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Observations: The true path to wealth

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image I’m having enough trouble getting Apple to take my hard-earned $200 for a new iPhone. Mitch Traphagen Photo

First, have really rich parents


Since I frequently write travel and adventure stories, I receive numerous press releases about travel opportunities every day. Most of them go into the trash because I simply can’t read them all and an event happening in Australia is generally outside of the realm of The Observer News.

Last week the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced that income for the wealthiest one percent of Americans grew 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, while income growth for the rest of Americans averaged only 40 percent in the same period. On the same day I received an ironically appropriate press release announcing that for a mere $161,000 a lucky couple could rent a 22-room Italian luxury resort all for themselves. Included in the package was a 24-hour personal assistant, a helicopter tour, the use of a vintage Fiat 500 automobile, and the use of a fully staffed luxury yacht.

Seriously? A press release? For that? How many people could be interested that it would warrant a general press release?

It may or may not surprise you to know that more than a few people in South Hillsborough could do it without a second thought. Whether or not they would, of course, is the question. But by and large, it seems that most people these days are working hard just to keep the lights on and food in the cupboards. The personal assistant and luxury yacht will have to wait.

Given the economic conditions — and worst of all, the economic uncertainty — it should be no surprise that people are angry. That anger takes many forms from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party. On the surface, those two groups don’t seem to have much in common, but the reality is that both have sprung up from fear. Fear of both the present and the future. That fear morphed into anger that morphed into action.

I spent the first decade of my post-college career working for very large corporations — organizations that are frequently vilified today for their outrageous profits and greed. Are large corporations evil? Yes, when they are viewed from a human perspective. A more accurate depiction of them, however, would be that they are simply soulless. As an entity, a for-profit corporation is legally obligated to make as much money as it can for its shareholders. That is the entire purpose of its existence. Unlike humans with their philosophical pondering over the meaning of their lives, the meaning of a corporation is clear: make money, as much of it as possible.

If Walmart or Target discovered that playing the Satanic verses, read in a monotone voice, over the loudspeakers in their stores spurred buyers to subconsciously spend an additional one or two percent with no negative consequences, would they do it? Yeah, they probably would.

But while corporations have no souls, the people who work for them do. There is a Facebook page dedicated to hating the delivery service UPS. One day not long ago, I clicked on the tracking number of a package I was expecting only to see that it was needlessly being routed back and forth around the country. I clicked the “Like” button on the “I hate UPS” Facebook page.

Then I realized the UPS driver that delivers to my house is a really good guy. Do I hate him? Of course not. I know full well that he works hard and if there is anything he can personally do to make sure I get my package, he’d do it. So whom do I really hate? Do I hate the customer service person on the phone that pretty clearly didn’t care if I lived or died? No, I can’t hate her — my call was just one of hundreds of calls she has probably handled on her shift, most from angry people wondering where on God’s green earth was the latest crap they had ordered from Amazon. That customer service person was just trying to get through another day without having her head explode.

In my career with large corporations, I never met an evil person. I even occasionally hung out with the top executives and I found none of them to be evil or even soulless. They were all good people. It turns out there is really no one to hate, and thus any hatred I may have felt was simply misdirected at a faceless, indefinable entity. There is nothing constructive about misdirected hatred.

While the CBO report made headlines for the massive growth in income for the rich, what was often overlooked was that, on average, everyone got richer. Also, hidden in the numbers was the fact that the people earning the most tended to have at least undergraduate degrees and were older, while the people earning the least had much less education and were younger. That kind of takes the shock out of it, doesn’t it?

Proof that nearly everyone is richer can be found in the latest Apple iPhone. Both my wife and I use and enjoy iPhones. Our phones are a few years old now and are showing some wear so we decided it was time to upgrade. It has been a few weeks since Apple released the iPhone 4S so I thought, no problem, we’d just walk into a store and buy one. Not so much, it turned out — people are still lining up for them.

In order to get an iPhone 4S, you have to go to a website to reserve one. Each night at 9 p.m., the website is updated with the latest inventory. On the first night I tried it, the inventory in both the Brandon and Tampa stores was completely wiped out when I visited the website at 9:05 p.m. The next night, I discovered that the site is actually updated a few minutes before nine, but within milliseconds, nearly everything was gone. At 8:58 p.m., the site showed a few available models that were more expensive than I was willing to buy. By 25 seconds after 9 p.m., even those models were gone.

What must it be like to have people lining up, pleading to spend literally hundreds of dollars, saying, “PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE TAKE MY MONEY!” only to be told to try again tomorrow? Even more amazing, this has been going on for weeks. How impoverished can we be? As a society, how angry can we be? It all depends upon your perspective, I guess. More people than ever seem to be hurting and 275 percent is a big raise for a small number of people. But then again, welcome to the world.

Perhaps it’s all bread and circuses. Keep the unwashed masses amused with an iPhone now and again while the seriously rich party on in 22-room Italian luxury resorts with helicopters and yachts. Besides, I’m fairly certain I discovered the one true path to wealth through my growing obsession with reading the wedding announcements in the Sunday New York Times, showing page after page of spectacularly handsome and successful young people getting married. Almost without fail, each of those young people has something in common (besides being spectacularly handsome and successful): they all have really rich parents.

So there it is: the real path to wealth is by being wealthy in the first place. Yes, the rich are getting richer, but it would appear that a bubble is forming among the one percent group. That sort of income growth simply isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later, Mom and Dad’s money will run out. But if your parents still have the coin, feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll send you the details on the Italian resort. Perhaps with a little haggling, you could get them to throw in an iPhone or two. But don’t count on it.

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