Wealth, in Fiction and Reality

With each passing day of the on-going and seemingly endless presidential election campaign, I get more and more distressed by the way in which the candidates and the media deal with the issue of “wealth.” In thinking about this, I also realized that all too many writers have similar problems, but that the writers are more adept at avoiding the issue and concealing either their ignorance or their biases… if not both.

Those on the left tend to claim that any family that earns more than somewhere in the $200,000-$250,000 range is wealthy. Now, I’d be the first to admit that such families are not poor… but to claim that they’re wealthy?

Somehow, I don’t think most doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists and other professionals in that income range, many of whom make that income only by dint of hard work by two parents, think of themselves as “wealthy,” particularly when compared to those who truly are, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, or like the millionaire athletic figures such as Tiger Woods, Shaquille O’Neal, or Peyton Manning.

Then, too, when you use a flat number for defining who is wealthy, that number doesn’t reflect the cost-of-living. A family income of $100,000 in New York City, which has a cost-of-living more than twice the national average of all U.S. cities, has the same purchasing power as $30,000 in Laredo or McAllen, Texas, or other small towns across the United States. So… an income of $100,000 is less than mid-middle-class in New York, but signifies being well-off in, say, small towns in the mid-west or mountain states [provided they’re not resort towns inhabited by the truly wealthy]. Some 20 years ago, the Washingtonian magazine published an article entitled “How to Go Bankrupt on $100,000 A Year.” The article detailed how difficult it was for a family to make ends meet in our nation’s capital on that income, merely by attempting to hold to what one might have called a middle-class lifestyle. Given inflation and devaluation of the dollar, the income cited in that article would probably have to be well over $200,000 today. Families that earn $250,000 in New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, and the like aren’t poor by any means, but claiming that they’re “wealthy” is absurd.

Again… I am not claiming families who make such incomes are poor; I am claiming that anyone who thinks they’re rich is either deluded or a demagogue. Why are such claims being made? Because the politicians know that there aren’t enough “truly rich” to pay for the debts already incurred and the programs they think their constituents want, and by defining the upper end of the middle class as wealthy, they can claim that they’re not taxing the middle-class, but the “undeserving” wealthy, rather than hard-working professionals, with mortgages and children in college and the like

Just as the politicians and the media don’t seem to know what wealth is, or want to discuss it factually, so do more than a few SF writers have problems understanding and in dealing with wealth. Over the years, we’ve seen “millionaire” heroes with their own spacecraft, their own extensive private laboratories, and the like. Currently, a single high-tech atmospheric fighter seating just two pilots for a few hours of flight time costs over $200 million, and the industrial complex required to build it represents a number of entities representing more than $100 billion in assets. All that for a craft that flies at speeds a fraction of those required for interplanetary travel and without all the other additional systems necessary. Currently, according to Forbes, there are roughly 500 billionaires in the entire world, and most of them are worth less than $15 billion, with the wealthiest worth considerably less than $100 billion.

I’ve read very few books that even suggest the records and expertise necessary to handle vast wealth, or the limitations that such wealth imposes. Steven King, for heaven’s sake, hardly in the wealth class of Bill Gates, had to give up attending events such as World Fantasy Convention, and these days most companies spend millions of dollars in various ways to protect their CEOs.

So why do we have this strange dichotomy in our culture and our fiction where people who are merely affluent are considered rich, and where no one seems to understand how few really are truly rich and how isolated those comparative few are?