Friday, April 18, 2014

"Money! Money! Money!"

I was once invited to a baseball game with three other people, our host, the husband of my cousin who had inherited a substantial amount of money.  One member of our group, a senior employee at Goldman Sachs who assisted my cousin with her investments spent the better part of two crucial innings shopping for private jets on his iPhone.

Somehow, that annoyed me.  And not just because he was ignoring the ballgame he had purportedly come to see.  Although that insult to the game is part of it.  It’s like bringing a book to the opera. 

A bank book. 

The preceding anecdote reveals two conflicting truisms about me.  One is that I have serious unresolved issues concerning the super-wealthy.  And two, I sincerely like my cousin and her husband, and they are conceivably wealthier than the Goldman Sachs employee.

So go figure.  (A Thought:  It could have something to do with grace and style – the way people handle their blessed predicament.  Or I could simply be a conundrous stockpile of contradictions.  I prefer the former explanation.  It makes me appear marginally better.)

Full Disclosure:  I have always liked money.  In my youth, my by-far comic book hero was “Uncle Scrooge.”  (Scrooge McDuck had a swimming pool full of money, which he would ecstatically dive into, radiating a beatific countenance as he parabolized gracefully above it. 

I did not think about him landing in a swimming pool full of metallic coinage, my imagination carrying me only as far as his ability to fill the swimming pool up.  (In later years, the entire fantasy was obliterated by inflation, which required people to invest their assets, rather than diving gleefully into them.

I knew I liked money.  When, at the age of twenty-one, I received an inheritance check from my late father’s estate, before depositing it in the bank, I first composed a celebratory song about the amount:

“Eighteen thousand seven hundred five dollars
A-a-a-and forty cents…”

That was the entire lyric of the song, delivered in a multiplicity of melodic intonations.

I liked to count money.  I liked to look at money.  (Okay, the next one is bad.)  If it was freshly minted, I liked to smell money.  (I told you.)  My attachment to money extended far beyond what that money could purchase.  There was a psychological element to financial solvency. 

It made me feel taller.

All my life, I have been scrupulously careful with my money without being noticeably stingy.  I was never educated in these matters.  It appeared to be a natural proclivity.

Early in my career, if, through my various freelance writing activities, I had an annual income of six thousand dollars, at the end of the year, I would, without struggle or premeditation, have two thousand dollars left.  If I made eleven thousand, I retained six.  Even after buying a new car.  (Yes, cars were cheaper back then.  My first Mazda cost $3400.)

Money, however – as it should have been if I were sincerely single-minded about it – was never my preeminent priority.  (Though I never told anyone, including myself) I wanted to be in show business, where, admittedly, if you made it, you could acquire a lot of money, but there was no guarantee whatsoever that you would make it.  And if you didn’t, you’d have nothing.  And yet I went for it anyway.

Show business aside, however, in my view, the most straight-line route to enormous personal enrichment, if that was truly your objective, is not via the “bank shot” of producing a desirable product or providing some unique talent or service thereby receiving some multi-digitous remuneration, the “straight-line” route to money is to go directly into “money.”  Like the Goldman Sachs employee, pricing private airplanes at the ballgame.

Even more than banks, which bank robber Willie Sutton explained he robbed because “that’s where the money is”, the real money is, and always has been, in finance. 

Which I do not ever recall being interested in.  It turns out I liked something more than I liked money, and I made that my priority rather than the accumulation of uncountable riches.

I wonder what happened.

It could have something to do do with the disputable logic of the thing.  I used to wonder why people kept working after amassing more money than they could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes, analogizing this illogicality with people who continued chopping firewood long after they had chopped enough for a hundred lifetimes of fires. 

Was it not considerably more reasonable to simply stop chopping when they had unequivocally chopped enough?

Later, however, after spending time with a handful of inordinately wealthy people, I realized that they kept working, not for the money, but because they were enthralled with – bordering on addicted to – “the game” they were involved in that made them that money.  (Belying the oft-heard assertion that if taxes were raised on the super-wealthy they would immediately stop working.) 

To these fortunate billionaires, money was in no way their primary concern.  (As it inevitably is to people who do not have enough of it.)  They enthusiastically did what they did, their jaw-dropping remunerations being a fortuitous by-product.  They may occasionally revel in their riches – peeking at their standing on the Fortune Five Hundred – but that’s merely a competitive afterthought.  (Pitcher Orel Hershiser once remarked that “Money {as in comparative salaries} is simply our way of keeping score.”)

Returning to the firewood analogy, the explanation for their accumulating more than they can possibly ever use is: 

They take a visceral pleasure in the actual chopping.

None of this satisfactorily explains my intense annoyance with the Lear Jet “comparison shopper” sitting two seats down from me at the ballgame.  Did I want to be him?  Not if it required doing what he did, and meant being unable to take pleasure in a Dodger game on a warm California night.  (When queried on the subject, my daughter Anna opined, “I’d like to be me with their money.”)

What it generally boils down to for me is my (arguably irrational) irritation with an unearned sense of entitlement.  Which if you will allow me, and I have not totally turned you off by my sourish perspective on a core American undertaking – the maximization of personal income –

I shall continue exploring the next time.

No comments: