Brett Rants

Great Riches

Can they ever be earned?

Some Simple Math

In 2018 (or thereabouts), a typical American worker earns around $50,000 a year and may have a career that spans forty odd years.
$50,000 per Year
* 40 Years
= $2,000,000
Or in other words, a person (American, contemporary, working) might expect to earn $2,000,000 over the course of their entire career.

Of course, individual results will differ, so I'll round that to $2-5 million and call it a day.

And since I know you enjoyed it the first time around, here's some more math.
divided by
$2-5 Million
= 200-500
The importance of that equation may not be clear, so let me work it backwards.
200-500 individuals
making $2-5 Million
in a lifetime
comes to around
One Billion Dollars
Or in other words, if you are making the claim (please note, I am not) that an individual earned their billions (through merit and hard work), then you are proposing that it is possible for one person to do the work of hundred-upon-hundreds of others.

And that's simply not true.

Nah! I don't need to hedge my bets. It's simply not true.

The Basketball Analogy

I like the analogy of a basketball game; in which we will change the rules and you can have as many players on the field as you want.

Now, those who claim that Mr. Basketball Hero earns his keep (by skill on the field rather than an ability to fill a stadium) are essentially saying that Mr. Basketball Hero would beat a ten, twenty, hundred, five hundred, or even a thousand man team... all by his lonesome... or with four equally skilled comrades.

And although I can see Mr. Basketball Hero decimating several dozen untrained, unprepared, average Americans, once the field is filled with a thousand disinterested bystanders, Mr. Basketball Hero could no longer move without fouling an opponent, while that thousand man team could simply hand (not even pass) the ball from one to another from one end of the court to the other, being fairly certain of retrieving every missed shot... of which there would, no doubt, be many.

I feel the need to include the math for this somewhere, so why not here?

$25,000/Game for Mr. Basketball Hero
250 Inept Stooges at $100 each

I mean, we can argue about which mix of skilled and unskilled which will win the day. But I seriously doubt any team with only five players with be triumphant against a horde of thousands. Of course, the real argument against all this is that I am changing the rules of the game. But then, again, that is my real argument.

It's the Rules, Stupid

Basketball played with even only one extra person per team (six on a side) would no longer be basketball. And a game with a thousand players on a side would be something else still.

We live (circa 2018 America, once again) in a society, in which there are a few massively big economic winners and a whole slew of economic losers. And this is solely because the laws are set up that way.

I am not saying that some people are not lazy (after all, I am). Or that some people don't work harder than others (a statement that might, also, apply to me, as well).

Rather, what I am saying is that wealth (all wealth, but much more importantly for this discussion, great wealth) is a product of the legal environment. And the only reason this fact (and it is a fact) is not obvious is because this is the world in which we live. But if we lived in a different world, things would be different... or could be different, because I suppose it could/would be possible to imagine two nearly identical theoretical worlds, but to what intellectual benefit, I know not.

Anyhow, it is easy to imagine a world in which everyone had a dollar and anyone who had more than a dollar would be taxed an amount equal to their surplus. Clearly, as a matter of mathematical necessity, everyone would wind up having (at most) a single dollar.

So, see? It's not hard imagining such a world.

And rather than a dollar, we can make it a million and rather than a 100% tax, we can make it something more progressive. But I think you get the point, a society can tax wealth out of existence. Ergo sum, wealth exists at the whim of society.

And if you want to know the truth, I am smart enough to know the reason I do not have great wealth is because I am far more interested in dancing with abstract thought than making money.

Your Mileage May Vary

Now, I'm not going to go into all the possible ways of making money and debunk them all. First of all, I probably could not. I'm not that smart. And second, I don't really have a problem with Mr. Basketball Hero making boat loads of money for filling a stadium or some entertainer making even more (for more or less the exact same reason). Now, I think their fans are stupid and misguided... or if that seems too strong, let us just say I would much rather buy a basketball than watch someone else play and I sincerely doubt my contribution to the box office is what's keeping Hollywood going. After all, if it were, maybe they'd be making 'better movies', which means movies custom tailored to my tastes and needs rather than those of thirteen year old boys.

Um, but where were we?

Oh, right.

After writing this rant the first time through, I sat back (i.e. I did nothing of the sort and went on with my life) and thought about it ('Gads, what a good writer I am,' I must have thought) and realized this rant would not be complete if I did not include some section on Executive Compensation, so here it is:

Some Thoughts on Executive Compensation

And they really are just thoughts, little nuggets of half-conjecture thrown out there for you to realize what an idiot I am and how little I know about money... or, you know, maybe the reverse is true.

First, maybe executives are paid fairly and I'm (and/or the rest of us are) just jealous or something. It would be interesting to compare the pay of top level executives in public companies versus private companies and the pay of executives in free (liberal democratic) countries to not so free countries. And truthfully, I don't know what the results would be. Of course, it would be such a complicated exercise that for a mere $100,000 (call it a grant) and a year of my life, I could make the results slant however you want. But then, the reason such an idea starts the list is that I believe in the situation where skill was the only thing being paid for (as opposed to, say, nepotism or political connection) executives would be paid some reasonable multiple (say 10x, but opinions will differ) of the national average.

