The Velvet Rope and the Privileges of Privilege

The New York Times Times ran a feature story on what it called “the velvet rope” economy: that is, a growing focus by companies on the superrich, those who can afford to spend in a few days what most other people could not dream about earning in decades, or a lifetime. It does not sound like breaking news, and seems tautological, too. The article is anchored on the cruise industry and some exclusive services it offers for the very top clientele. Now, the frequent (and one may say even ominous) references to the Titanic reveal there is really nothing that new under the sun. Yes, rich people get a lot of other things that most others cannot because they cannot afford them. And also, the frequent references to the doomed ship indicate that cruise lines have exploited their customers’ varying purchasing power for a long time. But the bottom line is if really that particular focus on a rarified segment of the tourism industry tells a great deal more about the wider economy. Is really a Toyota that inferior to a luxury car when it offers great value for the money? And what is better: Amazon or Nordstrom? Isn’t the fabulous progress observed in mobile phone technology the best proof yet of a democratizing economy? It all depends on what you can afford and what you need. This writer had the fortune of travelling by ship from Istanbul to Tampa for a month, at the very reasonable rate of $1,700. Had he paid ten times more, he would still have not enjoyed more of the sea and the long reading hours on the deck. Yes, there is extreme poverty in the world that needs to be addressed urgently. That is not a matter of imagination. There are people who can barely afford a loaf of bread or a bowl of rice. Sure, the right amount of money to live a comfortable life varies from person to person. Yet the wider point we are trying to make is best formulated in an old saying: “The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.”

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