It used to be so cool to be wealthy—an elite education, exclusive mobile communications, a private screening room, a table at Annabel’s on London’s Berkeley Square. Now it’s hard to swing a cat without hitting yet another diatribe against income inequality. People sleep in tents to protest that others are too damn wealthy.
Yes, some people have more than others. Yet as far as millionaires and billionaires are concerned, they’re experiencing a horrifying revolution: consumption equality. For the most part, the wealthy bust their tail, work 60-80 hour weeks building some game-changing product for the mass market, but at the end of the day they can’t enjoy much that the middle class doesn’t also enjoy. Where’s the fairness? What does Google founder Larry Page have that you don’t have?
Luxury suite at the Super Bowl? Why bother? You can recline at home in your massaging lounger and flip on the ultra-thin, high-def, 55-inch LCD TV you got for $700—and not only have a better view from two dozen cameras plus Skycam and fun commercials, but you can hit the pause button to take a nature break. Or you can stream the game to your four-ounce Android phone while mixing up some chip dip. Media technology has advanced to the point that things worth watching only make economic sense when broadcast to millions, not to 80,000 or just a handful of the rich.
The greedy tycoon played by Michael Douglas had a two-pound, $3,995 Motorola phone in the original “Wall Street” movie. Mobile phones for the elite—how 1987. Now 8-year-olds have cellphones to arrange play dates.
In 1991, a megabyte of memory was $50, amazing at the time. Given its memory, today’s 32-gigabyte smartphone would have cost $1 million back then, certainly an exclusive item for the wealthy. Heck, even 10 years ago, 32 gig cost 10 grand. But no one could build it—volume was needed to drive down both cost and size and attract a few geeks to write some decent apps. So it wasn’t until there was a market for millions of smartphones that there was a market at all. I just bought a terabyte drive for $62 to rip all my Blu-Ray movies, and with Dolby 5.1 sound we all have private screening rooms too.
True enough, if you have $2.4 million or so in cash you can drive a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. But it’s just fashion. Even a $16,500 Ford Focus can hit 80 on the highway or get stuck in the same traffic as the rich person’s ride. Plus, it comes with what used to be expensive luxuries like side air bags, antilock brakes, GPS guidance and voice-activated SYNC.
Yes, the wealthy can strut around in more foo foo Jimmy Choos and Harry Winston pendants, but so what? That’s all they’ve got left. Being envious of someone’s nice outfit is no way to go through life. Last I checked, envy is noted above gluttony on the list of deadly sins. And by the way, I think Larry Page drives a Prius, a different type of fashion.
Medical care? Thanks to the market, you can afford a hip replacement and extracapsular cataract extraction and a defibrillator—the costs have all come down with volume. Arthroscopic, endoscopic, laparoscopic, drug-eluting stents—these are all mainstream and engineered to get you up and around in days. They wouldn’t have been invented to service only the 1%.
I admit that a private jet beats the TSA rub-a-dub. Along with his Prius, Larry Page has a 767. But thanks to guys like Richard Branson and airline overbuild, you can fly almost anywhere in the world for under $1,000. And most places worth seeing are geared to a mass of visitors.
Spot the pattern here? Just about every product or service that makes our lives better requires a mass market or it’s not economic to bother offering. Those who invent and produce for the mass market get rich. And the more these innovators better the rest of our lives, the richer they get but the less they can differentiate themselves from the masses whose wants they serve. It’s the Pages and Bransons and Zuckerbergs who have made the unequal equal: So, sure, income equality may widen, but consumption equality will become more the norm.
To me, being rich means covering the basic necessities, and then having a challenging career, fun and fulfilling leisure time, and the love of family and friends. Compared to 20 years ago, or even five years ago, chances are that you’re richer. Try to enjoy it.