Friday, November 21, 2008

How the Rich Travel

Warren Buffett, I think, made the point that, in most areas of one's life, being rich makes very little difference. You sleep in a bed much like anybody else's, you eat food that everybody else eats, you read the same books and newspapers and watch the same TV. But in the pursuit of one particular activity, the rich are different - travel. The CEOs of the US automakers made this clear with their superlatively dumb decision to fly to Washington in their private jets to beg for public money. What they had failed to notice - actually, they failed to notice everything, but this in particular - was that nothing inspires public bitterness more than showy travel arrangements precisely because travel is the big difference between the haves and the have-nots. In an airport the have-nots are condemned to spend desultory hours in a 'retail environment' largely consisting of nasty shops selling  - the irony! - 'luxury brands', their dazed imaginations being periodically raised from boredom to suffering by announcements about security alerts and delays. The haves get their lounges where - a real joy this - you can leave your bags anywhere you want and they won't get blown up. Speaking from recent experiences, I can tell you that business class lounge facilities are much the same as those of first class lounges - though the latter seem to have more elaborate food - also that first class people are older, slighty more deviantly dressed and some are former political leaders. And, as Martin Amis observed in The Information, they read worse books; nobody knows why. When they arrive - I'm assuming they arrive, even though some seem to be in the lounges for the sake of it, perhaps they are paid to sit there by the airlines - they can stay at the new Atlantis in Dubai which has the important virtue of making Dubai's Burj Al Arab look, for the first time, like good architecture. They can also hire the new Bentley Azure T and, of course, an Alysia yacht. I suppose the point is it's not as easy being rich as it used to be. Once the poor were very poor and, as a result, the rich were obviously rich. Any Edwardian could, at once, spot the different between a 'gentleman' and everybody else. Now the poor aren't so poor, they buy designer knock-offs as good as the real thing - a habit that has rendered the Louis Vuitton bag quite useless as a status symbol - and they travel almost as much as the rich. Travel thus threatens to be a distressingly democratic experience, hence the need to separate out and flaunt the experience. But you have to keep moving because, in the end, even travel turns out to be a great leveller. I just saw a clip of the opening party for the Atlantis. The rich were dancing very, very badly. In the end, you have to arrive and be as much as a klutz as everybody else.


  1. In addition to high grade travel, the rich have also developed special vegetables referred to as 'organic' which are somehow different in metaphysical substance to the mere 'vegetables' upon which the common man must subsist. Ah, the terrible existential terror of the wealthy... we should pity them really. Except that somehow I can't find it in my heart to do so. Perhaps I should pray.

  2. On a recent Virgin Atlantic flight the wife and I were, due to a series of flukes and cock-ups, upgraded to 'Premium Economy'. In other words, from proletariat to bourgeoisie.

    Initially, I felt an extreme joy and triumph. The leg room! The free brandy! The suffering of the plebs behind me!

    And yet, a nagging doubt was there, and gradually it grew like a cancer, to poison the whole trip. Through the curtains I could glimpse the bastards in First Class... mood lighting, full-length beds, cocktail waiters. Worse, most of them were clearly New Money. Knowing I couldn't join them, I needed to smash them (though in the end I watched 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' then fell asleep instead).

    It was such a relief to get back on the M4. The motorways are classless.

  3. well, flying is a bore at the best of times but I was wondering whether being rich, one has to give up the delights of socialising around the family breakfast table of a friendly B&B after a good, home-cooked, full English? It sounds so isolated being rich.
    still, I'd have a go - providing it wasn't on a permanent basis.

  4. You have it in a nutshell Brit, for years I sat aft of the curtains and thought "silly sods".
    Bryan if you think the CEOs begging trip was dumb, some of their recent in house panic measures make that seem like a masterstroke.

  5. I once stayed at the Ocean Club in the Bahamas- just up the beach from the original Atlantis. Nothing special - with one exception, when sitting on a sunbed on the private beach by lifting small flag a waiter would come and bring you cold drinks. Lot of money to pay for that indulgence though. I've had more fun playing golf at Formby links and eating fish and chips on the way home.

  6. I worked for AT&T in the UK in the 1990s. At the time I joined it was a really fine example of corporate bloat - shiny offices in Berkeley Square, unlimited expense budgets and so forth. When the shit started to hit the telecoms fan a new CEO in the US announced that it was time to get rid of the corporate jets - plural. I do remember thinking then that the US shareholders had been remarkably forgiving about the way the company spent its money. I'm amazed that such behaviour is still allowed to exist in corporate America.

  7. i seem to remember Wittgenstein once hiring an entire train to take himself & a friend on holiday - can't remember if he actually did it or his friend dissuaded him; this was when his father was still alive and so he had oodles of money at his disposal.

  8. If recent events are anything to go by, these distinctions seen pretty ridiculous since both rich and poor have been doing exactly the same thing. Both have funded their life style with borrowed money. The rich have done it by plundering shareholder funds while the poor have been using the bank's funds.

    I suppose the difference is that shareholders are caught up in the middle class politeness racket and don't ask for the money back. The bank has no such scruples.

    I guess a good old-fashioned burglar who always pays in cash and starts the day with a full English is today's canny operator. It's not his money either but at least there is no boss to worry about and no rude letters from the bank.

  9. Hi Bryan,

    And you are back from your travels by rickshaw, canoe and VW bus, I see. It's good to read you.

    The corporate jet thing is tricky. Behind the scenes is a sharp congressman, Ackerman, who knew ahead of time that this is precisely how the big shots were going to travel with their tin cups. They would do nothing otherwise. And he gets a terrific photo op.

    If they were to arrive after flying coach, or better yet, by driving stripped-down versions of their economy cars, no AC, no CD player, nothing, this would have been a story as well--purposely putting on tattered clothes in order to get the free meal.

    I expect Ackerman to refuse any raise this year, and certainly not vote for one, as he is part of the congress that was in session when this debacle came to a crisis point before being addressed.

    Off the topic a bit, I am still waiting for Barney Frank to do the decent thing and step down, after presiding of the finance committee while the world economy was going down the tubes. But he looked real fine in his duds on TV yesterday afternoon.


  10. If I were rich 'n' all, the first thing I'd do would be to get me one of them chauffeurs. I'm right sick of driving.

    Then, I'd buy me a big house in the countryside, with lots of bedrooms and bathrooms, spiral staircases, a wine cellar, and a huge library. I'd have a tunnel going from the wine cellar to a secluded balcony above a local river. And then I'd install a particle accelerator in a basement, and a telescope within a domed emplacement on the roof.

    And butlers. I'd need butlers.

  11. Why do the rich fork out soo much money just to sit in a comfy seat? Even if I was a millionaire the amount of money I just spent would outweigh any enjoyment from it.

  12. It's not just a comfy seat. It's a comfy seat that YOU can't afford and THEY can, thus signifying their membership of a special elite class of humanity. Their special handbags and metaphysical vegetables also aid them in this quest for specialness.

    Rus is quite right about Ackerman and the preposterous Barney Frank; at the same time, the CEOs are still in need of a sound thrashing.