Vail Daily column: A balancing act
March 16, 2014
I could tell he was a banker from 50 feet away. A full head of white hair was parted down the side. He wore the signature Datejust Rolex with the face turned to the inside of his wrist (a sign of needing to discreetly check the time during conversations). Even though he wore jeans, he kept his button up shirt tucked in, and covered it with a conservative wool sweater. Like me, he had his back to a corner, observing the room full of people at a fundraising event. I couldn't resist crossing the floor to talk shop.
Before I knew it, we were telling war stories. He, like me, was a commercial lender and actuary. He had survived multiple mergers and acquisitions of his original regional bank to have more than four decades of lending experience in the Western states before retiring. He was a decision maker, like me, but with a final lending limit that made me blush.
Though retired, he was still sharp as a tack, and skillfully grilled me on my knowledge and process. I recognized the opportunity to get some advice, and couldn't resist asking the one question that had been ricocheting around my brain for the past few years. It was certainly a question that many young men ask old men.
"So," I carefully began, in spite of my personal goal to never begin a sentence with the word "so." (It's a clear sign of hesitancy, worry, concern, pride, etc.) "If an individual has the opportunity and the personal capacity to become wealthy, do they have a moral obligation to do so?" My question, more simply put, was whether those with the potential to earn high incomes should do so for the purpose of having more money to give back to the community.
In my business, we see all kinds of people and all kinds of life choices in regard to money. Most people act predictably, following societal trends without much thought for the reasons behind their decisions. Some, however, are clear outliers, such as the 30-year-old blogger I know who left the workforce because he had amassed enough savings to retire, though on an annual income of only $30,000. The old banker I spoke with on this night showed his wisdom by answering with his honest opinion, in spite of life choices that likely signaled in the opposite direction.
"No, no, I don't think so. And I think we're creating a cause and effect relationship that doesn't exist." I had suggested that seeking to make money for the purpose of serving others was noble enough. He went on to say that he felt that money was a symptom of working hard in an economically mobile society, but that what we did with money was a decision that was often made before the big money ever came.
"In my experience," he said, "I've found that people who gave of themselves when they had little gave more when they amassed wealth, and those that gave little when they had little still gave little more than money later on."
In essence, it is easier to write a check than to give of yourself for some, while some managed to do both, regardless of income level or personal constraints. I agreed, and couldn't resist auditing my own life to see which path I was walking. Still, my nagging thought that a person might have to choose one thing over another persisted. And then the banker's son walked up.
He was in his early 40s, neatly dressed, with the same hungry facial expression that sometimes flashes across my own face. Eloquent and well-educated, he claimed to have had made enough in the private sector to walk away to work on a nonprofit with another friend. He admitted, in his circles, his wife and family often chose to forego some of the flashy vacations and trips of their peers, but he was clearly living comfortably. He had been serving with causes all throughout his career.
The banker's son had chosen to do the very balancing act of which we spoke, and I couldn't help but shake my head in admiration, and do a little planning of my own.
Benjamin A. Gochberg lives in Avon.