#9: Idiot Profile: An oligarch with a gun
16th November, 2020
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that doesn’t get grumpy when it rains.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that there’s a reason sane people don’t actually steal candy from babies, or take a helicopter to the top of Everest for a selfie.
The trouble with being able to do anything is that you’re highly likely to do everything terribly.
A friend of mine owns an estate in Scotland. When the wind’s not trying to toss you into the loch, the vista’s as peaceful as if it had been immortalised in oils and hung in a library. A solitary house sits amid thousands of acres of rugged, unspoilt land, like the earth had dared stuff to live there, and all but the hardiest beasts said ‘nah, you’re alright mate’.
Some of those beasts are deer. Deer are magnificent, but they need management, and so one way or another the herd is thinned to the tune of 80 or so each year. The thinning is executed by selling licences to kill to cashed-up amateurs pulled towards pulling a trigger.
(Personally, I prefer the mad-bastard method of hanging out of a helicopter, swooping past and rugby tackling the things, but executives with pounds stuffed in both pockets and paunches call the shots round here.)
A few years ago, a Famous Russian Oligarch Guy wanted to have a go at getting his gun off by shooting a stag in the Scottish scrub.
‘Society’ stuff is important to Famous Russian Oligarch Guys. This is how you fit in. Don tweed, hike hill (helped by whisky-laden hip-flask), stalk stag, pull trigger (hopefully just the once), waddle triumphantly to gun room for more whisky and picturing the antlers on your wall, like other brave adventurers. Meanwhile, a gillie as imposing as the glen drags your deer off the hill and chops it up ready for the butcher.
However, Famous Russian Oligarch Guy had a problem. His manhood being apparently directly correlated with the size of the stag he was to bag, he wanted the biggest stag he could find. And they don’t live in Scotland.
So he imported a pair. From New Zealand. As a mark of true executive efficiency, the stags were also drugged, to save having to worry about the need to stalk, as opposed to just scuttle up and shoot them.
The ticket to gun-room bonhomie is a bottle with a story behind it. Perhaps your dad is Scottish, and you take his favourite tipple. Maybe a particular brand evokes a treasured memory of the end of a wedding. Possibly you just liked the label. Famous Russian Oligarch Guy was not, however, impressed by such stories. He had brought the most expensive bottle of whisky in the world.
In this he was only copying everyone else who for want of a little thinking mistakes better with more expensive; it is his funding, not his idiocy, that is off the scale.
All of which makes you wonder: why do it that way? What needs are attempting to be met? Would all that faff pass the Non-Disclosure Agreement Test?
This is not to say that one should experience things only after signing an NDA that expressly forbids ever telling anyone that you’re going to do something, are doing it, or did it. I suspect a huge part of what makes experiences so damn thrilling to a human is sharing them. But if you wouldn’t undertake an experience if you had to sign such an NDA, you probably shouldn’t do it.
It’s not only Famous Russian Oligarch Guys, of course. We all do it. And have done forever. As I explore more here, when it comes to making money decisions, silliness is sadly seductive.
‘Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they're in other people's houses,’ wrote Seneca, back when one Amazon was much bigger, and another much smaller. ‘One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason, we're seduced by convention.’
It’s a view echoed by Benjamin Franklin: ‘The Eyes of other People are the Eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine Clothes, fine Houses, nor fine Furniture.’ Living other people’s lives is a tragic failure of imagination, for it is in a profound sense not to live at all.
However, both Seneca and Franklin stop too short. It is not the ‘eyes of other people’ that ruin us. The eyes of other people could elevate us. And there’s not a lot we can do about them in either case. What ruins us is our own eyes, and where we choose to focus them.
As described by the fantastic Paul Tillich quote in the same section (‘The man-created world of objects has drawn into itself him who created it…’) mankind has – in the very act of searching for meaning in money – created meaningless.