Why do we pay so much attention to the rich? We watch and wonder at how they spend money. We follow the ups and downs of their marriages and remarriages. If possible, we try to be informed about every assignation between, or during, those marriages. We learn about the tragic disasters some of their children are. And we learn that they die just like we do, sometimes younger, often with much greater drama.
But why are we so curious?
I ask this question every time I go to the supermarket and see the magazines at the checkout counter. Yes, it is possible to be rich and still suffer from cellulite, but so what? I also know that this is only the beginning, just the tawdry edges of informative media coverage.
But let’s get serious: Exactly what can we do with the rich? As I pointed out in an earlier column, we can’t take their money and eat them. There isn’t enough cash or flesh to go around.
More civilized uses don’t do much, either. The cruel fact is that the income and assets of the rich, however humungous, won’t solve any of the problems the rest of us face. One indication is in the IRS figures on their income and the taxes they pay, now updated to 2010. The top one percent of earners pulled in a whopping $1.5 trillion in 2010. They paid $355 billion in federal income taxes. That’s an average tax rate of 23.4 percent. Doubling their tax rate wouldn’t close the federal deficit, even if some of their income didn’t go missing in the face of higher tax rates.
And while we’re at it, let’s get serious about another reality. There’s Lame Rich and Genuinely Rich. The proverbial 99 percent versus 1 percent serves as a case in point. You won’t find truly rich people at the bottom edge of the top one percent.
The IRS figures tell us that the price of entry for the top 1 percent is now an income of $369,691. That’s a handsome sum, to be sure. It’s 10 times the $34,338 of income you need to cross into the top 50 percent. It’s more than five times the $69,126 you need to enter the top 25 percent required by my Life of Riley Index. It’s certainly affluent.
But rich? No way. I’m sure we can find families with that income in Manhattan that have trouble making the $30,440 tuition payment for preschool at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, or coming up with $30,000 to rent a cottage in the Hamptons for July. The same family would probably think it imprudent to spend more than 10 percent of their pre-tax income on the $38,000 handbag that Oprah Winfrey admired in Europe or plunk down over $250,000 for an exclusive golf club membership.
Yes, the bottom-of-the-one-percenters has to make serious choices about how they spend their after-tax income, just like the rest of us do. Why? Because the closer you get to where the Rich Life is, the more expensive it gets. Trust me, the low end of the one percent does not include the folks who are buying 25-hour fractional private jet cards at $123,100 a pop.
So I’d like to make a proposal. Let’s ignore the rich. Let’s think of them as irrelevant rather than special. Think of the relief we’d feel! Think of the time (and trees) we’d save!
And consider what we might learn.
As long as we give in to the notion that the rich are somehow innately different— as F. Scott Fitzgerald did when he wrote, “the rich are different from you and me”— we’ll miss a more important distinction between individuals. Some people, rich, poor or in between, are good stewards of their resources. Some people are bad stewards.
Bill Gates, for example, is a good steward, an exemplary steward. Prince Jefri of Brunei— best known for his mega-yacht “Tits”— is a bad steward, an iconic example of wretched excess. If we pay attention to Bill Gates— not because he is rich but because he demonstrates good stewardship— maybe others will follow his example.
So let’s stop gawking and wasting time. Let’s set a goal: Watch and learn from the good stewards. They can be rich. They can be poor. They can even be like the rest of us.