Dear rich people,
I want you to hear me out about something, but let’s one thing clear before we start. I’m certainly not what you would call an ardent socialist. Most of you have earned your heaps of money in ways that are compatible with generally accepted moral standards, and I think you should be able to do whatever you want with it. Still, you make me sad, rich people. Really sad. I know you’re human, you have wants and needs and sometimes it’s hard to gain a sense of perspective when you live in a gated community with other rich people, but… well, I’m not sure how to put this gently… you’re fucking it up. There’s so much you could do with that money, and you just sit on it.
Let’s start with some basics. Why become rich in the first place? I can think of four reasons off the top of my head, and I imagine they usually go in unison. 1) Because of a competitive spirit; an extreme case of keeping up with the Joneses. 2) To be able to ensure some minimum livelihood for you and your family. 3) The thing that you love happens to pay really well. 4) To have the freedom to do what you want. Before I give you my two cents on what you should do, let’s go through these briefly.
Competitiveness: Let’s be honest, this, at least in some abstract sense, fuels many people, down to aid workers and artists. We want to prove that we’re better than other people. That’s fine, and I’m glad you were able to turn that desire into riches, but I think at some point it has to stop. Two reasons why. First, by some age haven’t you proved everything that you can prove? I mean, Warren Buffet will make more money investing between now and when he dies, but if he called it quits now, would you really look down on his investing abilities? Would you say he didn’t reach his potential as an investor? I doubt it. Second, there are things in life better than money. Of course, you know this, but given that you’ve made it in the money field, start diversifying into more worthwhile things. After all, who’s cooler, someone with 5 million dollars, or someone with 3 million dollars who retired a little earlier and devoted his time to something awesome? Who wouldn’t want to be the slightly out there, cool one at a rich people’s party?
Minimum livelihood: I know, I know, who am I to tell you what your lifestyle should be like. But I’m going to venture this point: at some level of wealth, you stop earning money to buy the things you want and you start buying things based on the amount of money you have (some potential proof). You can afford an expensive car? Great, you’ll buy it. But unless you’re truly greedy (and I honestly don’t think most of you are), you’re not driving a Porsche and still going to sleep fantasizing about the day you’ll get a Bentley. Look, it’s the 21st century. Life is good. You don’t have to be filthy rich to buy most of life’s luxuries. After you’ve put away money for your kids’ college education and taken out awesome health insurance, if you can’t like off, say, $200,000 per year and still be happy, more money probably isn’t curing what ails you. Furthermore, you know who suffers the most from your lavish lifestyle? Your kids. Unless you don’t love them and they spend their life trying to make up for that by earning even more money than you, they’re probably going to grow up wimpy and spoiled.
Passion pays: This is the most acceptable reason, in my book. Steve Jobs is filthy rich, is suffering from pancreatic cancer, and still clocks in a lot of hours for Apple. Fine. But before you default to this argument, ask yourself if you’re really as passionate as he is about being a senior exec at a Fortune 500 company. Let’s call this the pancreatic cancer test: if you found out you had it, and weren’t sure how long you would live, would you keep working at your current job?
Freedom of choice: Choice is the modern holy grail. We love the idea of options, to the point where many of us would rather have options than use them. And this is where you’re making your biggest mistake, rich people. You’ll never have more options than you have today. You’re worth millions. DO SOMETHING. You might make more money, but you’re also going to get older and even more settled. Now’s your opportunity. Contrary to what many people seem to think, there’s no award at the end of it all for the person who had the most options. Not even a ribbon. You won’t earn interest on wasted opportunities.
Okay, okay, I hear you saying, shut up already. I see you pulling out your proofs of tax deductible donations to charity. Some of the more with it of you are even giving me the website of your own foundation. Sorry, but throw it all to the fire. Charitable donations are the modern equivalent of Catholic indulgences, and thinking that a foundation will earn you karma points is like U Po Kyin thinking that building a lot of monasteries will send him to Nirvana in Burmese Days. I’m not saying that you’re not doing any good. I’m sure you are. You’re just being really lazy about it. Your heart isn’t in it. You see brochures with pictures of poor orphans, you cut a check, and you sleep easy. Do you check up on how the organization spends the money? Would you ever think of flying out to Africa or even reading some development papers to understand what the hell poverty is even about? Or when you start a foundation, you just hire someone to run it, you appear at the annual gala, you shake some hands, and you go home. LAZY! Shame on you.
