The pathologies of the rich – 1

Many years ago, when I was a member of Riverside Racquet Centre in London, I played regular doubles tennis 3 evenings a week with different groups of people.

One of the guys I played with, I found out, ran an interior decorating and kitchen remodeling business. We were talking about clients one evening, and he mentioned that he had once done work for Andrew Lloyd-Webber. He then, without any further questioning, said “never again”. Long story, but he met Lloyd-Webber only once, at the beginning of the work, and thereafter had to deal on daily basis with one of his assistants, who behaved like a chiseling asshole, arguing over anything and everything, constantly acting as though Andrew Lloyd-Webber was doing him a massive favour by even deigning to use his services in the first place. When the work was completed, they refused to pay him, inventing an irrelevant dispute over scope of work, and only paid up after he threatened them with a default court judgement.

This fits with a number of stories that I have heard over the years about how many wealthy people are chiseling assholes. There is a common thread to the pathology. They justify it with glib cliches like “if you look after the pennies the pounds will take care of themselves”. I guess when you are worth squillions of pounds, then 20,000 on a kitchen remodel does indeed, in the grand scheme of things, look like pennies.

From what I can gather, the underlying pathology is that they are indeed driven people, but not necessarily in a good way (otherwise I would not have the material for this blog posting), and in many cases, it is a narrow materialistic view of success as measured by possessions and how many zeroes you have after your name in your asset balance. Nobody, for example, is going to convince me that a person needs $15m a year to live on. The premise is ridiculous, and deserves only ridicule. Once you get into that zone, money becomes a measurement device, a way of keeping score.

Many wealthy people, especially those who did build a large fortune, genuinely believe that the only factor that determines success is how hard you are prepared to work. I have worked with at least two entrepreneurs in my time in I.T. and both of them genuinely believed that that was the main factor. One of the guys used to say to us “anybody can do this if they are prepared to put in the work”. He appeared to genuinely believe that.

In their world, the rich and wealthy are rich and wealthy because they earned it. This leads to two obvious conclusions that get baked into their value systems: (1) the poor must be poor because they are feckless and lazy (2) taxes are confiscation from them of money that they worked to accumulate and are therefore entitled to, to be given to those people who do not deserve money because they do not work hard.

The idea that there are millions of people for whom success, in their value systems, is not measured in net worth, never seems to occur to them, or if it does, they dismiss it as stupid and, well something that only the feckless and lazy would think anyway.

As you move through life, you can find a lot of evidence that, as the old saying goes, money will not buy you happiness, but it can buy you a better class of misery. There is plenty of obvious evidence that a lot of highly driven and successful people are unpleasant, dysfunctional train-wrecks of humans. They might be worth a lot of money, but it certainly didn’t make them a better class of human. In fact it might be the other way round.

Quite why rich people like to chisel is another question entirely. One might naively expect them to be a bit more generous. I have to conclude that it is due to their need to win at all times. Realistically, making serious money is a tough competition, not a hobby, and people whose life is devoted to making money tend to see every activity where money changes hands as a competitive event, and often a win:lose scenario. If they have to hand over money to anybody without getting more money in return, that looks like a failure to them. So actually paying regular folks for anything is…eeek, why do I have to do this?

The attitude of the Lloyd-Webber flunky, that the regular guy should be grateful that Lloyd-Webber chose him at all, is symptomatic of that mindset. It is not uncommon in business, though. Another one of our friends once worked for the Dallas Cowboys on live sound (he eventually quit after his recommendations were consistently ignored). One thing he told us was that many medium-sized businesses were told that they could acquire the title of “official supplier of X” to the Dallas Cowboys, but only if they were prepared to essentially supply goods or services for free. Same attitude, just in a large commercial business. (In that situation, those businesses had to make a commercial decision as to whether losing money supplying the Dallas Cowboys would be compensated for by the marketing bragging rights and networking opportunities bringing in other profitable business).

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