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When billionaires pout

How the evil of envy can consume even those who have too much.

Swellendam: – How does one feel sorry for a man who is worth some $20bn – or to make it sound even more dramatic, about R200bn?

You don’t of course. Especially if it is Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, the richest man in the Arab world. He has enough self-pity to satisfy his need for attention and adoration of his copious abundance, to make our empathy as ordinary day-to-day strugglers hopelessly superfluous. The man is miffed to say the least. He’s bemoaning the fact that his real wealth is being understated by Forbes magazine in their rankings of the world’s richest people. And he is peeved enough to announce that in future he is going to boycott the magazine and its rankings.

Forbes must be shaking in their libertarian boots! Not only are they going to lose the princely weekly subscription, but he is encouraging others to follow the Bloomberg rankings which place him as the World’s 16th richest (against the Forbes highly insulting 26th) and has his net worth at $8bn more.

On top of that, he believes it’s an Arab thing, “designed to disadvantage Middle Eastern investors and institutions.” Take heed, South Africans! This is how you play the race card even in multi-billionaire circumstance.

Am I really writing this stuff?

Perhaps one can find cause for the prince’s puerile petulance in the fact that he is part of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world that spawned the likes of Osama Bin Laden. Remember him? It escaped many that he and most of his collaborators who brought the Twin Towers crashing down in New York in 2001 were Saudi’s with a seething hatred for everything American because of its support for the Saudi monarchy – a hypocrisy that lives on today. Or perhaps it is because being Saudi Royalty; the prince was born with a golden spoon (rhodium more likely) protruding from every orifice.

One would think that the super wealthy would be immune to the little green monster called envy. Or was Maslow wrong in his assumption that once you have taken care of all of the “needy” stuff in your life, and you’ve reached the hierarchical pinnacle where the billionaires reside, you can focus on “self-actualisation” and blossom into the benevolent being you always wanted to be to become “independent of the good opinion of others”?

Of course, I’ve taken Maslow so badly out of context that his surprisingly many followers still today will no doubt baulk at my statement. But the point is that we all seem to harbour a belief that “I will be a much better person if I had a billion in the bank.” And in the process restrict the most valuable asset we have even as mundane middle incomers – generosity.

Unfortunately, the Prince is not the exception. While we may not be able to place CNN founder, Ted Turner, in the same category of inanity, he once said something that gives some insight into the billionaire’s kindergarten.

Recalling his decision to give half of his fortune to charity, he declared: “To be honest, my hands shook as I signed it away. I knew I was taking myself out of the race to be the richest man in the world.”

Is there really something of an obscene “race” amongst those at the top? And does this give us a different insight into the noble status of philanthropist – that it is a confession of sorts that feel they do not deserve what they have?

Personally I do not have an issue with those billionaires, including Ted Turner, who got that way by making a meaningful difference to our lives – those creators and builders that I have applauded on many occasions, and who are living proof that unimaginable rewards can be the outcome of benevolent intent and not necessarily the hunger for profit.

That is what economics and business is about!

Yet, there are countless thousands, who cannot claim the same; who must examine their state and question whether they are deserving of it. There are just too many who, by their own admission in a recent PWC survey, defend their rewards purely on the basis of “what others get”. There must be quite a few hundred South African executives (like the revered three bankers Moneyweb reported on recently) who in a moment of unrestrained swagger, can whisper to a friend or acquaintance over a glass of KWV 15 year old: “Do you know I earn more than President Barack Obama?!” Of course, if he adds up all his benefits, our President Zuma would probably be able to say the same – and that’s without his R ¼bn home!

Columnist Ann Crotty once put it incisively: “Despite a huge amount of guff, passing itself off as insightful and expensive analysis, the key factor influencing pay was that playground whine: ‘He’s got more than me, that’s not fair.”

And that’s what they call the “executive” market!

There has been global outrage at the scourge of unbridled greed that has contaminated the ideal of free economies. But even more dangerous and threatening is greed’s evil twin and perhaps its primary source – envy.

It is self-evident that the “have-nots” who are becoming more and more agitated and restless, are primarily driven by envy and not purely by their mostly self-defined deprivation. But those “haves” who so lightly dismiss those grievances because of it, are just as guilty, if not more so. Envy among those who have little is understandable; among those who have much it is inexcusable. With the display of such puerility can they remotely qualify for the positions they hold? And should remuneration committees tolerate and accommodate even to the smallest degree such adolescent and vitriolic contamination of their processes?

Envy leads to resentment, to disquiet, to unrest, to violence. Life skills gurus will often tell you that envy is a self-concocted poison that will eat away at you.

It is equally so with a society. With wealth disparities globally being one of the most critical issues of our time, it is a frightening force that could overwhelm us all.

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