Richistan — Discussion by Chris and Carole

Editor's Note: Chris wrote her review first, and I've added my comments in italics throughout her review. We just posted this last week, and in light of the bleak economic headlines, I can't help but wonder how many of these people still live in Richistan and how much more difficult has it just become for the rest of us to every live there?

Close your eyes and think of how much money would make you comfortable. You know, pay your bills, give you a chance to do whatever you've told yourself you'd do if you didn't work, maybe fix the house and put the kids through school. Chances are, it's not an exorbitant amount. (Some of you are going hog-wild, I bet. Even then, add it up and I'll bet it doesn't top a high-end lottery winning.)

The older I get the more I realize that if I were to come into any appreciable amount of money, my ideas of what I would do with the money changes. When I was in my 20s, I would have been focused on what I could buy with that money; now that I'm-er-not in my 20s, I believe that what would bring me the greatest happiness is knowing that I no longer needed to worry about money. I would want to sit on a big ol' pile of it (metaphorically speaking), pay my bills, and relax! The conspicuous consumption doesn't really fit into my mental image of a rich me nowadays.

Now, think of the poor souls whose principle adds a few zeros to the end of that number. How did they get there? What kind of lives do they lead? Do you envy them?

Read Richistan to find out, and be prepared to leave behind your preconceived notions and your envy.

I envy some of them. I always admire anyone who has an idea for a product or a service, actually acts on it, overcomes the obstacles in the way of success, and follows through to achieve the dream. I have had countless ideas for things over the years, and they remain nothing but ideas. Others take it to the next level--they live in Richistan, and I do not. After reading the book, I think the sure bet would be to come up with a product that the nouveau riche cannot live without, like something for their kids, and you would be golden. Mind you, you might not live in Upper Richistan after successfully marketing your product and then selling your company in a huge "liquidity event", but you could become comfortably esconced in Lower Richistan. Speaking for myself, I could be perfectly fine with that.

Author Robert Frank identifies the lives and issues of the mega-rich with a clarity and honesty that is more than refreshing. From the first page of the introduction, I was riveted by Frank's tales of the homes and businesses of those with money. Frank's prose was crisp, wonderfully written and so un-self-conscious that every word flowed like a smooth river of Godiva.

Wait, I'm sure there's a chocolate that's better than Godiva in Richistan, the land of the wealthy — where a million dollars doesn't even gain you a toehold.

In this land, there are cars better than Rolls-Royce, watches better than Rolex, private jets better than Jetstream, private yachts bigger than a football field. There are homes with more amenities than an entire city block and closets bigger than the (non-Richistani) average home.

The descriptions of the products, and the realizations that there are brands of things that don't even want to be known by anyone who is not a Richistani, blew my mind.

How did this happen? Frank examines the economy and the people who found their way to this land. He looks at the nation — and the world — to see how this new phenomenon of mega-wealth occurred. He looks to the past, to the present and to the future.

Woven in with these real-life examples are statistics that help shape the reader's view of the nation's economy. Frank helps readers understand how fast the Richistan population has grown and how. And the residents of this heretofore unexamined country are fabulously and honestly drawn. When reading about the guy who made "Dickens Village" popular, one understands how he managed to make his mark and his money.

Frank's explanation of the different periods of wealth creation in the United States was fascinating. The various economic factors that have to come together to create the proper environment for wealth was eye-opening. His description of the "river of money" that is currently swirling through our economy just waiting for those bold enough to set their raft afloat in it made me want to become a metaphorical Huck Finn. What separates most people from those that are willingly to chance the river and those that won't even dip their toes in it? I would say generally it's fear--the risk of losing money is too great for most people to chance. So to the risk takers go the rewards--I think that's fair. Frank brings up many questions, however, about the influence that the Richistanis then get to wield on the economy, politics, and other social issues. And that's when I get worried. When does it become not fair? Just because you're rich doesn't mean you're the boss of me! But I also don't think that just because you worked hard and were wildly successful that you should have to give up your wealth to support people who haven't achieved what you have. The redistribution of wealth is a scary concept for me.

In addition to fine portraits, Frank offers wide brush strokes. While each Richistani resident is her or his own person, they create a group with certain behaviors and expectations. As a group, they are fascinating. Frank is kind and generous to his subject and treats them with respect they deserve.

I agree that Frank was very evenhanded--as someone who has to visit Richistan, but presumably does not live there--I often found myself wondering what he thought of it all. He does not share him personal impressions with the reader, other than by the examples he chose to share. Relative objectivity in this day and age--imagine that!

The book was addicting. Imagine life with a butler. Nice, huh? Really? The answer will make you think twice. How many people does it take to get a mouse out of the house? In Richistan, it's a different number than in the rest of the world. It's a world that most of us might have glimpsed on TV shows, maybe driven past in traditionally wealthy pockets of the nation, but never considered so personally until now.

Like I said earlier, I think there is great potential for Richistani wannabes to capitalize on fulfilling the needs of the Richistanis. My brain has been spinning with possibilities since I finished the book!

In the end, the broad strokes blended with the fine detail to create a portrait of unimaginable wealth. Every section, every chapter flows seamlessly into the next. It's impossible to put down once it's started, and it's easy to recommend — even to those like me who approach economics and business with great trepidation. It's like a novel, only real. And it oh so very interesting.

I recommended that everyone in my house give it a read. The one point in the book that had me rolling my eyes was the bit on the support groups for the rich. Poor, poor rich people. What are they to do? I think those elements highlight the differences between the wealthy of this era versus the Old Money folks of yesteryear. I think that the primary reason that the wealthy today run into so many problems, such as living beyond their means, worried about the effects of wealth on their children, and generally being unhappy that they are not as rich as others they know, is they become more concerned with everyone else knowing that they are rich than they are with just being rich.

All in all, a fascinating exploration of a world to which I'm not privy. But if I ever find myself in Richistan, I now know how to behave!

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