What Does it Mean to be an American Millionaire?

A new report reveals a record number of millionaires living in the United States. But what does it mean to be a millionaire in America today, and how has the term — and the pop culture view of millionaires — evolved?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Who doesn't want to be a millionaire? Well, actually, there are people like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates. They're billionaires already. They don't need to be millionaires. And for the rest of us, being a millionaire really isn't what it used to be; no longer so exclusive. And a million dollars is literally worth less because of inflation and a weak dollar. Still, a new survey about millionaires inspired DAY TO DAY's Mike Pesca to come up with what could be the most useless index of the value of a million dollars. Mike, show us the money.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Every few months, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan goes before Congress to issue his board's monetary report, and he usually talks about inflation. Greenspan is seen as a guru. That's true. And he does hold a doctorate from NYU. But for a real explanation of inflation, one needs to consult another doctor, Dr. Evil.

(Soundbite of "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery")

Mr. MIKE MYERS: (As Dr. Evil) We hold the world ransom for one million dollars. (Clears throat)

Mr. ROBERT WAGNER: (As Number Two) Well, don't you think we should maybe ask for more than a million dollars? A million dollars isn't exactly a lot of money these days.

PESCA: As Evil's Number Two was hinting in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," a million dollars from the time Evil was frozen in 1967 to the present would be about $5 million, adjusted for inflation. However, Evil's new ransom of a hundred billion dollars greatly outstripped inflation. He is evil. Also outstripping the pace of inflation is the pace of creation of millionaires. George Wapner(ph) is the president of The Spectrum Group.

Mr. GEORGE WAPNER (The Spectrum Group): At the moment--millionaires being defined as a million and above--there are about seven and a half million.

PESCA: Seven and a half million millionaires is the most millionaires The Spectrum Group has ever uncovered in its annual tally of millionaires, which counts assets apart from primary residence. The previous high coincided with the stock market success of the late '90s. Today's millionaires are catered to as never before and, as such, have become a pretty demanding bunch, according to Wapner, whose company not only counts the millionaires, but also tries to service their financial needs.

Mr. WAPNER: They are far more knowledgeable and sophisticated in 2005 than 10 years ago because, one, there is more in terms of the neighbors to talk to--millionaire next door. More importantly, though, between the Internet and the media, there's far more knowledge available at their fingertips, and they take advantage of it.

PESCA: This all suggests that while it's thrilling to have a million dollars, it's no longer unusual. According to the latest surveys, there are more than twice as many millionaires in America as there are Episcopalians. To really understand just how mundane millionaires have become, we need to go back to 1985. Live Aid raised money for famine relief, Pete Rose surpassed Ty Cobb's hit record, and a man by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev taught us all how to laugh again. No, wait, I'm sorry, Gorbachev became premier of the USSR. Richard Pryor was the funny guy in a movie called "Brewster's Millions." Here's the one line from that movie which tells you the whole plot.

(Soundbite of "Brewster's Millions")

Unidentified Man: You have 30 days in which to spend 30 million bucks. If you can do it, you get 300 million. But if you fail, you don't get diddly.

PESCA: This movie was based on a 1903 novel, which had Brewster spending a million. In five movie versions, all the way through 1961, Brewster was always having to spend a million, or the equivalent in pounds sterling in the British version. For decades, a million meant something. But by making Pryor spend 30 million in 1985, a broad comedy, co-starring Yakov Smirnoff, officially announced to the world what we know today. The millionaire has lost his iconic status. Let that be a comfort to you as you tear through the circular on double coupon day. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Credits)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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