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Material World: Why they keep piling up manure: the psychology of wealth accumulation

Material World

Money is like manure.  If you spread it around, it does a lot of good, but if you pile it up in one place, it stinks like hell.

 I can’t trace the original author, but it seems to be a popular motto among rich “philanthropists”. It has been attributed, in slightly variant wordings, to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, New York “socialite” Brooke Astor, Clint W. Murchison (chairman of Tecon Corporation) and Kenneth Langone (founder of The Home Depot).

Two questions spring to mind.

First, if these people so hate the smell of manure, why do they keep piling it up? After all, they are free to stop at any time.

Second, what do they want all that money for anyway? Surely a few hundred million should suffice to buy all the luxuries anyone could want? So why chase after the billions?

An addiction to extravagance

 One answer is offered by Eric Schoenberg of Columbia Business School (on the site of Forbes magazine). Driving your first Rolls Royce is a fantastic experience, he explains, but as you get used to it you no longer enjoy it so much. So you have to look for new experiences, which for some reason are always more and more expensive.

 Presumably, an obsession with money spoils the enjoyment of anything that does not cost a lot of it. The result is an addiction to extravagance that reinforces the drive to make more money.


 Besides addiction to extravagance, the most common motive for accumulating wealth appears to be simply the desire to be admired by others. Kudos, however, depends less on absolute wealth than on place in the pecking order, as indicated by lists like the Forbes 400. Only Number One can feel fully confident of his superior status – and even he must beware of rivals overtaking him.

 Astonishing but true: many people honestly think – indeed, assume – that being rich is something worthy of pride and admiration. They consider having more money than anyone else the greatest of all conceivable human achievements. Never mind where the money came from, how it was acquired. To be a “winner” is glorious, to be a “loser” shameful and pitiable. They were brought up to think so, and can hardly imagine that anyone might be sincere in thinking otherwise.

 We might expect there to be an element of subtlety or mystery in the driving impulse at the core of a dynamic that spawns so much evil. Instead, we find something insufferably boring and trivial, the ultimate in banality.

The “philanthropists”

 And yet the worship of wealth need not wholly exclude other social values. Many people feel that just being rich is not sufficiently glorious in itself: in addition, one should “do good”. As a result, some wealthy individuals wish also to be “great humanitarians and philanthropists”.

 There is actually a special business that makes money by selling “philanthropic” fame. For a fixed sum you can have a concert hall, museum, hospital, college or whatever named after you (or a relative of yours). For example, Brown University named its Institute of International Studies, where I used to work, in honour of Tom Watson of IBM in exchange for $25 million.

 The publicity given to large “philanthropic” donations suggests that in certain circles kudos may now depend on how much money you give as well as how much you have. It is like the potlatch among the Kwakiutl of western Canada, where the wealthy gain kudos by making generous gifts.

Guilt feelings?

 While “philanthropy” is often just a means of cultivating a favourable public image, some wealthy people may be sincere in wanting to “do good”. Some authors even attribute the giving of certain individuals to guilt feelings about how their fortunes were made.

 Thus, it is claimed that Brooke Astor was ashamed of her family’s reputation as New York’s biggest slumlords. Carnegie, we are told, felt guilt over the workers killed in the suppression of the Homestead strike of 1892. Yet he also wanted “Carnegie Steel to come out on top” – and that feeling proved stronger than any sense of guilt.

 Ashamed or not, Astor gave nothing to the victims of her family’s rack-renting. Instead, she gave $200 million to cultural institutions. Similarly, Carnegie endowed the arts and academia, but gave nothing back to the workers who slaved in the heat of his steel mills at poverty line wages – twelve hours a day, every single day of the year except 4 July
 The ruthless capitalist precedes, makes possible and is vindicated by the “generous philanthropist”. The capitalist drives the system that causes the misery; the “philanthropist” then does a little to ameliorate that misery. Strangely enough, the capitalist and the “philanthropist” turn out to be one and the same person.

Piling up and spreading out

 Why keep piling up manure just to spread it out again? It seems senseless – even if the manure does not end up exactly where it was before.

 Yes, it seems senseless when we focus on outcome. But when we shift our attention to process, it starts to make more sense.

 Piling up brings one sort of kudos, then spreading out brings another. One sort does not cancel out the other.

 Both piling up and spreading out give the satisfaction of exercising power, making decisions that affect millions of lives – on the sole qualification of the possession of wealth.

 So it all makes perfect sense. From a certain point of view.


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