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?

20 thoughts on “What is the point?

  1. Interesting post. The real wealthy people we actually don’t even know who they are, they are not in the “Who is the world richest person” competition, their identities are secret.

    There a lot of rich people that better society like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs etc because they bring out products that improve our lives and they donate to charities.

    However, there are a lot of rich people who are selfish and won’t donate a dime.

    If I was a billionaire, I would donate 20%, keep 20%, put 20% on future products and 20% to the people that work for the company.

    • Thanks for your comment. I may be a little cynical, but I question the motives of very rich people who just donate to charities. Is it because they believe in the charity, or is it to massage their ego (though I’m sure the charities in question are very happy to receive the money)? What interested me more about the two examples I gave is that they are actively engaged in changing the world for the better.

      • I believe some people truly donate to Charities. Bill Gates himself said when he passes away from this planet, he is donated his entire fortunate to charity.

        There are good rich people, it’s just, movies and society make them look bad.

      • Just to be clear, I’m not anti-rich people, I just don’t see the point in gaining wealth for wealth’s sake, especially not when you end up like Huguetta Clark.

      • We don’t know what the motive of people are, maybe they just love being wealthy it’s like game to them. Instead of playing games on Xbox, they just play the game of being wealthy.

        Getting rich takes a lot of focus and it takes massive amount of desire.

        I know Dylan, I see your point 🙂

  2. Great post Dylan. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is getting wider and wider. Why should family expect an inheritance when they don’t care one jot for their so-called ‘loved one’?
    I love what you said about your sister-in-law, very droll 🙂
    I have worked for probate solicitors and witnessed first-hand the power of money, parents who cut grown children out of their wills simply for ‘displeasing them’ and how the colour (and whiff) of money profoundly changes family dynamics in a heartbeat (or should I say, at the last heartbeat!) It is sad that the American dream has changed. You make great points here.

    • Thanks, Sherri. I’m glad you liked the joke about my sister in law. That was specifically for my father in law, who reads these blogs. As for your other points, yes, it’s sad that greed seems to be the prime motivator nowadays. As I said above, I don’t have a problem with anybody being rich, but the question I have is: to what end? It is exciting that some are looking to use the prime of their life to use their vast fortunes to attempt to do good, even if it may be driven by some form of mid-life crisis as the first draft of mortality chills their consciousness. I still believe that a cultural change is possible, if their is enough will.

  3. Brits I think still find it hard to understand what motivates many Americans, the traditions that have emerged out of the foundation myths that is built into the US psyche. Things like the Mayflower Pilgrims and Dissenters in general, the idea of utopian communities loosely based on primitive Christianity, the principle of giving tithes to the recipient of your choice, the Runnymede charter, revolution against tyranny…

    Much of it runs counter to 20C/21C British concepts of evolution rather than revolution, growing agnosticism if not atheism, apolitical socialism-with-a-conscience as opposed to free-wheeling capitalist win-at-all-costs, and the notion of fair play. (I’m generalising and exaggerating of course, because there are plenty of Britons and plenty of Americans who neither subscribe nor conform to these caricatures.)

    It’s the old adage — two nations divided by a common language — and regardless of whoever is supposed to have said it first it’s an adage that still holds true.

    So, to partly address your question ‘What’s the point?’ many Americans amass riches because they can, and because their dissenting Protestantism gave it validity. Britain may have lost an Empire but they did create the largest in history to date and provide a language that remains a global lingua franca; they have the satisfaction of knowing they had status and have largely ‘chosen’ (by force of circumstance) to give it up. The US, on the other hand, has to retain its status as a Top Nation — militarily, commercially, culturally — and because it’s not in any rush to voluntarily diminish that status its citizens are driven to keep on striving. The doing is all.

    And yes, I’m grossly over-simplifying.

    • I love how your gross simplifications contain more research and rigour than my original post!
      Half my family live in the US so I am very well acquainted with the cultural differences between the UK and America (this is why I never comment on gun ownership because unless you are American it is almost impossible to understand the cultural aspects of the argument).
      What I’m interested in is how at some point during the mid 20th Century, the American Dream changed to becoming purely about material possessions (home, car) rather than richer, better and (most importantly) fuller as described by Adams. Was this deliberate or a side effect from the consumerist policies pushed by industry and government.

      • “More research and more rigour” — I wish! This is the sum total of my understanding of US philosophy based on a magpie tendency to grab any shiny factoid and hoard it forever.

        Perhaps the American Dream isn’t just about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but in particular “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” that the Virginia Declaration of Rights proposed in the month before the US Declaration of Independence.

        This might — possibly — account for a sharper focus on material possessions in recent times. But what do I know.

  4. Good grief, was that an argument? I always enjoy a good argument. If I had known we were arguing, I would have tossed in a few curse words and insulted your mother. 😉

    I promise to reblog this on Monday morning–sorry I have not done so sooner, I’ve been bogged down at work and only now have seen your post.

    I’m not sure if I’m the only American here to comment (I may be), so first I will quibble with your definition of the American Dream–it’s not about being rich, or in your words, “aiming to be ‘richer.'” It’s more the belief (fantasy?) that anyone, no matter their social class or (more recently) their race, gender, or sexual orientation can end up with more than they start out with simply by working hard. And by “more” you can assume “more stuff” but for a lot of folks, it simply means a place to call their own and food to feed their kids and a decent education, all things they would not have been able to achieve in whatever country they (or their ancestors) originally hailed from.

