Thursday, July 8, 2010

What's in It for Me?

Andres Oppenheimer’s column on the 2010 “World Wealth Report” in yesterday’s Miami Herald confirms once again that the rich in Latin America are selfish and uninterested in building a better future for their societies. While the rich in the developed world live in essentially the same way as everyone else in, say, Bern, New York, Monaco, or London, the Latin American rich live apart in almost unimaginable opulence, flaunting their wealth without any remorse or guilt. They take the world as it is, not as it could be.

When I was living in George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands, and working for an offshore bank, I once saw so much money coming out of a single country that it was inconceivable to me that that country could have such high levels of poverty. I routinely saw rich Latin Americans open bank accounts with suitcases full of cash (literally). But, of course, I was not allowed to ask where the money came from or what kind of “business” had yielded such unbelievably large profits. Bank regulations; sorry!

It seems not to be in the nature of Latin Americans to behave selflessly or to contribute even part of their wealth to charitable foundations, people in need, programs to alleviate poverty, and the like. Moreover, they seem wholly disinterested in volunteering for any kind of cause. The attitude has always been, “If I do this, what’s in it for me?” Of course, the rich are under no formal obligation to give money to the poor or to support efforts to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. But unlike the less than 1 percent of the world population that benefits from “old money,” the Latin American rich have been able to amass their fortunes thanks to the societies within which they live. Thus, there is a moral obligation to give something back.

I am not talking about giving away all or even half of your fortune. I am merely talking about making a difference, making a contribution—even if, in exchange, a project, building, or school has to be named after you. Don’t worry about leaving your children without your wealth. If they have received a good education, they will make their own wealth too. And that is the best legacy that the rich can leave to their families, right? Also, why not at least try volunteering at a hospital, a community kitchen, or a public school? For a rich Latin American to do so would be like a miracle in Mes Morado in Peru or Festa de Todos os Santos in Brazil. Sadly, I don’t think many rich people in Latin America would even consider these idealistic suggestions.

By contrast, the United States seems to offer a good example of self-giving and compassionate behavior. Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying the United States is better than any other country. I am just pointing out that Americans themselves seem to be especially generous. This is not about the economics of wealth concentration or political influence; rather, it just seems to be part of the natural way of being for many Americans.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree that the rich that I knew in Latin America seem more selfish than others. Ironically, the poor people I know have some of the most giving hearts. They were very community-minded and shared what they had with their neighbors and acquaintances.