Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The politics of envy...

It's that time of year again. When I and the wee lot visited a wildlife park not long ago, we were treated to the sight of peacocks strutting their mating dance, all posh plumage, sashays and swaggers. There were about 4 cocks to one (blase' and indifferent) brown hen (pea-cock; pea-hen's the syntax). The males didn't seem to be in the slightest interested in the female's lack of interest, but more involved in out-posing the other guys.

Likewise, the Sunday Times Rich List came out two days ago, strutting its pound signs in lieu of emerald eyes. However, this year the talk of the farm's all on the plumage that's been lost. Feathers thinned, net worth likewise.

Now, the thing is: do we, mere mortals, REALLY care? Well, for a start, whether or not the man in the street cares, the rich (or dented rich, this past year) obviously do. Because it's not really about money at all. I could now go look up a host of academic research I vaguely recall from college (Frederick Herzberg's Two-Factor theory on job motivation being one), but really, who needs the boffins to tell us what we already know - that if you love your job and do it well, success will inevitably follow. I've read a lot of books on entrepreneurship by entrepreneurs, and the message time and time again is: "I didn't start out to get rich. I just wanted to excel at what I'm good at/wanted to be the best in my arena/wanted to deliver real value/wanted to make a difference/wanted to get my message out there/loved what I was doing...(etc) and am lucky enough to make a great(!) living out of it." And a few between the lines of: "I was poor/teased at school/had a difficult childhood... and wanted to show the b*stards that I can be better than anyone else, despite it all."

It's like my son (soon to be 5) at school, when he got the 'Reading Cup.' Despite the trophy being BIG and SHINY and a CUP, he soon lost interest in showing it to people. But he never stopped announcing: "I got the Reading Cup at School!" It's all about the honour and the glory (read, massage-to-ego), and not really about the shiny stuff. Which is why it DOES surely matter to many of those in the Rich List what position they are in. It's a league table, an indicator of triumph, with ego deeply intwined. Don't tell me that most immensely successful people don't have large egos: they have to, to have taken the risks and knocks they've inevitably suffered as part of the route on the climb up the steep North face to victory. Or, if they hadn't owned a larg-ish ego to start off with, they'd have surely developed one once they got to the pinnacle - it's only human nature.

No, money isn't just about money for the rich. It's more a thermometer, an indicator of how well they're meeting their own internal goals or deadlines as well as their companies' and investors' (or whichever stakeholders are attached). Why else would Richard Branson keep on diversifying?; would JK Rowling keep on writing after the first couple of books (and even now, I'd bet my right (writing) hand that she's still penning SOMETHING...)?; and (insert name of pop artist) keep on singing?; David Beckham keep on footballing?; and so on ad infinitum? 'Cos it's not about the money.

But it is about the money for us, those without. When you've heavy mortgages to pay and the threat of redundancy, how can it not NOT be about the money? Cue, the politics of envy. And resentment. And scape-goatism. So, this year there seems to be a flavour of discussion around, about whether a 'Rich List' isn't, in fact, in rather bad taste, in view of the current climate. People have a nasty coating on their tongues after all the hoo-haa about banker's bonuses etc., and understandably. I'd no longer feel safe driving about in my personalised Bentley anymore (if I had one!). The admiring looks you'd have received two years ago might well be scowls by now (even in my Toyota today a passing cyclist to whom I gave way, coming out of my own driveway no less, mouthed: "bitch!"...so there are some unprovokedly nasty people around in the world, to be sure).

Positively, there's definitely a new world order on the horizon. People are sliding back towards questioning new values vs. old-fashioned morals. Glitz vs. resilience. Sunshine and birds vs. salon tans and i-pods. Or suchlike. Deservedly so. Money does not equal happiness (only less stress - and that up to a certain point. I'm sure that having millions is in itself a merry source of anxiety: failure, extortion, kidnapping, security, what to do with it all, if/how to give any away...etc)

Interestingly, some of the most humble people I've ever met have been in the ambit of the 'rich-list' realm. A lovely family I know very well keep a copy of the compilation itself on their living room table: out of pride, I suspect, for their daughter's husband tucked away inside its pages. I mean, I would too. And one of the nicest young couples I ever met clocked in at £450(million...) in last year's rich list (or hubby did - as I discovered quite by chance flicking through: "Hang on! ...Don't I know him?!"...) I won't reveal the position or name and I won't check them against the list this year (voyerism isn't my style): suffice to say I visited their (beautiful, truly stylish) residence (only) once for a children's birthday party a while ago. It was the type of mansion you'd design for a millionaire, but a lot more unpresuming than what you'd imagine for a semi-billionaire. And, as far as the birthday party went, bar an entertainer, they'd done it all themselves. And the husband (master of the universe at work, no doubt) knelt on the floor to put (my) son's grubby shoes back on for him. His wife, a lovely, charming and completely down-to-earth mum, has little help at home (not even someone to clean the unending expanses of glass). So, you see, we shouldn't forget that the rich are human too. Some, true, may have got lucky. But a lot, many, perhaps most, have worked their butts off for what they have. Who are we to slate them for that?

And, at the end of the day, who is really richer? Are you poorer by not having to clamber up league tables and not having your wealth dissected? Are you richer when you learn the joy of boiling up your own roast chicken carcass to make your own stock and "best" home-made soup? (no apologies! one of my homely pleasures). Can you pay for that sunset? It's all relative, my friend. (But I still play the lottery...)


