The good people at Forbes.com have just produced an estimate of how much money an American family of four needs to live a "comfortably affluent" lifestyle.
The authors of this story emphasize they're not addressing the needs of the truly rich, who can't get through life without necessities such as hundred-acre manors, private jets, exclusive vacation retreats scattered around the world and so forth.
Forbes says it is merely trying to determine what's required these days for what it characterizes as a comfortable "upper-middle-class" lifestyle. This lifestyle is assumed to include, among other things, a spacious home, a vacation residence, two late-model luxury cars, private schools for both children and eating out at a fancy restaurant once a week.
Naturally, the price of comfort was found to vary a great deal depending on where our model upper-middle-class family lived. Furthermore, Forbes omitted all federal taxes from its calculations, perhaps because it wanted to tantalize readers with glimpses of the great wealth the magazine's supply-side gurus assure us would be generated if tax rates were cut to zero.
If we add the federal tax burden to Forbes' calculations, we discover that upper-middle-class bliss can be had for between about $300,000 per year in cities like Omaha, Neb., to around $800,000 in places like Manhattan and San Francisco.
For example, toward the low end of this scale, what Forbes calls "a nice but not opulent lifestyle" in Denver is said to require a million-dollar primary residence, along with an $800,000 second home. At the other end, Los Angeles residents can achieve a similarly modest sub-opulence with a $3 million home, and a $950,000 beach cottage.
Residents of both cities should expect to spend $20,000 per year in car payments for a BMW and a Lexus, while dropping another $20,000 on vacation travel (it says something about the feverishness of this exercise in lifestyle porn that people with million-dollar vacation homes are still supposed to spend nearly $2,000 per month on vacations).
Another $23,000 is slated to be spent on private schools, while $9,000 will go toward eating out, and so on and so forth.
Interestingly, all these budgets omit two things: saving money and giving anything to charity. Forbes justifies budgeting a total of 1 percent of its model family's income for savings on the startling grounds that the current U.S. savings rate is even lower. The magazine doesn't comment on why it expects people in the top one-half of 1 percent of yearly income to give nothing to the poor.
All this is both amusing and disgusting, but it would be a mistake to dismiss these calculations as nothing more than products of a silly magazine story.
On one level, stories like these hammer home the message that one can live a life dedicated to grotesque conspicuous consumption, and yet still consider oneself solidly middle-class. That is, the working stiff who must somehow scrape together the payments for his million-dollar vacation home and his BMW is encouraged to resent a government that wants to confiscate the hard-earned money that allows him to enjoy such simple pleasures.
On a deeper level, stories of this type illustrate the extent to which a complex mix of factors -- including the rampant materialism of our consumer culture, the utilitarian dogmas of economists and the decay of genuine religious faith and the sense of moral obligation that goes with it -- is producing a particular social effect.
In short, that effect is to transform human beings into talking monkeys -- that is, creatures who are genuinely satisfied to live lives dedicated to acquiring an endless stream of shiny new toys.
Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado.
© 2005 Projo.com