"Forbes" Magazine came out with its annual list of billionaires this month, and I'm not on it. Again. You probably aren't either. I'm not sure how they figure out who all these billionaires are. No annoying telemarketer called me during dinner to ask if we had any billionaires living in our house. But I guess they have their methods.
A billion dollars is so huge that it's hard to conceive. To help us picture that amount, some people say that if you have a billion $1 bills, and place them on the ground end to end, they will go around the world four times. I don't think so. I'm sure after you put a few bills on the ground, the wind would blow them away. Or if it didn't, other people would scoop them up and stuff them in their pockets. No, the definition that works best for me is a billion dollars is the amount of money that will make people hate the owner of that money no matter what he or she does.
Bill Gates is listed as the richest person in the world again, and lots of people hate him. It's not because of how he deals with competition, it's not because of the nerdy glasses or the whiny voice. It's because he committed the Great American Sin — he made too much money. People are jealous, pure and simple. In our culture, we celebrate those who are successful, but we don't like it when they get too successful. When friends of yours buy a nice house, you're happy for them. But when people you know buy a really, really nice house, they're "show-offs" who have become "too fancy."
Some people are so upset about Bill Gates' money that they frequent a Web site that reports exactly how much he's worth at that particular moment. If these people spent a little less time on the Web site and a little more time working, they might narrow the gap a little between Bill and them.
Bill Gates is the most philanthropic person in the world, giving away more than $1 billion a year. Instead of praising his generosity, the general reaction is, "Big deal. He can afford it." Of course, he can afford it. But many of us can afford to give a similar percentage of our incomes to charity each year, but we don't. If Bill Gates' contributions would put an end to all the diseases in the world, people would say, "OK, but why does his browser have to be on my desktop?" If Ted Turner cleaned up the environment and brought about world peace, people would say, "That's nice, but the Braves have done a lot better since he hasn't been involved with the team."
Now that Oprah Winfrey made the billionaire list for the first time, people are probably going to stop liking her. Her television audience will feel distanced from her as they ask, "How can she relate to me now? She's a billionaire, and I'm only a thousand-aire." Everybody who was thrilled to get a Christmas card from her last year, upon receiving one this year will complain, "She has a billion dollars, and all she sends is a card?" Old friends will start whispering things behind her back like, "Have you noticed she's a lot snootier now than when she was just a multimillionaire?"
I like having friends, but I'm not going to rid myself of all my ambition because of billionaire-phobia. I've got a plan. I'll keep working with the same drive, but when I get to $990 Million, I'll stop. That way, I'll be rich, but people will still like me.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.