The Obscenity of Extreme Wealth

“The gap between rich and poor in OECD countries has reached its highest level for over 30 years, and governments must act quickly to tackle inequality, according to a new OECD report.” Well, that report was released in December 2011. I haven’t seen a recent update, and I don’t know what’s happening in your particular part of the world – but from a purely empirical point-of-view, I’d say governments are dragging their feet on this one.
Take a look at the OECD graph. Now I have to confess I checked out the ‘Gini’ coefficient and gave up trying to understand the maths of it. Still, one thing is clear: the longer your blue line, the greater the inequality of income distribution in your country. So, we understand that, in 1985, Mexico and Turkey led the OECD countries in the extent of the gap between rich and poor; while Sweden and Finland, as we might expect, were tops for relative equality.
New Zealand, Sweden and Finland coming up fast
On the other hand, the little red diamond shows how matters stood by 2008, when the global financial crisis struck. Not surprisingly, the income gap had widened in eighteen of the twenty-two countries – something most of us felt intuitively, if we lacked hard statistical evidence to back up our gut feeling.
“OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said, ‘This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility.’

“The main driver behind rising income gaps has been greater inequality in wages and salaries, as the high-skilled have benefitted more from technological progress than the low-skilled. Reforms to boost competition and to make labour markets more adaptable, for example by promoting part-time work or more flexible hours, have promoted productivity and brought more people into work, especially women and low-paid workers. But the rise in part-time and low-paid work also extended the wage gap.


“Benefits levels fell in nearly all OECD countries, eligibility rules were tightened to contain spending on social protection, and transfers to the poorest failed to keep pace with earnings growth.

