What is the point?

What do you mean I can't take it with me? (source: legacy matters.ca)

What do you mean I can’t take it with me? (source: legacy matters.ca)

“If you could be anyone in the world, who would it be?”
Bill Gates.”
“Because he’s the richest man in the world.”*
“And then what?”
“What do you mean?”
“And then what? Once you’re the richest man in the world, then what?”
“I’d make more money.”**

I had my first blogging argument the other day. Well, when I say argument, I mean disagreement and even that is too harsh because being a typical Brit I backed down as soon as I thought I had caused offense.

It started after reading the excellent donotgetsickinthesink blog (she’s very good, you should follow her). Now Karen (she of the aforementioned blog) was commenting on the story of Huguette Clark, a reclusive American heiress who died recently. Ms Clark decided to leave her estate to those who cared for her over the last 20 years instead of her closest relatives. Unsurprisingly, her extended family are currently disputing the will, despite the fact that many hadn’t seen her for years and some had never met her at all. Personally I find the whole thing amazing. I mean, my sister-in-law is famous for visiting relatives to ensure she doesn’t get left out of their wills, and the most she’s likely to get is 14 pairs of white socks and some Lego. Surely they could have visited once or twice in the intervening years?

Now Karen wrote in “if you can’t take it with you then at least make them fight over it” about how different life for the extremely wealthy is compared to the rest of us and that the only interest this family had with Ms Clark was after she had died. And while I agree, it got me thinking of a bigger picture. Sadly, instead of writing something profound about what I was thinking, I wrote a flippant comment about the American Dream which Karen rightly gave short shrift. This is my somewhat more reasoned reply.

The story of Huguetta Clark reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with some colleagues. These colleagues were big believers in the American Dream. They had been brought up to believe that in the USA, anyone with the right stuff and will to succeed can make it, or as it was better defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931: “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” I don’t know how anybody could disagree with that.

This man has a lot to answer for (source: Wikipedia)

This man has a lot to answer for (source: Wikipedia)

The problem is, the meaning of the American Dream has changed since Adams wrote that definition, and for my colleagues (and many other Americans) the goal of “life should be better, richer, fuller” changed to just “richer”. This is very similar to how fame, once a byproduct of artistic or political achievement, is now a goal in its own right (I’m looking at you, Mr Cowell).

Now before we go any further, I’m not knocking America or Americans. This viewpoint isn’t unique to the them, in fact I’m sure most Russian Oligarchs, high-ranking Chinese Communist Party members, London Bankers and many, many others agree. I’m also not here to argue whether the American Dream is actually attainable any more, especially when the current President of the USA is the embodiment of that dream (boy that’s got to hurt the tea party) and the current Prime Minister of the UK is a direct descendent of William IV, went to Eton, was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club whilst at Oxford University and has had most things handed to him on a silver platter from birth.

What it made me think of is:

What is the Point?

What is the point of “making it” in this way? I can understand wanting to better yourself, to provide for your family, both now and when you are gone. But if your goal in life is to make it, and the measurement of “making it” is  through money, then Ms Clark was at the very pinnacle of the American Dream when she died. Is that really what people are aiming for? Is the goal of billions around the world to spend their last 20 years in hospital despite not being ill, because you are closer to the people who care for you than your family due to the alienating nature of extreme wealth?

The good news is that not every billionaire views the world this way. Bill Gates, the man my colleagues wanted to be, has placed most of his wealth into a foundation to improve the lives of millions through technology. Only last week Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, announced a new startup company called Calico, whose goal is to combat ageing and eventually deliver eternal life. Now billionaire philanthropists wanting to make the world a better place isn’t a new phenomena (just look at Alfred Novel, for example). What is new, however, is the sheer magnitude of their goals, and the fact that they are not doing this in their dotage, or posthumously, but while they are still relatively young.

Is this really the point? (source: findexamples.com)

Is this really the point? (source: findexamples.com)

Sadly, though, these are the few rather than the many. The majority of billionaires are still engaged in the world’s largest pissing contest. At the same time Bill and Melinda Gates have been looking for a cure for the most virulent African diseases; Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and the world’s third richest man, has focused his efforts on building the world’s most expensive yacht ahead of Roman Abramovic, whilst the Koch Brothers appear to be secretly trying to become puppet masters of the USA by taking over the Republican party in the hope they can install a brand of unregulated capitalism based on Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ (and how ironic is it that the main supporters of these two brothers are the more fundamental Christian groups).

The thing is, with a couple of simple words we may be able to turn this minority into a majority. I may be being naive, possibly idealistic, and it will take time, but if we can change the American Dream from aiming to be “richer” to “richer to deliver good”, maybe the USA, and therefore the world, would become a  better place. And possibly, just possibly, the descendants of the next Huguetta Clark wouldn’t be fighting over their inheritance, but how best to use her endowment for the better.

*This was correct at the time of the discussion. Then the richest man in the world is Carlos Slim Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecoms magnet and philanthropist. Now, apparently, Bill has hit the top spot once again.

**My answer, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web who could have been fabulously wealthy but decided that his invention should be free for the benefit of mankind.***

*** OK, the answer at the time was Steve Jobs. Satisfied?