So you want to be rich?

Men have become hunter-gatherers again, on a grand scale.

money good 88 (photo credit: )
money good 88
(photo credit: )
Everyone today wants to be rich. Money is the American religion. Like a genie that emerges from a bottle, it has magical powers. The fulfillment of your heart's desires, the respect of your peers. Heck, it can even make you irresistible to women. But is money really all it's cracked up to be? Wealth is a profoundly isolating device, leaving a great many who have it lonely. The very essence of great wealth is to be set apart. You begin life travelling coach. You wait in a lounge next to people like you and you sit next to them on the plane. But as you grow more successful, you're travelling in business, first class, and then your own plane. It's just you and your pilots. The air you breathe becomes as rarefied as the air through which you fly. The same is true of your living conditions. You begin life in a tenement. You have neighbors who come and borrow sugar. Then you buy a house. More isolated. And then your own private estate. Suddenly, the only people in your immediate vicinity are on your payroll. In Robert Frank's book Richistan, which chronicles the lives of the superrich, he tells the story of an 11-year-old 'aristokid' who, for her birthday, asked her parents if she could fly commercial, "to ride on a big plane with other people. I want to see what an airport looks like on the inside." WHEN WE speak of that old chestnut that the rich aren't necessarily happy, what we mean is that their money not only has not bought them love, as the Beatles might have put it, but worse, it has actually left them more isolated and alone. By and large, the rich can only hang out with other rich people. Who else could afford their lifestyles and tastes? And since so many people seek wealth as a statement of status, they also begin to choose friends who will enhance that status, resulting in sterile and dishonest relationships. In no area do we see these developments more clearly than in the rise of investment banking and obliteration of the prestige of being a doctor or a lawyer. Gone are the days when the two top Jewish professions were guaranteed to give Mama oodles of naches, winning cooing competitions over her fellow yentas as they sipped warm borscht. Yes, Momma's days as a major Jewish "shepper" of pride over junior's stethoscope belong to a forgotten time. A successful American doctor who has spent 20 years building up a practice can expect to earn as much as a million dollars a year. But the bankers have money-minting machines. It is not uncommon to hear of hedge-fund managers making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. At that level it becomes like monopoly money, with sums so large they scarcely seem real. The rise of investment banking as the foremost profession in our culture speaks volumes about the new attitude toward money. Even doctors who chose their profession because they wanted job security and a high income could still claim - justifiably - that they were contributing to society by healing the sick. But with the rise of investment banking as America's most sought-after career, I fear that we are entering a new era in which people do not put money before everything else, because there is nothing else. MONEY IS not king. There are no subjects. Rather, money is existence itself. It is form, it is matter, it is substance. The only purpose of investment banking is to make one's clients, and in the process, oneself as well, as rich as Rockefeller. It makes no difference into which industry one invests so long as it is promises the greatest possible return. I should mention that I completely understand how important it is to have credible capital markets, especially in great democracies like the US, and I understand how central astute investors like investment bankers are to that process. Rather, my objection is in how investment banking is eclipsing virtually every other profession and sucking in the best and brightest minds so that our doctors, scientists, and professors will eventually be second-tier. When I arrived in Oxford to serve as rabbi in 1988, a great many of the students studied law and medicine. But if they were offered jobs with the leading investment banking firms they would promptly forfeit their specialties and join the bank. There are consequences for a world that has made money king, and it comes primarily in how utterly boring modern life has become. Once upon a time a man needed only to sell his soul in return for extraordinary wealth. Today, the ultimate price is required and paid on demand: life itself. PEOPLE WORK themselves to the bone, morning, day and night, and in the process exchange the full color of human experience for a single color -green - and the full panoply of the heart's emotions for a single monolithic feeling, greed. But the fact that money cannot touch our deepest humanity explains why the investment-banking field has one of the highest rates of corporate burnout. An elderly multimillionaire businessman recently told me that the difference between today's generation of entrepreneurs and his own is that the new guys have no hobbies. Sure, he said, they read a bit, play a bit of golf here, watch TV. But they don't enjoy this nearly as much as talking stocks, shares and internet startups. The result, he contends, is that they become monoliths. Worse, since they can never disengage, they can never approach their business from an entirely new perspective and take the imaginative, long-term view that business requires. Although we are a modern and enlightened society, we are beginning once again to see men as hunter-gatherers, with the highest human purpose being accumulation and the noblest human pursuit being the amassing of wealth. This view of man's greatness through the horizontal accretion of property has forever been opposed by the religious view of man finding transcendence through the vertical ascent in wisdom and virtue. It is to this vision that we must return if humans are to quench the thirst of their parched souls. The writer's newest book, The Broken American Male, will be released by St. Martins Press in the fall. (