ask palinode: wealth edition

Palinode,

I was wondering, how rich do you need to be in order to be "filthy rich"? And, as a corollary, how rich must you be to be considered one of the "new rich"?

I'd also like to know how rich you have to be just to have "a portfolio". I don't think I have achieved any of these yet, because I think I would know it, wouldn't I?

Great site. And a great service you do for all the knowledge-hungry people out here who lapping up your morsels of wisdom.

- Susan


Good set of questions, Susan. As we all know, the phrase “filthy rich” is derived from the term “filthy lucre,” which appeared in print as early as 1526 in the works of William Tindale. So far I’m not telling you anything that your average schoolchild isn’t already acquainted with, but few people stop to consider why lucre was considered so filthy.

Most people assume that “lucre” refers to money. Wrong. Lucre, or ‘gall pearl’, is formed in the intestines of pigs. Trace amounts of gravel and grains in their food form nacreous stones in the bowel, which generally remain in the pig’s intestinal tract for life. The resemblance of lucre stones to uncultured pearls made them extremely valuable throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As a relatively young middle class demanded affordable luxury and the signs of wealth, merchants from London bought up herds all over the country in order to corner the lucre market. The “lucre washes,” as they came to be known, sprung up everywhere, from Durham to Portsmouth. Curiously, owing to the sartorial laws of Elizabethan England, lucre pearls were destined only for export to the Continent and the burgeoning overseas colonies of the New World.

At first lucre was extracted from the pig by slaughtering and disemboweling the poor animal (hence the phrase “pearls before swine”), but by means of diet, farmers found ways of increasing lucre production and moving the lumps through the intestines. “Pickers” and “scrubbers” were hired to sort through the pig excrement and clean the lucre until it acquired a slightly translucent pearl-like shine.

The notion of filthiness originally came from the excrement that built up in great steaming piles and clung to the unscrubbed lucre pearls. Even by the mid-sixteenth century, however, the term had come to connote moral depravity. The profiteers of lucre were notoriously cutthroat capitalists, paying their workers barely enough to live on and meting out savage punishments for those unfortunates foolish enough to steal pearls for themselves. It was a time of obscene profits and even worse behaviour.

Despite the high prices commanded for lucre pearls, the market crashed in the eighteenth century, after two shipments were lost in a freak storm in the English Channel. Producers and stockholders, having bet everything on the anticipated profits that these shipments would bring in, went bankrupt. The pig farms were sold off. Sheep were brought in for use in the textile industry.

And that is the sad story of the first traders in filthy lucre. In modern times, the filthy rich – I mean, the really really rich, the Real People who squat like hogs in ever-accumulating mounds of slop, maintaining, by dint of sheer bulk, their permanent place in the pen, even as millionaires rise and fall and politicians flicker in and out of office, are those few percent who own over half the world’s wealth. If you get to walk around with a name like Vanderbilt, Rothschild, Pew, Krupp – families who made their fortunes as far back as the Middle Ages – then you have resources undreamt of by the likes of the rest of the 98% of us – which includes the nouveau riche neophytes, the schlubs with a few hundred thousand to their names and personal empires at the behest of the banks. It seems that money has become increasingly cheap, as the amount of sheer wealth multiplies, derives itself out of pure nothingness and concentrates in the datavaults of the few.

Let’s look at an example of wealth distribution in the United States in 2001. In the year that terrorists finally figured out how to distract people from their television sets (because the last time Al Quaeda tried to bomb the World Trade Center, they did it during the OJ Simpson trial, which pretty much guaranteed that no one would notice), total net worth in the US came to approximately 42.4 trillion dollars, or $42,389,200,000,000.00. Which is a lot. One percent of the US population owned 32.7% of that big old pie, around 13.9 trillion. The next 4 percent of the population owned another 25%, or another 10.6 trillion. And so on, until you hit the bottom 50% of the population, who between them share a pretty cruddy 2.8% of the wealth.

Bear in mind that these figures are all taken from 2000-2001, before the cutting of the inheritance tax, before the bankruptcy bill, and of course, before the liberal dousing of Iraq with soldiers and capital. So my information is slightly out of date. But I do know this: if you belong to a tiny group of people who own nearly one third of your nation’s wealth, then you are filthy filthy rich. And if you’re some mudlark scraping away for the scraps of net worth, picking up bits of old rope and copper pipe to haul to the credit card company each month, then you’re just the filth.

But I have good news too, Susan. If you want a portfolio, nothing could be easier. Portfolios at Staples start as low as $3-5 per pack of four. More expensive briefcase portfolios start at around $30. But I’d go for the really expensive portfolios, the Italian leather jobbies with the inlaying and the accents and the quality of workmanship that just screams professional. In today’s do-or-die world, appearances count! And if you can’t afford it, just throw that sumbitch on your credit card. Consider it an investment in your career.

Care to belong to the elite fraction of a percentage point of the population who’ve had their questions answered by me? Ask Palinode! askpalinode @ gmail . com.