Down at our local harbor the pleasure craft have been unwrapped from their winter plastic. They make a fine display, rocking gently on the water, although they never seem to go anywhere. Some of these party boats are big enough to be second homes, and you can’t help being impressed by them, especially when, as in my case, the largest vessel you have ever owned was a small rowing boat, which sank.
But in recent years, when it comes to pleasure boats, we have a new standard for comparison. We have become more familiar with the global class of oligarchs. Every day we see images of their giant homes with nuclear bunkers, their private jets, their luxury cars, their art collections, and their smug faces. They have reasons to be smug. They are the ultimate winners in the casino economy. The Russian oligarchs alone have vacuumed up some $800 billion, although our own home-grown billionaires are way ahead of them. By some estimates, these few extremely rich individuals hold half of all the wealth in the world, and they continue to vacuum up more, in case they one day run out of money for groceries. As long as they don’t offend some super-oligarch at the top of the money tree, they can do more or less exactly what they like.
What today’s oligarchs choose to do with their unlimited money gives us a rather disturbing window into human nature. Of all their Byzantine extravagances, the giant yachts are the most revealing. A seagoing ship is a private kingdom, an escape capsule. These yachts can go anywhere and stay at sea for months, untouched by wars, plagues, and economic disasters. They will be welcome in any port, representing as they do a literal shipload of money. The party boats going nowhere in our local harbor may look like second homes, but the super yachts of the oligarchs are on a different scale altogether, almost second countries in themselves, with their own subservient populations and their own absolute monarchs.
What we all want to know is: does such immense wealth bring happiness, as promised? If it does, such a great quantity of happiness must be almost too much to bear, and indeed the available photographs of the oligarchs show most of them looking rather grim, and not happy at all. Mr. Putin, who owns at least two super yachts, and may be one of the richest people in the world, never looks even slightly cheerful. What are we to make of this?
Perhaps what we learn is that we are not missing much. We can’t all be oligarchs, not least for linguistic reasons. The word comes from the Greek for “few,” and we can’t all be the few. If the few became the many, if all six billion people tried to claim half of the world’s resources, we would have some problems, not least problems of arithmetic. And how many more giant yachts could the oceans hold?
No, the idea is ridiculous. Cupidity on this scale is not something to be envied, still less imitated. Imagine owning a super yacht. Imagine the fuel bills, imagine the seventy-five-million-dollar-a-year operating costs, imagine finding a place to park your ten-thousand-ton treasure in your local harbor, and wrapping it up in enormous quantities of plastic for the winter. Imagine the embarrassment.
Copyright: David Bouchier