06/19/2006 05:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mo' Money: I Don't Get It

Okay, ex-Enron smart guys Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were convicted last month of fraud and conspiracy. But their criminality strikes me as but the tip of an iceberg, not legal so much as cultural. I still can't get my head around the widely reported fact that prior to Enron's downfall, Ken Lay and his wife owned 15 homes, mostly in Texas and Colorado. (By the way, for a $30 ticket, you can now take the "Lifestyles of Houston's Rich and Infamous: The Enron Tour," a five-hour excursion through Houston's posh neighborhoods where former Enron executives once maintained their lavish mansions.) Ken and Linda Lay are reportedly still living in their 33rd floor luxury Houston condo with its hand-carved gothic interior, valued at $7.9 million in 2002. He sold his four Aspen properties in 2002 and 2003 for a total of $23.879 million. In 2002 Linda opened her store Jus' Stuff to sell off some of the family furnishings, including a bronze, life-sized Eve statue for $13,000 and a red-and-brown padded bench ornamented with angels for $5,200.

But back to those 15 houses: Why would a sentient, functional human being want fifteen houses? What do you do with fifteen houses? Did any of those houses feel like a home? Would you remember where the bathrooms are in fifteen different floor plans? Did Ken and Linda hang out with their neighbors in any or all of those houses? Did they keep fifteen duplicate sets of their favorite spices, paintings, books, china, pajamas, underwear and other toiletries in those houses, or did they furnish every one of them uniquely? What a hassle. Sorry, I just don't get it. I don't see the attraction. Mind you, I understand--I think I do--the basic human motivations that fuel our capitalist system (though the latter-day version certainly departs from Ben Franklin's frugality or Max Weber's notion of an ascetic work ethic). I understand wanting to surround yourself (and your loved ones) with comfortable and beautiful material items. I understand and appreciate luxury and even extravagance. But maintaining fifteen residential homes (not just as property investments) seems beyond the pale--and I don't think you have to be a commie pinko to be baffled by such perverse behavior. At what point did Ken and Linda decide that they needed to jump from, say, five to ten homes? And what was the trigger that prompted them to cross the threshold from fourteen to fifteen? What were they feeling? Were they happy at that point, finally, or was number sixteen in the offing? Did acquiring each house seem like a new triumph, or did the sense of accomplishment wear thin around the eight or nine mark? Did they exult in their plentitude--for instance, did they see themselves as somehow closer to God with each new purchase, members of the elect? (Ken's father was a Baptist minister.) Or were they simply dog-eat-dog, top-of-the-heap, out-of-control consumerists--people who had just lost perspective, caught up in a never-ending whirlwind of acquisition?

Yet Ken Lay was hardly the richest man in America--not even near the uppermost echelon--and that's what gives me the creeps. Linda Lay complained on television that the $300 million that Ken had appropriated to himself over Enron's final three-year period was not enough. Many of our top CEO's are routinely pulling in multimillion dollar "pay packages" per year over multiple years, and not because their actual corporate performances warrant such salaries. These well-positioned folks basically win the equivalent of a mega-millions lottery year after year (e.g., former Exxon Mobil Corp. Chairman Lee R. Raymond made $686 million from 1993 to 2005)--and they yearn for more! I'm thinking: If you reach--let's just pick a round figure--a personal net worth of $100 million, you should probably quit your day job and try your hand at something else. Diversify your lifestyle portfolio. Take up a hobby, like woodworking or gardening. Smell the roses. Join a gym, go regularly, and get in shape. Hang out with some friends at Starbucks. Learn to play a musical instrument, and start a band. Or listen to live music. Volunteer your services, in a face-to-face setting. Read. Then read some more. Go back to school. Spend more time with your kids, or grandkids. Lose the business suits: wear comfortable clothes. I think Bill Gates, at fifty years old, is finally getting the idea that there may be more to life than beating Microsoft's competitors.

The canards that people throw around, both critics and defenders, to explain why today's super-rich want to get even richer don't make complete sense to me. The word "greed" is simply a gloss, an empty abstraction. It doesn't explain why any sane person would want to appropriate billions unto himself or herself. Sure, I like to eat a slice of chocolate cake every now and then. My young children might think that they would like to eat the whole cake at one sitting, but I teach them that they'd get a tummy ache and grow fat and/or diabetic. But we've got grown adults in America gorging themselves, as it were, on chocolate cake after chocolate cake after chocolate cake. This is not "rationally self-interested" behavior any more, as the economists so often put it. It's completely over the top. It defies common sense. Call in the anthropologists and clinical psychologists to study it better. The word "addiction" doesn't arrest it. It's more like a freak show.

Western literature is replete with warnings against excessive wealth. Aristotle thought that money making should be seen as an instrumental activity, but not as the point and purpose of life itself. Jesus said very clearly that you cannot serve both God and mammon. Dante put the Gluttons in the 3rd circle of his Inferno, where they'd wallow in garbage and excrement for all of eternity; he put the Wasters, those who in life lacked moderation in thinking about money, in the 4th circle of hell, where their souls would be dragged down for all time by enormous weights; and he put the Usurers in the 7th circle, where they will squat with leather purses hanging around their necks, with their eyes forever fixed on their purses. Walt Whitman, in "Democratic Vistas," saw over-exercised commercial ambitions as a threat to the future of American democracy: "The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater...In business (this all-devouring modern word, business) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field. The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dress'd speculators and vulgarians." Andrew Carnegie, in "The Gospel of Wealth," advocated aggressive wealth accumulation but then thought that rich people should eventually turn their attentions and monies over to charity--and if a rich person didn't properly dispose of his wealth, Carnegie proffered this public verdict as his epitaph: "The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced."

We have plenty of brainy people in this country who produce charts and graphs and equations supposedly demonstrating that if outlandishly rich people continue to do their thing unabated, all boats will rise, the economy will grow and grow, the profit motive should therefore be left entirely unregulated, in any official or unofficial way. Paul Krugman suggests that the Democrats should face reality and realize that class concerns largely define political loyalties. Myself, I continue to be haunted by Goethe's Faust: It would seem that we are living in a country populated by a lot of people who apparently have bargained away their souls for the prospect of experiencing worldly insatiability.