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What $5,500 an Hour Buys

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace (and very soon, it seems, from power) raises a host of serious concerns, not least our ongoing and often ludicrous conflation of the personal and the political in matters of morals. But flawed mortal that I am, I confess I keep coming back to one detail as this gloomy tale unfolds: $5,500.

That's what Spitzer and his fellow numbered clients were shelling out per hour if they booked the Emperors Club VIP's top-of-the-line providers.

I've given serious thought to this over the past day, and I'm not sure that I've even had a sexual fantasy that, if actualized, would be worth $5,500 an hour. Of course, fantasies can involve particular, unattainable persons, and an economist might say that if the client has an obsession that only a certain provider could satisfy, that could drive the price way up.

But that doesn't seem to have been the case for Client 9. Of all the details in the transcript of the back-and-forth between Spitzer and the Emperors Club's traffic manager, the one I find most mind-boggling is when Spitzer, just before he hooks up with his hooker, asks to be reminded of what the lady looks like.

He's paying $4,300 for this experience and he needs a refresher on her looks? Four grand and change and he can't remember whether he booked tall or short, blond or brunette? We're not talking obsession here. We're talking positional goods.

Positional goods are those commodities that are more valuable than their run-of-the-mill counterparts because a special status attaches to them, since only a select few can have them. Since the Web sites on which prostitutes advertise indicate that the average hourly rate is around $300, the Emperors Club maximum rate, which is roughly 18 times higher, could be justified by the particular appeals and skills of its hookers. I haven't conducted empirical research on this one, but let me just say: I doubt it.

I suspect that what makes a prostitute worth $5,500 an hour is that she costs $5,500 an hour. The value here doesn't dictate the price. The price, rather, dictates the value. These women are available only to the wealthy; the ability to hire them, like the ability to live on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, means that you've made it. And even if your hour turns out to be a bit disappointing, that's okay, because $5,500 doesn't really mean anything to you -- which just means you've really made it.

And there, I suppose, is the thrill. The power of being able to command the world's priciest hooker, like the power of owning the world's priciest real estate, could be a turn-on in itself. The power of dropping thousands and not even remembering what type of woman you've booked: Boy, are you ever something! Whether or not you're getting one terrific woman, the transaction alone confirms that you're one terrific dude.

In fairness, Spitzer clearly thought he was also buying one other valuable commodity: secrecy. At those rates, everyone could be trusted to keep quiet. Spitzer, however, clearly forgot what he'd learned in Prosecutions 101, which is that nothing intrigues a prosecutor more than unexplained silence. Federal investigators told the New York Times that they were looking into the governor's cash withdrawals on the suspicion that he might be paying off a blackmailer. (Of course, after the railroading that the Bush-Rove Justice Department gave to Don Siegelman, the Democratic former governor of Alabama, currently incarcerated for what look to be no more than misdemeanors, no such investigation is itself above suspicion.) Without Spitzer's "cover-up" -- which in this instance simply meant paying in cash -- the crime, such as it was, would have gone undetected.

Clients 1 through 8 were surely in need of some secrecy, too, if not quite so patently as New York's governor. Men don't usually print their patronage of prostitutes on their business cards. But $5,500 buys a lot more than secrecy, and a lot more than sex. It buys a confirmation of status and power. It has all the positional upside of conspicuous consumption, though it remains -- or is supposed to remain -- inconspicuous.

There are real tragedies in this case, of course. And, politically, I suppose, the whole affair is one more argument against continuing tax cuts to the rich, even if Spitzer did invest his money here rather than in China.

But I keep coming back to price, even though I know it purchased a positional good. $5,500, huh? I need to work on my fantasies.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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