I spend a lot of time listening to people talk about money.
As a financial planner I spend Monday through Friday sitting in a modern white oak furniture-laced office listening to intentionally underdressed wealthy people talk about retirement accounts, estate planning, and trusts for their kids.
I volunteered part-time for a summer at a transitional housing center talking to people who are struggling with homelessness about rent, food, childcare and the basic building blocks of their financial life.
And I teach a budgeting class for mostly middle-class folks in a church classroom.
I even spent a couple of weeks teaching men and women in Zambia who were wearing America’s used business shirts and slacks to how to start and run small businesses.
And listening to such a large range of people talk about money I hear one common theme over and over again: “money corrupts good people”
Usually I hear this phrase as it relates to people blaming money for other people’s decisions. Also, most of us have heard something like this: “So-and-so used to be a great guy, but then once he started making lots of money, he became a real monster.”
But I have spent too much to talking about money and managing investments to believe it. Here’s the bottom line: Money doesn’t make people do anything. In fact, money doesn’t do anything. Period.
I see money like a chainsaw. It’s a very powerful tool. A single worker can clear an acre making the way for roads or farmland. A father can defend his family with it. It can do a great deal of good for individuals and society — or it can do a great damage. A chainsaw in the hands of an inexperienced worker can leave him paralyzed. And there is always the classic chainsaw massacre story.
You see – both chainsaws and money don’t DO anything. They are simply tools used by people for good or evil. No one blames the chainsaw for the massacre. And no one would praise the chainsaw alone for clearing the farmer’s field. It takes the trained hand of a hard worker who knows how to use the chainsaw for good.
So why do we place blame on money? Why don’t we place blame on the individual’s character?
Going back to the guy who used to be nice and then when he got money became a real monster, I would argue that guy was always a monster. For example, Bernie Madoff (the financier who committed the largest financial fraud in history) wasn’t exactly a saint before he amassed massive amounts of wealth and fame. Bernie actually started as sprinkler installer — not as trust fund kid. He borrowed $50,000 from his father-in-law to set up his now defunct financial firm. Far before his fame and fortune he had already been duping his own family out of their money. This wasn’t a guy who got rich and was drunk off his own fame — this was a guy who was a criminal all along. See, money was just a vehicle for him to exercise how much of a monster he really was. A three inch tall Godzilla is still a killing machine. It’s just not powerful enough to destroy Japan.
Ultimately, it is the heart of the person that is the issue, not the tool that they’re using.
I think we can all agree that putting money in good people’s hands is a wonderful thing. However, as we know, it’s impossible to regulate morality, so it’s impossible to only put money in the hands of morally upstanding people who are going to use it for good.
In stark contrast to Madoff, I’ve watched people doing amazing things with money. For all the monsters you hear about, there is another subset of good people don’t usually make the headlines. It’s the Bill Gates who are giving away billions. Our firm helps wealthy families give away money to serve underfunded schools and hospitals. It’s my friend Bryan Pape who has brilliantly combined for-profit and non-profit in a way that gives clean water to the ultra-poor. It’s my friend Nathan Roberts who is literally the only way some children in Kenya will get an education.
While it often feels like there are more evil billionaires than good billionaires (and unfortunately there probably are), there is a way to begin tipping the scales: we need good people to make lots of money.
My wife has worked as a financial counselor for a number of non-profits who do everything from Austim research to heart surgeries in Vietnam. And the organizations she works with do not lack good committed people — they lack funding.
That’s why I help rich people, poor people, and people in the middle take control of their current financial situations. Once they do that I encourage them go out there and start making money. Become influencers in society through the accumulation of wealth.
Go out there and get yourself a chainsaw. Then start helping your neighbor clear their field for the next harvest season.