.

I was born the fifth child of a poor family. When my mom and dad divorced, I lived with my mom, who had no job skills, and so we stayed very poor. We went hungry a lot of the time. Often we had no heat. Occasionally we had no electricity, or even a place to live at all. When my mom died, I lived with my grandmother until she couldn't control me anymore, and she was poor too, living on a fixed-income. Then the Army and later various other jobs. At best, I am now middle class, but I still revert to my poor-upbringing ways all the time.

My woman was born solidly middle-class. She never went hungry. Her parents paid for her college. She started a career early and will retire next year. She's never had to really endure serious financial hardship. For her, when things get tough, she looks to me, because handling life when life is tough is something I've grown up doing, and I know how to survive on the most meager resources.

But when things are going *good*, and they have been for a few years now, that's when I kinda lean on *her*. She knows how to manage finances, she's far more responsible than I am. All the things related to day-to-day middle-class life, she's good at that stuff, and I'm really not. She's the professional middle-class person, who has never devaited from middle-class. I'm the professional poor hardluck guy, who's now a little out of his element living a middle-class life.

I don't think either of us would really adapt well to being rich, and especially not me. I bought 20 lottery tickets the last time the lottery cracked $300 million. She pointed out that that is what poor people do. She's *never* bought a lottery ticket, and spouts the odds and equates it to throwing money away, and says she'd rather keep the $20 and put it into an interest-bearing account or a Roth IRA. I'd rather throw the dice and, low odds or not, see what happens. (I didn't win is what happened, and always has, but still, like I tell her, the only people who *do* win are those who play!)

After I bought those tickets though, I started contemplating what I'd do if I actually won. Pay off what's left of the mortgage, but a nicer house and a couple of nice cars and a truck for carrying shit around. But attention and fame I do not want. Socializing with rich bitches, not for me. Servants catering to my every whim and need -- I wouldn't enjoy that. It'd make me uncomfortable and embarrassed. So what I decided I would do with the vast bulk of the money is...I'd give it away, as quickly as possible without throwing away a lot on double taxes, and leave myself maybe 5 million or something in the bank.

I read about some guy who *did* win a big ol' lottery, and he said it ruined his life. His wife left him, his son became addicted to drugs, he was sued over and over and over, to the tune of *hundreds* of lawsuits, from people trying to pry some bucks from him. He was constantly pestered by needy organizations seeking financial donations. Yadda yadda. It really didn't sound like something I would enjoy in the slightest.

All-in-all, I am very happy to not be as poor as I was during my childhood and young adulthood. Wondering if you're going to have even one meal each day, that's just hard. But I think I'm reasonably content to remain middle-class now. Being rich, that'd be too much for me, and I don't think I'd be able to adjust. Being rich *temporarily* -- winning the lottery and then giving the vast part of the proceeds away to family and friends --- I could live with that, so I will keep playing, even if the woman snickers at me. ;)
posted by jamstigator at 11:48 AM on November 27, 2007 [5 favorites]

Haha, I make over 100k annually, and you would be SHOCKED to know how little I have in the bank at his very moment...
posted by tadellin at 11:50 AM on November 27, 2007

My woman

posted by nasreddin at 11:53 AM on November 27, 2007

Well, we're not married. Normally, people say 'my wife' or 9my husband' or 'my spouse'. But legally, she is not. 'Significant other' is both long-winded, and doesn't really do justice to our relationship in my mind -- we've been together almost 19 years now, longer than most marriages last. So yes, for the sake of brevity, I just say, 'my woman'. There's really no term or phrase that I've found that fits adequately, so I just use the shortest term. ;)
posted by jamstigator at 12:08 PM on November 27, 2007

My woman


Stay away from my special la--from my fucking lady friend!
posted by Brak at 12:34 PM on November 27, 2007