And whether this is a continuation of the first idea or a slow easement into the second, third, and fourth, I could not say. But I imagine it must be extremely difficult to tease apart the whys and wherefores of executive compensation. Is this guy (or gal) getting paid because he's a lawyer? Well, that tops out at about a $1,000/hr. Or is it because he is the lawyer who worked a specific case? And as such has specific knowledge? Or is this particular executive position a gratuity for a job well done (e.g. working some case to completion or in some arm of the government, acting on behalf of an industry)? See, it gets difficult (real fast). After all, time and time again I am told how a bad decision could cost a company billions of dollars. But how do we know any particular executive is any good and is making good decisions? We don't really. All we really know is that he was good (or successful, at least) at convincing a Board of Directors (an overpaid lot as it is) to pay him exorbitant wages. But then, if he (or she, but do you really want to drag the female gender's good name through the muck over this) can convince a group of highly qualified professionals (I'm just going to assume this describes your average Board of Directors), then isn't this just the type of guy who can smile and charm the pants off of... whoever you need him smile and charm the pants off of? Let's not devalue charm, after all. It is the number one skill set of the Trophy Wife the world round. It has value... as does keeping it in the family... that whole nepotism thing.

Truthfully, I've always figured that beyond leading the troops (see charm above) one of the things that was sought in a good leader was existing social contacts... with friends, family, industry professionals, and governmental leaders. I mean, since I believe wealth is a gift of the government more than anything else (or something the government pays out for something it wants in return, say easy -- one stop shopping -- control of an industry) having friends in high places can be very important in keeping one's own place well above the herd.

I can, also, see the Board of Directors wanting to overpay the Executive Staff. Look, if I won the lottery (the big one), I'd get a housekeeper or two and have them do all those bits of domestic drudgery (call them chores) I have no desire to do; and which, now that I have a multi-million dollar mansion would take way to much of my time to do, anyway. I simply could not manage it all on my own. And in this daydream where I have servants, I do not dream of underpaying said servants, but of overpaying them... to buy their loyalty; and so, I have my pick of the litter (the cream of the crop, as it were). And I can see any other rich person behaving in more or less the same way; and by definition, whoever is paying executives these exorbitant salaries are rich. I mean, I could not afford to pay them.

So, there are lots of reasons to pay top dollar for someone. But like the basketball analogy, there is no reason we have to go with just one guy. I'd simply always (and yes, pretty much always) rather have twenty guys at $500,000 (I like to believe this buys some degree of skill and merit) than a single person at $10,000,000.

But then, if you'll allow me to be a bit repetitive, there are reasons to pay a single person so much.
There's also the lottery system. Marketers believe it is cheaper to offer a big prize to a single customer rather than a smaller prize to all customers. So, I can imagine that a corner office is the big pay off in this little Ponzi Scheme. Of course, for that to work, the average worker would have to believe they had a chance of winning the prize. And since I am not railing against lottery winners in this here rant (but only outlandishly overpaid executives, whatever that might mean), one might surmise that I don't believe (nor did I ever believe) I would wind up in a corner office... which, of course, is why I never did. Well, that and lack of skill, charm, and all that other stuff.

I am going a little off track, here. But then, in your better rants, that's usually what happens.

Time and again, skill is cited by the lucky few. But here's another example of skill. Those great cathedrals were built by Master Masons. I mean, there is no denying the artistry involved in cutting that stone, making those sculptures, and stacking it all together. Michelangelo we all know. But name one Stone Mason who worked on the walls. Can you differentiate between the workmanship in one pillar from the next? Probably not. How about modern art? Is one red circle on white significantly better than the next? Or is it all a bit of a con game?

So, I kind of question how much better a Master Whatever is than the average schmuck. How much more would you pay for the Best Plumber in the world versus the guy who will take twice as long but will fix for free whatever he breaks along the way?

And in truth, since (as stated) it's an open ended math question, you could make either one come out on top (depending upon the unwritten assumptions).

But let's move on and let me direct your attention to that Board of Directors for a moment. These are the people responsible for putting together these outlandish compensation packages. So, why do they pay so much? Well, for one, based on my thirty seconds of research, the average Director for a Fortune 500 company gets $325,000/year (some way more, some a bit less). And in my honest opinion that's $325,000/year for doing almost nothing. Opinions, of course, will vary. I can imagine that some Directors take the job very seriously and spend thousands of hours a year being the best Director they can be. And others are on five other boards and are just collecting a pay check, working as little as possible. And well, it is these disinterested Members of the Board, who are deciding the appropriate level of Executive Compensation.

Do we really knows what goes on behind closed doors?
Come on, guys! We've been here for two hours. And I'm hitting the links after lunch. Just pay the guy whatever he wants.
Which is to say, I no longer have the slightest bit of positive regard for my fellow man... from the high to the low.

And in fact, have a rather strong hunch that when it comes down to it, the high are much lower than the low.

