I was on the road for the past two months, first in Chicago, and then in Bolivia and Peru. As always happens, one of the side effects of travel is that I've been living in a media vacuum. For the past few weeks, I've heard almost nothing of current events.
That means I arrived home to find a strange phenomenon: Protestors "occupying" Wall Street. And Oakland. And Portland. And probably many other places as well. From the little I've heard, the Occupy Wall Street movement is trying to draw attention to the power wielded by big banks and transnational corporations. I haven't had time to read up on the protests, so I can't comment on the protestors' motives or efficacy. But even before I begin to research Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, they've given me plenty of food for thought.
While writing about money here at Get Rich Slowly for the past five years, I've noticed that people in general (and Americans in particular) have a complex love-hate relationship with wealth. People want to be rich - but they're suspicious of those who already are.
The Wealth of Others
Almost everyone who achieves financial success believes they've done so through justifiable means. They believe they've earned their money (or deserve it), and they don't feel guilty for having it. Too, we're generally supportive and appreciative of our friends who make it big. (I can think of a handful of folks I know who have managed to acquire wealth, and I'm proud of each of them.) But when it comes to strangers who are rich? Then our attitudes seem to change.
There's an underlying distrust of the rich in mainstream American society, which seems odd. Isn't that what most of us aspire to? We all want to be rich, yet we resent it when other people manage to achieve their financial goals. We complain that they had advantages that we didn't, or that they cheated, or that they don't deserve the money. But what if the same thing happened to us? What if we became rich? How would we feel about such judgment and criticism?
Take my father, for instance. He was a serial entrepreneur, and managed to build two successful businesses during his short lifetime. He worked hard and dreamed big. He wanted to be rich so that he could provide his family everything they wanted.
At the same time, my father bemoaned other people's success. He didn't resent everyone who made it big, but he often complained that this fellow was successful because he caught a lucky break or that guy earned his fortune because he knew the right people.
There's no question that some people have lucked into wealth. I have a friend whose family owned a large manufacturing business; as a result, she's benefited from a huge annual stipend from her trust. This has turned her into a slacker and layabout. She's frequently out of work, and makes all sorts of excuses about why she can't find a job. It's difficult to be around her.
But at the same time, I know folks who have worked like dogs to accumulate their wealth. I know others who have scrimped and saved for decades to build their savings. Do I begrudge these folks for having a million dollars? Or three million? Hell, no. They've earned it. They deserve it.
But there are people who would judge them.
The media demagogues would have you believe that this is a partisan thing. That's nonsense, of course. Being a Democrat doesn't necessarily mean you hate the rich, and being Republican doesn't mean you're all for the wealthy. (My grandmother was the most conservative person I've ever known, and she hated the rich. I have a good friend who is as liberal as you'll ever meet, and he's pro-business, pro-capitalism, pro-money to the core.)
But if this love-hate relationship with wealth isn't political, what is it? Is it a part of our Puritan heritage?
For myself, I've decided that I cannot judge a person for being rich. (Well, okay, sometimes I judge, but I try not to do so often.) I've communicated with many wealthy GRS readers and chatted with plenty of flush folks in real life. Most of the rich I know are like my real millionaire next door; they've built their wealth slowly, though hard work and smart choices.
My point is that in most cases, you don't know how a person has achieved their lifestyle. It may be that the guy down the street with the large house and the fancy sports car financed that stuff on mountains of debt. Or it could be that he has scrimped and saved, or has worked long hours to build a business, in order to afford these things. Or, yes, maybe the rich guy down the road used to be big banker on Wall Street, sucking small investors dry through onerous fees.
Who Is Rich? Are You?
You can clearly see America's love-hate relationship with wealth in the way we self-identify. Nobody wants to say they're rich. But if you make $100,000 a year, you are rich. Not just by world standards, but by American standards. (The median household income in the U.S. was just under $50,000 in 2010. That means half the population earned less than that and half the population earned more.) I'd argue that if your family brings in more than $75,000 per year, you're rich. But few people seem to agree.
But let me also be clear that I'm not condemning anyone for being rich. The name of this website is Get Rich Slowly, after all, and my aim is to help all of you destroy debt and build wealth. To me, wealth is a noble aim, especially if it's used to improve your life - and the lives of others.
I don't resent the wealthy. I don't believe that wealth corrupts or that it attracts bad people. (It might, however, magnify your personality; if you're already a jerk, having lots of money make you more of a jerk.) In fact, from my experience, most of those who have become rich have worked hard and made smart choices. (I can't say the same for those who were born into wealth, but then I don't know many folks that match that description.)
I'm not saying that every rich person deserves to be so, and I'm not saying that we should move to a socialist society. I'm just puzzled why we simultaneously love and loathe the wealthy. Is this healthy? Is it normal? Is it just? How do you feel about wealth, both your own and that of others? Do you resent the rich? If so, why? When is wealth deserved and when is it not?