Yeah, I’m in a groove similar to Pater Aletheias ( Pretty happy with what I have and grateful. I don’t really care what I drive as long as it goes. My wife and I live very much below our means, so we’re doing fine. Of course, I know we’re one long cancer battle from starvation like everyone else. I suppose rich would be simply having enough to continue living as I am without ever having to worry about money.
I can’t imagine why anyone would want a yacht. You can rent one. Why own a vacation home when you can rent very nice houses for a vacation? Acquisition of things serves only the ego, folks overly concerned with money tend to be incredibly boring. (I’m reminded of Lewis Black’s personal ball washer). I know more than a few rich folks (buddy of mine bought a fancy Italian sportscar without thinking much about it. I bought a hat) and for the most part, not very interesting. Aside from the entrepreneurs, those folks seem more interested in using money as I think it should be used, a tool to get nifty stuff done. If I won the lottery, apart from becoming a full time student, I’d be doing quite a bit with it, but I’d be driving the same beat up truck, wearing the same clothes, living in the same house.
It’s not really important to be rich because it’s so outwardly a thing, living rich is easy enough. Give me a full belly, some reading material and good conversation and I’m the king of the world.
The problem is, folks obsessed with weath, are the worst people to trust with it. Which is why so little really nifty or innovative things get done without silly amounts of effort.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:51 PM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ah, lottery winners...

But you know, what's weird to me is that I know people who are happy with the current political situation, where the rich get more tax breaks while the poor (and most of the middle class) are one hospital stay away from financial disaster. They buy the whole trickle-down theory hook, line and sinker.
posted by SteveInMaine at 12:52 PM on November 27, 2007

...or what Smedleyman said better.
posted by SteveInMaine at 12:53 PM on November 27, 2007

I bought a hat

Smed, you're my kind of guy.
posted by languagehat at 1:18 PM on November 27, 2007

(Thanks LH)
Yeah, SteveInMaine, I think most people figure they’re going to be rich. So they buy into that. As though it’s some kind of achievement in and of itself. As though constant leisure was a reasonable pursuit for a human being. Nothing wrong with lying on the couch, watching a little t.v. or jerking off. But aquisition of all this stuff to do, basically, the same kinds of things, I don’t get. (Is jerking off on a yacht that much better?) I’m not really into -working- at hedonism. I like a twinkie as much as the next guy, but y’know, a staff of concubines on a private island, nice fantasy, the reality of the massive investment in time and energy into a basically worthless pursuit, not so much. Insofar as direction of resources, that generally is more of a meritocracy. I’ve had multimulti-million dollar operations under me. Heady experiance. Not a place I’d like to be personally. I think there’s a break there in “fuck you” money. If you have too much, you’re an institution yourself, too important to say “fuck you” and just split. Or you have people trying to kill you. (Which is one of the major arguments for taxing the rich, really). Seems to me if everyone had about the same level of personal resources (within reason, I mean, some guy invents the artificial heart, I don’t want to take anything away from him) we’d be a lot more stable and less subject to the whims of any given individual. (Although I think I’m stealing from one of the founding fathers there). Still, yeah, a guy makes 10, 20, 30 times what I do, ok. 10,000 times? Bit much. Meanwhile he’s drawing way more resources than I do but paying proportionately less tax. Goofy.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:59 PM on November 27, 2007

You know how rich the truly rich really are?

They're so rich that they could give away enough money for the rest of this country to be rich, and still be rich.

That's how fucking rich. Makes me sick.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:02 PM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

I was a lot day-to-day richer just out of uni on half the average wage than I am now with a mortgage and three kids, even though I am earning 5 times as much.
A problem with rich is security. If you want to be secure, you need to have substantial wealth.
Up thread d13t_p3ps1 wanted $500 a month extra to save and have a better lifestyle.
Once she has that no doubt concerns raised by others about health insurance will be a focus.
When that is sorted, probably concerns over housing - leading to a mortgage. When that is done there is concern for retirement.
All the way through the lifestyle gets marginally better each year until to maintain it in retirement costs real dollars.
My best suggestion is to live just a little under what you can, then stick to it.
If d13t_p3ps1 pegs her lifestyle at the point she currently says she will be happy (when she gets a raise or two to cover the extra $500 a month) and puts future earnings increases into savings etc. she will be sweet.
posted by bystander at 7:11 PM on November 27, 2007

Rich for me would be a dozen acres of arable farmland in a nice place with good water, good access to a city, fibre to the local telco switching station, and my wife and good health. All owned outright, no monies owing.

