During this break from teaching (especially after Xmas), I’ve been enjoying a few books. School is done for a while, and I normally have my students read works of non-fiction, essays in the anthologies and books such as Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Nickel and Dimed for example. To get away from school/work, have I been reading any good novels lately? Not yet (but hopefully soon) as the issues and real facts habit is hard to break. There are a few books that have my attention right now, but I’ll focus on Richistan by Robert Frank.
The book’s subtitle says it all: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the lives of the New Rich. Oh, and it is quite a journey that Wall Street Journal writer Robert Frank takes as he interviews, observes, and hangs out with the newly rich. He also defines Richistan as a culture that is developing apart from the American mainstream or any other culture as it becomes more and more international. The title, of course, is a play on Rich and istan, which seems to be the suffix for every newly minted Middle-Eastern/post-Soviet nation that keeps confounding American geographers, school children, and even temporary White House occupants.
While this nation doesn’t have any borders, it has strata. Here is the breakdown Frank gives on the three main ones and the general worth of average citizens:
- Lower Richistan: $1 million to $10 million.
- Middle Richistan: $10 million to $100 million.
- Upper Richistan: $100 million to $1 billion (and upwards)
What will suprise you is which stratum votes primarily Republican and which one votes Democratic. I’m not giving it away. You’ll just have to buy the book and read it to find out. Nonetheless, the revelations are fascinating (but may or may not be a surprise to some).
Some of the not so surprising things in Richistan are the excessive consumption of luxury goods and services, a keeping up with an (albeit wealthy) Joneses, and the ways some of the newly rich try to emulate old money and/or buy acceptance though some traditional social vehicles (such as high donations to charities and fund-raisers). On the flipside, a suprise is that there are also many Richistanis who still think of themselves and middle class and mentally distance themselves from the “rich” label. Several of Frank’s interviewees are people who see themselves as such and have pride in their wealth as something they’ve earned.
All this newfound wealth creates a new market for services the new rich need. The butler, once a stuffy relic of the early 20th century and before, is back with a vengeance. While this butler brings back a high level of service, he or she is also savvy with their client’s 21st century needs. Frank explains the revival of the butler and their training, along with other members of the newly rich’s house staff that do things the Richistani have previously done for themselves when they had less money.
While the book’s title is humorous and he handles the issues with a light touch, Frank never treats his subjects with ridicule or malice. Instead, he allows the reader to see their humanity, especially when it comes to their problems: burnout, financial disaster, workaholism, and dealing with spoiled children. The chapter on children is interesting as it reveals the concerns Richistani parents have – that they will not have the same work ethic as their parents.
Frank provides much insight into the lives of the newly rich, but this is not a celebration of excess. He points out some that have taken philanthropy into their own hands to make sure their money has a direct impact on social ills, locally and worldwide, versus simply throwing money at charities. He also doesn’t fail to address that there is a growing inequality in our population as wealth grows. A definite must-read for sure.
In our popular culture, the Richistani are highly visible. Some are highly revered or equally reviled, such as Oprah or Bill Gates. Some have a love-hate relationship with the American public, such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Some of them even put their lives on TV, such as Hulk Hogan and his family, the spoiled teenagers who throw Sweet 16 parties, and the Real Housewives of Orange County. The sweet 16’er’s definitely exemplify the chapter on children. It’s easy to spend mom and dad’s money, especially when they have no concept. My favorite episode is when a high maintenance girl is promised some time in France and gets a lovely surprise gift: a year of Parisian boarding school. As for those lovely housewives, it’s safe to say they are in lower or middle Richistan and at least one of them has politics to match. The display of wealth has become more and more common, which also has the adverse effects on the lower and middle classes, who also resort to excessive high end consumption to emulate the Richistani.