Sunday, 2 June 2013

What use are the very-wealthy?

The impulse to write about the very-wealthy seems to be biggest in Britain right now as the country continues to struggle economically and the Tory-led coalition government presses on with fiscal austerity measures that seem to mainly affect those on low incomes. Here's one Guardian story on the issue, one of two that appeared there just today. The author places emphasis on the fact that the wealth being accumulated by those in the top income brackets does not help the broader community. Progressives often attack the "trickle-down" theory that says that wealth gets broadly distributed. The story quotes Chrystia Freeland, an author who has written a book about the very-wealthy titled Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. (I started reading the book but put it aside.) I recommend it to readers, as well as a story written by Nicholas Shaxson for the April issue of Vanity Fair magazine on One Hyde Park, an exclusive apartment complex in London where properties cost tens- and hundreds-of-millions of dollars. The image accompanying this post shows the development.

Let's give credence to the progressive line that trickle-down economic theory is nonsense, so what use, then, are the very-wealthy? As Freeland notes in her book, globalisation has led to a larger number of very-wealthy individuals, so we can expect their number to increase while in many parts of the world income disparities also increase. For some, this reality can animate the emotions in such a way that leads to civil disorder, but for others it can work to stimulate the imagination and function as entertainment; we see stories all the time in the Australian media about high-end property sales. What we don't often see is any examination of an important nexus, for example stories about people who live in what are considered relatively prestigious apartment developments in our cities. That might be a hard sell because those people are too much in the middle to warrant attention by culture producers. Instead, we get The Great Gatsby movie, or Titanic, or one more history book about an English king or prominent Elizabethan aristocrat by bestselling author Alison Weir. These subjects are immensely popular and the movies entertain with striking visuals showing clothes, cars or carriages, and houses that regular folk probably hardly ever saw in the course of their lives. These stories are an easy sell because they focus on things that possess value in the market of things that surround us today. They are sexy and easy to consume.

The very-wealthy also appear in popular culture as fantasies. There's Bruce Wayne in the Batman franchise, Tony Stark in the Iron Man franchise, and strange personifications of altruism such as Windsor "Win" Horne Lockwood, III in Harlen Coben's Myron Bolitar series of crime thrillers, and Tony Blake in the short-lived TV series The Magician of the 70s. In all these cases the very-wealthy hero - or, in the Coben case, influential side-kick - dedicates his life to good (yes, they all seem to be men). In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The very-wealthy might consume a more expensive form of culture, fine art for example, but they do not contribute to the improvement of society. They work to increase their wealth, live in isolated comfort in the most convenient parts of our cities, and raise children who generally shift themselves into high-paying jobs in finance, the law or accounting. They are unimaginative, under-educated and self-interested.

There are exceptions, of course, like Nobel prize-winning Australian author Patrick White, who came from a rich rural family, or Australian painter Martin Sharp, who still lives in his parents' house in Bellevue Hill, in Sydney, where he works. These are the rare exceptions, though, the rule being someone like James Packer, who abandoned the struggling media business he inherited from his father and started building casinos instead.

The popularity of stories about the dead rich tells us something about our priorities. We can look at the Florentine grendees, the Medicis, and applaud their patronising the fine arts: plenty of good visuals there. But we ignore someone like William Wentworth, a Sydney colonial figure who not only helped mark the passage across the Blue Mountains but also helped found the University of Sydney and agitated for the introduction of democracy in New South Wales in the 1850s. With his wealth in the land, like many of the early colonial very-wealthy, Wentworth held firm Humanist beliefs; the first prize that was instituted at the University of Sydney is the Wentworth Medal - which is still awarded today - for an essay. And what about all those aristocratic lady poets of ages long gone, like Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661 - 1720). Can Peggy Guggenheim be compared to her? Mr Darcy remains a fantasy, albeit a popular and attractive one for millions of modern-day women who continue to read Jane Austen's novels. But the remarkable George Gordon, Lord Byron, is largely ignored in favour of the merely, gorgeously, massively rich.

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