This thread began in a Facebook post by Mike Godwin, who is the Godwin in Godwin’s Law. I know Mike. He’s a regular East Bay liberal lawyer type. Not rich, as far as I know, intellectual, opinionated, left-leaning, and a longtime netizen, which is why he’s so famous for creating the law, which came out of various flamewars on the pre-web Internet. He’s a good guy to converse with, he’s smart, edgy, opinionated, challenging — all good things when it comes to learning and having fun in conversation.
He was commenting on a Krugman post entitled Godwin Help Us, a line he stole from Jonathan Chait, referring to the Tom Perkins mess. I commented, which brought my friend Chuck Shotton into the thread, with a link to a Scott Adams post that takes a contrarian view to conventional wisdom about the Perkins mess. He says Perkins is a smart guy, and has seen many trends before others, that’s why he got so rich (good point) and that while his choice of Nazi metaphor is distracting, it’s not totally impossible that the rich will be demonized as the source of all our pain, as Jews were in the Holocaust.
As a Jew myself, whose family fled the Nazis, I have always had mixed feelings about Godwin’s Law, even though I like Mike. It’s been used to shut down discussion of fascism and repression, and even a resurgence of Nazism, and it’s contrary to my grandfather’s admonition, a man who fought to save his family from the Nazis, that we never forget.
Anyway, that’s all preamble.
Tom Perkins does have a point, but that’s not what I think of first. I think of what wealth does to people over time. Wealth buys distance. I learned this when I participated in a Kleiner-Perkins IPO in the late 80s, and became rich myself. I did what lots of newly rich tech people do, I bought a big house on a lot of land in Woodside. Pool, hot tub, lots of room for big parties, which I had fairly regularly. It wasn’t a terrible lifestyle, but I saw where it was going, and I didn’t like it. So when I had a chance to change things, I sold the house and downscaled my lifestyle dramatically. I now live in a Manhattan apartment. A nice one, for sure, but it’s just two rooms, a small kitchen and bath. I ride the subway. I don’t like possessions. I don’t enjoy being distant from humanity.
Richness, over time, warps your perspective. You tend to only associate with other rich people, the non-rich people you meet are often employees or service people. The rich reinforce each others’ belief that they’re the smartest people around, otherwise they wouldn’t be so rich, right?
Thinking gets inbred, fragile, cloistered. I’ve seen it happen to people of my own generation. You have to work at staying in the flow of humanity. Poor people do the opposite, dream of being separated from all that humanity. The trick, imho, is to strike a balance, if you can. And being well-off financially gives you the option. You don’t have to choose to be cut off from humanity. I find I’m much happier if I’m more immersed in it, less separated. I think this is because it’s reality. No matter how much money you have you still have just one body, and it ages at the same rate as all other bodies, and it does all the same things. Bill Gates used to say when he flew coach instead of first class, that he gets there at the same time. I admire that. Why? Because it’s true!
When I lived on the estate, I dreamed of having a house on an ordinary street with people coming and going, and stopping on the street to talk with neighbors. It’s so funny how people are that way, the grass is always greener, even if you have the largest, greenest, fullest lawn around. I think the super-rich have an inkling deep inside that they’d do better as people if they got out of the limo and helicopter and had a drink or threw a football with a few ordinary people, not just for PR but for real. I think we’re built that way, a social species, and for most, to be super-rich is to be cut off from that.
Sometimes ordinary people, not rich, act like they’re inbred rich people. I think that’s what the Fox News phenomenon is all about, and why people vote Republican. But I don’t think being rich equates to being smart. Over time, the more you live rich, I think it actually makes you less intelligent.