January 5, 2015
The problem with reason is that we humans use words to construct thoughts. And words come pre-loaded with all sorts of bias. No matter how hard you try to be reasonable, if you use words, sometimes you simply can’t get there from here.
This is part of a larger topic of great interest to me: Ideas that can’t be communicated because of their nature. I have several of them trapped inside me. (I’ll blog on that another day.)
Anyway, take for example a headline I saw this morning at BusinessInsider.com: “1/1000 of the US Now Controls More than 1/5 of The Wealth”
I can’t think of a word that is more accurate. And yet the most accurate word is still probably 80% misleading because the word carries too much bias in it.
Stop controlling things, you rich jerks!
As I have previously written, a billionaire can’t spend all of his money on himself. In effect, the billionaire possesses maybe $50 million that he can personally spend over his lifetime. The rest will necessarily be spent by others, or become part of the productive economy. Does the billionaire really “own” that money in the sense you own your favorite shirt? Yes, technically. But the billionaire’s ownership of the excess money (the money he can’t realistically spend) is actually more of a responsibility than a benefit.
I meet a lot of super-rich folks in the course of my job. The one thing they all have in common is that they are putting a huge effort into being “responsible” with their excess wealth. Bill Gates is fixing Africa and whatnot. Craig Newmark is deeply involved in veteran issues and other charities. Marc Benioff is building a children’s hospital and promoting corporate giving. Warren Buffett is writing gigantic checks to the Gates Foundation, etc.
So while it is perfectly accurate to say the super-rich “control” great wealth, it is equally true to say they will spend a tiny percentage of their wealth on their own pleasure. The rest of it forms a deep responsibility to the world that they are working ceaselessly to satisfy.
I’m sure there are selfish rich people trying to spend it all before they die. But honestly, I haven’t met that person. I only meet the ones that are thinking some form of “What can I do for the world with all of this wealth I “control”?
My point is that “control” is an accurate word but a loaded one. It would also be entirely fair and accurate to say a small group of extraordinarily talented folks are working hard to put their excess wealth to good use for the benefit of humanity. But it doesn’t make a good headline.
So let me put it to you this way. If a hundred billion dollars suddenly appeared from nowhere, and someone had to be in “control” of it, who would the world prefer for that job? I would pick any of the billionaires I just listed because they would be “responsible” with it while “controlling” it and channeling it to the right places. They wouldn’t spend a nickel on themselves because they already have more than they need.
I understand the presumed risk to society when too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands. But keep in mind that this is primarily a psychological issue, albeit one that can turn quickly into a real world problem as ideas so often do. But let’s be careful with our choice of words. Bill and Melinda Gates are certainly “controlling” their wealth. But it is also fair to say that their excess wealth confers on them a responsibility to the world that they take seriously.
There’s an old saying in banking that if you get a small loan, the bank owns you. But if you get a huge loan, you own the bank. By analogy, if you make $50 million, you own that money. But if you make a billion, it owns you.
Don’t feel sorry for the billionaires with their burden of giving away their money responsibly. They aren’t suffering. I’m just saying we should be conscious of the bias in our words.