Supercars for all

In: Uncategorized

14 Jan 2015

The contemporary obsession with the super-rich often combines an intense interest in breathtaking bling with a quiet loathing of those with spectacular wealth. Both ingredients in this peculiar cocktail were on display in BBC2’s recent Meet the Super Rich season of documentaries.

Rich, Russian and Living in London focused on the lavish lifestyle of wealthy Russian expats including an entrepreneur, an art collector and a supermodel. Perhaps their most striking characteristic was a desperate desire to distance themselves from the old stereotype of ostentatious Russian oligarchs. The new generation of wealthy Russians loves fine wine, expensive art, the best British public school education and the glamour of traditional debutante balls.

Next came Billionaire’s Paradise: Inside Necker Island. The programme was essentially a publicity vehicle for Richard Branson’s exotic Caribbean island which doubles as his home base and an exclusive playground for the super-rich. For £40,000 a night the staff of nearly 100 is ready to meet the desires of the exclusive resort’s 28 guests.

The documentary clearly implied that literally every whim of its guests could be satisfied. Those staff who dealt directly with the guests were almost all under 30 and chosen for their good looks. A previous management team which insisted that staff should not share drinks or have “relations” with guests was quickly dismissed. Branson made clear that such restrictions were inappropriate on Necker Island.

Although both documentaries could be enjoyed as lavish spectacles they could also be viewed as outrageous displays of excess. Indeed many viewers probably experienced both emotions: vicariously enjoying the luxury on display while feeling appalled that so few should have so much wealth. The combination of these two elements probably helps explain the popularity of magazines, television programmes and films featuring the super-rich.

The Super-Rich and Us was different in that it purported to be a serious documentary on the topic. However, early indications augured poorly as, according to the BBC’s own More or Less  programme, the trailer made the incorrect claim that the world’s richest 85 individuals own half the world’s wealth. This is a garbled version of Oxfam’s similar-sounding but entirely different contention that the richest 85 own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

Episode one overlapped with the other documentaries with numerous examples of conspicuous consumption including Lamborghini supercars, expensive watches and Lear jets. However, it also purported to offer a serious discussion of those it called the “have yachts” as opposed to the “have nots” or the “haves”.

Its central claim – never properly investigated – was essentially that the economy embodies a tug of war between the super-rich and the rest over scarce resources. Free market thinkers such as Arthur Laffer were brought in on the implicit assumption that they were apologists for the ultra-wealthy.

The underlying premise of the programme was that economic activity is essentially a zero-sum game. If some people become extremely wealthy then, so the argument goes, it must be at the expense of the rest of us.

No consideration was given to the possibility that it might be possible to make the size of the overall pie bigger. The population as a whole can benefit from a more prosperous society. Yet, despite persistent inequality, that is broadly the trend of the past two centuries.

The challenge now is to work out how to kick start economic growth. That way it could become possible for everyone to enjoy fine wine, fine art and extravagant cars.

This blog post was first published on Fundweb today.

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