Jealousy of others' prosperity a sad position

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management, LLC
December 6, 2009

I spent ten hours in my car last weekend and listened to various news stations the entire time. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that the only important event in the world involved a Cadillac Escalade crashing into a tree, some broken car windows and a slightly used golf club.

There was no coverage of the potential failure of Dubai World, a massive investment company owned by one of the world’s richest sheiks and the government of Dubai. Nothing about increased troop levels in Afghanistan or that unemployment claims had fallen to their lowest level since September 2008.

CNN and Fox News were the same: all Tiger; all day.

Sadly, human nature is fascinated with the failure of others, particularly those who we think have more than we do. We quietly revel when someone else falls victim to a scam artist. We smirk with self-righteousness when a famous person files for bankruptcy. Or runs his car into a fire hydrant. I am as guilty as anyone.

Mark Twain was right: “Few men can stand prosperity. Another man’s, that is.”

I used to think it was a Knoxville phenomenon. Since its failure in 1994, Knoxvillians have swapped stories about the money spent and earned by executives at Whittle Communications. For more than 27 years, we’ve worn the Butcher bank failures as a sort of perverted badge of reverse civic honor. “I knew them boys was crooked. Just look at them two big ol’ buildings.”

This mindset extends well beyond east Tennessee, however.

When General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner was ousted eight months ago, I and many others applauded. Last week, GM fired Wagoner’s replacement, evoking the not-so-quiet pleasure of many observers.

When Bernard Madoff or Alan Stanford is shipped off to jail, it is impossible to feel sorry for the scoundrels.

But too often, our definition of “scoundrel” extends to anyone who has more money than ourselves. We often assume that if they have that much money, they must be crooked.

What a sad position, indeed.

This jealousy likely emanates from the combination of our insecurities and the idea that wealth is static; that it can neither be created nor destroyed – it can only be transferred (often by force or trickery) from one person to another.

I am so glad that this isn’t true.

Although Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have taken a haircut in their net worth, the wealthy people in the U.S. are more well-off than at any time in our nation’s history.

So are the poor.

There is acute poverty in most undeveloped and developing countries, but the World Bank (hardly a champion of the wealthy) estimates that the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty has fallen by half in the past 20 years.

The world’s net store of wealth has increased. The dispersion of these increases may not suit everyone, but increases in the standard of living of the richest people has not prevented an increase in overall living standards among the merely affluent, middle class, lower class or poverty stricken.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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