Wealthy Americans

Geoff Colvin thinks we have more in common with Paris Hilton than we want to admit.

Maybe you remember Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich's famous prediction in the late 1960s that by now America would be so near starvation that we'd have food riots. The reality is exactly the opposite. We have shopping riots. Instead of panicking as the ultimate necessity of life grows so expensive that no one can afford it, Americans flip out because a product absolutely no one needs is available at a price so low that even a year ago no one would have believed it possible. Food, if anyone still cares, takes a lower proportion of our income than ever before.

By odd coincidence, just as the season of peak acquisitive madness grips the nation, we're being treated to a glut of TV programs about some of America's most revoltingly excessive consumers, our hyperwealthy kids. Rich Girls (MTV) follows a couple of heiresses who embark on buying orgies with the immortal cry "Let's do some damage." In Born Rich (HBO), we meet 21-year-olds who know they need never work a day in their life, and we learn of the wrenching conflicts they face, such as what one girl might have done with the $800 that she dropped in a bar the other night ("I could have bought a dress!"). The Simple Life (Fox) places Paris Hilton (hotel money) and Nicole Richie (daughter of former pop star Lionel Richie) in a tiny Arkansas town so that we can marvel at their cluelessness about real life; Richie, for example, had never pumped gas "because my guard usually does that."

What's your reaction? Laughing? Loathing? Fine—but be careful. Because the truth is, if average Americans of even 30 to 40 years ago could see us today, they'd think we were all spoiled just as rotten as any young Trump, Newhouse, or Bloomberg.

He has a point. We are pretty wealthy (and in debt) as a society. Despite all the talk of the "race to the bottom" due to WalMart, we somehow have the money to buy $29 DVD players. We keep hearing about how poor Americans are, but who is buying all this stuff? Maybe I just have too much faith in capitalism to work things out – although I am sure someone will post a comment as to why I shouldn't.

By the way, for those of you who love to argue about WalMart, check out Kurt's recent post on the WalMart effect.