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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The list of stuff only the super rich can buy has shrunk
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The list of stuff only the super rich can buy has shrunk

What’s left exclusive to them is mostly ridiculous now that so much has come within people’s reach

Billionaires who undertake outlandish space and marine missions are pioneers who pave the way for the same adventures to become mass market. (AFP)Premium
Billionaires who undertake outlandish space and marine missions are pioneers who pave the way for the same adventures to become mass market. (AFP)

In a few days, Virgin Galactic expects to launch three customers into “outer space" and bring them back, too. The company says it has sold seats to about 800 people, with ticket prices ranging from $250,000 to $400,000 for the experience of flying about 80km above earth, an act that qualifies as leaving earth. The launch comes just weeks after a commercial submersible imploded, killing five people, some of whom had paid about $250,000 per seat. These prices are low compared to the $55 million three rich men paid to stay on the International Space Stage for a few days. It appears that some of experiences only the super-rich can afford are also highly risky and, intuitively, far from enjoyable. You can argue that enjoyment is not all there is to a paid experience, or, as every family knows, a vacation. Still, the fact that billionaires must shoot themselves to space or sink to ocean depths to see and feel something the rest of us haven’t, points to an oddly satisfying state of the world: There are no real products for the super-rich.

Overpriced bags, isolated giant-silo homes and 100m-long yachts, too, might be just outlandish expressions of the fact that even though money can buy happiness, there is no kind of happiness in the market that only a lot of money buys. Most luxuries that are enjoyable and safe are affordable to mere millionaires or even the upper middle-class. The super-rich are left with ridiculous things. Like cars with crystals, handbags you cannot choose but which choose you, fish that can poison you, secluded mansions that defy the human instinct for community, and weddings that might cost more than Bollywood films. That the world’s best phone is not exclusive to millionaires suggests that beyond a point, products are only expensive; they do not improve your quality of life.

People who try to sell something to extravagant billionaires have to believe in a fallacy, for their own relevance. That things are always related in direct proportion, that more money seeks greater exclusivity.

Economic democratization of the world has ensured that the modern poor have comforts that medieval emperors did not enjoy. It has also ensured that the super-rich of another time enjoyed a degree of exclusivity that is not available to modern billionaires. For instance, when commercial air travel began, only the rich flew. The experience of flying was not only immensely useful, it was also exclusive to the rich. In 1929, in the US, a coast-to-coast return air ticket cost half the annual per-capita of the nation. As recently as 1996, according to the encyclopaedia site Britannica, a one-way London-to-Washington ticket on the Concorde, which flew faster than the speed of sound, or the Earth’s spin for that matter, cost about 10 lakh in today’s money. Today, for half that amount, you can get a first-class return ticket on a Mumbai-New York flight.

Billionaires who undertake outlandish space and marine missions are pioneers who pave the way for the same adventures to become mass market. Some early aviators were rich people who contributed to the evolution of commercial aviation, sacrificing their lives at times in the process. I do not dispute the value of such pioneers, even if they are paid customers. But I suspect it is not their intention to put their lives on the line so that one day I will get to go to space or the ocean floor at reasonable cost. And that makes the lemons that are sold to them even more ridiculous.

There is one fascinating product, though, that is sold to the super-rich. The perception that they are politicians. Once, the rich were financiers of politicians and often remained in the shadows. This financing was primarily a business expense. But, today, many wealthy people are politicians themselves who have bought their way into positions of social influence. America has had a very famous example. Back home, we have legislators with declared assets worth hundreds of crores, with 1,413 crore the top score among members of legislative assemblies. Some politicians may privately laugh at the modesty of these declarations; their big triumph is that they have bought the social masquerade of activism without being identified publicly as rich people.

There is another useful luxury product for the super-rich, but one the modern superrich haven’t quite grasped—artistic acclaim.

Since my teens, I have had a nagging doubt when I read some Western literary classics. What if all this, all of literature was just the expression of the rich from a time when only the rich could do some things? Am I just reading the naive mediocre observations of the affluent? What if most of all vaunted Western literature is merely the outpouring of a highly networked club? Many acclaimed European writers were indeed rich, or were promoted by the rich.

With the economic democratization of a whole new class of luxury products, including doctorates and literary efforts, apart from philosophical and artistic pursuits, it is easy to forget their social origins. Even today, many writers and artists from wealthy homes buy fame through their social equity. It is a fair generalization that science and sports too emerged from elite society, but as they are objective fields, the mediocre rich could not compete once they became widely accessible. But the arts are a different matter. Yet, this is an arena that the modern super-rich have abandoned, as most of them seem to have moved away from intellectual pursuits. But then, the rich who manage to pass themselves off as writers and ‘thinkers’ probably know the joys of abstract fame.

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Updated: 24 Jul 2023, 12:56 AM IST
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