Wanted: Eye-of-Needle Enlarger

Richistanby By Robert FrankCrown. 277p $24.95
Ignore the Robin-Leach-like subtitle: this is not an ogling survey of mega-moneyed celebrities. Robert Frank writes a weekly column and daily blog called The Wealth Report for The Wall Street Journal; and he offers us an informative guided tour around an astonishing American landscape. Most of its inhabitants are unknown to the general public, and with good reason: many of them prefer anonymity; and, with few exceptions, they are not, or do not sound like, brilliant, creative or interesting people. But that is Franks point: we are living in a world where hitherto unimaginable wealth can be quickly obtained by plenty of quite ordinary individuals.

Frank offers thumbnail sketches of his nouveaux riches; he provides some basic history, sociology and psychology to explain their ways. But the most valuable feature of this journalistic account is surely the numbers. Consider the following: there are now about 7.5 million American households with a net worth of from $1 million to $10 million, more than 2 million households worth $10 million to $100 million and thousands of households worth $100 million to $1 billion. There were 13 American billionaires in 1985; there are currently more than 1,000. The richest 1 percent of Americans own more than a third of the nations wealth and more than the entire bottom 90 percent. The total wealth owned by the Forbes 400 (all billionaires) has shot from $439 billion in 1995 to over $1 trillion today.

And these folks need not fear the tax man: the highest federal tax rate has dropped from 91 percent in 1965 to 35 percent in 2007 (the approximate rate paid by this impecunious reviewer). The tax on capital gains and most dividends is now down to 15 percent. Eighty percent of the Bush tax cuts went to the top 10 percent of taxpayers; nearly 20 percent of the windfall went to the top 0.1 percent. Now if only we (they) could do something about that nasty estate tax.

These huge vaults of cash inevitably lead to rather gross modes of conspicuous consumption that Frank delights in describing: $100-million yachts (which can be chartered, in a pinch, for $800,000 a week), 70,000-square-feet mansions, $125 million estates, private jets, helicopters, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Franck Muller watches (from a mere $4,800 to an eye-popping $600,000), artworks of every description (the one investment that cannot fail?), second, third or fourth homes and apartments, $120,000-a-year butlers and so on.

It would be comforting to think that such profusion was, if not matched, at least slightly offset, by philanthropy; but Frank supplies no serious evidence of this. He cites three semi-detailed annual expense statements: Family No. 1, with a net worth of $50 million, gives away $500,000 a year, or 1 percent, an amount equal to what it spends on house staff and personal assistants, and less than what it spends on air charters and cars ($650,000). Family No. 2 is worth $80 million, but allots a derisory $11,000 to charity and political donations counted together (as opposed to $500,000 on travel). Family No. 3, worth $1.2 billion, gives $3,000,000 to charity, which adds up to one-quarter of 1 percent of its fortunethis in a year when the family spent $20,000,000 on a yacht, with annual maintenance costs of $1,500,000.

Frank devotes a whole chapter to the inspiring tale of Philip Berber, a Houston-based Irish Jew, who took the swag he made by selling his online trading system CyBerCorp and applied it to some remarkable projects in Ethiopia through a foundation named Glimmer. Thats all very well, but most of the men and women in Berbers income bracket seem to be focusing more on Palm Beach, St. Barts or Monaco than on the Horn of Africa.

In any case, Frank is not much given to moralizing. (If he were, he would not have gotten such broad access to his subjectsthe prophet Amos most likely never got invited to dinner by the rich women he addressed as you cows of Bashan.) He dutifully charts their entrepreneurial feats, their astronomical salaries, their liquidity events (selling ones stake in a company for major bucks), their consumerist follies (alligator-skin toilet seats, 400-square-feet walk-in closets, private hockey rinks). He sympathizes with their troubles: insecurity, rising debt (especially in Lower Richistan), their spoiled aristokids, who have no notion of working for a living. He has a sneaking admiration for the new breed of rich political activists, the Lear-jet liberals, who recently scored some stunning coups in Coloradosnatching a handful of previously safe Republican seats. The only Richistanis he flat-out attacks are uncouth barbarians in the ballroom, like the self-promoting arriviste Simon Fireman.

Not until his final pages does Frank drop the breezy, insouciant tone and ask some hard questions. Given the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, what does the Richistan phenomenon portend? More heliport-and-pool-equipped yachts cruising far offshore from more Katrina-homeless? If we accept, Frank concludes, that the rich arent the cause of the current inequitiesthat is kind of himbut merely the lucky beneficiaries, we can also hope that they will use their wealth to help target societys deepest problems.

Well, hope away. Even with icons like Bill Gates and Philip Berber setting a noble example, the odds of a majority of the rich seriously contributing to, much less entering, the kingdom of heaven look about as bad as ever.

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