Wealthiest want to stay at the top of the heap


FORGIVE THE obvious statement, but here goes: The mega-rich hold fast to their money, which is why they're the mega-rich.

Think about it. If you give away 10 million here and 10 million there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.

But I'll bet you don't know why so many of the mega-rich insist on becoming so obscenely rich. I always assumed it was because they were self-serving, avaricious cads and louts who cared about no one but themselves -- and had the prenuptial agreements to prove it.

But no.

It isn't the money.

It's the money.

Ted Turner, billionaire and loudmouth, spilled the beans to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, and so now the secret's out.

The mega-rich keep a firm hold on their money like it was, well, money, because somebody is keeping score. In this case, the scorekeeper is Forbes magazine, the self-described capitalist tool, and its annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

"That list is destroying our country," Turner told Dowd with his usual gift for understatement.

"These new super-rich won't loosen up their wads because they're afraid they'll reduce their net worth and go down on the list. That's their Super Bowl."

Apparently Turner had seen a story detailing how the mega-rich give away a smaller percentage of their income than the rest of us, who are, of course, incredibly generous. Whatever happened to noblesse oblige and all that, Turner wondered.

Turner told a story on himself. He said he gave away $200 million to a charity, and all he could think about was how this would affect him in the Forbes standings.

Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves, apparently confused charity with the National League pennant race. Over time, Turner has seen the light, he says, while others are still watching the scoreboard.

You know, I had always naively thought that these people tried to guard their net worth because they'd be, like, embarrassed or something.

For instance, Bill Gates has $16 billion and counting.

How does he explain needing that much money?

Rainy day money?

Rainy century money?

You know how much $16 billion is? Cal Ripken makes $7 million a year. Bill Gates -- this is true -- makes that much in a day, given a five-day workweek and, say, a $2 billion annual income.

Gates needs all his money because Warren Buffett is a close second with $15 billion -- and counting. As any good American would, Gates wants to be No. 1. He wants to wag that finger in front of the TV screen. He wants to mouth "Hi Mom" and head to Disney World. He can't be No. 1 and simultaneously start a Gates foundation, which could -- I don't know -- fix the nation's schools or give everybody free cable.

According to Turner, and you can believe this if you like, he says he has talked to Gates and Buffett, who both told him they would give away more money if there were a list of people who give the most money.

Instead of Miss America, we need Mr. Philanthropy. We could give the winner a crown, although probably not of thorns.

So, now you understand. The rich -- the top 1 percent of America who own all the money except the $13 I have in my pants pocket -- aren't greedy. They're just competitive.

Which must explain the Ross Perot situation.

As you may have heard, Perot (who's worth over $3 billion) is running for president again, except this time he's not spending his own money. He's taking $30 million from the government to finance his campaign.

Let me ask you a serious question: If Perot's not spending his own money, exactly what is the point of this race? I could run on somebody else's money.

Perot always said: "See, I'm not costin' you, the American public, a dime." Now, it's about 300 million dimes. Now instead of a rich guy ready to spend money like Larry King wears suspenders, he's just another guy with big ears.

Turner worries that the people are going to catch on and eventually see that maybe the mega-rich aren't on their side.

"These big billionaires are busy letting go middle managers in their 50s, the day before their pensions kick in," he told Dowd.

"We're getting to be like Mexico and Brazil, with the rich living behind fences, like they do in Hollywood. ... The Federal government, the state government, the municipal government -- they're all broke. All the money is in the hands of these few rich people, and none of them give any money away. It's dangerous for them and for the country. We may have another French Revolution, and there'll be another Madame Defarge knitting and watching them come in little oxcarts down to the town square and BOOM! Off with their heads!"

Could be. But I doubt we'll get that lucky.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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