There is, in fact, no reason I couldn't do exactly that tomorrow, except the wife won't co-operate.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:52 PM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Lewis Lampham's figure is +20% of what one makies now to feel ok. Whatever they are making, add 20% and all troubles would be calmed. This may be true for most.

I have always been fairly content. I think it is a matter of trust. I always assumed it was a product of my middleclass upbringing, knowing that the world will take care of me when I am willing to do what is nessasary. If you don't have that trust then things can easily spiral up, more and more money to secure what you have and to secure the money securing, etc.. It may be easy for people with actual money to fall into this.

It is also a matter of perspective. My first wife once talked about the time we were so poor we had to eat ramin for a week. I thought I was simply bingeing, finding different foods to cook up with it. I love that stuff.

That said, having enough money that I don't have to budget real hard is a real blessing.
posted by pointilist at 10:43 PM on November 27, 2007

The conclusion of all of this must be: your level of wealth has only a slight correlation with the amount of money you have.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:18 AM on November 28, 2007

The big thing is that it's always relative, and there are always richer people above who most people tend to automatically see as "rich" no matter where they are in the hierarchy instead of looking in the mirror--or looking below. And most people who work every day--even if they make high 6 figures--believe they're not rich simply because they work for a living (they don't factor in that they could quit that day and not have to work for years, unlike most in the world). And of course, the trappings of a higher salary cost much more so you never really are banking much (altho you may have a lot in your house or 401k, etc).

It's also enormously reinforced in the media because of the almost total lack of attention to poverty and hunger here among millions, while there's an overemphasis (because of ad dollars) on those who can afford luxuries and designer clothes. Even all celebrity coverage (which there's much much more of nowadays) is usually about things and status items and what they carry and wear, etc.
posted by amberglow at 4:58 PM on November 28, 2007

At best, I am now middle class, but I still revert to my poor-upbringing ways all the time.
A lot of us do. (and i played lotto tonight on my way home--i like to compare it to all the people who buy themselves things when they need a lift) : >

I wonder about the faith in the stock market tho--401ks are not private pensions--and there's absolutely no faith in my mind that it's any more secure than gambling. Private pensions and health plans have disappeared--and even those that still exist for retirees now can disappear without any recourse--and 401ks only seem to guarantee income for banks and other big companies instead guaranteeing a retirement for any of us. (i think it's related to what you were talking about, jamstigator)
posted by amberglow at 5:13 PM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

oh, there's a moment in Roseanne that's always stayed with me--and perfectly describes some of it--the lights go out because they couldn't pay the bill and she immediately says, "That was it--we just fell out of the middle class".
posted by amberglow at 5:18 PM on November 28, 2007

Being able to make your power payments is middle class?

I always thought it was more like being able to pay off your mortgage, have a couple cars, take vacations once a year, raise a couple kids without taking a big kick in the personal retirement savings plan.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:57 PM on November 28, 2007

It's more a sign that you're not--if you don't even have the means to take care of absolute necessities like power or rent.

There are levels above subsistence and simply the absolute minimum you need to survive--middle class is always above subsistence level.
posted by amberglow at 3:49 AM on November 29, 2007

There's always a certain stability or cushion in being middle class (whether it's a retirement plan or equity or job security or just a few months' expenses socked away--let alone tuition for the kids or more than one car, etc).
posted by amberglow at 3:53 AM on November 29, 2007

even if you're swamped with debt, etc--that credit line in itself is middle class.
posted by amberglow at 3:55 AM on November 29, 2007

Krugman -- Zombie ideas about income mobility
posted by amberglow at 7:04 AM on November 29, 2007

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