Who wants to be a billionaire?

Only those who haven't thought about what it might do their family and friendships.
Carolyn Moynihan | 11 March 2011
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Photo: The world's richest man, Carlos Slim, and his family.

Today the Forbes rich list is out and some of us may have spent a few idle minutes pondering the good we could do to ourselves and others with a few billion dollars at our disposal. It is not an easy exercise if you have not even reached your first million -- and possibly never will -- but it is billionaires who are setting the standard for wealth and philanthropy these days. There are 1209 of them in the world currently, 102 of them women.

Three things stand out from the reports about the mega-rich:

* The greatest growth in their numbers has been in the rising BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and has been fuelled by rising commodity prices. However, these are countries with predominantly poor populations -- and no richer, thank you, for having to pay more for bread and petrol. This takes the shine off the achievements of the new billionaires, or at least raises the question of how they show their gratitude to the nation that helped them rise to the top.

They could perhaps take a leaf from the book of the world’s richest man, Mexico’s telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim (US$74b). According to the Washington-based Academy of Achievement, Slim's “Telmex Foundation is one of the largest philanthropic institutions in Latin America. In addition to activities in health, nutrition, conservation and disaster relief, it has provided university scholarships for hundreds of thousands of talented students who would otherwise be unable to pursue higher education.” Slim has also propped up the New York Times with his wealth, which is no mean act of charity.

* Much of the new wealth comes from the luxury market. That may have always been the case for all I know, but it says something about the sincerity of our collective concern about the dire poverty that still afflicts around 1.7 billion people around the globe. The fourth richest man in the world is Frenchman Bernard Arnault, whose wealth grew from US$27b to $41b in the past year based on the Luis Vuitton, Moet and Hennessey brands, which apparently are going down well among the newly rich from Mumbai to Shanghai. Facebook billionaires have risen to six, thanks to the hundreds of millions of us who have the luxury of time to socialise on the internet. And then there are the countless gamblers who have driven the fortune of US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson from $14b to $23.3b. No doubt these contemporary Croesuses have done their bit to wind back the recession, but it is hard to see how they have made the world a better place. Facebook excepted. Perhaps.

* The good news is that there is generosity among the staggeringly wealthy. According to Forbes, Bill Gates -- long the richest man in the world -- would still have been first on the list (as he was for many years) if he had not so far given away $28 billion of his wealth to his foundation, for which he works. Warren Buffet, who comes a close second to Gates, pledged in 2006 to give away 99 per cent of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and family charities. He has so far given $8b to the Gates Foundation. We might not all agree with everything the foundation funds -- birth control, for example -- but it does give serious help to some good causes.

The woes of the very rich - and solutions

Probably all of the billionaires give something away -- how could they sleep at night otherwise? Researchers at Boston College’s Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy say it’s not true that wealthy people are more miserly than the non-rich, and that as individuals move up the wealth scale they give away a greater share of their assets. In any case, no-one should feel envious of their fortunes, because, as folklore has it, money can’t buy you happiness.

New research on super-rich Americans by the Boston College Centre shows that they tend to be “a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family”, according to an article in The Atlantic magazine. Perhaps that is because all but two of the 165 households in the survey had not yet reached the billion dollar mark. Despite an average net worth of $78 million, most of them did not consider themselves financially secure. But there was more to their discontents than that. They worry about their self-worth, about love and friendship, and, most of all, about their children.

Self-worth is closely tied to work, and among those who inherit their wealth, the more sensitive worry that they will lack motivation to accomplish anything in life or escape the shadow of their parents. They can drift through life, without a career or purpose and become estranged from the world. “One of the saddest phrases I’ve heard,” says psychologist Robert A Kenny (who is involved in the Boston Centre’s research) is, “Honey, you’re never going to have to work.” Kenny says this announcement is often made by a rich grandparent to a grandchild, but it does not necessarily sound like good news to the young person.

When they do work, heirs may too easily change jobs when they hit an obstacle rather than deal with it, ending up with no career. Wealthy people in general may not be taken seriously by co-workers, who can view their work as a charade.

It is easy to see how friendship and love could be complicated by great wealth -- a theme often explored in romantic literature. Kenny says issues related to money cause the failure of many marriages among the wealthy and, further back, make it difficult to trust the affection shown by a suitor.

The “overwhelming concern of the super-rich” who participated in the research, however, is their children. They are concerned that money might rob them of ambition, give them a perverted view of the world, a sense of entitlement, and prevent them from developing a strong sense of empathy and compassion. Even if they arrange for the inheritance to be doled out in dribs and drabs, children always know the money is there. “We try to get our kids to do chores,” complains one parent, but it is hard to get them to mow the lawn when we have an almost full-time gardener.” (How about making the gardener part-time?) Controlling the flow of money can also lead to resentment as the children grow up.

Obviously, rich parents also have to be very wise. I once heard of a wealthy father with many children who, back in the days when colour television was new, was nagged by the kids to get a colour set. Eventually he obliged. One day they came home from school to find their black and white set painted in bright colours… He didn't want to bring up a tribe of mere consumers. A large family, by the way, seems to be part of the solution to having too much money.

Carlos Slim also seems to have discovered the secret of not letting wealth ruin his family life. His profile on the Academy of Achievement site states: "In the midst of this staggering success, the Slim family remains an unusually close-knit one. As Carlos Slim devotes more of his time to his philanthropic enterprises, his three sons have taken the reins of the major components of Grupo Carso. And the Slim family still dines together every Monday night."

Whatever their family ups or downs, most wealthy folk discover the satisfactions of philanthropy. Almost all the respondents to the Boston College survey had family foundations or donor-advised funds. “Excluding two unusually wealthy foundations, these respondents invested in an average of $11 million in these funds, in addition to household giving,” says the Atlantic article.

The effects of that giving on the recipients is another story. But the moral of this story is a rather predictable one: “Don’t work too hard for money, because it isn’t going to get you much if you ignore everything else,” says Kenny. Hopefully, the billionaires are listening.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Carolyn Moynihan and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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