“If a man is wealthy, (it means) he’s handsome and wise and he can sing well too.” That’s a Yiddish proverb but it could be applied anywhere in the world, with wealthy people expressing ‘strong’ opinions on everything under the sun — be it the money markets, food or fashion. Money seems to confer the highest caste on people; they become the new ‘brahmins’ and are seen to hold the key to wisdom. We listen to them attentively, hoping some of the magic will rub off on us.
Money has become as vital to us as the air we breathe. It became indispensable to us the day we stopped barter. No doubt, it has been instrumental in improving our lives and has made the world far more democratic because anyone can buy anything today in exchange for a few pieces of paper.
Today, the poor can afford what even the rich found difficult in the past — foreign travel, for instance.
It is one of the major energies of the world, along with sex; although in many cases, the two go together. Even remote tribals who still live in a ‘moneyless world’ feel the force of money when outsiders use paper currency to buy their land and are granted the right to fell their forests.
So, what do we do? Make money, spend it and enjoy it. In the meantime, it is vital to recognise our relationship with money and how it colours our relationships with others, including those most dear to us because money is not just a piece of printed paper or a round, stamped metal disc; it has acquired enormous emotional connotations and psychological hues. A poor boy, who has had a deprived childhood, can never fill the hole in his belly even if he makes millions in his later life. A wealthy child, whose father lost all his money during his childhood, will hoard every penny as an adult.
Money spells power, control, comfort and security. Wealth has become the yardstick of success. Exclusive homes, private jets and yachts, seven-star holidays, designer labels and pricey handbags give us a sense of superiority. Fawning friends and the envy of peers makes having money even more satisfying. It gives control in the boardroom and at times, it gives us the power to enslave others.
In India, money is inseparable from political power. Some people derive power from hoarding money like Silas Marner, who counted his gold coins alone on dark nights.
Sometimes, money is equated with love. People use it to control their families, spouse and children. For favoured family members, the sky is the limit, but money is withheld from the ones who need to be subjugated. Cruel husbands use it to penalise their wives; domineering parents use it to control their children.
Michael Jackson had little control over his money. He earned more than $1 billion but died with debts of at least $400 million. It was an unedifying spectacle to see his family, just hours after his tragic death, searching for the cash stashed in his house. In her moving tribute to the pop idol, Germaine Greer wrote: “Another beautiful boy is gone, wiped out in an instant. Michael Jackson, unable to cross the threshold into manhood, has died at 50, still a boy, coquettish, fantasy-ridden, horribly vulnerable, unable to take control of his life.”
Sometimes, it seems as if a man’s most enduring love affair is with money; his own and that of others. It’s an obsession, almost an occult possession by another entity. In its pursuit, men and women can become ruthless, even evil. The latest banking crisis in the US was driven by greed. Nothing justifies the million dollar bonuses that bankers paid themselves even though the bank was not making money. Now, Brian Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison. It is estimated that about $50 billion went astray during his long career. It’s almost as much as the GDP of a small country. Madoff’s jail term won’t bring back to life the people who committed suicide after they found out he swindled them. The prison sentence won’t change reality for the New York woman who lost all her savings and is now reduced to rummaging in garbage cans for food.
Rich men use money to cheat death by trying to buy ‘immortality’. Some of the foundations they run have less to do with compassion and more with their personal wish to perpetuate their names. It’s extremely rare for anyone voluntarily to give up money and power. Andrew Carnegie was that rare individual. He thought about “what to do with the enormous wealth we have” and wrote that surplus wealth could be disposed of in three ways:
— left to the family
— bequeathed for a public purpose
— administered in one’s lifetime
Traditionally, people opt for one of the first two but Carnegie concluded that an individual should “set an example of unostentatious living; provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds” to be used for the good of the community. The man of wealth then becomes a trustee and agent for his poor fellow men.
Carnegie knew all about poverty. He was born in a one-room cottage in Scotland. His family emigrated to America, where he took up his first job aged 13 in a cotton mill. In a classic rags-to-riches story, he built a profitable empire of steel (which later became US Steel) and became the world’s second richest man, after Rockefeller. After some little time, Carnegie sold his company and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, building more than 3,000 libraries, schools and universities in America. He wrote: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” By the time he died in 1919, he had given away the bulk of his vast fortune. In India, JRD Tata did something similar.
Money can bring us joy; it can bring us misery; it can buy us attention, isolate us; bind families or split them. Though it is merely a piece of paper or a metal coin, it is the most powerful and emotive thing in the world. Whether you earn Rs 3,000 or Rs 3 crore a month, you still have to understand money, build a healthy relationship with it, realise its true value and purpose.