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The American Dream -- RIP

COMMENTARY Money may very well be the root of all evil, but that's usually when people either don't earn it or, for whatever reason, don't value it. I'm not sure I'd call that evil, but the results are usually tragic.

That's never been more evident than it is today, where the pursuit of the American Dream is split into two distinct camps: those who work to earn it and those who think it's owed them.

I actually think that "easy come, easy go" is far more descriptive of the fundamental behavior of people when it comes to money they didn't earn. It's such a simple and pithy statement that's remarkably manifest in human behavior.

In case you've never heard of "The Monkey's Paw," it's a story about people making wishes that are granted, although they come at a terrible price. It's the same thing when money comes too easily.

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Here are some interesting examples of the problem with "found money," how true and pervasive "easy come, easy go" really is, and the impact it can have when it becomes the norm: 

Investing in the stock market. An executive at Credit Suisse (CS) recently told me that investing in the stock market is like flying a plane. The flying is easy, it's getting the plane off the ground and safely landing it that are the hard parts. Great analogy. You've probably road a stock up, only to ride it back down again. The reason that happens is that it doesn't feel like real money and, in fact, it's not -- until you sell it. Most investors get greedy. Professionals typically don't because it's their job to make money for other people. They have discipline with respect to buying and selling. There's nothing "easy" or unreal about it.

"Jerry Maguire" super agent files for bankruptcy. That's right, legendary sports super-agent Leigh Steinberg, who inspired the movie Jerry Maguire, just filed for bankruptcy protection. Steinberg, who has represented NFL stars like Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Ben Roethlisberger, apparently owes millions. His explanation? "I just lost track while I was in rehab." Guess his creditors will be asking the bankruptcy trustee to "show me the money."

Rich, high-powered CEOs who commit fraud. The number of wealthy, powerful CEOs who risk it all against all logic and ethical principles may be relatively small, but on a percentage basis, it's a lot higher than you'd expect. Why do they do it? They forget their roots, take it all for granted and feel as if they're invincible. They act as is their wealth and power is inevitable, that they're special, that the rules don't apply to them. There's a long list of CEOs of large, public companies that now call prison home, from Enron's Jeff Skilling and WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers to Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco and John Rigas of Adelphia. And billionaire hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison over the Galleon insider trading scandal.

Most pro football and basketball players go bankrupt. According to Sports Illustrated, 60 percent of professional basketball players file for bankruptcy within five years of leaving the league. The news is even worse for pro football athletes who reportedly flirt with bankruptcy a whopping 78 percent of the time. As for pro boxers, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield blew through a combined $650 million on their way to the poor house. If that isn't "easy come, easy go," I don't know what is.

The lottery. You always hear lottery winner horror stories. I don't know whether they're true or not, but a recent study by three universities did report that found money is often treated differently than earned money. Whether it's through luck or, in some cases, a bonus payment, there's apparently a tendency to spend it on something unnecessary.

The distinction between those who earn money and those who feel it's owed them is particularly stark when you consider the Occupy Wall Street protests. One of their targets is "corporate greed." Granted, there are plenty of examples of crony capitalism, greed and fraud. But there's nothing greedy about corporations selling products, making a profit, creating jobs, paying employees, benefiting investors, and everyone in the chain paying taxes that fund entitlements, government and infrastructure. Absolutely nothing. 

What is greedy, however, is when able-bodied people who should be working spend months camped out on public property because they feel entitled to more than they have without earning it. It's panhandling, plain and simple. When America goes too far down that path, when we behave as if money grows on trees, then "easy come, easy go" may just as well become our national motto. And you can kiss the American Dream goodbye.

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