But the word "millionaire" still glimmers in the public imagination, even if that means we must drastically revamp it to fit modern times. In a recent survey by The Wall Street Journal, most people defined wealth not by assets but by an income of a million dollars a year. This is heady territory. In 1999, the Internal Revenue Service received only about 205,000 tax returns with an adjusted gross income of $1 million or more (most of them joint returns, at that). It begs the question: Could you be rich on somewhat less?
That is, could you arrive at the nebulous sweet spot where you are doing what you like — and what your neighbors wish they could be doing — without having to worry much about how to pay for it? (You might think that being rich means no longer caring what the neighbors think, but the art of wealth is at least partly about the ability to inspire and manage envy. If what you like to do is sit in the attic and clip dolls out of yesterday's newspaper, you may have ownership, you may have contentment, but you are not rich. Do it with $100 bills, on the other hand. ...)
So what is the magic number that makes you rich? Based on no surveys or economic parameters whatsoever, other than a brief look at this month's bills, my own impression is that an income of somewhat less than $1 million a year would do quite nicely. A salary of $500,000 might not make you rich, because of the obligation to punch a clock and kiss the hierarchical hinder parts, but an income at that level from one's own portfolio begins to sound pleasantly independent. The threshold for wealth thus seems to me (and to most private bankers and big-time fund-raisers) to lie somewhere in the unpoetic but highly palatable pentamillionaire zone.
The exact number is subjective. It depends on what you like to do and where you like to do it. In Aspen or Palm Beach, an investment portfolio worth $5 or $10 million will certainly not cause people to drag themselves to their feet for a round of curious sniffing. In New York, bankers refer to a fortune of $10 million as "junior wealth." You need at least that much, and probably far more, to keep the apartment on Park Avenue, the place in the Hamptons, and the kids at Brearley or Spence. But in most places in the United States, Europe, and Japan (and therefore also in less developed nations), it would give you a fair start at being a big dog.
Wait! Sit! Before we head off in pursuit of the rich, we need to think about two related concepts critical to the definition of wealth and the character of our subspecies. The first concept, relative deprivation, has to do with the point at which the rich themselves feel they are becoming big dogs; the second, social isolation, is about how they choose the habitats where they typically go to say, Woof, woof!