What Rich Used To Be

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From the Slope of Hope: I’ve had a lifelong fascination with wealth and, more recently, wealth disparity (for proof, look no further than the SocialTrade stack on this very topic). I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in a happy, financially-secure, but very much middle-class family. We lived in this house:

0617-sinclair

Everyone I knew had the same situation. We all had pretty much the same kind of house, the same quantity of toys, the same simple vacations………everything was so equal, you’d think we were living in some kind of socialist paradise.

We weren’t, of course, and there was, naturally, one “rich kid” in the neighborhood. Everything about his life was just a little bit nicer, starting with the house he lived in:

0617-steven

Doesn’t look too much different, does it? Well, that’s kind of the point of this post.

As a youngster, I was acutely aware of many differences between the life I had and the one my friend Steven (AKA the rich kid) had. Although many decades have passed since then, I don’t have to even try hard to remember some of those contrasts:

The White Carpet
One of my most vivid memories was walking into Steven’s house and seeing stark-white wall-to-wall carpeting. In my house, we had four kids, and white carpet would have been just nuts to have. But in Steven’s, there it was, white and looking good as new. It helped, I suppose, that there was plastic runners, so you had to walk on them, as if it was a plastic sidewalk in the middle of the house. Even as a child, I thought it was kind of silly to carpet a house and then lay down a strip of plastic to protect it, but who was I to say?

The Treehouse
In Steven’s back yard, there was the most gorgeous treehouse. His dad ran a Ford dealership, so I guess he could pretty easily afford a carpenter to come out and construct it for him. Now, when I say “gorgeous”, all I mean was that it looked good to my ten-year-old eyes. It was just a simple cube – – but it was made of high-quality wood, was obviously professionally-constructed, and conjured up much envy within me. I asked my dad every summer if I could have a treehouse, and the response was always the same: “I’ll think about it.” It never came.

The Thunderbird
As I mentioned, Steven’s dad had a dealership (well, at least he was the general manager there), and their family had a nice, new “luxury” car. It was certainly fancier than our station wagon, and I was amazed that it had this thing called “Cruise Control”, which to my young mind meant the car would actually drive itself. Steven and I were in the back seat, and he told me that the little windows were called “opera windows”, which likewise sounded like something far more elegant and expensive than I’d ever own personally.

Dad Salaries
I distinctly remember one conversation my friend and I had in which our father’s salaries came up. Now, I actually had no earthly clue what my father made, but for some reason I was feeling competitive and insecure that day, so I told Steven my father made $35,000 a year, which sounded tremendous to me. He countered that if MY dad made $35,000 a year, then HIS dad must make $50,000 a year. I shut up at that point, because I figured it must be true, given their apparently luxurious lifestyle.

The Boom Boom Cannon
This one seemed to sting the most of all: one Christmas, my “big gift” was a plastic UFO that could fly by way of a motorized propeller. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the damn thing to fly, in spite of my father’s best efforts. So it was pretty disappointing. I visited Steven to see what he got for Christmas, and he was the proud owner of a tiny working cannon called the Boom Boom (yeah, safety concerns weren’t as prevalent those days……….this was actually a working cannon, with gunpowder, albeit very small). It was made of nice, heavy metal, and I’d never seen one before. It seemed like just about the best toy imaginable.

Looking back, it was as if my dad was 6 feet tall, just like everyone’s else’s dad, and here was my friend who had a dad that was 6 feet and 1 inch tall. Steven’s toys were just a LITTLE bit nicer. His house was a LITTLE bit cleaner. His vacations were a LITTLE bit fancier. But, in truth, the difference between his life and everyone else’s was really, really small. Back then, though, I always felt poor when I was with Steven.

These days, the difference isn’t between a 6 foot guy and someone 6’1″. It’s more like suddenly there are some people who are 900 feet tall – – 1500 feet tall – – 5000 feet tall. Their wealth is just as absurdly large as such heights would be, while at the same time the mass of humanity seems to be getting shorter by the week.

For decades – – mainly the 40s, 50s, and 60s – – wealth distribution in America was incredibly even. Someone very middle-of-the-road could still aspire to be “the rich guy” in town. If my father, for instance, got it in his head that he wanted to win the rat race in our neighborhood, it wouldn’t have been that difficult. It was totally feasible. That extra inch wasn’t unattainable.

Starting in the 70s, thought, and picking up speed in the 1980s, things started to change. Over the past third of a century, policy has clearly handed the wealth of the country over to the rich kids.

Notice the change that took place in 1982. Interestingly, that was exactly the same year that the original Forbes 400 list came out. Their timing couldn’t have been better, because the very existence of such a “rich list” was the equivalent of ringing in an era of plutocracy. But read what the list was like in the inaugural issue………

In the first Forbes 400 list, there were only 13 billionaires, and a net worth of 75 Million USD secured a spot on the list. The 1982 list represented 2.8% of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States. The 1982 Forbes 400 had 22.8% of the list composed of oil fortunes, with 15.3% from manufacturing, 9% from finance and only 3% from technology driven fortunes.

Being a billionaire was a big, big deal. Only 13 entries! These days, just to on the list at ALL, you need a net worth of at least $1.7 billion, 23 times higher than the original list. Amazingly, there are nearly 200 people who are billionaires that don’t even make it on the list at all, because they don’t have enough! So the 1982 list seems absolutely quaint in the modern era.

Life tends to move in cycles, and I doubt the scenario in which this massive disparity exists is a permanent feature of life. However, it will take many decades – – and probably more than a little social pain – – to share the wealth again.

All I can say to my younger self regarding my rich friend……….it really wasn’t so bad, and Boom Boom Cannon notwithstanding, financial life was a lot more evenly-balanced back then than it is now. And I still don’t have a treehouse.

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