For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (Timothy 6:10)
It may seem strange for an arch-capitalist and entrepreneur to decry the love of money, but please bear with me.
I recently read a series of articles in New York Magazine called Money: New York’s Have-Lots and Have Nots. While these articles are well-written and entertaining, they left me filled with fear and loathing, convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the American relationship with money.
The problem with American culture isn’t a love of money per se, it is a love of consumption. Article after article described in loving detail the gloriously narcissistic spending of New Yorkers (spending, which to my eye, looked absolutely insane).
Alex and Michelle, both 27, are in almost identical financial situations—similar salaries, similar spending habits—and are seemingly all the closer for it. When they go shopping together, they try on everything, pretending they can afford it all but purchasing just one or two items. Both guessed they spend about $500 a month on clothes and beauty products. Alex jokes about how her savings account isn’t really for putting money away, “it’s just sort of like delayed spending.” Michelle—who’s single and happy to live in her Soho studio for many more years—doesn’t think twice about this lifestyle. “Unfortunately, I have good taste” is how she put it, as serious as she was sarcastic.
As my friend, personal finance guru Ramit Sethi might put it, WTF? 27-year-olds spending $6,000 per year on clothes and beauty products?
Or how about this little gem of a passage:
You went to the ATM two days ago and suddenly you’re there again, trying to remember how it went so fast (oh, yeah, that . . . $46 you blew on vodka-and-sodas). Our spending patterns, if we think about them, tend toward the irrational—we drop . . . $200 on jeans, then agonize over whether to take a cab or the subway home. And we wonder, How does everyone else do it?
Or how about our obssession with the super-rich, such as this secret nightclub for models and billionaires:
Deep in the wilds of Chelsea, there is a door. The door has a screen, and the jet-black eye of a promoter behind that screen, peeping out to gauge your social viability. Are you a model? Or a billionaire? It will be hard to get in otherwise.
My point is not to decry this spending (though I must admit, this really makes me sick). I’m not one of those nutjobs who believe that people should donate any income above $30,000 a year and give away all their possessions. As far as I’m concerned, whether you made your money or inherited it in a trust fund from your robber baron ancestors, it’s YOUR MONEY, and you should be free to do whatever you like with it, whether that’s giving it to starving African children or blowing it on overpriced cocktails in a vain attempt to bed attractive young women.
Rather, it’s to warn you, the entrepreneur, against consuming this sort of consumerist tripe.
I’m a pretty Zen kind of guy. I know that extrinisic aspirations like being rich, famous, and good-looking don’t bring happiness, even when fulfilled. I know that wealth beyond a certain level (say, $50,000 per year) does not bring increased happiness. As Daniel Gilbert puts it in Harvard Magazine:
“The difference between an annual income of $5,000 and one of $50,000 is dramatic. But going from $50,000 to $50 million will not dramatically affect happiness. It’s like eating pancakes: the first one is delicious, the second one is good, the third OK. By the fifth pancake, you’re at a point where an infinite number more pancakes will not satisfy you to any greater degree. But no one stops earning money or striving for more money after they reach $50,000.”
Yet despite all these fine beliefs and intentions, I found myself thinking things like, “Damn, I’m 32 years old, and I don’t make $700,000 per year.”
And if I’m thinking it, what might other readers be thinking?
I’ve often joked that the two things that have hurt American women more than any other are women’s magazines and “Sex in the City.” You couldn’t design a more penicious and orgiastic glorification of spending and consumption, or an entertainment more perfectly adapted for inducing feelings of inadequacy and greed.
Yet while New York Magazine appeals to a more upscale crowd, it is all too similar to its consumerist cousins in its effects. This is consumer porn at its worst, and while I enjoyed reading the articles, I felt the same afterwards as if I had eaten a giant bag of Doritos: Full of calories, self-loathing, and some kind of artificial and probably carcinogenic substance that nature never intended.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons that Silicon Valley has been so successful as a high-tech hub (in comparison to New York) is the lack of the same consumerist culture. After all, the richest guy I know, a Google billionaire, still lives in the same rented apartment in Mountain View as when he was a grad student. And Priuses have largely replaced the Ferraris so common in the 1980s.
Yet even in this Valley of Heart’s Delight, the creeping spectre of consumption holds sway. New players like Nick Denton’s Valleywag bring a tabloid-style emphasis on the lifestyles of the rich and semi-famous, while old-school Gentry Magazine continues to be a purveyor of the wonders of the seven-car garage.
Of course, I’m not going to call for the abolition of our celebritard culture. After all, it’s not as if there’s some giant media conspiracy to use the Brad Pitt-Angeline Jolie saga to distract us from unconstitutional shennanigans (or is there?). To quote the immortal Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us. The National Enquirer, Cosmopolitan, and New York Magazine exist because we buy them. And to tell you the truth, I’m not ready to give up my Weekly World News bat-boy fix either.
All I’m suggesting is that you, the entrepreneur and discerning reader, be aware of what’s going on when you read the latest about Larry’s yacht or yet another Yelp party. Sometimes, you just have to know when to put down that bag of Doritos.