Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

Yet the phrase "money doesn't interest me" got repeated so often, and at times with such sincere boredom at the idea of another million gained or lost, that I began to think it might not be such a big lie after all. Money, that is, real money, was of course essential. But at least after the first flush of pure cash bedazzlement, most people discovered that money by itself wasn't enough. What you could do with it, on the other hand, what you could become, was endlessly fascinating.

"Make no mistake," a private family banker declared one day, on the topic of what rich people are seeking with their wealth, "what this is all about is love." No doubt he was right, up to a point. But my background as a naturalist inclined me to think it was more often about the things that drive top animals in the natural world — the quest for control, dominance, mating opportunities, and, above all, status.

Money merely gets you into the game, and the price of admission can vary wildly depending on the milieu. So it was much more complex than it might at first seem to ask, What does it mean to be rich? or How do you define wealth? In the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, I went trekking with a prince, a first cousin of the king, who had no money in the American, much less the Aspen, sense. Yet people covered their mouths when they spoke to him, lest they taint him with their human breath.

He carried the talismanic aura of his cousin, and thus he was rich in at least one classic sense: The word "rich" derives from the same Indo-European root that produced the Celtic word rix, the Latin rex, and the Sanskrit rajah, meaning "king," and in many cultures the concept of being rich is about how closely one can approximate the aura of royalty. My Bhutanese prince may also have been rich relative to local economic standards. If, as a fellow trekker suggested, you begin to be rich when you earn twenty or thirty times the local per capita income, then in Bhutan, where the per capita income is $510, someone with an income of $15,000 could conceivably live like a king.

And in the United States? "A fortune of a million is only respectable poverty," a prominent figure in the New York 400 remarked in 1888. Yet the word "millionaire" has held onto its own talismanic cachet. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became a television hit despite Regis Philbin. The Millionaire Next Door became a bestseller even though it featured timid souls who stayed at home on Saturday nights, drove Buicks, and held J.C. Penney credit cards. These millionaires actually had a median income of $131,000 and were the sort of folks who could be motivated by a $200 fee to sit down for "personal and focus group interviews." They were, in short, working stiffs, with a relatively modest net worth.

Junior Wealth

For the purposes of this book, immodest wealth is more the idea. A recent survey prepared for the financial services industry found that there are 590,000 "pentamillionaires" in the United States, and the authors predicted, with a gleeful rubbing of hands, that there would be 3.9 million of them by 2004. This economic cohort consists entirely of people with a net worth, not counting the primary home, of $5 million and up. Other reports bandy about terms like "centimillionaire" and the rather dazed and dreamy "gazillionaire" or even "kabillionaire."

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