Having attended some of America’s most elite institutions, I’ve experienced my share of decadence. Think Sunday brunches, champagne fountains, and concert pianists.
Having worked for a development organization and traveled widely, I’ve been surrounded by debilitating poverty. Consider living under a cardboard roof, having to walk miles for fresh water, and not knowing from where the next meal will come.
What separates these circumstances?
If you guessed ‘money,’ you were close. ‘Wealth’ is more accurate.
The relationship between wealth and money is similar to that of a square to a rectangle. A wealthy individual most likely has a lot of money, but someone with a lot of money is not necessarily wealthy. The difference is wealth encapsulates all things of value amassed by an individual or family unit. Money is merely a medium of exchange, the most liquid asset in a portfolio.
Wealth is obtained and passed down in many ways. The most obvious is through inheritance of an estate. But that’s only part of it. If you come from wealth, you most likely go to elite schools and liaise with the other products of the grand patriarchy. You are endowed with better learning environments and bullet-proof networks that comprise all the friends of your very successful mom and dad along with the very successful moms and dads of all the people you happened make sand-castles with at four years old. Real wealth is the type that transfers across generations on the back of superior opportunities, and it does not require an agent to do anything particularly dynamic to sustain it.
If you were born without wealth, the reasons to accumulate it are countless. Financial stress is very highly correlated with depression, anxiety, and other physical maladies. A couple of weeks ago, I got coffee with someone who is passionate about drawing but doesn’t want to pursue it professionally because she’s seen how difficult financial stress has been for her parents. According to this Forbes article, “The wealthier people are, the more satisfied they are with their lives, at least when you look at nationwide figures. They also find, contrary to what many economists believe, that there is not a point of wealth satiation beyond which happiness levels off.”
In a hypothetical situation in which you are presented two sums of money and in which the world is in no way impacted depending on which you choose, I, for one, would choose the larger bundle. Doing otherwise, I further contend, would be masochistic.
But why, I wonder, would someone from the trust-fund class make it his life’s ambition to accumulate wealth-above-all-else (WAAE)? Isn’t that redeundant? Isn’t there something worthier?
There are a few practical explanations. First of all, it isn’t inconceivable that a person makes a lot of money by contributing something of value while genuinely enjoying the process. In this case, bravo. These individuals, I would argue, are the most valuable in a society and should be compensated thusly. The second completely understandable reason someone from privilege might pursue WAAE is out of a sense of duty to his offspring. We want our kids to be at least as advantaged as we were, for better or for worse.
There is a level of wealth, though, that supersedes practicality. Warren Buffett once said, “I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million because apparently there are a lot of people who don’t know how to do it.” Beyond a critical point, there is no pragmatic reason to pursue WAAE. Beyond that critical point, it’s about ego.
In a conversation with an investment banking friend who comes from wealth and who aspires to billions, I finally got an honest response to the burning question, why? He gave three reasons. The first is that he wants to know that no matter how badly his kids and grandkids fuck up, they’ll end up fine. The second is that, after a certain level of wealth accumulation, the world becomes your toy. Excess becomes an art constrained only by imagination. The third is ego. He wants to walk into a room and have people whisper about what he’s done and how much he’s worth.
Reasons two and three are related in that if a person leverages wealth in a creative way, people will whisper about it. A different friend of mine, a guy who worked at SAC Capital, visited Stephen A. Cohen’s house one time. Since then, whenever I’ve seen him, he’s heralded how his former boss has a room filled with original Picassos, just because he likes Picasso. Next to the Picasso Room is the Monet Room. My first friend, the one who divulged his three reasons for coveting billions, started salivating when recounted The Tale Of The Picasso Room. He wants private planes.
A private plane is just a symbol, though. How can a person work 16-hour days with a private plane as his salvation? No, it isn’t about the plane at all. What he wants is to win one of the most competitive games on Earth. To him, money is a scoreboard, and his competitors are the other prospective billionaires. What really motivates him isn’t a private plane, it’s the person sitting next to him making more money but who he thinks he’s better than. In the halls at work, all he hears about are people cashing in on jackpots. He almost screamed to me, “There are those rats all around, doing it in so many different ways!”
In the wealth game, only one measurement matters. How you got it carries far less weight than the number at the bottom. After all, Stephen A. Cohen plead guilty to insider trading. What my friend wants isn’t a billion dollars or a private plane, it’s the knowledge that he played a game very, very well. He wants to win. I understand that. I understand that very, very well, and I hope he gets there.
The well-wishes are mutual, too. He sees that I’m playing a different game. He respects more than most the fact that I wrote a novel, and he hopes it finds a good publisher. The competition (ie. those rats), it should be noted, are the others playing his game who he thinks he’s better than but who are currently ahead of him. I feel that same spite when reading a book I don’t think is as good as mine but somehow found a publisher.
The venerable Donald Trump once said, “(Money) is but a scorecard that tells me I’ve won and by how much.” Later on he retreated, “You have to measure somebody by more than that. There are a lot of guys that I respect a great deal who don’t have much money. And there are guys who do have a lot of money whom I don’t much respect.” What he means is that everyone is playing a different game, and a person should be judged not based on how well he plays your game, but on how well he plays the one he has chosen. More so, what he means is that you can be good at a game but still be a sleazeball. That Trump said so himself is either ironic or self-aware.
As someone who recently learned he’s too ego-driven for humanitarian work, my threshold for condemning a behavior as ‘greedy’ extends further than that of the otherwise like-minded, New York Times-quoting Liberal. I do not believe a person should be chastised for acting within his best interest, and I do believe it’s primarily the state’s responsibility to make sure an individual’s interests are aligned with society’s. However, I also contend that there is a point at which money-mongering is more detrimental to the individual than the alternative, not making as much money. That’s when I judge.
I respect a person who has a goal, no matter how obscure, and works towards it. I respect billionaires, especially the ones who got to that level by making a significant and positive contribution. What I don’t respect is the person who is so consumed by the game and with the scoreboard that he forgets how fortunate he is to be playing it at such a high level. He forgets that money has a functional purpose. He forgets that the majority of individuals are more accustomed to cardboard roofs than to champagne fountains. What I don’t respect is the person who leverages the status achieved from being very good at a game in order to excuse poor citizenship and mistreatment of others. The biggest challenge, I imagine, that faces a person society exalts as successful, is to maintain a sense of perspective. The riddle is that, by losing perspective, no matter how many pundits or sycophants hail your victories, you’ve lost in the most important game, the one everyone has to play, the daily challenge to reconcile one’s own humanity.