Faery Gold

Actors Dennis Hopper, left, and Eric Roberts speak to each other during the Starz panel for "Crash" at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif. on Wednesday, July 29, 2009.
AP Photo/Matt Sayles
This column was written by John Derbyshire.
Who wants to be a millionaire? Well, I have no principled objections. And now I find that in fact, yes! -- I am a millionaire, or, at least, one half of a millionaire couple. My house -- a modest three-bedroom colonial, 80 years old, on a sixth of an acre -- is worth, in realtor's jargon, "north of five"; which is to say, over $500,000. I have a sheaf of mutual funds, most left over from 401K plans back in the days when I used to do honest work in big corporations, and the bottom line on their market values is, er, north of six. Since this is all in my name, or my wife's, and we don't carry any debt, we are millionaires! And then some! Wooo-hooo! Break out the bubbly!

Well, no, wait a minute, hold the bubbly. That million dollars is all faery gold, the sort that looks dazzling to the eye, but melts into thin air if you try to touch it. We need a house to live in. If we sold this one, we'd have to buy another one, and they don't come much smaller or older than this. As for all those bulging mutual funds: I am reliably informed that if I were to actually attempt to cash in any of that "money," Uncle Sam would come down on me like a wolf on the fold -- aye, and Uncle George, too -- so I had best not even think of doing so. It's all faery gold. I must continue to drive a 12-year-old car, my garage is never going to get that makeover it needs, and if my kids are to go to college, I shall have to work till I drop.

What a strange, artificial business it is, this illusion of middle-class wealth. Look, I'm not complaining. I live far better than any of my ancestors, better than 98 percent of the world's population; in the cosmic scheme of things, way better than I deserve, since I have no extraordinary talents, have never worked very hard, nor even stuck to one line of work for very long, and am clueless about investing. I'm fine with my situation. It just seems a bit... bogus.

Especially the fact that my cosy, but poky, little house is worth half a big one. Even more astonishing, that's a hundred thousand more than it was worth the last time I checked, not much more than a year ago. This is of course a universal phenomenon. Walking my dog the other day, I got talking to a fellow at the end of the street. The house next to him, on half an acre, was sold just eight months ago. Yet now I see it is for sale again. What's up with that? My neighbor said he'd heard there was a problem with the marriage. Anyway, did I know what they were asking? I didn't. "Six seventy-five!" he told me. The sale price eight months earlier had been five seventy-five.