  1. Just followed you from MH...and thought I'd come in and say hello! I don't play the lottery (fool that I am) but I still manage to indulge in conversations about what I'd do if I won. Not quite sure why since it's never going to happen!!! And did you see number one in the Times Rich list?? He was also the biggest loser...(Of money). Didn't mean to get personal - I don't even know the poor man! (But I wish I did)!!

  2. It is indeed relative. Success is happy living, life that gives, a life filled with people you love and who love you. But I wouldn't mind testing out what it means to be rich....

  3. Hm, you are advertising that you know of and are aquainted with rich people. A declaration of membership in itself. And it's not all relative in the way you describe - rich people can insulate themselves from so many of lifes hurts and dangers because money gives people choices. With those choices comes a certain attitude and easier path to happiness. For example you can pay for private health care. You can move house to escape bullies. You have choices and can protect your children more easily. If, on having all that, you are still miserable then remember these words: it is better to be rich and miserable than poor and miserable. If you assume that poor people, like me, think that all rich people are automatically happy then you clearly don't know many really poor people. Get out more.

  4. Philipa, I assume nothing, but you assume a lot, my friend! Just because I happen to have 'met' people, this doesn't automatically make me one of them (and I'm not, if you knew me). We never had a TV when I was young, ate out once a year perhaps, my father had been bankrupt. Now I have my own family, no we don't pay (and cannot afford) private health care. And if we wanted to move house for whichever reason, we couldn't as we too are in negative equity. I have holes in my kitchen wall which I can not afford yet to get plastered. I may have a nice garden and my son may go to private school (paid for by his grandmother) but we live hand-to-mouth most months. And I'm not miserable!

    I had a childhood of darned socks. I still darn my kids' socks. I have relatives living in india in mud-hut villages without flushing or running water, and if you want to get to the nearest town you walk 2/3 hours, forget a car or even a motorcycle! So, I don't think I fit the profile you had in mind - I may have met very rich people but also know very poor (and happy!) people. There are lots of very miserable rich people out there (and more so now) and belive me there have been quite a few suicides internationally amongst the very rich recently. Which rather makes your point.

    There's bound to be controversy when you expound a controversial point of view (as in: I wasn't 'rich-bashing' which is the current trend). I like to look at both sides of the argument, just another way of 'getting out more?'!

  5. There's so much in your post I could disagree with, but unlike a previous commenter, I'm not (you'll be glad to learn) about to launch into a vitriolic attack on you.

    I'm not on the rich list, nor have I any aspirations in that direction, but I live in an area rich with the landed gentry, I know at least one person on the ST rich list (well up and, against the trend, increased his wealth this year) who started out his business as a market trader and I know a wealthy lottery winner (not rich enough to be on the rich list, but very wealthy nonetheless). I am, however, wealthy enough to send my children to private schools – although, out of principle, I won't.

    There isn't just one group of people in the rich list. However, the majority of them fall into 3 categories – The old rich, the noveau riche and the lucky.

    The 1st group spend their lives maintaining the family's wealth, their lifestyle and their family's place in society. They will do whatever it takes. (In this area, chasing and shooting wild animals is a de rigeur for men to belong to this group. Ladies have to be perfect hostesses and be seen to support charitable causes.)

    The 2nd group are “driven” entrepreneurs and cannot stop, often no matter what the cost to their families or anyone else. (My entrepreneurial friend spent Christmas Eve doing a great deal and didn't get home until early Christmas morning.)

    The 3rd group, after finding themselves unexpected rich, spend the rest of their lives looking for a purpose. (My rich lottery winner acquaintance throws parties drinks a lot.)

    I do respect the achievements of most of those those in the 2nd group.

    All of the wealthy people I know, despite taking whatever government handouts they can get (e.g. grants for business) avoid paying as much tax as they can. Lots of their wealth, although earned in this country, finds its way to other countries to avoid paying tax. Many – possibly most - use illegal, but difficult to prove, practices to bolster their wealth. All live lifestyles which are damaging – in a big way – to our planet.

    Only one is using some of his wealth for altruistic purposes.

    Envy of the rich is misplaced. Being disdainful of them and their lifestyles would be more worthwhile. Help them to see how vacuous their lives are. Research has shown that the poor are unhappy and so are the rich. The group who have enough not to worry about their bills are the happiest. This group tends to put their family first, followed by society and the planet. They are in the caring professions and tend the land. Many forgo high incomes in order to be of benefit to the more vulnerable.

    You wrote, “ if you love your job and do it well, success will inevitably follow”. That's true, but many very successful people, such as my saver-of-many-lives, aid worker is not financially well off. But she is incredibly rich.

    Don't you think that a “nice people” list would be more worthwhile than a “rich list”?

  6. Robert, I agree with everything you've said (written). Above all I acknowledge that generalisations are (generally!!) misplaced. So, there will naturally exist nice 'rich' people (who hopefully try to give back to the planet to make up for the damage wrought by too many gas-guzzling cars, flights, and the inevitable over-consumption of resources through having many properties, etc..) and nice 'poor' people, and nice 'people in-between' (like you and me?). The crux of the matter I suppose is to have not only a social and ethical conscience, but to act on it. Thing is, niceness is subjective and wealth is measurable... which is why the only part of the 'Rich List' I'd really waste time reading is the part showing charitable donations. Perhaps that's a good (measurable) indication of 'niceness' (or at least conscience) to a degree....while, of course, not generalising as there are no doubt plenty of other (selfish) reasons to give to charity... Robert do visit again, your opinion is valued!