The Hidden Cost Of Wealth

William James via David Brooks in Second Mountain:

“James concluded that there is something in us that seems to require difficulty and the overcoming of difficulty, the presence of both light and darkness, danger and deliverance. ‘But what our human emotions seem to require,’ he wrote, ‘is the sight of struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through it alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another [challenge] more rare and arduous still—this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us.'”

Unwittingly, with this insight, James exposes a hidden cost of wealth. Often, the wealthier people get, the more their lives are taken up with endless conversation about how to make life more convenient and comfortable as well as with the actual researching and purchasing of products and services intended to make life less difficult and challenging. The amorphous goal is to eliminate struggle. The accomplishment of which fails to inspire anyone or anything.

Two Worlds

One world is inhabited by 73-year-old Richard Stoker, his wife Jane, his dogs, and his new neighbors in their Miami, FL luxury condominium development.

Stoker was featured in a recent  WSJ article on an increasing number of investors purchasing homes with cash in the belief prices have bottomed out.

“The prices were just irresistible,” Stoker said. “Florida’s been hit pretty hard.”

The article continues:

To pay the $1.8 million, $1.2 million and $1 million prices on the condos, Mr. Stoker and his wife, Jane, cashed out of some financial investments and sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting and an Alexander Calder mobile. Since mid-October, Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, the development Mr. Stoker bought into, has sold 35 units, with a third of the buyers from overseas and many others retiring from the Northeast. . . . The Stokers have a home in Potomac, Md., but spend most of the year in Florida. Mr. Stoker doesn’t plan to rent out any of his new properties, saying he and his wife will live in one with two dogs, his son might live in another and the third will house an older dog and guests.

What are we to make of Stoker and his world? We don’t have many details, but in 2011 America, here’s what I think I’m supposed to conclude. “Good on you. Probably worked hard your whole life and played by the rules. Enjoy the spoils of your labors.” Besides, who knows, maybe he’s an inspiring philanthropist who has given similar amounts of money to good causes.

But I’m tired of the status quo, so instead of giving him a pass and congratulating him, I have some questions.

What kind of person agrees to participate in an article like that under their own free will? What kind of person admits to the world that they bought a $1m condo for their dog? Why are there only two socially acceptable responses to conspicuous consumption in the U.S.—laissez faire nonchalance or awe? Why aren’t we embarrassed for the Stokers of the world when they publicly flaunt their wealth? Why don’t we freeze them out?