Barack Obama promised to “transform” America by curbing income inequality, and toward that end he declared war on “millionaires and billionaires.” To gauge his progress in this noble campaign, I departed the frigid climes of the Northeast for Palm Beach, Florida. A tough assignment, but someone had to do it.
Sadly, signs of progress in the Mill & Bill War are difficult to discern on the island known to cognoscenti as “America’s Riviera.” Even before you reach the island, there are troubling signs. Moored in the Inter-Coastal Waterway, between the déclassé mainland (West Palm Beach) and Palm Beach proper, is a sprawling fleet of gleaming white yachts. On the island itself, ensconced in a profusion of exotic foliage and freshly clipped topiary, opulent Mediterranean mansions shimmer in the sunlight. For billionaires and mega-millionaires, they are very fairly priced. An exquisite Atlantic prospect, palm-shaded swimming pool, soaring entry hall graced by Venetian gothic windows and intricate wrought iron screens, a Renaissance dining room with Islamic tiled floor and coffered ceiling—this and more can be yours for a trifling $22 million. Alas, in today’s hot real estate market few such properties are available.
On the narrow lanes of Palm Beach, BMW’s and Mercedes are overawed by Bentleys and Ferraris. The main shopping street, appropriately named Worth Avenue (formerly Net Worth Avenue, but the prefix was dropped in the 1930s, I suspect) received a pricey face-lift a few years ago—not unlike many of its denizens. Jewelry shops abound. The local book shop features eight different magazines describing the polo tournaments and benefit balls of Palm Beach Society. Well preserved gentlemen squire comely female companions half their age. Still younger, single females are on the prowl. Don’t be surprised if that baby carriage up ahead is transporting a white Poodle. (Babies are scarce in Palm Beach.) Worth Avenue restaurants Bice and Taboo are packed on a Monday night. At Bice, try the Costata di Vitello Alla Griglia Con Capponatta E Salsa All Timo for just $46.
Though it is forward-looking and up-to-date, Palm Beach pays due respect to its moneyed heritage. The top cultural attraction is the Flagler Museum, once the sumptuous 75-room mansion that Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler built for his third wife in 1902, at the apex of the first Gilded Age. The Flaglers called it home for a couple of months each winter. Like many of Florida’s founding fathers, Henry Flagler’s main contribution to the state was to build hotels, which were strung along his Florida East Coast Railroad, from St. Augustine to Miami, like so many pearls. The hotel he built in Palm Beach was said to be the largest wooden structure in the world.
I would not wish to convey the impression that you have to be a billionaire or a mega-millionaire to enjoy Palm Beach. Common millionaires are welcome as well. They can find shelter at the Breakers, a perfectly adequate beachfront hostelry with two golf courses, six swimming pools, eight restaurants, and 2000 employees—all situated in lush tropical acreage and ornate beaux arts interiors patterned after a Renaissance Italian palace. The imperial suite is well worth the price at $5,800 per night (excluding taxes and fees).
Bernie, my able accountant, who has clients in Palm Beach, explained to me that the town deals with crime the old fashioned way. After a heist, they pull up the draw bridges, so the brigands cannot escape to the mainland. To caution the locals, a patrol car is permanently parked on Bingham Island, one of the potential escape routes.
Barack Obama, Secret Friend of Millionaires and Billionaires
How are we to explain the tragic failure of Obama’s War on Mills & Bills? The uncharitable take on our President—the sneering, insolent, disrespectful view of the Fox News crowd– is that his eloquence is exceeded only by his incompetence. But I, as usual, take a more nuanced view.
Obama is way smarter than you think. He is looking ahead to his post-White House days. By throwing up multiple regulatory barriers to hiring, Obama obliges the Fed to keep interest rates near zero. This is great for Mills & Bills who can borrow at 1.1% and buy stocks with current yields of 2-5%, dividend growth of 5-20%, and PE’s that are drifting higher in a zero-rate environment. (Fed policy is not so great for middle class savers who get just 1.3% on a three-year CD.) Once President Obama leaves office and is earning $400,000 per speech he, too, can hop aboard this nourishing gravy train. A gleaming multi-deck yacht and $22 million Palm Beach mansion may be in his future. As for the huddled masses who can’t find jobs, well, hey, Obama—unlike those heartless Republicans—is supporting an extension of unemployment insurance and a hike in the minimum wage. What more do you want?
Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2014. All Rights Reserved.