The theory of the really well-off class

by Gabriele Ferraresi, images Panos / Carlos Spottorno, LUZ

In 1899, when the sociologist Thorstein Veblen published Theory of the wealthy class, the world still has to see about things, modernity is young, the short century begins. In that essay Veblen shows how the wealth and wealth of the bourgeoisie of the United States of the time does not only respond to a mere principle of economic accumulation.
On the contrary, Veblen shows that for leisure class exhibiting luxuries, even immaterial ones, has a precise social affirmation function. What kind of luxuries? Knowledge of dead languages, or the latest fashions for clothing, or the ability to appreciate some musical genres compared to others.
According to Veblen, the "peer-to-peer" struggle, more or less agitated, is also and above all played out in the field of positional consumption, which allows a subject to assert himself and "win" the recognition of the social sphere. Winning, we said: but at what price?

With a huge, irrational waste of economic resources. A positional good can be material or immaterial, let's remember: it can be a gold watch, just as it can be the taste and studies necessary to appreciate the music of a dark composer to most as Iannis Xenakis. Does the gold watch or years at the conservatory cost more? They both cost.

What is important, however, is that this is a strategy ready to lead to ruin. A strategy that is the result of a great illusion, because there cannot be too many final winners in the game of showy consumption. Luxury, material or immaterial, cannot be democratic. If everyone possesses a certain status symbol, the sense of ownership vanishes. The winner must be blessed with his own loneliness, humiliating rivals.
Let's move for a moment to the present: we see Veblen relive in hyper-personalisation, in the scissor that separates luxury goods and bespoke goods, when luxury is not enough: and everything becomes unique, custom, tailor made, handmade, tailored to the needs of the individual customer, who is more than comfortable willing to pay any price. Provided that the goods purchased contain in themselves the definitive positional value of uniqueness.
The fast British luxury car doesn't have to be at everyone's disposal; the fur may not be the best way to keep warm, but in terms of showing it off, it has been a guarantee for decades; The background of the shops of a city where you live, a city with bright signs of jewellers and not discount supermarkets, a city that cannot afford everyone as much as Geneva can, performs exactly the same function. It is a positional set. Everything in the image tells us that what we see is not for everyone, and therefore excludes many others. That of showy consumption must remain a game in which there is as few winners as possible, while all the others squander immense fortunes in vain in order to try the climb to success. It's like the casino: so many delude themselves to win, but the only one who always wins is the bank. With the difference that at least from the casino you can lose, get out, and return home. On the contrary, it is very difficult to withdraw from this kind of race for the statement between peers. Only for the wealthy class of which Veblen writes, just a century ago?
Everything else. Even today for many of us.

More than a century later Veblen this year, an essay by Raffaele Alberto Ventura entitled "Theory of the Disadvantaged Class" has been released.
What does it talk about? The defeat of part of the middle class of the thirty to forty year old Italians and the defeat of a society. Playing on Veble's quotation of the title Ventura recounts how an entire generation is burning precious resources in professional aspirations that will almost never be realised.
The first resource consumed by the disadvantaged class is time, which is waste. Hoping irrationally that the ambitions finally become a profession, he finds himself at 40 years of age living in precariousness. As a logical consequence, the second resource eroded is the patrimony of families, accumulated in a more prosperous past economically and spent today on cultivating the illusory professional aspirations to which the educational system has become accustomed.
Unfortunately, however, the prestigious positions in the creative and most desirable sectors - publishing, journalism, the cultural industry in general - are limited, while the waste of resources and years underpaid to compete in occupying them are huge. A limitless supply of labour, even a talented workforce, is matched by minimal market demand. Once again, it's like playing at the casino: few win, many waste time and money chasing is an illusion.

