“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

This is a quote from Gore Vidal – not from an occupier of Wall Street, or of any piazza on the globe. If it was relevant, these places would have to be under permanent occupation because we all envy friends who are more successful than we are.

If a friend becomes super-rich, we are dead. What has killed us is the knowledge that it is overwhelmingly likely he became super-rich only because he climbed the ladder in the financial sector that the system favours. To become super-rich in any other sector is not impossible – J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter stories, is a billionaire – but highly unusual.

In the January–February issue of The American Interest – ten months before anybody occupied Wall Street – an article appeared on “The Inequality That Matters.” The author is Tyler Cowen.

This is an excerpt:

“For 2004, non-financial executives of publicly traded companies accounted for less than 6 percent of the top 0.01 percent income bracket. In that same year, the top 25 hedge fund managers combined appear to have earned more than all of the CEOs from the entire S&P 500. The number of Wall Street investors earning more than $100 million a year was nine times higher than the public company executives earning that amount. The authors [Tyler Cowen quoted] also relate that they shared their estimates with a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, one who also has a Wall Street background. He thought their estimates of earnings in the financial sector were, if anything, understated.”

However, before any of our super-rich financier friends kills us, we should take to heart another excerpt from Tyler Cowan’s article:

“The inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does.”

We don’t want to hear that. We don’t want anybody to spoil our envy of Bill Gates’ brains, skills – and luck.

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4 responses to ““Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

  1. Do not assume all those financial managers will either be able to keep their money or live free of the fear of a criminal or civil charges. US justice for white collar criminals moves slowly, but it moves, and is a popular use of government resources right now. Can they live happily ever after with their Millions living in fear of being the next Conrad Black for the next ten years or more, with a new “suit” “perp walk” on TV every few weeks? The next one could become the poster boy (or girl) of the occupy Wall St. movement.

    Mike Sky

    • Surely it is not naive to believe, as I do, that one can become rich, even super-rich, without having to be afraid of criminal or civil charges.

      • Eric,
        Of course not. But knowing that some of those whose millions were made at the expense of the less fortunate and the financial system are not free and clear is helpful in tempering the envy and allow for some moral superiority. We can still honour the talents of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, we need not envy a multimullion dollar trader in the “risk premium” of bundled US Mortgages.

        Mike Sky

  2. Maybe. It’s also possible to become rich, even super-rich, by means which might well merit criminal or civil charges, and yet minimize to oneself the likelihood of such charges. Most of these guys seem to be immune to fear– it can happen to the other guy, but not to me. The dismal record of one huge scam after another suggests that the “justice” white collar criminals get in the U.S. is spotty at best, and has precious little deterrent value for the next crop of finaglers.