Thursday, November 15, 2012

More Money than Brains

Larry Ellison has more money than brains.

Want proof? He built a house for $200 million and then complained, when the house was assessed at $160 million, that it clearly wasn't worth anywhere near that because it was "overdeveloped". He claimed it was only worth about $60 million, and eventually the assessor's office agreed. This is just the tip of the iceberg of his wasteful acquisitiveness.

What does it mean to have more money than brains? It means you knowingly waste money. When you acquire far more of something than you can possibly use or properly appreciate, you have more money than brains. When you pay far more for something than it is worth to anybody else (meaning you could never resell it for more than a fraction of what it cost you), you have more money than brains.

It means that the value of money has sunk so low for you that it is worth virtually nothing. The attitude, as Everett Dirksen was misquoted as saying, is "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money."

It should not be surprising that this becomes the dominant attitude for people with a lot of wealth. Our relationship to money follows a power law curve. The effect that doubling your money has drops as it increases. If you have only $100 for the month, getting another $100 may be the difference between life and death. If you have $1000 a month, getting another $1000 may mean that you can move out of your parents house or perhaps afford to buy a car. If you receive $10,000 a month, the only difference having another $10,000 is likely to make in your life is increasing the luxuries you can afford. And if you go from $100,000 a month to $200,000, there probably won't be any change to your life or lifestyle at all.

Having more brains than money means that you stay aware of how much incremental satisfaction spending more money will give you. You still strive for that elusive goal of "Bang for the Buck". If you have serious brainpower and a lot of wealth, you recognize that the low value you place on money is unique to you (and your Billionaire peers) and not shared by the rest of the world, so the resources that are represented by that money are better targeted to the areas where they are more valued. You also recognize the lost opportunity cost when you fritter away money. You realize that your wealth represents a significant amount of the resources of the planet, and handling those resources wisely is a responsibility that should be taken seriously.

I once went to a taping of the Tonight Show back in the 80s when Johnny Carson was host. One of his guests that night was Michael J. Fox who told a story that showed he had more brains than money. He described how he had been browsing through a store with his manager when he saw a fish tank that appealed to him. "Do you want it?", asked his manager. "Sure," he replied. The manager arranged the transaction. Later, Michael discovered that the tank had cost $6,000. He was horrified. He realized that while he could easily afford $6,000 for a fish tank, it wasn't going to bring $6,000 worth of value into his life.

"Wait," you may be saying. "Larry Ellison didn't waste that money on his house. He gave jobs to all the people who provided the materials and built the house." If you think that then you don't understand lost opportunity cost. Sure, those people were employed and paid a wage, but they also could have received that wage while building hospitals or schools or houses for many more people. By utilizing these resources for a purpose whose value completely disappeared the moment they finished work, all that effort was wasted. The money still exists, distributed among the workers and suppliers, but $140 Million worth of resources just disappeared from the planet as if it never existed.

Larry Ellison is not the person with the lowest brain to money ratio of all time. I'm not sure who would be the all-time winner (although I'm keen to hear suggestions), but in modern times that accolade has to go to Citizen William Randolph Hearst.

I have gone on a tour of his "ranch" which is now called Hearst Castle. It is filled with art and architecture that Hearst brought back from grand tours through Europe, thousands of items that he saw, bought, shipped back to the U.S., and then stored in a warehouse. He didn't even look at them for many years, not until he dragged them out to decorate his ranch-house.

I remember seeing a carved wood architectural feature that came from a 15th century Italian church. It had survived 500 years of wars and weather, with generation after generation maintaining it, looking after it, ensuring it survived. Then Hearst bought it and stored it in his warehouse for 20 years where it suffered from massive rot. When it was brought out to be mounted at the ranch, it had to be repaired with plaster to cover up the damage. The plaster was moulded in imitation of the carving that had disintegrated.

There is also a tapestry called Mille Fleurs, an important piece of art that was woven sometime around the year 1500. It hangs on the wall of the dining room where many people, often celebrities, got rip-roaring drunk at the famous parties held there. It makes me wonder how many times someone vomited on this beautiful tapestry.

On the tour, the guide turned to us and asked, "Wouldn't you like to be able to buy all these things and live like this?" All around me, people enthusiastically nodded their heads and muttered "Oh, yeah", while I just felt nauseous at the thought.  I realized then that I was the only one in the group who actually wanted to have more brains than money.

Does Wealth Always Destroy Brain Cells?

Can you be ultra-rich and still have more brains than money? Warren Buffett proves you can. In this quote, he demonstrates that he understands what his wealth can do, maintains his hold on the value that money has for the rest of us, and appreciates the lost opportunity cost in using it wastefully:

My money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It's like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GDP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing.[1]

He has the money to indulge himself with his slightest whim, but rejects that behaviour as actually being a negative:

How would I improve my life by having 10 houses around the globe?  … I don’t want to manage 10 houses and I don’t want somebody else doing it for me and I don’t know why the hell I’d be happier. [2]

These aren't just words, either. He backs them up with his actions. The house he owns in Omaha is a nice one. It is sufficient for his needs, but it is not a mansion. He has only one car and it is not terribly expensive. His suits are off-the-rack. Almost his whole lifestyle involves buying only what he needs.

He has also committed to giving away almost all of his wealth. He has pledged 83% of it to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. What is particularly interesting is that he, along with Bill Gates, have engaged in some social engineering among Billionaires to ensure that others follow their lead (Larry Ellison among them). In this he follows the footsteps of Andrew Carnegie who wrote:

[The wealthy man should] consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer.

Of course, Buffett is not alone in philanthropy. In fact, giving to charities is a way of gaining status among the wealthy. The difference is that Buffet clearly understands the responsibility to use his wealth wisely and the negative consequences if it is applied frivolously.

Bill Gates is another example of someone with more brains than money. Anyone who knows what I think of his business ethics may be shocked to hear me praise Bill Gates for anything. And unlike Buffet he has certainly had his wasteful indiscretions in how he used his wealth, between the art and cars and manuscripts and the ridiculously oversized house. But he has also devoted not just the bulk of his fortune but also most of his time and energy to trying to figure out the most effective way to use that wealth to improve society. The sacrifices he has had to make to do this are enormous. I can't imagine what it must have felt like, after devoting all his time and energy for many years to making Microsoft what it was, to walk away from it so that he could focus full time on making the most effective use of his wealth as possible. It is clear to me that he made the right decision, but you only have to look around at the other very wealthy CEOs who are still running their companies to see that it is not a common decision for someone in that position to make.

There are, of course, many others who demonstrate their brain's triumph over their money. But giving to charities isn't enough. There also needs to be recognition of the lost opportunity cost, and that can be an ongoing battle. Even someone as aware as Warren Buffett slips occasionally. One thing he has splurged on is his private jet. But you can tell that he recognizes it for the indulgence that it is. He named it The Indefensible.

What about you? Would you rather have more money than brains? Or more brains than money?

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