The Cost of Living Extremely Well

George Will

10/11/2007 12:01:15 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- Enough, already, with compassion for society's middle and lower orders. There currently is a sympathy deficit regarding the very rich. Or so the rich might argue because they bear the heavy burden of spending enough to keep today's plutonomy humming.

Furthermore, they are getting diminishing psychological returns on their spending now that luxury brands are becoming democratized. When there are 379 Louis Vuitton and 227 Gucci stores, who cares?

Citigroup's Ajay Kapur applies the term "plutonomy" to, primarily, the United States, although Britain, Canada and Australia also qualify. He notes that America's richest 1 percent of households own more than half the nation's stocks and control more wealth ($16 trillion) than the bottom 90 percent. When the richest 20 percent account for almost 60 percent of consumption, you see why rising oil prices have had so little effect on consumption.

Kapur's theory is that "wealth waves" develop in epochs characterized by, among other things, disruptive technology-driven productivity gains and creative financial innovations that "involve great complexity exploited best by the rich and educated of the time." For the canny, daring and inventive, these are the best of times -- and vast rewards to such people might serve the rapid propulsion of society to greater wealth.

But it is increasingly expensive to be rich. The Forbes CLEW index (the Cost of Living Extremely Well) -- yes, there is such a thing -- has been rising much faster than the banal CPI (consumer price index). At the end of 2006, there were 9.5 million millionaires worldwide, which helps to explain the boom in the "bling indexes" -- stocks such as Christian Dior and Richemont (Cartier and Chloe, among other brands), which are up 247 percent and 337 percent respectively since 2002, according to Fortune magazine. Citicorp's "plutonomy basket" of stocks (Sotheby's, Bulgari, Hermes, etc.) has generated an annualized return of 17.8 percent since 1985.

This is the outer symptom of a fascinating psychological phenomenon: Envy increases while -- and perhaps even faster than -- wealth does. When affluence in the material economy guarantees that a large majority can take for granted things that a few generations ago were luxuries for a small minority (a nice home, nice vacations, a second home, college education, comfortable retirement), the "positional economy" becomes more important.

Positional goods and services are inherently minority enjoyments. These are enjoyments -- "elite" education, "exclusive" vacations or properties -- available only to persons with sufficient wealth to pursue the satisfaction of "positional competition." Time was, certain clothes, luggage, wristwatches, handbags, automobiles, etc. sufficed. But with so much money sloshing around the world, too many people can purchase them. Too many, in the sense that the value of acquiring a "positional good" is linked to the fact that all but a few people cannot acquire it.

That used to be guaranteed because supplies of many positional goods were inelastic -- they were made by a small class of European craftsmen. But when they are mass-produced in developing nations, they cannot long remain such goods. When 40 percent of all Japanese -- and, Fortune reports, 94.3 percent of Japanese women in their 20s -- own a Louis Vuitton item, its positional value vanishes.

James Twitchell, University of Florida professor of English and advertising, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, says this "lux populi" is "the Twinkiefication of deluxe." Now that Ralph Lauren is selling house paint, can Polo radial tires be far behind? When a yacht manufacturer advertises a $20 million craft -- in a newspaper, for Pete's sake; the Financial Times, but still -- cachet is a casualty.

As Adam Smith wrote in "The Wealth of Nations," for most rich people "the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves."

Hennessy understands the logic of trophy assets: It is selling a limited batch of 100 bottles of cognac for $200,000 a bottle.

There is some good news lurking amid the vulgarity. Americans' saving habits are better than they seem because the very rich, consuming more than their current earnings, have a negative savings rate.

Furthermore, because the merely affluent are diminishing the ability of the very rich to derive pleasure from positional goods, philanthropy might become the final form of positional competition. Perhaps that is why so many colleges and universities (more than 20, according to Twitchell) are currently conducting multi billion-dollar pledge campaigns. When rising consumption of luxuries produces declining enjoyment of vast wealth, giving it away might be the best revenge.