A nouveau riche paradox

How will we nurture our children?

Being wealthy requires skills, not only to become rich, but more importantly to deal with your newly acquired fortune and avoid losing your soul. The warning against money isn’t to be taken lightly. Perhaps I sound like a narrow-minded preacher, but there is a great deal of wisdom behind that religious teaching. It wasn’t transmitted across centuries by pure chance.

You struggle to make a better life for your children, but when you succeed, it is easy to forget that efforts are a part of a better life. The worse the pain you suffer to escape poverty and misery, the stronger the temptation of coddling your children when the pain is alleviated. There is a saying about Grandpa opening a business, Papa building a fortune and Sonny spoiling it. Quite true. The very few families who maintain themselves at the top of the commercial hierarchy over the centuries, they have something more than just money. They have built their own educational tradition, a tradition that most people don’t understand or even hate. But a tradition that is compatible with extreme wealth.

Easy money is a curse for both individuals and societies. Reversing the curse requires a lot of skill and the strongest discipline. Lottery winners have an incredible high probability to go bankrupt in a couple of years. The figures are cristal clear. It isn’t difficult to figure out why. Playing the lottery isn’t very rational, if you look at the probability of winning. The mathematically expected gain is even negative, because the company or the State that organizes it does it to earn money. It takes more than what it gives. In fact, people play lotto in order to dream. It has its utility, sort of, because it alleviates a dull and unpleasant life. It requires almost no effort, except of course that you have to pay the ticket. Within a few months, the winner, who is very likely to be careless, will spend all his easy bucks on futile stuff: luxurious cars, travels, new mansion, and most dangerously making new “friends” and helping ancient ones. It might seem generous at first, but there is no practical limit to what people consider to be their needs. It’s difficult to say no. Besides, huge assets requires huge incomes just for the maintenance. People who suddenly get big amounts of money don’t have a clue on how to anticipate future expenses. It’s even worse if they have never been the owner of their house before. We systematically underevaluate the cost of daily reparations in a household, let alone a big estate.

Unfortunately, that nouveau riche mindset also applies at the scale of entire nations. It takes several forms. The tragedy of the raw materials is probably the worst scenario for the economic development of a nation. It occurs when a nation benefits suddenly from an unexpected resource and is overflown with cash. The government uses that cash to promise a lot to the people, to buy votes or supports. Officers take advantage of the situation and embezzel public money.

Another mistake is the uncontrolable growth of the Welfare State. It combines easily with the former threat. The example of Venezuela is clear enough and is jus one among many. The Welfare State acts as a spoiling mother who coddles her kids instead of empowering them. With huge amounts of love, she eventually becomes a devouring mother. Besides, those who think that greed is a distinctive trait of CEOs are gravely mistaken. Take a look at Union Leaders.

Easy money is extremely dangerous in itself . You don’t even need a huge amount of it to become “too rich”. Too easy is just enough. In Djibouti, people aren’t rich. But they are discouraged to work. It’s a nation of beggars. Kids are raised in the belief that it’s normal to have what they have, and that they just deserve it. It is a strange thing to meet a boy who asks you for money in the street while talking about his father’s car. The little guy from Ali-Sabieh didn’t see the problem.

In Djibouti, I also met the director of a refugee camp. He used to live in Paris but he was from West Africa. He was very proud of his life in Paris and what he did for his daughters. One thing however gave me wry laughters. The guy admired the metro (subway) in Paris. In a sense, he was right, because the metro is a feature of an amazingly advanced civilization and it’s incredibly useful. But he was also quite naive. No Frenchman is ever excited about the metro. It’s just daily life. We rather see what’s wrong with it: the smelly corridors, the crowd, the graffitis, the lack of maintenance, sometimes a lack of safety. I’m pretty sure that his beloved daughters don’t share his passion for Paris’ subway. Why should they?

Will I be happy? Will I be rich?

It’s sad somehow. We are collectively ungrateful brats. There is a misconception about the religious warning I mentioned in the introduction. When the Gospel says that rich people are less likely to enter the Kingdom of God than a camel to pass through the hole of a needle, it isn’t just a question of social justice. Of course, in other pages, the Gospel mentions the indifference toward the suffering of the poor. And the man who doesn’t save his neighbor isn’t worthy of the Kingdom. But that’s not the whole story. It’s also a matter of spiritual vacuity. Being rich can blind you to many things, not only to the poor. It blinds you to the will of God. It blinds you to the love of your children. It even blinds you to the real material goods, because money is just a symbol of wealth, not wealth itself. Idolizing money is wrong from a spiritual, from a social and even from an economic point of view.

I’m witnessing the development of Cambodia. It’s great. Although Cambodia is still a rather poor country, compared to International standards today, it has probably never been so rich and the improvement is palpable. Even teenagers possess motorbikes and smartphones. It is a pleasant sight, because it brings great hopes. We can reasonably expect that country to go in the right direction, while much richer nations, such as mine, are aging and grow systematically pessimistic. I don’t like Cambodia for its comfort, obviously, nor for the quality of its food. Come on! I’m French! But I like Cambodia for the smiles of its youth, who are willing to learn and ready to improve their lives.

There is a sad truth that we must be aware of. Within 15 or 20 years, if everything goes as planned, Cambodia will begin to face bitter disappointments. Diplomas will no longer ensure a good job. The marginal advantage of the economic growth will diminish. It’s simple to understand. The last improvement isn’t as useful as the first one. Your first motorized vehicle changes your life totally. If a household gets a second car, as it is common in the West, it’s just comfortable. You can take the kids at school without worrying about the availability of the car. The third one, which is not uncommon in the West, is virtually useless and brings no other satisfaction than vanity. As the number of graduated workers increases, the comparative value of the diplomas will decrease on the job market. Simple effect of the law of supply and demand.

If we understand education only from an utilitarian perspective and not primarily as a search for truth, the disappointment will be bitter. And if you expect not only better paychecks, but also a better position in the economic hierarchy, you have an untractable problem. Maybe you can promise a better job for everyone, for instance less pain, less danger, less working hours, but you cannot promise that everybody will be a boss. There is a huge educational challenge. Young parents in Cambodia will have to teach to their kids something that they’ve never learned themselves.

For such is the price of wealth.

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