The rich need role models, too

If the advertising in the New York Times is an indication, there are people out there buying $20,000 wristwatches. Yikes. Apparently the rich need role models, too.
   To be sure, the problem is not as pronounced nor as pressing as the lack of role models for inner-city kids, many of whom have never met anyone (other than teachers) who went to college.   But you have to stop and think about a person who would spend on a watch (which, by the way, doesn't keep very good time) an amount equal to two years' tuition at a state university.
    There's an awful lot of newly-minted money out there in this booming economy, and a lot of folks have managed to earn for themselves more than a few fistfuls of this fresh cabbage. And this is America, so people certainly have the right to go out and be the prodigal son or daughter if they want to. But still.
    It's not their fault, really. They have no one other than the proverbial next-door Jones' to teach them how to spend it sensibly. Or perhaps back in the eighties they watched too much "Dallas" or "Dynasty" and now use those television shows as a guide to the lifestyles of the rich, if not famous.
    Those fortunate enough to count themselves among the affluent class ought to take a page from Percy Ross' book or, if you will, a column from his newspaper. Twenty years ago, Ross made several million dollars when he sold his plastics business. He began publishing a newspaper column dedicated to helping people in need and vowed to continue it "until I have given away all my money."
    Three months ago, he penned his last piece in which he announced, "I've achieved my goal. I''ve given it all away. . . In many respects, I'm far richer today than when I started."
    In the 17 years Ross wrote his column, he helped thousands of people to get organ transplants, go to college, stave off foreclosure, train seeing eye dogs -- you name it. Often, those he helped only needed an extra $50 or $100 to get them through a tough time. Ross either wrote a check himself or solicited donations from his readers.
    Now, at age 83, Ross says he's going to look for another job and if he can make another pile of money, he'll be back to give it all away.
    There are others out there for the wealthy to emulate. Four generations removed from Ross is 9-year-old Zachary Kessler of Vernon, Connecticut. Zachary celebrated his birthday last month and his parents invited 115 of his closest friends to an ice skating party at the UConn rink. Zachary requested that, in lieu of birthday presents, guests bring donations for charity. Cash and food items were collected for the local emergency shelter and some dough was also raised for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
    "I really didn't want anything for my birthday, and I thought it would be nice to help someone," Zachary said. From the mouths of babes . . .
    A couple I know (The "Smiths"), who by any objective measure qualify as affluent, have instituted in their household something they call the "matching gift" rule. What it means is that whenever they spend money on themselves for something that isn't a necessity, they give an equal amount to charity.
    They've worked out some guidelines to help them from falling into the loopholes of their rule. One vacation a year is considered a necessity -- but if they take a second one, the money spent has to be matched by a donation. If they want a new car which costs $35,000 when a $20,000 automobile is just as serviceable, then they have to pony up $15,000 for a worthy cause. A similar formula applies to their housing needs.
    They also have what they call their "zero sum" rule. Any new item they buy has to be a replacement for something which is to be thrown or given away. This, they say, helps them keep from buying things they don't really need and frees up money for their "matching gift" policy.
    You can't help but wonder how much better-off the well-off could make our communities and our country if more of them emulated Percy Ross, Zachary Kessler or the "Smiths."
    It sure would put a damper on the demand for $20,000 wristwatches.


January 17, 2000