The other day I was sitting in a local park in New York when an elderly woman walked by carrying two big bags on her shoulder and pulling a shopping cart stacking with what looked like all her belongings. She was but one of the 50,000 homeless or “unhoused” people clustered on street corners on sleeping in subway cars who survive somehow in New York, the capital of the 20thcentury.
While sitting on a park bench, I was reading an article by Evan Osnos about yachts in a recent New Yorker. He notes that since 1990, the number of billionaires in the U.S. has jumped from 67 to 700. And he adds, “the number of truly giant yachts – those longer than 250 feet – has climbed from less than ten to more than 170.” He also reports, in 2021, the industry reportedly sold 887 superyachts worldwide – twice that for 2020 – with 1,000 on order. Each superyacht costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
I wanted to scream.
Osnos writes in true New Yorker style, like a sociologist at a nudist colony — enamored by the display of eroticized opulence yet keeping an analytic distance.
How do the superrich show their wealth? Some spend it on enormous and expensive homes like the hedge-fund tycoon Ken Griffin who paid $240 million for a quadruplex on New York’s Central Park South that Osnos reports was “the highest price ever paid for a home in America.” Others keep a private jet, which are now dismissed as “just transportation.”
However, as Osnos insists, “A big ship is a floating manse, with a hierarchy written right into the nomenclature.” And he notes, “The yachts extend a tradition of seclusion as the ultimate luxury.” He calls superyachts “shrines to excess capital.”
Osnos reminds readers that “even among the truly rich, there is a gap between the haves and the have-yachts.” Going further, he insists: “For the moment, a gigayacht is the most expensive item that our species has figured out how to own.”
The mantra of yacht grandeur is referred to as “LOL” – “length over all,” a postmodern phallic symbol. And today’s giant yachts are gigantic:
Superyacht – more than 98-ft
Megayacht – more than 230-ft
Gigayacht – more than 294-ft and there are 295 such boats afloat.
The current round of super-rich self-indulgence for “truly giant yachts” began in the late-1980s and by the 1990s their number increased from 10 to more than 175. Today’s grandest yachts include IMAX-screens, hospital equipment and “ski rooms where guests can suit up for a helicopter trip to a mountaintop.”
Osnos describes the megayacht Bold to illustrate the superyacht phenomenon. Its 280-ft long painted in gunmetal gray and “styled like a warship” with its own helicopter hanger, three Sea-Doos (i.e., personal watercraft & Pontoon) and two sailboats).
When the yacht craze started, Donald Trump briefly jumped in. In 1987, he acquired the megayacht, Nabila (with 100 rooms and a disco) from the Saudi businessman, Adnan Khashoggi, after he was indicted for mail fraud. Trump renamed it the Trump Princess and held onto it for a couple years, only to sell it to pay down a $3 billion debt.
In 1998, Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen launched the Octopus. According to Osnos, it “was so large that it contained a helicopter hanger in its belly, as well as a helicopter hanger that could be converted into an outdoor performance space. Mick Jagger and Bono played on occasion.”
The most recent superyacht scandal involves Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’s superyacht, Y721, that cost an estimated $400 to $500 million. Facing enormous popular opposition, the Rotterdam (Holland) city government blocked a plan to demolish the Koningshaven bridge (built in 1927) to enable Bezos’s yacht to pass through.
Osnos peppers his article identifying still other of the superrich who show-off their wealth with their superyacht. For example, Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund mogul and staunch backer of the far-right, has a 203-ft superyacht. David Geffen, the entertainment-industry entrepreneur, has welcomed Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen on his 454-ft gigayacht, Rising Sun.
However, many “owners tend to hide behind shell companies, register in obscure tax havens, attended by private bankers and lawyers.” Osnos reports that a Saudi crown prince took possession of a $420 million yacht in “international waters in the western Mediterranean” so that the sale could avoid taxes.
Osnos speculates that Russian oligarchs own one-fifth of all gigayachts. Since the Ukraine war, there have been numerous efforts to seize superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs, including the Scheherazade at 459-ft allegedly owned by Putin as well as the Dilbar owned by Alisher Usmanov (Russia’s richest man). Andrey Melnichenko spent $300 million in 2008 for Motor Yacht A, described as having a “dagger-shaped hull and a bulbous tower topped by a master bedroom to capture the best view.” In March, it was seized by Italian authorities.
Osnos, being at heart a sociologist, reminds readers that yachts are limited to 12 passengers but an unlimited number of crew and service workers, sometimes reaching 50 people. The crew’s — the “yachties” – work is a mixed bag. They make $3,500 per month along with room/board. However, “the ‘interior team’ operates at a forensic level of detail: they’ll use Q-tips to polish the rim of your toilet, tweezers to lift your fried-chicken crumbs from the teak, a toothbrush to clean the treads of your staircase.” With no H.R. departments, lots of abuse and mistreatment take place.
Where is the superyacht tendency going? The venture capitalist Peter Thiel is backing the conservative economist Milton Friedman’s grandson vision of creating “floating mini-states.” Thiel see it as a libertarian project “to escape from politics in all its forms.
I started to scream, “#EatTheRich,” as some had texted Geffen from his yacht after he urged his followers to stay safe from Covid.
The growth in the number of super-gigantic superyachts symbolizes the new generation of Robber Barons – or what might be better labeled as the Robber Oligarchs. Osnos refers to Thorstein Veblen’s famous notion of “conspicuous consumption,” quoting from his 1898 classic, Theory of the Leisure Class, “In order to be reputable, it must be wasteful.”
Osnos also quotes from Alex Finley, a former CIA officer living in Barcelona, who notes: “The yachts tell a whole story about a Faustian capitalism – the idea that we’re ready to sell democracy for short-term profits.”
The gap between the “have-mosts,” the “haves” and the “have-nots” is growing. Pew Research finds that “since 1980, incomes have increased faster for the most affluent families – those in the top 5% – than for families in the income strata below them.” It points out, “Upper-income families were the only income tier able to build on their wealth from 2001 to 2016, adding 33% at the median.” It adds, “As of 2016, upper-income families had 7.4 times as much wealth as middle-income families and 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families.”
Rising poverty and inequality are contributing to a deepening sense of resentment, especially among white working-class and lower-middle-class men. As Sherry Linkon insightfully observed, “Resentment is a cultural response to economic struggle.” And she adds, “It festered as people read national media stories about how deindustrialization was part of a process of ‘creative destruction’ that would revitalize the economy.”
Despair and resentment are emotional responses to different kinds of failure and often involve a sense of defeat, of failing to fulfill personal aspirations. Such failure is often expressed as racial, ethnic and class resentments that find articulation in the political responses to reported incidents of urban crime involving poor and/or minorities peoples. Today, inequality is deepening, and, in its wake, deep-seated resentments are mounting. And as they mount, a mean-spirited rage seems to be growing.
Osnos quotes American yachtsman Bill Duker: “If the rest of the world learns what it’s like to live on a yacht like this, they’re going to bring back the guillotine.”
It’s time to scream.