Business

Money no immunity against failure

Guardian Reporters

Even before the financial crisis and the Occupy movement, the Sunday Times Rich List was an odd fixture in the British media landscape.

The annual roll call of the wealthiest individuals  in the United Kingdom has always triggered the full range of ambivalent responses. (Eric Piermont, AFP)

Even before the financial crisis, the Occupy movement and the new era of austerity, the Sunday Times Rich List was an odd fixture in the British media landscape.

The annual roll call of the 1000 wealthiest individuals or families in the United Kingdom has always triggered the full range of ambivalent responses to people with staggering amounts of money: envy, admiration, disdain, awe and that special flavour of inverse snobbery that stems from being convinced that you have spent your life more meaningfully than the head of the Tetra Pak food-packaging empire, whatever the impact on your bank balance.

Now, though, for reasons we all understand, attitudes towards the super-rich are changing: disdain is hardening into anger; ambivalence has been replaced with hostility. Despite a still weak economy, the collective wealth of the 2011 Rich List increased by £60.2-billion on the previous year and in the 2012 list, which was published this week, that divergence has become larger.

In the end, the Rich List is only a list, but in today’s climate it inevitably acquires a certain grotesque aspect. The Rich List people are not merely the 1% but the 0.01%, and this celebration of their assets feels like a celebration of things that nobody feels like celebrating: bankers’ bonuses, complex corporate tax-avoidance structures, the stifling grip of aristocratic family wealth.

The Had Once
Still, in focusing on the haves and the have-nots, let us not forget a third group – the people you might call the Had Once, but Then Blew It All on a Private Jet with Gold Plumbing in the Bathroom.

That is a somewhat unfair way of summarising the fate of the Irish hospitality magnate Sean Quinn, but it will serve as a general label for those featured in this inaugural Not-So-Rich-Any-More List – a selection of former plutocrats who crashed in spectacular fashion. Some overreached in their business ventures; others overreached in their lavish lifestyles; one tried to reach over the laws against fraud. But it is striking that none was done in by circumstances wholly outside their control.

Schadenfreude is not an emotion to be proud of – and in the case of the Not-So-Rich-Any-More List it may not even be warranted: many of those on the list are almost certainly still vastly wealthier than you or me.

And their having received a modest dose of reality does nothing at all, of course, to ameliorate structural inequalities in the economy. Still, maybe it is useful to be reminded that stratospheric wealth offers no immunity to failure or to foolish decisions, and the lives of the megarich can be as subject to precipitous ups and downs as anyone else’s.

If you must indulge in schadenfreude, you might as well direct it at these people. And if you find yourself feeling sorry for them instead, congratulations: you are more empathic than most people and that is worth much more than an aeroplane bathroom with taps made of gold. –
© Guardian News & Media 2012

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