Richistan: A Jounrey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich
by Robert Frank
Crown Publishers, 2007
277 pp., $24.95
A friend of mine recently told me about a conversation between two of his clients: one a deca-millionaire, the other worth closer to a billion. The former was telling the latter about his 40-foot motorboat and its agility in navigating certain fishing spots along Vineyard Sound. After praising his vessel for a while, he asked the other fellow, whom he knew to have some sort of yacht, “So do you ever take your ship into those holes?”
“Oh, no,” responded the other client, “I couldn’t get it in there, what with it being 360 feet long and all.”
“Now that,” concluded my friend, “that’s shrinkage!”
“Shrinkage” might be the word to describe the likely effect, even on readers with considerable endowments, of Robert Frank’s new book, Richistan. It devotes an entire chapter to super-yachts, 50,000- square-foot homes, $350,000 Rolls-Royces, $600,000 watches, and $50- million jets. Other chapters detail every super-sized aspect of the newly wealthy’s lives. Their charitable gifts are bigger than ever. Their servants are more numerous, better educated, and more devoted. Their political donations and leverage make Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet look like ham-and-eggers. Their days are ever more jam-packed, multi-tasked, and bottom-lined. And their investments, power, and ambition are global.
Frank developed his basic thesis while looking over a sea of yachts at Bahia Mar Marina. The newly wealthy, he concluded, live increasingly apart from the rest of the country—almost as if in their own nation, a nation Robert playfully calls “Richistan.” There the newly rich enjoy their own separate careers, homes, health care, transportation, schools, and vacation destinations. Throughout the book, Frank is careful to make clear that his travelogue focuses on the newly rich. Richistan is not meant to describe the full diversity of wealth in the United States. Rather, it is a study of those who made their fortunes in the last ten or fifteen years, usually in the tech sector.
Frank has high ambitions. Like an intrepid anthropologist, he sets out to describe the “new culture of wealth” in America. Broadening his gaze beyond financial matters, he takes careful note of such cultural mores as dining habits, spending patterns, philanthropy, fashion, and etiquette. Yet, for all that, he spends surprisingly little time on such traditional cultural markers as marriage, family life, and religious belief and practice (or lack thereof). This decision probably says less about Frank than about his subjects. Truth be told, the newly wealthy have not yet formed their own separate “culture.” Though Frank claims to have discovered a new country, he actually has found a group of people with the same basic attitudes of most upper- middle-class Americans, albeit with affluence taken to the furthest imaginable extremes.
To those familiar with the genre, Frank’s tone is particularly striking. For generations, reporters have tended to rail at the rich. From Ida Tarbell to Matthew Josephson to Michael Moore, from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties to the Decade of Greed, journalists have delighted in howling at the “malefactors of great wealth.” Frank does not join them. He is not angry, indignant, or prophetically aroused against this prospect of a separate culture of wealth. Occasionally he quotes economists or social scientists who worry about consumption spending, the effect of enormous wealth on happiness, and the possible consequences of greater inequality. But overall he seems to find Richistan a curious, charmed, and even slightly enchanting sort of place. Indeed, he appears to connect with his subjects—particularly the wealth-creators—on an imaginative and emotional level. Perhaps it is an important characteristic of the newly wealthy that they can beguile even the Fourth Estate.
This sympathy allows Frank to represent honestly, though without much analysis, the somewhat conflicted souls of those he observes. Take, for example, their attitude toward leisure. The people Frank describes are tireless workers. They love projects and are constantly busy with new undertakings—and yet, for some reason, they feel the need to surround themselves with the appearance of leisure. In describing Tim Blixseth, the billionaire resort developer, Frank writes, “Blixseth has all the trappings of the life of leisure—multiple vacation homes, planes, boats, and cars. And he’s got enough money to last generations. Yet Tim has little time to enjoy it.” Frank concludes, admiringly, that “Blixseth and his kind are reinventing the leisure class. The idle rich are being replaced by the workaholic wealthy.” Exiling leisure while keeping its trappings may be the defining characteristic of these newly wealthy. Even the more active elements of traditional recreation (such as tennis, golf, or horseback riding) appear to hold little appeal for these folks.
