They're rich, yet are more selfish

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am


The rich, to go along with Ernest Hemingway's imagined conversation with Scott Fitzgerald, are different from the rest of us.

Not only do they have more money, but they also pay less - percentage-wise - in taxes. And they are apparently more stingy and selfish, at least according to a spate of recent American surveys.

According to the influential Ipsos Mendelsohn Affluent Survey, the favourite shopping outlets of the super rich and the affluent are budget stores like Walmart, where 74 per cent of them go, followed by Target (73 per cent) and Home Depot (63 per cent).

Another pastime of the rich is to clip and use coupons - offering a few cents off branded food and everyday items - that appear in the weekend papers (71 per cent) and online (54 per cent).

It is certainly fun to read about the thrifty - or stingy - habits of the really rich, but does it amount to a string of beans in assessing economic prospects? You might think that this is a light-hearted exercise, but if you add up the results of the various surveys, you might be worried that you cannot count on the rich to help jump-start the economy or to care about anyone else.

Ipsos Mendelsohn has advantages of history, size and coverage. Indeed, it has been covering the 'future plans, passions, behaviours and attitudes of Affluent Americans' since 1977. Affluent Americans are defined as adults living in households with at least US$100,000 in annual income. There are 58.5 million of them in 24.5 million households.

Altogether, 14,405 of them completed a 28-page survey exploring their attitudes to the economy, their spending plans, their use of 1,200 brands and the media.

For good measure, Ipsos Mendelsohn also interviewed more than 3,000 people who represent the super rich. The firm calls them 'higher-income Affluents', as they enjoy an annual household income of US$250,000 or more.

Robert Shullman, the firm's president, and Stephen Kraus, its chief research and insights officer, note the economic clout of the rich: 'Today's universally-connected, gadget-wielding Affluents have a hugely disproportionate impact on American economic activity.

'Representing only about 21 per cent of US households, Affluents receive about 60 per cent of US household income, and hold approximately 70 per cent of US net worth.

'Moreover, they are on average 2.0 times more likely to buy in the 150-plus categories we measure, and spend on average 3.2 times more when they make purchases in those categories.'

Furthermore, the rich account for more than 70 per cent of consumer spending in items, such as cruise ship voyages, and purchases of vacation homes or second homes.

The rich also drive 57 to 66 per cent of consumer spending in suits, major kitchen appliances, smartphones, motorboats and watches.

To be sure, the United States is becoming a highly divided society.

In the survey, the mega rich form just 11 per cent of the 'Affluents', but account for 33 per cent of the group's collective earnings.

However, other research have shown that if you think the 1 per cent are rich, then look at the 0.1 per cent, and then the 0.01 per cent.

Luxury is alive and well among the affluents: 94 per cent have bought a luxury item and 70 per cent plan to do so in the next year.

But the age of economic austerity is having an impact, and the bar for luxury has been lowered. That perhaps explains why 92 per cent of respondents agree with this statement: 'To me, small indulgences can be just as meaningful as purchasing a high-end luxury product.'

Fewer than 25 per cent agree that if a luxury product goes on sale, it diminishes the perception of luxury.

Treats - which can include things as small as a manicure, pedicure, or a spa treatment - have become more important to hard-pressed affluents.

This may also explain why Walmart is more popular than Brooks Brothers (which only 6 per cent patronised), Tiffany (5 per cent), Burberry (2 per cent), and Louis Vuitton (2 per cent).

The survey shows a divide between the super rich and the merely affluent in their views and spending plans for this year. The super rich are split between optimists and pessimists about the economy, but 35 per cent of them plan to spend more than they did 12 months ago. Among the merely affluent, only 27 per cent plan to spend more this year, while 69 per cent will maintain their spending, and 4 per cent will cut theirs.

On the contentious issue of raising income taxes, the February survey reported that 59 per cent of the affluents agreed with proposals to do so for high earners.

But only 34 per cent of the super rich with annual incomes of US$250,000 or more supported raising taxes. The vast majority of the super rich believed that the government's job was to lower taxes for everyone.

The economic decoupling of the super rich from their fellow Americans is probably the most worrying aspect for the US and the world. That's especially given the emergence of one of their members as the Republican Party's leading presidential candidate. In 2010, Mitt Romney paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 per cent, thanks to tax laws' allowance of deductions and sheltering of income.

Last month, University of California economist Emmanuel Saez presented research that showed that 93 per cent of US income growth went to the richest 1 per cent of households in 2010, leaving just 7 per cent to the 99 per cent of Americans. In contrast, the top 1 per cent took 45 per cent of the income growth in the early 1990s.

Professor Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California Berkeley, agrees that the rich are really different. He says that an 'ideology of self-interest' has made them less empathetic and altruistic and more selfish.

This is the dangerous socioeconomic divide that is driving political battles over economics, taxes, debt ceilings and defaults. And it is threatening the American Dream.


This percentage of affluent respondents said in February they believe that they would fare better in the next 12 months