Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Price upon request

On one of yesterday's countless canine-walks, I was listening to an interview with Christopher Hayes, the author whose book on elites recently inspired David Brooks. Hayes was arguing that part of why even the wealthiest Americans think of themselves as scrappy underdogs is that every level of society has its own tiny elite, such that the infamous One Percent is in fact dominated by its own 1%, leaving 99% of the wealthiest Americans feeling not so flush. This strikes me as consistent with my own theory of scrappiness oneupmanship - that in a (quasi-) meritocracy, people tell highly edited versions of their own life stories, such that no matter who you are, you're "self-made."

I at any rate thought of Hayes's point about the super-rich when waking up to the NYT style blog's post on engagement rings. Of the ten in the slideshow, eight are "price upon request." The two whose prices are shown are $28,000 and $46,000, suggesting that the others cost more than that. Much more, but how much? Is this luxury-sports-car money? Private jet? Private island?

"Price upon request" evidently means that an item wasn't ever produced to be sold, and refers to items whose value isn't necessarily all that great. But the phrase has so many functions. It's saying that if money could possibly be an issue, it ain't for you. It's a way of suggesting that today's super-rich are actually more like a nobility, and money's too crass for them. And in this case, with the rings, it's a way of telling readers that however much they spent/however much was spent on them, it was but a small fraction of what they, the really well-off, or the really ostentatious, would drop on a rock.

Commenter Tom from "Midwest" dutifully responds to the slideshow with information about how cheap his wedding and wedding jewelry were, for which six other Times readers congratulate him via "recommend." But the slideshow is for the not-so-humble, whose rings cost "only" $500k, who can now feel thrifty and low-maintenance (or, with a certain personality, inadequate or unloved) next to those whose rings were, in fact, $∞.


PG said...

I thought "price upon request" could signify that someone doesn't want to announce a decided price ahead of time. Basically, that there's room for bargaining. My husband bargained down the price for the stone in my engagement ring. (At a store in Western Massachusetts, not in a country where everything is bargained.) But he still hasn't persuaded the jeweler friend of my mother's, who made up the stone into a ring, to let him pay her at all.

I wonder if the expected symbols of ostentation unify across subcultures at a certain income level. My family's culture is one in which jewelry and especially gold is practically an investment (not in a Glenn Beck way, but more like "this is the part of your dowry that you can literally carry"), lots of parents help their kids start a business or buy a home, and weddings are important to be very ostentatious about. But I know no one from that culture who owns a second home, or a boat, or a plane, or anything like that, whereas our 1% neighbors in East Texas would buy those things, and then balk at paying for dental school instead of having the kids take out loans. And they didn't seem to have ostentatious jewelry, but maybe that's just the quasi-South and it would have been different in New Jersey.

I guess if you're in the 1% of the 1%, you can afford to buy all of these things -- jewelry, houses, jets, private schooling, wedding at the Plaza -- instead of picking and choosing priorities among them.

When I try to imagine being really rich, I don't think of it so much as having ridiculous bling but more like "I'd never have a layover just because it was half the price of a direct flight." Which is something my mom, who does have some ridiculous bling, still does. So maybe you have to be rich for your entire life and never have that instinct at all; becoming increasingly wealthy with age can't fix your middle-class mental habits, despite the trappings of wealth around you.

I guess that's why I think of that "don't have to look for a good deal" mindset as the sign of someone who's really rich. Not just "I can buy my fiancee an engagement ring featured in the NYT," but "I wouldn't even consider asking them to give me the Good Customer price."

Phoebe said...

"So maybe you have to be rich for your entire life and never have that instinct at all; becoming increasingly wealthy with age can't fix your middle-class mental habits, despite the trappings of wealth around you."

I think that's right. Which is part of why academics will often continue to identify financially as underdogs even if making decent incomes. It's not just status-income disequilibrium, i.e. that their financier classmates from Yale make so much more. It's also that it's evidently difficult to stop living like a student if you've done so well into adulthood.

I also think this requires more than having grown up rich, also having grown up in a multigeneration rich family. It's silly when born-rich people pretend that because their parents didn't grow up wealthy, they themselves come from a scrappy past. But this sort of thing can impact your spending, like whether you question every purchase (do you really need it? if so, could you get it for less?) or not.