Neiman Marcus' gift list for billionaires reveals the guilt that plagues America's richest people after the Great Recession
- Every year, Neiman Marcus releases a Fantasy Gift list with some items costing more than $1 million.
- In recent years, gifts on the list have been coupled with charity donations.
- The coupling of charity with absurdly pricey luxuries reveals the discomfort felt by extremely wealthy Americans in an economically divided nation.
Neiman Marcus' annual Christmas list for billionaires reveals the growing sense of guilt among the richest of the rich in America.
The Fantasy Gift section has been one of the highlights of the retailer's "Christmas Book" for more than 50 years. Since the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession, however, there's been a growing layer of guilt impinging on the fantasy of buying gifts that cost thousands - or even millions - of dollars.
Buying the items on the Fantasy Gift list requires paying up significantly more than the average American makes in a year, with prices topping out at $1.6 million for a 300-person New Year's Eve party.
Neiman Marcus has emphasized the charitable aspects of the Fantasy Gift list more and more in recent years. The 2017 list spells out exactly how much money will be given to charity for each item. No need to feel uncomfortable about spending $300,000 on customized jewelry and a trip to an emerald mine in Zambia if $40,000 of that goes to charity, right?
While you could take the charitable donations at face value, it's clear that the retailer has realized that the feel-good aspects of the Fantasy Gift list are necessary to avoid bad press - and to appease customers' guilt.
"In 2008, we did get backlash," recently retired Neiman Marcus executive Ginger Reeder told Racked in 2014. "We launched the Christmas Book a week after Lehman Brothers folded. That was a tough thing for us."
Reeder continued: "We do a charitable donation for each fantasy gift, which takes a little bit of the sting out of it. But even if all you do is pick up the catalog and it makes you smile, then it's great - Neiman Marcus has brought a smile to your face."
While Reeder doesn't specify, that "sting" could be relevant both for people who can't afford to shop from the Fantasy Gift list and those who can.
"Rather than brag about their money or show it off, they kept quiet about their advantages," Rachel Sherman wrote in The New York Times after interviewing more than 50 extremely wealthy people. "They described themselves as 'normal' people who worked hard and spent prudently, distancing themselves from common stereotypes of the wealthy as ostentatious, selfish, snobby and entitled."
Public fury against the 1%, which surged with the Occupy Wall Street movement, may have faded, but the division between the wealthiest in the US and the rest of the country remains stark. The top 1% of wages grew 138% from 1979 to 2013, while wages of the bottom 90% grew just 15%, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The majority (58%) of income gains between 2009 and 2014 went to the top 1%, CNN reported. The Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street left wealthy Americans feeling uncomfortable yet misunderstood - after all, incomes of the top 1% still haven't returned to pre-Recession levels.
An attempt to address this discomfort has led to the coupling of absurdly expensive items with charity, as seen in Neiman Marcus' Fantasy Gift list.
Maybe it's modesty, maybe it's guilt. Either way, it means that if a billionaire wants to spend $1.6 million on a New Year's Eve party planned by Neiman Marcus, everyone is going to feel better if some of that money goes to charity.
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