    Now, I’m not going to burst into a rousing chorus of the Star Spangled Banner or start chanting “USA! USA!” because I realize lots of other countries value equality and opportunity and justice just as much as we do, and I also realize the U.S. does not always live up to its ideals. So no need to remind me how horrible my country is; I’m fully aware 🙂

    Lastly, I would be remiss, and my revolutionary forebears would roll over in their graves, if I were to let this discussion with a person of the British persuasion about equality and the accumulation of wealth go by without mentioning the British Royal Family, whose upkeep is financed by the British people at a cost of tens of millions of pounds per year.

    • I should add, because that bit about the Royal Family doesn’t make a whole lot of sense of rereading, the Crown Estate, which Queen Elizabeth owns, is worth about £8 billion, so she could have bought and sold Huguette Clark and her whole family about eighty times.

      • And here was I thinking you were sulking 😉
        I’m more than happy to be taken to task about my definition of the American Dream. How you have defined it is exactly as I had imagined it was initially conceived, but (from the outside at least) it seems to many that the definition has changed to be focussed on material possessions (and therefore money) making a better life, rather than aiming for a better life which may or may not include material possessions.
        As for the royal family, you’re picking a fight with the wrong man. I’m one of the minority of Brits who would be happy with a republic. I don’t have a problem with the royals as people, in fact I probably like them more than many monarchists (just ask the average Brit how they feel about Prince Charles and Camilla coming to the throne), but it’s the surrounding institution I have a problem with (I don’t see why I should bow, only speak until spoken to, or any other form of protocol bullshit by anybody).

        I can’t wait for the re-post. I’ll brace myself for the “How dare you come on here and tell us how to live, we kicked your ass so we didn’t have to put up with this shit” comments. 🙂

  5. Not sure why WP won’t let me reply to your reply to my reply, but it won’t. Anyway, from reading your blog and your comments on my blog, I did not expect you to be a monarchist, so I’m not surprised by your comment. I just wanted to throw it in your face, I mean, bring up for discussion (;)) the accumulation of wealth in hereditary monarchy which, to my American sensibilities, is much more outrageous than the few millions an American industrialist amasses in his lifetime, which is soon dissipated in a generation or two (e.g. Huguette Clark and her zillions).

    Ack! I doubt if any jingoistic Americans will come here and troll your blog after seeing this post on my blog. My blog is mostly read by sex perverts waiting and biding their time, hoping that I’ll eventually post naked selfies.

    • They won’t? That’s a shame. I’ve a series of patronising put downs at the ready just to wind them up further. Oh well. looks like I’ll have to traumatise (no z) them with a naked selfie instead. 😉

  6. Reblogged this on Do Not Get Sick in the Sink, Please and commented:
    Dylan over on Suffolk Scribblings wrote a response to my post, You Can’t Take It With You But At Least You Can Make Them Fight Over It After You’re Gone, from a couple of weeks ago and here it is. He’s taking issue with the concept of the American Dream, which is a little like an American being offended by the British Royal Family (you’ll get that joke if you read my comment on his post). Anyway, read the post, read his blog, pick a fight with him in the comments. Warning: There’s absolutely no sex or dirty words in his post. I know. I was disappointed, too.

  7. Hello Dylan…I was sent her by Karen to make trouble.

    I would imagine that the so-called American Dream means different things to different people, but I have always thought it to mean that a person has an opportunity to achieve a certain level of comfort regardless of the station into which they were born. I don’t think it’s a concept that is America-centric. I would consider those who have amassed fabulous wealth to be outliers to the norm, and I don’t know any people who expect to achieve that. The people I know would definitely like to have the things that we all would like – nice house, new car, vacations, comfortable retirement – but a Bill Gates existance is really not on their raddar.

    In fact, it seems lately that more people recongize the connection between phenomenal wealth and phenomenal misery, as we hear more stories of lottery winners who end up more unhappy than they ever were before. (I, of course, would achieve the perfect level of happiness with my winnings, if given the chance. :-))

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for dropping by! Well if this is trouble making you can raise hell here any time :-). I think the difference here is between people’s expectations (a better standard of living regardless of where they started) and aspirations. From the outside, the American Dream seems to have changed from the aspiration of ‘having a better life’ to ‘making it’, where the making it means massive wealth. But then again, my view of the US is distorted by where the information comes from (film, tv, newspapers etc.) It’s good to know that for many people my perception is way out.
      As for the lottery, it’s a fun game to play, spending those millions in your imagination. I always dream that I’ll be very charitable and do a lot of good things with the money, but I wonder if I really would if it ever happened (please, please, please fingers crossed!)

      • Well, I think that a crisis of crass materialism has overtaken most Western cultures at least, but I don’t know if that is to be confused with the American Dream.

      • I agree up to a point. Crass materialism has overtaken most cultures, not just western, and it shouldn’t be confused with the American Dream, but in some cases I believe it has in the same way as the pursuit of fame is now seen as a goal in its own right as opposed to an outcome of success. I know that not everybody has that opinion, but it is an image portrayed in mainstream media which becomes adopted into the culture.

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