Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Good News? You’re Rich. The Bad News? Never Rich Enough.

The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of all household wealth, according to a new study by a United Nations research institute.

The report, from the World Institute for Development Economics Research, reveals that the poorer half of the world's population own barely 1% of global wealth, highlighting the obvious – the ever growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

Where do you fit in the mix? The facts may surprise you.

You make the top half of the world's wealthiest people with just $2,200 in total assets. $61,000 in assets puts you in the top 10% And, if you have more than $500,000 after totaling up your house, cars, investments, 401(k) and all your personal property, you're part of the richest 1%.

But those facts don’t seem to provide much comfort to the haves, just as the fact that half the world, nearly 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day, doesn’t seem to take the pain out of not having more.

Most don’t pat themselves on the back for being “rich,” revel in the fact they cannot even imagine what it means to be poor, or are one of the lucky ones who live in North America which accounts for just 6% of the world’s population but 34% of its wealth.

Ironically, that is not the way money works. Few take time to look down the ladder of success and appreciate their comparatively elevated position. Instead, most lament their fate – regretting that they are not as successful as those standing on the economic rungs above their own.

A good example? In recent weeks, massive riches have flowed to top bankers and traders. Investment houses like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley are awarding bonuses as high as $60 million to their star performers. And a there are a few hedge fund managers and private equity executives who will be taking home even more.

Young investment bankers in their late-20’s are struggling with the challenge of moving from $5 million Manhattan apartments to $10 million pads all the while lamenting that they still have to fly commercial while their bosses fly in their own jets.

Whether it is a travesty that half the world lives on less than $2 a day while orders for the $250,000 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano far exceed the number that will be built remains a debate that will continue to rage.

What we do know is that many, perhaps most, people in Western society suffer acute anxieties and insecurities brought on by the reality that there is always someone with more money, leaving mankind bound in the ultimate paradox – seeking more even though we know (or should know) that more never becomes enough if only because there is always more. And, even if more did become enough as the natural order of things, there is no evidence that being further up the economic ladder than required to provide food, shelter, clothing, and a basic education renders one any happier with their life over the long term.

Giving that a bit of time and thought before the end of this year might provide us with greater contentment and perhaps a healthy dose of shame from time to time when the newest gadget is just out of our reach.

Very best for a happy 2007.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Christmas Obscenities

The whole idea of gift-giving at Christmas has never made sense to me.

The holiday that ostensibly celebrates ultimate sacrifice has become a celebration of consumerism -- a hideous orgy of spending, mostly by those for those who don't need much of anything.

And, each year, the binge becomes more bizarre.

The rich must have it particularly difficult. After all, what do you give someone who (literally) has everything?

That meaningless question is answered each year by high-end retailers like Neiman-Marcus in their annual catalog, a place where "shame" never appears (but should.)

Some of this year's more offensive offerings include two luxury "pet homes" from Italian designer Marco Morosini, whoever he is. Their ad boasts, "It is crafted of poplar and has an interior rug and coordinating wallpaper," facts I am sure would not comfort one of our dogs.

But these "homes" aren't about dogs. They are about people. And to prevent the horror that someone else in their gated communities might end up with the same obscenity, Neiman's soothes the soulless with this assurance, "Our exclusive editions are limited to only ten of each style, and each will be numbered and signed by the designer." The price tags? $5,000 and $7,000, respectively, depending on whether Fido wants an Italian leather chair.

I often wonder if it ever occurs to the rich and bored that the average cost of maintaining a homeless animal in a shelter is just a few dollars a day. I wonder if they know, or care, that 70,000 dogs and cats are born every day in the U.S. -- that's 50 an hour, or that the number of stray cats and dogs living in the U.S. exceeds 70 million, and far more than that in the Third World, or that number of animals in the U.S. that die each year from cruelty, neglect, and exploitation is about 30 million. I wonder if it ever crosses their minds that the $7,000 spent on a single pampered pet could spay and neuter 300 dogs and cats and eliminate literally millions of births that will only result in cruel, lingering deaths?

The other Neiman-Marcus gemcrack that begs to be flogged (and so I will) is found on their web page under the heading of "Indulge Them!" which at gives N-M an "A" for accurate description and an "F" for care, compassion, and concern. It is a one foot tall Lalique crystal Buddha for only $11,850.00, plus shipping. This offering is, at best, ironic and sadly amusing, if only because one of the Noble Truths of Buddhism is that the origination of all suffering is the desire for more, the passion for those things that bring passing enjoyment here and there -- things like $12,000 statues of a symbol that none who buy will remotely understand.

Perhaps the Paris Hilton "wanna-be's" of the world would be moved to donate that $12,000 if they only knew that 852 million people -- about 13 percent of the world population -- do not have enough food each day to sustain a healthy life.

Perhaps they would conclude, as did a recent U.N. report that "It is a shame on humanity that in a world that is richer than ever before, six million children die of malnutrition and related illnesses before they reach the age of five."

Or perhaps knowing that 25,000 people will starve to death in our world today, and tomorrow, and the next day, might cause them to use the Neiman-Marcus catalog for its highest and best use -- to clean up the dog poop of their precious pet.

And, if the Neiman-Marcus crowd is really that into Buddhism they would be well-served to read the Dali Lama's formula for happiness, which interestingly has nothing to do with showering one's self or others with expensive trinkets, but rather, with this admonition . . .

“ . . . our greatest joy should come when we are motivated by concern for
others ... In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves. When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense.”

Can you imagine the difference in our world if we rejected the material during this season, called "gift-giving" what it is -- a bad habit engendered through guilt and pride via advertising, and instead donated the money spent on gifts to those in real need? The $300 billion to be spent on Christmas in the United States this year would go a long way to eradicate the worldwide homeless animal epidemic and begin to solve the embarrassing tragedy of world hunger.

I can't really imagine it, but I like to try.