Thursday, February 16, 2012

Light of the World- The One Percent

I spent most of Monday sick, so that left lots of time to peruse Netflix for some afternoon rest/infotainment. I love documentaries- they're my favorite genre! So, I loaded up my instant queue with some financial themed films and watched 4+ hours of insight into the American economy.
I'll focus this post on The One Percent – a film by Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson – about the top 1% income earners in our country and the huge wealth disparity between them and the rest of us. We all know the Bible says a lot about finances and the rich/poor divide, and I won't get into all of those things here. However, the Psalm from evening prayer on Tuesday in the Liturgy of the Hours was Psalm 49, which I found to be an interesting commentary on wealth; I'll reference that later.

The main question Jamie Johnson asks in his film is: why is there such a large gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else? He interviews people from both sides of the gap: the 1%- Steve Forbes and Kinko's founder, Paul Orfalea; the 99%- a Louisiana cab driver and several tenants from Chicago's South Side projects. I think the question is worthy of being asked especially in light of the current “Occupy” movement and other economic issues our country is facing. Jamie even tries to get his father to participate in the project and answer questions about his feelings on family wealth and the economic divide (his father reluctantly answers one question at the end, albeit vaguely). The overall sentiment from the wealthy is that they worked hard to build up their businesses and are reaping the rewards of that labor. The sentiment from the poor and middle class is that the wealthy are hoarding money that could help the poor achieve a better standard of living.

In answer to the question, “do you want to make hundreds of millions of dollars on top of what you already have,” Paul Orfalea replies enthusiastically, “hell yes! … One day I'd like to go the the moon and look at Earth and say, 'that's part of my portfolio.” I'm all for dreaming big and being rewarded for hard work, but that response irritated me when coupled with Orfalea's later dismissal of a homeless man who interrupts the interview. The man asks for a dollar so he can get some food, and Orfalea “generously” (with a pained look on his face) gives the man a dollar and follows up his “charitable act” by saying, “I normally don't give the homeless money... but I thought maybe that was the best way to get him to go away.” There sat a man who is “worth” hundreds of millions of dollars agonizing about giving one of those dollars to a man who is “worth” nothing.

It was during Johnson's interview with a Louisiana cab driver that I think the point about “worth” was driven home. The driver says, “you might think I'm an idiot, but my family's one of the richest families in the world. But not with money. With love, kindness, tolerance, and patience.” Ouch! The contrast in that scene of a “poor” cab driver and one of the “wealthiest” heirs in America trading places on the “who's rich” scale was powerful!

The One Percent did what all good documentaries should do- get us to question our views on a particular issue. I've been thinking about wealth, poverty, the economy, and a lot of financial things lately. I don't have any good answers to all the issues, but I'm starting to look at things more personally and less corporately (as in everyone together- not a company!). I've always been sensitive to the divide between rich and poor, and I am especially sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate than me. I grew up poor, but I've always known my situation pales compared to other people in our cities across the country. My financial situation is steadily improving, and I can honestly say I would love to be a multi-millionaire someday. But, I don't want the world to be part of my “portfolio!” I want to be able to live comfortably and use as much of my financial resources to help others as I can. You might think I'm an idiot, but I want to help the homeless in a way that will help them reclaim their self worth and their “net worth.”

Why the hell would I want to do that?! Because, when praying Psalm 49 the other night, I sort of chuckled (okay, I laughed) when reading the strophe, “Then do not fear when a man grows rich, when the glory of his house increases. He takes nothing with him when he dies, his glory does not follow him below” (cf. Ps. 49:17-18). So, what good would it do me to grow rich? I can't take it with me. Glory ceases at the grave. Well, maybe that's the point of the Psalmist's words. Maybe the idea is that instead of hoarding wealth we use it for good instead. I am NOT advocating re-distributionism! I am advocating helping others by providing opportunities for them to better themselves. I've always said the old maxim, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life” was incomplete. My revised version is clunky and not so easy to put on a poster or t-shirt, but just adds the following qualifying statement: “give the man a fish while you teach him how to fish and you feed him today and for the rest of his life.”

Let me elaborate on another thought(s) I've had about the rich/poor divide since watching The One Percent and praying Psalm 49 the other night. We can get mad at the rich all we want for being rich, but that envy won't do us any good! Warren Buffett is the second richest man in America, but he wasn't born wealthy. He worked hard at investing and buying businesses and was able to amass a large portfolio. He didn't gain all he has by saying, “I'm an investor!” He gained what he has by getting off his ass and investing! So, I started looking at my own situation. I am trying to make a living doing what I love- photography and writing. For far too long, I've been saying, “I'm a photographer and writer!” and waiting for the checks to come in. Now, I realize that it's not enough to say, I have to get off my ass and photograph and write! If I truly want to generate the bulk of my income and wealth from photography and writing, I need to get up every day and photograph and write! Sure the initial investment on my part will cost something (mostly time) and will probably not yield high returns in the immediate future. But, over the long haul, if I continue to get up and write and photograph, market my products, and gain a following, my goals will be attainable.

I think our society places far too much emphasis on wealth and the “lifestyles” of the wealthiest citizens of our country. We are inundated every day with images of some “star” living it up on the French Riviera or a private island. Cribs took us inside homes bigger than my 8 unit apartment building that only house 2 people. “You want to be rich” was the mantra our high school guidance counselor tried to get us to believe when we were selecting our colleges and majors. It's so easy to buy into that materialism. Of course, “I want to be rich!” No one says, “I want to be poor” (except monks and nuns!). What I really want is to be happy! I am happy when I am taking photographs; when I am writing; and when I am helping people. So, in financial terms, “I want to be comfortable!” My wife and I have found a way to live on our current combined income quite well. It's not even close to six digits, let alone seven or more! So, if we ever do get into a situation where our income level is six or seven digits, should we start living “better”? The thing is, we already are living “better” than we were when we first married. The key to better living is being happy with what you have and not spending more than you need to (let alone spending more than you make!). There's a reason most of us are in the “99%”- we buy all the things the “1%” tells us we “need” to make our lives “better.”

Lent starts on Wednesday. I know most of my readers aren't Catholic and some aren't even religious, but I wonder if we can all think of some things over the next 40 days that we can live without and see if our lives aren't better for it! I'll tell you what I'm giving up in next week's post!

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