There is, however, a class that smiles at the expenditure and waste of the comfortable class and probably doesn't even imagine the existence of the uneasy one that delineates Ventura. Why do you smile? Because money for that class, except for catastrophes, will never end: and it seems that this is a good reason to be in a very good mood.
That class has a name that looks like a United Nations abbreviation: UHNWI. These are the Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, whose personal assets exceed millions of dollars. There is a thriving investment consultancy industry for this wealthy über class, so there are plenty of reports where you can fish data.
For example, the Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2017 tells us that global wealth has grown by 27% over the last 10 years and that the "simple" millionaires have grown by 170% since 2000, despite a frightening global crisis worthy of that of 1929 in between. The UHNWI on the other hand are in their small five-fold increase. Thanks mainly to the emerging economies, China in particular.
How many are the ultra rich? There are 226,450 human beings with more than $30 million of personal wealth, the figure comes from the World Ultra Wealth Report 2017 of the consulting firm Wealth-X. Of these, 64,370 live in Europe and 5,530 in Italy, which in the case you are asking yourself is not then put in the rankings badly. It is in 10th place worldwide for ultra rich people living on the territory, just behind Switzerland, which, by common sense, we would imagine much more crowded with new Croesus: in fact, it is. In Italy there are over 60 million people, Switzerland has a population of just 8.4 million.

But how did they get so rich?

66.4% "did it alone", investing, creating businesses from scratch, perhaps speculating, 21.9% partly inherited, partly "did it alone" maybe continuing successfully with the family business, 11.7% only inherited, and basically, they're enjoying it. Perhaps we would do the same.
If we look at the UHNWI pyramid in detail, we find that they are not all the same. At the base, for example, we find 108,610 individuals with assets between 30 and 50 million dollars. Enough to quietly renounce the thought of work for the rest of their days and for the days of several generations to come. Going up to the top of the pyramid, the atmosphere becomes rarefied and the mountains of money become K2, for the barely 3,803 human beings on planet Earth who have a heritage of between 500 million and one billion dollars; but there is an even more exclusive club.
That of billionaires in dollars. They are just 2,397. A precise number, 2,397: more or less the inhabitants of Cesana Brianza, a village in the province of Lecco that could comfortably welcome everyone. However, they would hardly choose that kind of accommodation.
In fact, the eternally wealthy class lives in perennial movement, provided that it is in the global megalopolis: it chooses New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London and Paris. No Italian city appears in the ranking of their 30 favourite cities, not even Milan. Wanting to observe them in their natural environment, where to meet them? In the Principality of Monaco, where 1 inhabitant for every 56 is a UHNWI, in Geneva, 1 every 221, or in Singapore, 1 every 707.

Worldwide 87% of the ultra rich are men, 13% are women, with a good jump of average age: 62 for the former, 50 for the latter. Then, always about age. It will also be fun to be overwhelmingly rich at the age of sixty, but let's admit it; there is no competition, it's far better to be a young person or a teenager.
There is one thing that money as much as you strive for cannot afford us to buy: youth. And it is here that we enter the territory marked a long time ago by the "rich kids of Instagram". Exploded in the summer of 2012, a total avant-garde that then became a meme, TV series, imitated also by rich people who had nothing but ambitions; beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, rich, rich, rich, the RKOI were the first to openly manifest a lifestyle of class über-located now merged into TV shows, such as Riccanza in Italy. They did - and do - news, they generate media, and righfully so: there are not many millennials who can boast the title of Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, they are just 7,200.

Men and women, young and old, for those who sit on a fortune of more than $30 million, there is a thought that does not make the night sleep. Understand what to do: the hobbies of the global "ultra wealthy population" are at bottom under the eyes of everyone, or many: philanthropy is perhaps the most glaring example. Just think of the foundations created over the last 20 years by two of the richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
Staying in the field of hobbies, an important place is played in elite sports; playing polo in the snow of St. Moritz is quite elitist and positioning? Probably yes. Another hybrid between hobbies and investment, aviation: that seems to always exert an unquestionable fascination, both for pleasure and for parallel investment to diversify. To make a name for yourself, Warren Buffett has invested in a private jet service that isn't exactly for everyone: it costs just over $6,000 per hour of flight time.
Finally, collecting and fine arts are the kings and queens of the investments of passion for the UHNWI; these are beloved by the ultra rich, with collections that are sometimes created to furnish dream homes rather than for investment. This was the case for Sir Elton John and photography.
It happens when capital and artistic sensitivity go hand in hand; and it is not so rare, considering that 6% of UHNWIs invested in art last year. They did it a bit for pleasure, a bit for investment. The shade between the two things is light, as soft as the colours of a Renoir in the shade of a Luxembourg vault.
Do the positional goods of the wealthy class come back to mind, and perhaps the affirmation of themselves also through the display of taste, as well as goods, right? And we go back to the beginning: to the struggle for social affirmation through showy spending, as Veblen said.
Only that in this case, money will never end.

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