Thursday, March 18, 2010

Building Character in Rich Kids

We are reading Robert Frank's Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich in my senior seminar. Frank's main point is that there are so many rich people in America now - 10 million households of millionaires or better - that they form a separate subculture, the "nation" of Richistan.

Most of America's rich are new money, made by hard working meritocrats and successful entrepreneurs. A major problem for the rich in all ages is raising children without spoiling them. Frank reports that even in deliberate structured programs to train "aristokids" in the special problems of managing wealth, such as Wealthbridge, the children rarely have the work ethic of the parents. In the cases Frank presents, only the children who were deliberately deprived of money they didn't earn, or kids who for personal reasons wanted to outdo their parents (fathers), showed real drive.

I am glad that today's rich parents are worried about spoiling their children. I am glad that many of them are competing with one another to put huge piles of money in good works and charitable foundations, rather than simply hand it on to their kids to consume. These hard-working parents who were so successful at making money naturally want their kids to be good at the same thing. I think a more prudent strategy, though, would be to see the mission of inheritors to be wise administrators of charities, rather than following in their parents' footsteps to build even bigger fortunes. In the whole population of rich kids, of course, there should be some of each, and there will inevitably be some wastrels. Still, it is hard for parents of any class to see their children as having a different mission and destiny than the parents themselves had.

I am drawn again to the wisdom of John Adams:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

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