The subtitle of this book by Robert Frank is ” A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich ” and it is certainly a fascinating journey. Most articles or TV shows about the rich tend to concentrate on their possessions , their houses , their cars and their lifestyle. This book goes beyond that. While it does devote some chapters to yachts and balls and ‘household managers’, it also introduces us to some of the megarich, how they got that way and their fears ( which are very much like yours and mine).
The premise of the book is that the very rich have created their own society within a society, a parallel country ( Richistan ) of their very own . Richistan is divided into three levels : Lower Richistan ( Household Net Worth $ 1 million to $10 million ; population 7.5 million households), Middle Richistan ( $ 10 million to $ 100 million ; 2 million households ) and Upper Richistan ( $ 100+ million ; thousands of households ). Lower Richistanis are looked down upon by the other two groups as ” not rich, merely affluent” and as representing ” not wealth, merely competence”.They are really not that different from the rest of us except that they live in bigger homes , drive fancy cars and have better furniture; their mindset is similar to ours. The book devotes more space to the Upper and Middle Richistanis who are quite different and therefore more interesting to us.
The toys and lifestyles of these mega-rich are described in some detail but, to me, the most interesting thing is how these ‘ fortunate’ few view themselves and their motivations for the choices they make.These people are quite different from the frugal millionaires described by Thomas Stanley and William Danko in ” The Millionaire Next Door“; those probably would be classified as Lower Richistanis by author Robert Frank. Unlike Old Money millionaires, most Richistanis are self -made multimillionaires; workaholic, younger and more actively involved. The Upper & Middle Richistanis live large, splashing their money around on large yachts, fleets of cars, huge houses, glittering charity balls and so on. But these pursuits are often attempts at ‘ keeping up with the Joneses’ and sometimes backfire spectacularly. When Microsoft millionaire Paul Allen commissioned his $ 250 million, 400+ foot long yacht ‘ Octopus’, he didn’t forsee that it would be too large for conventional marinas and that he would have to dock in commercial ports next to rusty freighters and oily sky cranes ! After all , the whole purpose of having a mega yacht is to be able to park next to other lesser yachts and lord it over their owners. All in all , these possessions seem to give Richistanis very little lasting pleasure. It is amusing to find that even some of these megarich are afraid that their money is not enough and that they are sliding down the financial ladder !
To me, the two most interesting chapters are the ones on charitable pursuits( Performance Philanthrophy) and political involvement ( Move over, Christian Coalition). Particularly fascinating is the story of Philip Berber, a 45 year old Jewish Irishman from Austin, Texas who is using half his fortune to provide wells, schools and health clinics to the impoverished villages of Ethiopia. In doing so, he shows established charities and NGO’s how to distribute aid efficiently and effectively. Politically, Richistanis are surprisingly liberal and provide an effective counterweight to the Conservatives of the Christian Right. There are many more surprises in ” Richistan” but you can find them out for yourselves.
Richistan by Robert Frank. Crown ( 2007) $ 24.95.