The wealth gap and the $60,000 mattress

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Is anyone else a little wigged out at the gross displays of wealth among Americans recently?

Just over the past week, my local paper, The New York Times, published two consumer lifestyle articles featuring ridiculously expensive items: $60,000 mattresses and $225,000 parking spots.

Then there’s this piece about what portion of the country’s wealth is held by individuals. My husband commented on the enormity of Rockefeller’s wealth back in the 1930s: 1.4% of GDP. In comparison, Bill Gates’ percentage–less than half a percentage point–seems almost reasonable, until you consider how much the country’s wealth has grown in that time.

New research says the rich are just better connected than we are. (And this is news?) The Millionaire Zone finds from its studies of 500 millionaires that:

When asked “What had an impact on your financial success,” millionaires cited the following as having “some” or a “significant” impact: business contacts/relationships (50%), family/friends (46.2%), work/co-workers (45.1%) and professional organizations (22.1%) to their alma mater/college (27.9%), physical condition/health club (23.1%), spiritual center (19.3%), a non-profit (15.4%), neighbors (13.5%), health care providers (11.5%), and local government (9.7%).

It’s somewhat mollifying to know that the richest of us are giving more to charity than ever before. But the Wall Street Journal doesn’t see it that way. In an article titled “The Rich Are Duller,” the Journal writes:

If the 1980s created yuppies (young urban professionals) and the 1990s brought us bobos (bourgeois bohemians), the 2000s may be giving rise to a new kind of elite: yawns.

Yawns are “young and wealthy but normal.” They are men and women in their 30s and 40s who have become multimillionaires and billionaires during the wealth boom of the past decade. Yet rather than spending their money on yachts, boats and jets, yawns live modestly and spend most of their money on philanthropy. In stark contrast to the outsized titans of the Gilded Age and the slicked-back Gordon Gekkos of the 1980s, yawns are notable for their extraordinary dullness.

A caption reads: “Rich but rumpled: Bill Gates is the patron saint of ‘Yawns.'”

Let me point out that that the Times covered the beds and parking spots without any apparent irony. Let me also point out that both the Times and the WSJ has reporters dedicated to covering the new “wealth” beat. So these reporters and editors apparently decided stupidly expensive mattresses were lifestyle stories, while rich philanthropists belonged on the funny pages? Shouldn’t we be making fun of people who buy bedding that costs more than many a down payment on a house–not those who’d give that money to Doctors Without Borders? With the chasm between rich and poor ever widening in this country and around the world, the wealthiest of us do deserve serious news attention. But we reporters have some responsibility in deciding how to cover their lives and earnings. Don’t we?