Note to Forbes' richest: You don't need it all

June 27, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

IT'S NOT that I have anything against money. Hey, I'd love to have enough of the green stuff to ensure that my heirs and I never want for anything again.

But here's the question: What if I had more?

That's what I find myself wondering each time Forbes magazine releases its annual ranking of the world's richest people, as it did just a few days ago. To the surprise of no one, Microsoft founder Bill Gates tops the list. Indeed, his estimated $90 billion in net worth exceeds that of the next three billionaires combined.

Let's pause to put that figure into context. If Mr. Gates were to spend his fortune at the rate of $1 million a day, it would take him 246 years to exhaust it all. He could take the planet to lunch and keep $30 billion socked aside for a rainy day.

Not to pick on the uber nerd. The wondering that the Forbes ranking inspires in me applies as much to the lowliest billionaire on the list as it does to him.

I mean, I just can't picture sitting on a $90-billion fortune. Not only because the number is beyond my understanding, but also because there are too many hospitals that need building, too much pain that needs healing. There is ignorance that needs learning, hunger that needs feeding, wrong that needs righting.

I just can't figure it out: After you have enough to cover everything you could possibly want or need, why have more? What's the point? Why not give it away?

I'll admit that in asking the question, I feel not unlike an ant trying to understand the thinking of a human. Or a human trying to comprehend the mind of God.

Fiscally, at least, the distance between me and your average billionaire is about that dramatic. So I keep figuring there must be things here I'm not wealthy enough to understand, motivations and machinations that fly over my head like a private jet.

But I'll tell you what it looks like from down here. Like acquisition for its own sake, like obtainment as its own reward. Like greed.

Of course the rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed, "are different from you and me."

And the Forbes list, I assume, is meant as celebration of that difference, an opportunity for the rest of us to indulge our daydreams. Why not? It's only human to wonder what wealth must feel like. Hard to blame us, I admit. Money greases the wheels of American culture.

Ultimately, though, I'm glad I will never know that feeling. In fact, it would be an embarrassment to find my name on that list. I'd take it as a sign that I had sought sufficiency in all the wrong places. That I was rich in money, but dead broke in every other way that matters.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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