Anyhow, enough of that.

Such an aside.

Rather than talking about rich individuals, let's just talk about large accumulations of money (wherever they came from), as some folks view money as an end, as a good thing, as a marker of progress, and all the rest. So, let's look at some of the societal benefits of encouraging great wealth.

Greed is Good

As follows are some of the arguments in favor of allowing great mind-boggling wealth... or actually, since I don't agree with these arguments, these are the counter-arguments against some of the more common arguments (of why the current capitalist system is the best there's ever been), which I assume you have already heard countless times before.
Hmm? Do I need to go on? Is there some other benefit. Ah!
Or if you like, if one assumes that great wealth is accumulated by merit, then doesn't that imply that those who have lots of money are least in need of its virtues.

But then, it is my believe that great wealth is seldom earned.

Conversion to the Cause

Actually, I have (little to) no expectation of converting anyone over (to my way of thinking) by virtue of this rant, as I believe the true argument in support of private wealth that most rich people hold goes something along the lines of:
I have it.
I want it.
I'm going to keep it.
And the true argument against great private wealth by those who are poor goes something like:
I don't have it.
I want it.
So, give it up.
They are both self-serving.

And although I do not believe any billionaire anywhere has ever earned their money (certainly, not in the sense that a dishwasher earns their money), if they didn't retain possession of their wealth, we'd only be giving it to the government. And about the only thing worse than the undeserving rich (for if there are undeserving poor, there must certainly be undeserving rich) is a committee of rich people... also known as government officials.

So, I'm not really saying get rid of the rich people. What I'm saying is that rich people (or their ancestors) were smart enough to buy lottery tickets... but the fact that the tickets they bought (begged, borrowed, or stole) turned out to be winners came down to luck (it always does); and the fact that there exist lottery tickets in the first place is due to governmental fiat... keeping in mind that the government is an institution comprised mainly of rich people, who like all people, are self serving.

Anyhow, after saying all that, it's only fair (ha, nothing is fair) to talk about some of the disadvantages of putting so much money in the hands of so few.

Money is the Root of All Evil

And I think, maybe that is my real argument against great wealth... and not the middlin' wealth that most Americans manage to acquire.

If someone inherits (at birth) $2-5,000,000, then right out of the starting gate they essential own the lifetime productive output of another human being.

That's a serious concept.

And it doesn't make much of a difference to the person's whose life energy has been subjugated to the will of another whether this money comes from a trust fund, charitable foundation, college endowment, or whatever. Control of one's life force has passed from the self to another. And as such, the average person has little to no reason to support the status quo beyond the sort of vague notion that the new masters might be worse.
And this is the real danger. At some point (regardless of how much better things are today than they were yesterday), a people begin to feel disenfranchised... because by comparison, they are.


I can barely define honour... which means, I really can't. I have this nagging feeling that folks who insist they know what honour is haven't really thought about the concept too much.

Killing babies isn't honourable.

Dropping bombs from thirty thousand feet isn't honourable.

And once one is willing to call into question the honour of the military (is your war just, because there is no honour in an unjust war), it's easy to transfer suspicion to the garrison force (call it the law enforcement community) that has a collective history of enforcing slavery, discrimination, and siding with the powerful to the detriment of the weak.

But my intent is not to flog a dead horse; but rather, to highlight how difficult it can be to define honour.

Loyalty to the status quo does not cut it, as the status quo has historically (like always) been less than sympathetic to the underdog.

So, I'm going to have a hard time telling you what honour is. And I'm certainly not going to pretend that I'm this noble person.

Rather, I will say that I read The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie the other day. And he wrote:
The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.
By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.
I do not believe I summarize unfairly when I say that Andrew Carnegie's solution to wealth was an obligation of the rich to:
He, of course, thought that he had earned his wealth. And on this, he and I disagree. Nor do I know whether he lived Modestly. Somehow, I doubt it. But I really don't know. What I do know is that he tried to disperse his money wisely.

Thus, I will make this deal with the millionaires and billionaires of today (you know, not that they care one wit what I have to say), if they live their lives in pursuit of these two maxims. I will respect them... regardless of how bloody their hands might be.

And not that I feel any great pangs of guilt (I do not), but I am well enough off (I don't want to say rich) that I am not engaging in the pursuit of money, today. In other words, I find myself on top of the pile.

I can live modestly. This is easy, as I do not consider it an extravagance to have a computer to type at... and this is in large part what I want.

But to be in service to mankind.

The truth is, I draw a blank.

I could say it's my words, but that's pure egotism... as it is for anybody else who says the same.

What counts is not faith, but works. And those who say otherwise... well, I believe faith leads to works. It is an inevitable progression.

And now as I wander (wonder out loud, if you will, as I search for an easy answer), I will draw this rant to a close.

It's not wealth that makes one great, but what one chooses to do with it.

And that sounds a lot more hero-worshipping than I wish to be.

So, let us say, great wealth can only be forgiven with equally great works and call it a day.

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And yet, I'd still rather do what I want, as I imagine, would most.

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