Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

How to identify the breed? Is there a holotype, a specimen pinned down in a museum somewhere against which one can size up all newcomers and say this is or isn't a rich person? Is it really possible to characterize a group that includes both a comparatively dainty figure like French businessman Bernard Arnault, purveyor of Louis Vuitton and other opulent brands, and a bruiser like basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, who weighs 330 pounds and has the word "TWISM" ("The World Is Mine") tattooed on his left bicep? It is. The way to start is by defining just what we mean by "rich."

A Numbers Game

One afternoon in Aspen, I had coffee with a local craftsman. He was the second person that day to let me know early in the conversation that he didn't need to work for a living. He'd married into a prominent family, and when the name failed to produce a satisfactory response, he said, "They owned General Dynamics," a manufacturer of some of the deadliest weapon systems on Earth. "They owned the Empire State building," he said. "Do you have the Forbes 400 list?" he asked. It turned out that they are currently worth about $3 billion.

He was a solid, muscular guy, with an upright, almost balletic posture, and a manner of quiet arrogance, in the first person plural. "We really, really go out of our way not to dress particularly well, not to drive really fancy cars — everybody in the world can get a Range Rover — and not to let people know what our philanthropic endeavors are. Sometimes you don't want the advertisement."

He was scathing about wannabes. Maybe it was because he was himself a relative newcomer in this world. "You can't pretend to have the speed of a cheetah, when you're really a mule," he said. A new country club in town especially irked him. It created "a different level of Aspen citizen, those who belonged, and those who didn't. It was really terribly exclusive in a way a lot of us resented." He'd signed on as a charter member, just to get in a quick round of golf. But the other members turned out to be, on average, sixty-four years old. Mules, not cheetahs. They needed five-and-a-half hours to complete a round. So having bought his membership at $60,000, he sold out at $175,000 and could savor his righteousness.

He asked, as everyone did sooner or later, how I was planning to define wealth and I said that I was probably going to make my starting point between $5 and $10 million in investable assets. "I don't consider that a lot of money at all," he said. This was an entirely reasonable comment, improbable as it may seem. For $5 or $10 million, you could just about buy a suitable home in Aspen, where the average house was then selling for $3.4 million. (It would be a second home, of course, so you would also need funds to feather it, to fly back and forth, and to entertain your fine new neighbors.)

In any case, he added, money doesn't matter: "Money by itself doesn't interest me all that much." He defined wealth essentially as contentment with your lot: "My opinion of wealth is to be able to own whatever it is you have, at whatever level. If you have $50 million and you're racing around bloody well killing yourself and basically a slave to that which you are striving for, I would not count that as wealth in any shape or form." I demurred. The guy with $50 million may be a slave to it, but people still leap at his bidding.

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