“Another factor has been a cut in top tax rates for high-earners. The OECD underlines the need for governments to review their tax systems to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share of the tax burden. This can be achieved by raising marginal tax rates on the rich but also improving tax compliance, eliminating tax deductions, and reassessing the role of taxes in all forms of property and wealth.”
Well, nothing very new or revolutionary there. The only really surprising thing is that those at the top-end of the income spectrum keep hogging an obscene share of the world’s wealth, and flaunting it with seeming impunity in the faces of the have-nots.
I recently came across a helpful website for those of you whose disposable income has grown to the embarrassing point where you don’t know what to do with it: howtospendit.ft.com
It’s a kind of Lonely Planet guide to shopping for the ludicrously wealthy. If you’re looking for something smart in men’s shoes, you could do worse than check out JM Weston. Their Flore 529 in black lizard skin will help you get rid of £1,775. Still some slack in your shoe budget? What the hell, get a second pair. In need of a watch? Hard to go past the Christophe Claret Soprano Tourbillon with a price tag of £380,400. You’ll find useful links to specialised sites too, where you can pick up, for instance, a nice 750 ml bottle of Courvoisier L’Esprit Champagne cognac for $9,300. Included in the price, apparently, is a hand-cut Lalique crystal decanter. For those with a taste for jewellery and a sensitive conscience, Karen Ellison, founder of Jewels For Humanity, will be happy to help you out. You can relax as you attach your $6,600 cufflinks, clip on your $18,000 earrings, or slip that $185,000 Sea Treasure Octopus ring over your pinkie, knowing that twenty per cent of your dollars will go to a charity of your choice, Diamond-miners Without Borders, for example.
Perhaps your interests run more towards the masculine. Check out Swedish gun and rifle maker VO Vapen. Viggo Olsson, I’m told, constructs the world’s most exclusive handmade hunting rifles. If money’s no object, there’s the H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque Rifle, priced at $825,000. If you don’t need a rifle when you go to the mosque, a more economical purchase would be the “Big Papa,” at $375,000; or something from the Viking Collection, inspired by Viking mythology and featuring engravings of Norse gods and 24-carat gold inlay at $275,000 apiece. If you’re a little hard up at present, you can pick up a gat from the Royal TD Collection, initially created for H.R.H. Prince Carl Philip Bernadotte of Sweden for a very reasonable $125,000.
To buy a car, though, you really need to get along to a good motor show, such as the one in Geneva, Switzerland. Top of the line this year was the Lamborghini Veneno with a price tag of $US3.9 million. Looking for something hot but just a little cheaper? The new beast from Ferrari may suit. Listed at €1.2 million ($1.62 million), the F150 has a top speed of 370 km/h, and will accelerate from 0-100 km/h in a little under three seconds. The word is that only five hundred will be manufactured and purchase will be by invitation only. Colour choice is Rosso Corsa, Giallo Modena orNero, and if you have to ask what they are, you’re probably not on the list.
Obviously you can’t consider yourself seriously wealthy without a cellar of vintage wine, and those in the know will send their buyer along to Harrods with the aim of picking up a ‘vertical’ of Chateau d’Yquem for around £1 million. Alternatively, folks with an eye for a bargain might chance on a privately assembled antique collection from Christie’s for a similar outlay. I gather The Yquem people maintain their exclusivity by limiting their output, and in fact, in some years, 2012 for example, not producing a vintage at all. 2010, on the other hand, was apparently a good year. Expect to pay around £5000 for a case of 12 bottles.
Still, you can’t be quaffing champagne cognac and vintage wine all the time. Sometimes you just need a coffee, right? No need to rub shoulders with the proles in Starbucks though. Black Ivory is said to be the world’s most exclusive brew, and you can enjoy it, for around $US50 a cup, at the Anantara Dhigu Resort and a couple of other spas in the Maldives, as well as two hotels in Thailand and another pair in Abu Dhabi. If you prefer to brew your own at home, a kilo of the stuff sells for $1,100, hand-cut Lalique crystal coffee pot not included. What’s the deal, you may ask. It’s only coffee, right? Maybe so, but these beans have been passed lovingly through the digestive system of Thai elephants, collected (and carefully washed, we hope) by local women before being packaged and brought to your hotel.
Ah those Arabs! Seems the Muslims are getting the last laugh after all. And what are they doing with the money rolling in from elephant dung coffee and petro-dollars borrowed from China to maintain that non-negotiable American way-of-life? I don’t want to burden you with unnecessary details, but, as a sample, take a look at the yacht ‘Dubai’ owned by Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, and ‘constitutional monarch’ of Dubai. That mother, at 162 metres, is the second largest privately owned yacht in the world (come on, Mo, only the second largest?).
Dubai’s luxurious interior design blends bold colours with fine fabrics and intricately detailed handmade mosaics. A spectacular staircase creates the yacht’s showpiece. Bathed in natural light from the top deck, this dramatic circular staircase features glass steps, which change colour. Dubai’s spacious decks offer a split-level owner’s deck; a large social area including the main lounge with its centrepiece red sofa; numerous VIP and guest suites, and a crew area to accommodate 115 people including crew and guest staff.
With seven decks, Dubai has a wealth of sunbathing areas; a striking mosaic swimming pool and several Jacuzzis. She can accommodate a helicopter of up to 9.5 tonnes and can carry two 10-metre long tenders. Dubai has a displacement of 9,150 tonnes, yet can reach an impressive 26 knots at maximum speed. She has exceptional worldwide capability with a range of 8,500 miles at 25 knots, powered by four MTU diesel engines.
According to superyachts.com, eight of the world’s nine largest private yachts are owned by Arabs.  But it’s not just about yachts. Last summer in Bodrum we were honoured by a visit from Saudi Prince El Velid bin Abdülaziz bin Suud. Well, he didn’t actually stay at our place, of course. He had a yacht anchored offshore for him and his family while they were in town, but they flew in on their private plane, which, incidentally, is not one of your piffling Learjets, but a full-size Boeing 747. It’s a competitive business, being that rich – don’t think it’s all plain-sailing. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izaddin Wadaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, aka the Sultan, Prime Minister and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei, pretty much sets the standard here for others to follow, with his customised 747-400 and Airbus 340-200. Hassanal Bokiah (you can call him that if you’re short of time) is reputed to have a collection of over 7,000 high performance cars, including 600 Rolls Royces, 300 Ferraris, not to mention assorted Koenigseggs, McLarens, Porsches and other lesser makes.

