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The Natural History of the Rich

Richard Conniff

Rich people have always believed that it was their cleverness or ability, anything but their money, that makes them special. And yet, they act as if money is the only thing that interests them.

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'relative deprivation' - to them, 'rich' is always another 5 or 10 million.

Self-made rich love to win little contests - typically they will compete furiously for the most trivial distinctions.

Flattering courtiers - In Imperial India, important visitors never shot a tiger less than 10 feet long, partly because the special tape measure only had 11 inches to the foot

- likewise today, flunkies get their bosses new jeans etc, then send them off to have a label from a smaller pair replace the original

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Rich function as a tribe - you might think that having money would set you free to become someone different - but instead they all become the same - wear same clothes, drive same cars, hire same architects, socialize together.

Very first car race in US organized by Alva Vanderbilt, on the lawn of her Newport Mansion - an obstacle course of dummy policemen, nursemaids and babies in prams. One who 'killed' the least bystanders declared winner.

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When Bill Gates and Paul Allen set up Microsoft, they each invested the same capital, but Allen, the technical whiz, dropped out of college and had to draw a salary for 6 months until Gates dropped out as well. Gates insisted that the company shares should be split 60:40 in his favour because Allan had been drawing the wage. By 1999 this inequality was worth $15 billion.

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Ornithologist did an experiment with swallows. Female swallows prefer males with longer tail feathers so he glued some extra feathers on the tails of some birds, and clipped the tails of some others. Sure enough, the ones with the enhanced tails got more mates, including some on the side - faking status translated directly into more sex.

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But, some problems: the longer tails made it more difficult to catch insects, and none of the enhanced birds made it back from migration. And, when they DNA tested the offspring, they found that the enhanced birds had only fathered 50% of their partners' chicks (usual is 95%). Apparently the females knew they were faking, perhaps because they weren't bringing back enough insects, and went elsewhere in search of better genes.

Socialites taking jewellry courses to evaluate diamonds offered to them by suitors, or worn by others Ds are best, E and F are good; G and below, that means you're poor.

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The status symbols of the rich have to constantly evolve and expand as the middle class come up from below to ape their betters. As the home theatre becomes common, the rich expand it to entire entertainment wings (alongside the 6000 square foot garage for the car collection, and the mock jewellers store for the gem collection) we have the Rialto Theatre, the Bloosom Daisy Cafe (a working diner) and the Beach Lanes Bowling Alley.

For poor families, a daughter is more likely to improve your status. A son has to work hard, whereas a daughter can latch on to someone influential.

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Most successful instance on record was a tanner's daughter (a tanner worked with dog poo etc to treat leather and so was right at the bottom of the social scale in a very class-conscious society) in France who bonked a duke and produced a son that people at first called William the Bastard. They thought of a better name after he'd conquered England in 1066, and from the tanner's daughter's son sprang the entire British royal lineage.

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