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Filthy Rich

If there is one theme of mental revery held in common between most people, I suspect it is: "How would my life be different if I were filthy rich?"

Perhaps even millionaires ponder the same thought on some higher semantic plane. I'm sure the concept of filthy rich grades out into a pretty wide continuum, depending on where you're standing at the moment. To a fellah scratching dirt in a rural area of Palestine, the quintessential image of true wealth might consist of the contents of a cash register in the local market. For me, it is more likely to be the assets column of Donald Trump's balance sheet. For Donald Trump himself, it is something surely beyond my ken...

Not too long ago, I pulled out all my old historical salary records and plotted them on a graph, with the dollars adjusted for inflation. I do not recommend this action for the faint-hearted, or for anyone who prefers to remain in denial about the real bottom line result of a life full of hard work and personal sacrifices. Armed with a college BS degree in 1968, I began a career in engineering for a major corporation. Because they gave me no good reason not to, I continued to work for that company for all of these 36 ensuing years. And I am not unhappy about the way they "did me". As one of my old bosses truthfully put it, you won't get rich in engineering -- but you'll make a decent living.

From my personal salary chart, I was not entirely surprised to find that my career, measured in constant CPI-adjusted salary dollars, peaked in 1986 and has remained absolutely flat since then. For the last 18 years -- more than ˝ of my working career -- I can honestly say that I've been a "wage slave". All I can add is: It's a good thing I kind of like what I'm doing for a living…

I never expected to get rich from my job. In fact, early on I had no real expectations at all, other than to be able to make enough money so that I wouldn't have to continually worry about it -- although, I think you'll agree with me that achieving that goal has more to do with balancing your lifestyle, rather than your career choice or income per se. Fortunately, I've not had to worry much at all about money. I never went to bed worrying about it, and I can't remember a single family argument in our long marriage about the subject. My wife was never forced to go to work to supplement the family income, or to subsidize our quirks, interests, consumer spasms, habits or hobbies. Whenever an unplanned need for a chunk of money popped up, we always managed to find it and fill it. For that, I think we are truly blessed -- we belong to a small, fortunate class of folks, indeed. But that doesn't mean I can't still dream about the idea of sublime, overarching, big-time wealth...

My own historical salary chart, validated by spot-checks of online salary vs. career vs. experience data, shows that an engineer will never make more than about twice his starting salary -- evaluated in constant, CPI-corrected dollars.

I like to paint this in more tangible terms. We never had a lot of money in the early days, so we had to buy a smaller RCA television rather than the better, bigger Panasonic model. Now, after 35 years of working really hard, we can afford the Panasonic model - but we can't afford the top-line Philips models. Where we had to settle for a base economy car then, today we can afford a mid-sized, standard-equipped SUV -- but we can't afford a full-sized, loaded SUV. Our first house, any way you painted it, was the Platonic definition of a "starter home". We stretched hard to build our next house, as we knew it was to be our ultimate "moon shot" -- and we did ourselves proud by it. But we still occasionally look at house plan magazines, and in the course of doing that I will admit to us drooling over more palatial digs, ones that we could never aspire to owning.

I've tried to explain the situation in these terms to some of my younger professional colleagues. Some of them have credit card debt that would choke Godzilla's bigger, meaner brother. I don't seem to make my point with them. It's something about the glazed look in their eyes that makes me think they don't fully grasp -- or want to grasp -- what I'm saying. To me, it's much better to come to terms with these economic facts up front, so you can change your itinerary if the road you're on doesn't go where you really want to end up. But then I realize that I'm interfering with the ideals of the American Dream -- an unforgivable crime. Everyone must retain the notion of becoming filthy rich -- why should I cluck at them for trying to manifest portions of that fantasy right now?

And in truth, after successfully merging onto the crowded freeway, most people dread the notion of detouring on an alternate, possibly rocky route.

Getting back to the subject: Being able to handle wealth -- and I'm talking real wealth, here -- involves special skills. It's not in the genetic makeup of us "normal" people to do it well. You must have an aptitude and a particular constitution for it. Wealthy families have the advantage of time, to rear their offspring carefully and craftfully, so as to implant the unique attitudes and abilities required for its proper manipulation. What you do with money comes more naturally to those raised in that environment. For people like myself, spawned on the opposite side of the tracks, it's not so simple.

As we talk about it over the copier machine -- the modern equivalent of the old water cooler -- we imagine that the first order of this wealth business would be to isolate and insulate yourself from the throngs of people who will want to get your wealth. That equates to security -- a bodyguard or entire squad of security agents, as the case may be -- and a personal secretary, to deflect the incoming barrages of sudden greetings from "old friends", flaky business proposals, requests for philanthropic donations, tenders of love, legal threats from allegedly wronged women, probing IRS cretins, deals from charlatans and con-artists, political overtures, spurious lawsuits, requests for meetings, and all manner of unwanted solicitations from bloodthirsty leeches and cannibals.

It's easy to hire security guards with well-trained attack dogs. But where do you get a personal secretary that you can trust to the nth degree? Your brother-in-law? Not

And how do you sleep at night with millions in a bank, when the FDIC insured limit is only $100,000? What if the bank were to go belly-up tomorrow? For the kind of wealth we are talking about, several tens or hundreds of millions, there are hardly enough banks in the country to spread it out risk-free. Where do these rich guys keep their money? I doubt that it resides under their mattresses. So, it seems imperative to find some good fiduciary expert that knows how to do this. Same issue: How do you find one you can trust?

Gosh, I shudder to think about the lawyers and other professional flesh that you would have to keep continuously fed and watered.

And then there is the matter of servants -- excuse me! -- I mean domestic help. You have to have chauffeurs, cooks, housekeepers, butlers, gardeners and the like. And also the people who hire, fire and manage them. As made painfully clear in the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs, there will undoubtedly be complications that make it impossible to keep your private life intact and isolated from this teeming, roiling sub-hierarchy of personnel.

For one who has prided himself in keeping his life uncomplicated, this is beginning to sound way too complex. I could, in principle, keep my same simple lifestyle -- living as I do now, with those huge, protective Wings of Wealth hovering overhead, always close by but not actually touching me. But even then I would still need to employ most of the agents noted above -- and trust that they weren't ripping me off daily. I swear, it would not take too much of this before I would end up setting the damn bird free, to fly off and poop on some other poor soul.

To put the matter more succinctly: I think I'm better off just as I am.

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