You probably knew that London’s premier department store Harrods is owned by the royal family of Qatar. Seems they bought it on spec a year or two ago, then a gang of them turned up to check it out in a Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 Super Veloce and a customised Koenigsegg CCXR, which they parked on the road outside. Apparently while they were in the store, the egalitarian London Constabulary had the vehicles clamped, so once again the Brits have cause to feel proud of their local bobbies.
Nevertheless, like me, you may be starting to feel a little ashamed of your Western Caucasian Anglo-Saxon Christian brothers and sisters, and to think that somebody, somewhere must be letting the side down. So it’s heartening to know we have people like Petra Ecclestone going in to bat for our side. Ok, I know she’s only the daughter of a rich guy, but you can’t blame a girl for that. And besides, knowing that can give us a better appreciation of the league daddy himself is playing in. Bernie has one other daughter besides young Petra, and we must assume he is not leaving her penniless. Clearly, though, Petra is daddy’s pet, which is why he bought her that mega-mansion in Los Angeles for $85,000,000, said to be the world’s most expensive house. Petra and her husband Jim apparently find the 5700m2chateau ‘quite cosy’, especially after two months of extensive renovations which, we may guess, added a few millions more to the original purchase price. My invitation to their wedding evidently got lost in the mail, but it must have been quite a bash, seeing as it cost daddy £5 million. Petra herself would have looked lovely too, I’m sure, in her £80,000 dress. Maybe she’ll pass it on to her own daughter, when the time comes, for economy’s sake.
But you don’t have to be an heiress, an Arab Sheikh or a Grand Prix mogul to play in the big league. Wage and salary earners (some of them at least) are doing all right these days too. Take Muhtar Kent, for example, the Turkish CEO of the Coca Cola Company. His ‘compensation’ last year was a little under $26 million, down a couple of millions from the previous year, but still competitive. I have to say I never touch that black fizzy stuff, preferring, as I do, Courvoisier L’Esprit. And I avoid their Turkuaz brand bottled water – but I will confess I am partial to their 100% Cappy Orange Juice, so I feel I have, in some small measure, contributed to the maintenance of Mr Kent’s life style.
And now that we have established a Turkish connection, I want to mention our very own construction magnate Ali Ağaoğlu, who dropped into the recent Istanbul Motor Show in his Rolls Royce Phantom Cabrio, reportedly the same model British Queen Elizabeth uses for her shopping expeditions. Strolling around the exhibits, Mr Ağaoğlu’s eye was apparently caught by a bright yellow (or giallo diarrea, if you prefer) Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport, retailing locally for €4.3 million. Looking to fill a gap in his stable of fourteen luxury vehicles, Mr A remarked casually that he might buy one. Can’t confirm whether he actually did or not.
Well, if you’re not totally nauseated by now, glowing emerald green with envy, or filling out an application form to join your local chapter of Anarchist Bombers Incorporated, let me finish the job I have started. A recent news item under the heading ‘Victoria’s Dirty Secret’ claimed that the billion dollar creator of up-market frillies imports much of its raw material from the impoverished African nation of Burkino Faso, where children as young as ten are picking cotton without pay, motivated mostly by fear of the beating they will get if they slacken their pace. Needless to say, a spokesperson (not actually Victoria herself) assured reporters that such practices were strictly contrary to company policy – though stopping short of outright denial. And this, it seems to me, is an aspect of the problem that the OECD commentator above touched on. Adaptable/flexible labour markets these days are lubricated by the outsourcing of factories and suppliers of raw materials to third world countries where labour costs are low because of less stringent (or non-existent) laws protecting worker pay and conditions. Implicit in this is the sad fact that companies using these methods of lowering costs do not care about the welfare of those doing the work – they merely want to know the price of the labour. Maybe Posh Spice truly doesn’t know about those kids in Burkino Faso – but if she really wanted to, she could surely find out.
The other effect of moving labour costs abroad is that you reduce the need for those jobs in your own country, creating a level of systemic unemployment which ensures that those workers with jobs, desperate to keep them, will accept lower pay and reduced conditions. Does anyone still believe in the trickle-down theory of wealth? How much do you think those Thai women earn for picking coffee beans out of elephant droppings so that the obscenely rich can sip their Black Ivoryespresso at an exclusive desert resort in Abu Dhabi? Closer to the booming Dow Jones, my latest Time informs me that an average of 50,000 people a night slept in New York city’s shelters for the homeless in January this year. At least Turkey’s little red diamond is inside the blue line – which means the gap between rich and poor has shrunk since 1985. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a move in the right direction.


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