Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

Journalist Richard Conniff probes the age-old question, "Are the rich different from you and me?" He discovers that they are indeed a completely different animal. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide.

Scratching with the Big Dogs: How Rich Is Rich?

"There's a certain milieu in Aspen. To the extent that you're collecting important art, you're listening to avant garde music, and you participate as a peer in Aspen Institute intellectual discussions — that, and you have $100 million — then you're considered a big dog." — Harley Baldwin, art dealer

If men come from Mars and women from Venus, where on earth do rich people come from? Are they, as ordinary people often suspect, an alien life form? Is their blood the color of money? Do they have special antennae, as their press people like to suggest, for picking up distant intimations of profit and loss? Can they see around corners? Is life on Canis Major, the big dog star, really light years apart from the bow-wow world of ordinary runts like you and me? The truth is that rich people are not even a different species from us. They are more like a different subspecies.

The rich themselves often say that they just want to be normal people, leading normal lives. "I just want to be middle class," was a familiar refrain among dazzled Internet millionaires in the late 1990s. Then, to their horror, they got what they wished. This ambivalence about wealth is perhaps sincere, but it's also a little disingenuous. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com made himself a folk hero of the era as a billionaire who drove a beat-up Honda and celebrated frugality. "I don't think wealth actually changes people," he declared.

But at the time he was moving out of his 900-square-foot rental in downtown Seattle to a $10 million waterfront house in the leafy suburb of Medina, where his new neighbors included Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates, Jon Shirley, and Nathan Myhrvold. Then, 7,000 square feet perhaps seeming relatively frugal in this context, he decided to expand the place. Wealth is like that.

Whether they want it or not, the dynamic of being rich invariably sets people apart. It isolates them from the general population, the first step in any evolutionary process, and it inexorably causes them to become different. They enter into a community with its own behaviors, its own codes, its own language, its own habitats. ("I'm the most normal, normal person," one extremely wealthy woman told me. "I'm not like most rich people. I work really hard. Most rich people I know don't do anything but eat, drink, sleep, pardon the term, fuck, and have a good time.")

Their children or grandchildren come to mate mainly with one another, like Whitneys with Vanderbilts and Firestones with Fords. (If you are planning to get a wedding present for little Jennifer Gates Bezos, start saving now.) Thus, from the primordial muck, something new and wondrous emerges: A cultural subspecies, Homo sapiens pecuniosus.

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