conspicuous by their absence

Reading this, it occurred to me that the rich really are different from you* and me: they can afford to stay out of sight.

Russ Alan Prince and Lewis Schiff describe a similar pattern in their book, The Middle-Class Millionaire, which analyzes the spending habits of the 8.4million American households whose wealth is self-made and whose net worth, including their home equity, is between $1 million and $10 million. Aside from a penchant for fancy cars, these millionaires devote their luxury dollars mostly to goods and services outsiders can’t see: concierge health care, home renovations, all sorts of personal coaches, and expensive family vacations. They focus less on impressing strangers and more on family- and self-improvement. Even when they invest in traditional luxuries like second homes, jets, or yachts, they prefer fractional ownership. “They’re looking for ownership to be converted into a relationship rather than an asset they have to take care of,” says Schiff. Their primary luxuries are time and attention.

*Unless you are rich, but you wouldn’t tell me that, would you? Unless you’re only recently rich.


  1. N.b. I haven’t read the linked article.

    What seems conspicuously absent from the linked paragraph is an understanding that service workers are ‘outsiders’ too. That is, maybe those millionaires aren’t consciously trying to impress other people of their own social class. Maybe they’re not even trying to impress anybody. But there certainly are a lot of people around to observe the money they spend while not-impressing people.

    Their personal trainers, their housecleaners, their nannies, their contractors (and the laborers employed by those contractors) — all of the people providing those oh-so-private services are sentient human beings, capable of observing and even having opinions about their employers. And they have families and significant others, and like all human beings they gossip.

    So I don’t buy this “staying out of sight” thing, unless it’s really just a contrast with Paris Hilton or something.

  2. You’re right that the article ignores service workers – or any work, really. I think the argument might be that to many of the rich, service workers don’t matter in the way other people do – they’re not potential peers, or something like that. I’m not sure that I believe that, now that you mention it.

    I do think that aside from people who work directly for or near rich people in their “private” locations, the really rich do live in a remarkably separate world from most others. Maybe there are more service workers in rich places than I realize. But I might be unusual in having met very few and having never seen any of those private spaces. (At least I don’t think I have.)

  3. Or look at it this way: where do most people come into contact with other people? A non exhaustive list would be: education, work (and the related commute), shopping, recreation.

    Education: K-12 there are nearly exclusive schools for those who can pay and meet the admissions criteria. Higher ed, though not as socioeconomically diverse as it could be, is somewhat more diverse than, say, exclusive boarding schools.

    Work: I don’t have much experience with a variety of work places, but this world seems clearly less separable than education. How much contact there is across organizational hierarchies, I don’t know, but at least in the work place, there can be some. I suspect that unless you’re in service, or working directly for/with the higher-ups as a nearly higher-up yourself (in which case you might be pretty well-off too), or in a field where you attend events with philanthropists, you probably don’t have much contact with your organization’s rich outside of those work spaces. In terms of commute, most people commute by car, so are separated, but you’re not going to find a lot of rich on mass transit.

    Shopping: In terms of staples and a lot of consumer goods, if you’re rich enough, you can hire someone to do this (your employees see you; most people don’t).

    Recreation: There are, obviously, exclusive upscale restaurants, clubs, bars, hotels, etc. Public parks might be the exception, but there are country clubs and the like to perform that function for those who want to and can afford to opt out. Maybe their kids will be at the park, accompanied by a nanny. Big tourist attractions are another exception – major museums, for example. Sporting events are a partial exception, though private boxes are often now enclosed in glass and completely set off from other seats. For travel itself, there is first class – which isn’t that separate, admittedly – and for the really rich, their own private transport.

    Now of course there are people who work in all of those exclusive places, but most other people are not going to have much experience of those places. That’s all I – if not the article linked in the post – mean by “out of sight.”

  4. Thanks for these very thoughtful comments. As one of the authors of the book quoted in the article (The Middle-Class Millionaire) I’d like to elaborate on a few points:

    Where they live: First, most of the “merely rich” or “Middle-Class Millionaires” we write about live in middle-class neighborhoods. Even within middle-class neighborhoods, however, there are “nice” streets and “nicer” streets. The Middle-Class Millionaire (“MCM”) might very well live in the best part of those neighborhoods and might even be living in a new house they built in those neighborhoods.

    Education: Most of the children of America’s MCM households go to public schools along with everyone else.

    In terms of conspicuous consumption, I don’t think anyone is immune from some of this, but the research shows that they tend to leverage their discretionary income towards things that will make their lives run smoother and they do so on a continuum of needs that would be familiar to most people: education, health, career, home, community.

    Yes, the rich–even the MCM–are different than you and me. They lead busier lives (working on average 70 hrs per week compared to 40 hrs for the average American) and their lives become increasingly complicated as they become wealthier. As a result, they spend more money to “maintain” their increasingly wealthy lifestyle. Some of this comes in forms that others might think are conspicuous (i.e. the dog walker) and it also comes in forms that are changing our communities like healthcare that’s more intensive, perhaps more exclusive and statistically more effective.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    Lewis Schiff

  5. Hi, thanks for dropping by.

    I was mostly using the linked article as a jumping off point to talk about the rich – or my perception of them – who probably would be considered richer than the “merely rich.” I would add, though, that a “dog walker” is another example of paying to stay out of sight (except of the dog walker).

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