Robert Frank (2008) Richistan


This book is outdated. It was published before the crash and unravelling of high finance in 2008, but the bounce back of the increasingly wealthy has been so spectacular and complete it’s as if that event never happened. A more major shortcoming is Frank’s believe in the benefits of trickle-down economics.  It’s worth repeating wealth flows at an increasing speed upwards and if the rising tide has lifted fewer boats during the Obama years, as one wag put it, the ones it has lifted has tended to be yachts. Piketty, in particular, nails this fiction as the convenient lie that it is. But coming from different positions both Frank and Piketty reach the same conclusion. The trend for the rich to get richer and the poor to become poorer is on rails and speed it picking up at an increasing rate.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Frank noted (like Piketty) a trend. In 2003, whilst writing an article about Wall Street bonuses he noted a wealth ladder in which households worth $10 million, $20 million, $50 million – all the populations were doubling.

Here’s the narrative. Frank visits a yacht club in 2004. He tells us the richest 1% own $1.35 trillion a year greater than the total national incomes of France, Italy or Canada. Remember in 2015 that number will be a lot higher now. He looks at the yachts and someone remarks: ‘You look at all these boats and you’d think everyone’s making loads of money. It’s like a different country’.

That country is Richistan. Let’s go to the end of the book. It’s 2005. Frank is travelling to visit Ft. Lauderdale for the 46th International Boat Show. It’s a Richistan of boats and billionaires. Yet he notes driving to the convention the city has been battered by Hurricane Wilma. The streets are strewn with broken glass, trees and garbage. Thousands of residents of the poorer districts are homeless, most of them Hispanic or black. Many are herded into school gyms and classrooms. A few are issued with vouches handed out by a Federal Emergency Management Agency. They’re worthless. They don’t cover the cost of local rents even before the disaster. And the housing market is overinflated because of the wealth-creating towers of million-dollar condos.

Petrina Craig, a mother of six, is shipped to a homeless shelter for a week. She asks ‘Am I supposed to sit in the shelter until they kick me out with my kids?’

A few miles away in Richistan the yacht show was kicking off, packed with gleaming multimillion dollar toys for the rich.

This is a sympathetic snapshot of the wealthy. It’s an uneven world in which size matters even between these groups. A group of children of the wealthy were asked what they would do with a $10 million lottery win. Before or after tax? one asked. You get a sense of indifference. Before or after tax is the question our government should be asking not only of the poor and marginalised but of the Richistan citizens.

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