San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The itch to be rich

The other day, Charlie, 9, one of my numerous grandsons, cornered me in the library asking, “Gramps, what should I do to be rich?” The question took the wind out of my sails, but to explain why, I have to say a couple of things about rich. What exactly are we talking about?

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

Before the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008, rich was conveniently defined by the Forbes 400 listing as having at least $1 billion in negotiable assets. But after the disappearance of trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed derivatives at that time, assets lost their charm, and the new test of rich is annual income. Because this aspect of rich is so new and different, the lower limit is still undefined, but there is a raft of people pulling in more than $10 million annually, and a few in the $100 million class, so we can reasonably take $5 million annually as applying to ordinary people like us.

Next, the itch to be rich is an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which the subject is convinced that to feel comfortable, he must have more than everyone else around him. Behavioral studies of OCD people suggest that the condition originates when the newborn babe is denied access, for whatever reason, to his mother’s milk. The consequence is an exaggerated aversion to risk, interpreted as a mortal fear of extinction. Additionally, MRI studies indicate that OCD people generally have an underdeveloped hippocampus, often corresponding to enhanced aggressive tendencies. These two tendencies combine to make the subject feel insecure unless he has demonstrably more possessions than everyone around him.

This may seen far-fetched, but it can be detected quite early when the child shows an undue interest in possessions, and later in kindergarten when the child quickly learns what the others want and contrives by theft or persuasion to accumulate the most. The article is immaterial: teddy bears, even pencil stubs, just so long as superiority is clearly demonstrable. Eventually the child will settle on whatever is considered most valuable: the feathers of the lyrebird in Borneo, goats in Outer Mongolia and dollars in developed economies like ours.

This preamble explains why I was caught off guard by Charlie’s question; the 9-year-old with the OCD monkey on his back is already acutely aware of what he must do to feel safe, so that the only sincere answer to his question is “Sorry, chum, it’s already too late to start. You’ll have to be content to make a reasonable living without having to outdo everyone else.” 

But how do you tell a child that his shining future is illusory? So I ducked the question and told him that his first objective should be an undergraduate degree in mathematics, followed by a master’s in economics, then apply for a job as copyboy at Goldman Sachs or similar. By the time he’s 30, he should be pulling down a couple of million in salary and bonus, and he might even get lucky and join the top 10,000. But I doubt it.

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