So what am I advocating? Nothing really, except a change of attitude. I don’t even think you should necessarily be spending your money to help the poor. If that problem doesn’t get you ticking, no fault of yours. To illustrate, let’s talk about a rich person I respect, Jim Jannard. Jannard’s story falls into the Bill Gates mold of college drop-out entrepreneur. He started a little company called Oakley in 1975 and sold it for $2.2 billion 2 years ago. In the process, he revolutionized the sunglasses industry yada yada. I’m sure many of you, while not billionaires, have done something cool and made a ton of money out of it.
Jannard could have, like you, found some expensive hobbies and spent the rest of his life enjoying himself. Instead, he found a real challenge. He said, I have a lot of time and money, and a keen interest in camera equipment: I’m going to rock some ass in the video camera industry. In 2005, he started a company called RED, which, to put it quick, makes amazing effing cameras for 20% the price of their Sony or Canon equivalent, and has those other manufacturers wetting the bed. Do you think RED would have developed if he had started a foundation for developing better video cameras?
Jannard took a huge risk, but why would he care? Unless you’re putting your body in physical danger, there’s no such thing as a risk when you’re a billionaire. Even if he lost all that money on roulette, he could make millions as a consultant. He’s set. And so are you, Mr. or Mrs. Rich Person who has so attentively read this excessively long post on a two-bit blog. You’re set. You have the freedom to take the sort of fantastic, dream-inspired risks that others can only, well, dream about. And yet there’s people like William Koch, one step above Jannard in the Forbes 400 list, a man with an M.I.T. PhD, who spends half a million dollars for four bottles alleged to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Bottles! Out of all the fascinating problems out there in the world, isn’t there something that will interest you more than bottles? If you’re so interested in collecting and history, how about, I don’t know, funding an ambitious archeological project, or making some kind of model summer camps where inner city kids go to learn about history?
Why am I putting so much onus on the rich people doing it themselves? After all, Koch could easily cut a check to some archeology department, which would presumably know what it was doing, instead of starting some half-baked scheme on his own. I have two reasons, one practical, the other philosophical. The practical one is that bilking uninformed rich people out of their money is really easy. Assume a simple world where there are three kinds of people: rich people, good marketers and good doers. If rich people can’t distinguish between the guys that talk the talk but can’t walk the walk and the guys who walk the walk but can’t talk the talk, the talker will get the money. And squander it. This is why rich foundations fund so many crappy charities. I agree that rich people should delegate to experts. Even the president does that. But the president has an incentive and the ability to pick good experts. Rich people usually don’t have the ability, and the only way they will have it is by really understanding the issue they’re dealing with. Without a passion about the issue, they won’t get the understanding.
The second, more philosophical reason, is because I think that the cloistering that rich people inflict on themselves, retreating into rich people havens where rich people can mope about rich problems without feeling ridiculous, and from where they interact with the rest of the world only through their checkbooks, is sad form of passing the buck. It’s implicitly saying, okay, I’ll pay my taxes and make some donations, but after that, my hands are clean and don’t bug me. I don’t think there’s anything terribly reprehensible about this, and people can obviously do what they want with their money, but it doesn’t seem like a sign of social health if the rich are more interested in buying bottles than in tackling the social problems around them (and when the only ones that do are evangelicals – does it really take a blind orthodox faith and a Manichean world view to get out off your crocodile leather sofa and do something?). There’s not a whole lot of rigor behind this feeling, but it just seems like having a lot of money for the sake of it wouldn’t be worth as much as it seems to be in peoples’ estimations of their own self-worth.
Well Rich Person (or, maybe at least future Rich Person), thanks for reading. I promise that I admire your hard work and respect your freedom with regards to your fortune. But come on, live a little. Find something you care about. I promise it will be more fun than pawing Thomas Jefferson’s bottles.