The vulgar rich aren't totally useless


Watching rich people -- it's as much a spectator sport as anything else in this country. It's what we do. It's why people travel to San Simeon and the Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville. It's why we drive out to Worthington Valley to gawk at Cal's house. It explains all the buzz about Eddie's home run ball. None of this would happen without rich guys.

So I disagree with what George Bernard Shaw once said about the rich being useless; they constitute our biggest growth industry, related as they are to Hollywood, the media, sports and corporate downsizing, which is all interconnected.

Half a million for Eddie Murray's 500th home run ball. Maybe a million for Cal's from 2131. A few months ago, JFK's golf clubs went for more than $750,000. Someone bid more than $200,000 for Jackie O's fake pearls. We haven't seen this kind of conspicuous consumption dressed up as artifact collecting since the Gilded Age, with the possible exception of the Reagan years.

What drives the rich to spend their money in such extravagant and public ways?

It's like Zero Mostel said in "The Producers": "When you got it, flaunt it, baby! Flaunt it!"

But there are other reasons, besides the obvious.

In this country, in this time -- this Gilded Age II -- money can buy the respect someone else earned. If you are rich -- and if you've come by your money, as so many do these days, without creating (and perhaps eliminating) substantial jobs for substantial numbers of Americans -- you might feel that your journey through life has lacked heroic accomplishment. So, you make your bid for the trinkets that fall from the shoulders of giants. It's as though a bit of Cal Ripken's heroic persona is transferred to the man who possesses The Ball From 2131. Same with Eddie. Same with Jackie and Jack. This allows the wealthy collector to say: "I might not have hit home runs or led the Free World or charmed great audiences, but I own a piece of someone who did and this is how I honor that someone and give myself a measure of his stature."

But I digress.

Enough of the faux-Freudian/Joseph Campbell speculation on motives. Back to my point along the bottom line: As vulgar as it all is, dramatic displays of wealth are widely admired.

In fact, since no one I know is planning a revolution any time soon, I would assume it's still considered the American ideal.

The United States has become the most economically stratified of industrial nations. Statistical research shows that the wealthiest 1 percent of American households, with assets of at least $2.3 million each, own nearly 40 percent of the nation's wealth. The top 20 percent of households, with assets of $180,000 or more, own 80 percent of America's wealth.

Is anyone bothered by this? Does anyone care?

Take away Pat Buchanan's cracks about corporate downsizing and the outrageous salary bonuses of CEOs, take away the rhetoric of Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, and you don't hear much of a public complaint about all this. In fact, you have Rush Limbaugh's passionate celebration of all this on 650 radio stations a day. You have Bob Dole and Jack Kemp talking supply-side again. You have Bill Clinton signing the welfare reform bill.

Not only do Americans accept the rich-get-richer/poor-get-poorer reality, but we seem to think it's a good thing. We even get a kick out of it.

We've come to see our rich as not so much the providers of jobs and commerce as the providers of entertainment and public amusement. Vulgar bursts of conspicuous consumption -- outrageous bids at Sotheby's, outrageous contracts for sports figures -- are anticipated, expected, embraced.

Of course, with all our wealth, we still trail other nations in overall quality of life. Among the world's 18 richest industrialized nations, for instance, American children have the highest poverty rate (one out of five and climbing, with welfare cuts). With all the complaints about the American "welfare state," our country still spends, percentage-wise, less of its gross national product on social welfare than most other developed nations.

But I digress.

What I wanted to say -- before reality about poor children stuck its head in the door -- is that those out there in the ordinary of life, working to get supper on the table and keep the kids healthy, owe a special debt to the rich. Sure, they might enjoy stock market booms ignited by layoffs and plant closures, they might have no shame anymore about spending huge amounts of money on "collectibles" while so many nonprofit agencies go begging for donations in the wake of government cutbacks in social spending. Sure, sure, sure. We know all that. And we still love 'em. The rich are like Las Vegas -- vulgar and entertaining. Is this a great country, or what?

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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