If real life is so much more important than money, Tom Matlack writes, then why do so many men care about being rich?
In the 1990s I had to endure martini-fueled lunches at the Hope Club on the East Side of Providence when I was the Chief Financial Officer of The Providence Journal Company. Family shareholders, men who spent their days playing drunken games of backgammon in tweed jackets worn through at the elbows, would ridicule my boss and me for our gross negligence at the helm of their inheritance. When we sold a portion of the company (the cable assets that constituted less than half of the whole) for $1.4 billion, each of these individuals received hundreds of millions. “Phew,” one commented. “I can pay for the milk this month.” The speaker had never worked at the company. In fact, he’d never worked at all. He was delusional and dead serious.
In 2001, just after making a fortune on the Internet bubble, I bought a brand new metallic blue Porsche convertible loaded with every available option. I had to wait for my car to be built according to my specifications. A few days after it was finally delivered and was safely in my garage, I found myself walking down Newbury Street in Boston, a high-end shopping district, and happened to see some other guy driving exactly the same car. “What an asshole,” I caught myself muttering as my instinct was to loathe the driver of such an extravagant vehicle until realizing that if he was an asshole, then I must be one, too.
Guys keep score based on their financial influence. Owning a team is close to the pinnacle. Being a sports celebrity is pretty good too. As is running a big company. But the best is just pure, raw wealth, generally generated these days through running a successful hedge fund or being a founder of a company that got huge in a hurry. There is most definitely a sense of who has what and who has done what. The men know it, and so do the women, more than a few of whom are with dramatically older husbands who offer little in the way of physique but more than make up for that in power and wealth.
I am just as greedy as the next guy, so it would be highly hypocritical of me to dish out hate without pointing the finger directly at myself. In some sense I have built my own identity, my own ego, around my ability to magically turn straw into gold. I like to play it off—to hide the fact behind nobler ambitions. But put me in the room with the raw meat of a deal at stake and see what happens.
We have a problem when it comes to money and manhood. Why is there so much talk about money among guys? Why is any real discussion about our own complicated relationship to personal wealth and poverty more difficult to get at than our sexual hang-ups? S&M is kind of cute. Money is not.
According to the most recent census, 47,000 Americans had a net worth of in excess of $20 million. That’s 0.01% of the population. They controlled 25% of the personal wealth in the country, or $2.6 trillion. According to the same census as of March 2009, 8.1 million U.S. families are living below the poverty line.
Separate from the brutal facts of the growing inequity of wealth distribution is the lack of real upward mobility, which was once the very heart and soul of our country’s mission. And this comes down to educational opportunity. It’s no surprise that Bill Gates and Marc Zuckerberg attended Harvard. All of our recent Presidents and all of our sitting Supreme Court justices went to elite colleges.
The most recent study of global education by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was striking, not only because the U.S. fell out of the top 10 in almost every category, but also because of the underlying reason for the fall. “The best school systems were the most equitable—students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. But schools that select students based on ability early show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.”
On this basis, the U.S. did far worse than most of the developing and developed world (See: Waiting for Superman). For a country that prides itself on being able to build a life and a dream from absolutely nothing, the fact is that is near-impossible given our current system of elite private secondary schools and colleges and failing public ones.
Eight years ago, a political scientist named Anthony Marx took over as President of Amherst College, perhaps the most selective of all elite colleges, with the stated agenda of changing the school’s admissions policies to ones based on merit that did not exclude those below the poverty line. In his 2003 inaugural address, he quoted from a speech President John F. Kennedy had given at Amherst—he asked, “What good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?”
Marx recently resigned to run the New York City Public Library system. And while he made progress at Amherst—22% of his students receive Pell Grants, which means they are in the bottom half of the income distribution, up from 13% when he took over—according to Mr. Marx the national problem has only gotten worse. He was quoted in The New York Times at the time of his final commencement address:
We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx said. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only five percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.
He mentioned a Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.
I grew up the son of intellectuals. My paternal grandparents had some money but that didn’t change my day-to-day existence. If the standard amongst faculty brats in Amherst, Massachusetts was to live in humble-but-new construction homes in a development called Echo Hill, we fell below that standard. We lived in a double house on Main Street that my parents turned into a communal living situation for graduate students.
There just wasn’t any extra money. We drove a Volvo station wagon into the ground and then a white Renault that was purchased used and broke down frequently. I was put on a clothing allowance early on and left to fend for myself. By the time I was in junior high, my dad had been passed over for tenure, and money had gone from tight to a lot tighter.
I was a particularly sensitive kid, large for my age and shy. My brother and sister were not phased by this unique upbringing, but it pained me. I was embarrassed. I became determined to fit in when I became an adult. I would have enough money to live in the equivalent of Echo Hill. Little did I know, I would vastly overshoot my goal.
My parents gave me two very important gifts: a strong intellectual grounding and an example of being utterly fearless in the face of authority (in their case it was demonstrating for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War). I went to an elite college and university on what I had internalized pretty much through osmosis from my parents, and when the time came to enter the business world—and make true my determination not to be poor—my abilities proved to be perplexingly effective.
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Porsche photo pedrosimoes7/Flickr
Harvard photo: Patricia Drury/Flickr