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The anachronistic millionaires


Besides being a good band name, the title of this post refers to something that I find interesting: the increasing extent to which the English language term “millionaire” no longer makes sense as a cultural concept.

Wikipedia tells us that the first recorded in uses in print of the term “millionaire” in English to signify “a very rich person” are in an 1816 letter written by Lord Byron, and an 1826 novel authored by the then 22-year-old Benjamin Disraeli.

As I’ve noted before, one of the curiosities of the financial history of the US is that there was really no net inflation to speak of from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century, meaning that over a very long time nominal monetary values remained more or less stable, subject of course to short-term fluctuations during wars and depressions and the like. (Piketty mentions this in Capital In the 21st century in an international context, speculating that this is why for example 19th century novelists could use nominal prices in their texts, while assuming those prices would retain a fairly stable meaning over a long period of time).

In the post-WWII period, by contrast, we’ve had basically constant inflation, in part because monetary policy has tried to maintain a low rate of inflation as a baseline economic fact (Deflation is far more harmful than inflation, so this makes sense).

Coupled with the constant economic growth that has characterized the nation’s 250-year history, these two factors have combined to at this point to pretty much make the phrase “millionaire” semantically obsolete. As of 2023, per this calculation, fully 18% of US households had a net worth of at least one million dollars, allowing people to buy things like fur coats (but not a real fur coat, that’s cruel), and three-bedroom fixer uppers that could be restored to a vibrant mid-century modern vibe with the help of another half million dollars or so.

In other words, at this point The Millionaire Next Door is just some guy with a bullshit job, not John D. Rockefeller, tossing gold doubloons to the street urchins below from his zeppelin.

We need a new term it seems. Billionaire doesn’t really work, because a (short) billion is a thousand times more than a million, which is still way too much if all we mean to describe is “an extremely rich person,” as opposed to a literal plutocrat of the New Gilded Age.

Correcting for both inflation and economic growth, what was signified by the term “millionaire” 75 or 100 years ago describes somebody who has a net worth of maybe around $50 million today. What should we call such people? Phone lines are open; the winning entry will receive a cash prize of 10 to the 23rd power in LoomCoin, along with a commemorative plaque.*

*Actual plaque not included.

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