This characteristic also helps us to distinguish these newly wealthy from a more traditional aristocracy. They altogether lack a desire for a life of refined leisure or genteel repose. Their relentless busyness, their diligent striving, is nothing if not middle class. The people Frank describes have neither memory nor dream of rest; they exist only in motion.
It is possible to dress up this restlessness as “creativity.” But in the end even creativity stands and falls on the merits of what has been created. Here, what is being created? Companies, reputations, gifts, and fortunes—all of which can rise and fall in the blink of an eye. A man like Blixseth may buy or sell dozens of resorts, estates, and islands. But he will never raise a pyramid. Where have wealth’s “immortal longings” gone?
Philanthropy has long provided an acceptable avenue for such longings in American culture. If one’s peers might look askance upon your decision to build a pyramid, they will respect your decision to give your alma mater enough money to engrave your family’s name on a hall or hospital. Endowing large, reputable charitable institutions can offer America’s richest families some glimmer of immortality.
But here too Frank’s newly wealthy behave somewhat differently from their predecessors. Frank admires the venture philanthropists, who eschew the traditional charities and attack social problems single-handedly, with entrepreneurial imagination and start-up zeal. To them, plaques, honors, even personal recognition (except among one’s fellow venture philanthropists) are repulsive. They are all about the business at hand, solving problems now. In the final pages of his book, sounding not unlike a Richistani himself, Frank expresses hope that the promise of venture philanthropy will overcome the world’s problems.
At the same time, Frank and some of his subjects cannot help but betray some admiration for the customs and habits of “old money.” He visits Palm Beach and describes the ritualized gift exchanges of this traditionalist enclave, chuckling with well-heeled socialites at a gauche arriviste who attempts to buy his way to the top and falls flat on his face. There is a place for humility among the wealthy—or even, to use an old-fashioned term, gentility.
The inhabitants of Richistan differ from the more established wealthy in another crucial respect: the rush of enterprise leaves little time for children. For a cultural observer, Frank talks relatively little about the bearing, raising, and marrying of youth—some of the central activities of all human societies. He limits his consideration of marriage to a brief discussion of pre-nups (or “marital agreements”). Frank spends a little more time describing the high level of depression and substance abuse among the children of the newly wealthy, equivalent in their rates to inner-city youth.
Such developments have even led to the creation of wealth education courses for rich kids, some of which go beyond economics and attempt to teach “character education.” But a weekend in leadership training seems pretty thin compared to “old money’s” lifelong school of virtue, with its boarding school, rough sports, regular churchgoing, military service, marriage, and understated devotion to purposeful activity, whether in commerce, law, government, or philanthropy. Despite Frank’s enthusiasm for the new, one cannot help but feel a lingering sense of loss for the old.
Questions about family life provide a broader context within which to understand the phenomena Frank describes. In various times and places, first-generation wealth acquirers have shared many of the characteristics he ascribes to Richistanis. They too have struggled to raise their children in a much different environment than that in which they grew up. Usually families do not meet this challenge effectively, and the wealth soon disappears. Rather than as a separate country or culture, I see the land of wealth as a region of “outposts,” many short-lived. Will Richistan prove more enduring? It remains to be seen, but Frank himself hints that the Richistanis’ relentless focus on the present, their tendency to see problems in quantitative terms, and the relative thinness of their culture, may all combine to make the prospects of a permanent Richistan unlikely.
Whether it is good for a country to foster or even tolerate such a group is a question for political theorists. Whether it is good for families to belong to such a group is a question for psychologists. Both go beyond the scope of Frank’s work. Nevertheless, through its many sympathetic insights, Richistan provides an entertaining introduction to this most prosperous stratum of American society.
Keith Whitaker is director of Family Dynamics at Calibre, a division of Wachovia Wealth Management, and a research fellow at the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College.