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Who wants to be a millionaire?

Does all the millionaire mania signal a harmless obsession, or does it signify a sour investment in America's prevailing value system? Patrick McCormick wants to use a lifeline and call Jesus for some help.

Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. --Jesus (Luke 18:22)

Is that your final answer? --Regis Philbin

NOW HERE'S A QUESTION THAT'S PROBABLY TO? easy even for the earliest rounds of America s hottest TV quiz show: Who wants to be a millionaire? Nearly everybody, it would seem. Everytime ABC takes new applications for the "hot seat" across from Regis, 2 million potential contestants reach for their phones.

And who wants to see a millionaire (or the birth of one of these extraordinary creatures)? Luckily for ABC and Regis Philbin, absolutely everybody. Within a year this show has rescued the fortunes of the once-faltering Disney-owned network and made Regis a demigod and fashion icon. (So who needs Kathie Lee?) During one week at the beginning of the year, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ranked first, second, and third in the Nielsen ratings. And even with prime time flooded with Millionaire clones like Greed, Twenty-One, and Winning Lines--not to mention the ill-fated Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?--Regis and his show continue to reign supreme.

The appeal of the show (which has variations playing to audiences in more than 70 countries) is fairly obvious. Even in a world where a million bucks doesn't go as far as it did when Michael Anthony (of the '50s TV show The Millionaire) was handing it out to perfect strangers, it's still pretty exciting to watch somebody reach for--and occasionally get--that golden ring. Part lotto, part gladiator sport, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is more like a high-stakes poker game than a quiz show like Jeopardy or The $64,000 Question. Millions of us love watching the contestants sweat it out as Regis the dapper dealer asks if that's their final wager. Ooh, the thrill of it!

Or maybe not.

As Woody Allen and Tracy Ullman discover in Allen's latest film, Small Time Crooks, becoming a millionaire may not be all it's cracked up to be. In a recent piece in the e-zine Wired, Brad Wieners reports that "the digital gold rush and $10 trillion worth of inheritance being doled out to baby boomers are conspiring to make thousands of formerly modest Americans stinking rich," and for a number of these "lucky" folks the American Dream has become something of a nightmare.

As Laura Fraser writes in "The Experience of Being Suddenly Rich," (The Standard, November 1999) "particularly for young people who become overnight millionaires, big money brings its own share of problems: Friends and siblings are resentful; you're bombarded with proposals and requests from people you don't know; you can become paranoid (does she love me for my charm or my millions?) or even suffer a full-out existential crisis--if you don't have to work, where is the meaning in life?"

Fortunately for the nouveaux riches, San Francisco-area psychologists Stephen Goldbart and Joan DiFuria of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute have come up with a diagnosis and a therapy. According to Goldbart and DiFuria "sudden wealth syndrome" describes a set of symptoms common to folks who have struck it rich with dot.coms or a sudden inheritance. "These are people whose concerns about money become painful ruminations that ruin their daily lives, people whose feelings of confusion and guilt lead to self-destructive behaviors, people whose families are ripped apart and whose lives over time become devastated as a result of SWS."

FOR MANY OF US, OF COURSE, REPORTS OF A DISABLING "SUDDEN health syndrome" were hardly news. For years we've read about the unexpected woes of lottery winners; we've been entertained by tabloid tales of the misadventures and spiraling decline of the newly (and quickly, formerly) rich. Indeed, with all the stories about the rise and fall of yesterday's mega-rich athletes and celebrities, it doesn't take an expert to figure out that coming into a lot of money can have pitfalls as well as pleasures.

But in Thomas Stanley and William Danko's hugely popular The Millionaire Next Door (Pocketbooks, 1998) and Stanley's own The Millionaire Mind (Andrews McMeel, 2000), we get a very different picture of America's many millionaires. These books, which are largely hymns to the Protestant work ethic and Yankee frugality, offer the promise that anyone who is willing to work very hard and budget very tightly can, over the long haul, get and stay rich.

According to Stanley and Danko, the average millionaire is a hardworking white male in his mid-50s, married for more than 30 years to the same stay-at-home wife and mother of two. A college grad with an unimpressive GPA of 2.92, Joe Millionaire owns and operates his own business, makes about $130,000 a year, and saves anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of his pretax income.

If asked, this millionaire man attributes his financial success not to intelligence but to honesty, self-discipline, hard work, the ability to get along with people, and a supportive spouse. But the real key to his wealth, Stanley and Danko argue, is that he's a cheap date. He and his spouse budget with a coupon-cutting tightness that makes every nickel count--and live so far below their means that neighbors often don't know the guy down the street driving a pickup truck to his dry cleaners each day could easily afford a small fleet of BMWs.

IN MANY WAYS THESE BOOKS READ LIKE updated versions of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Franklin's own Poor Richard's Almanac. More aptly titled "How to Get Rich the Hard Way," or "Chicken Soup for the Greedy Soul," they offer financial advice and inspiration to the money-lorn, telling stories of ordinary folks who still "make money the old-fashioned way." It's clear that Stanley and Danko see their modern-day millionaires as virtuous working stiffs who have it all over the flashy celebrities or CEOs living far beyond their means.

Still, even if Stanley and Danko's average millionaire is a virtuous, hardworking Joe and the moral superior of the irresponsible and undisciplined nouveaux riche stuck in the spend-cycle--and even if making money the slow and steady way brings fewer problems than hitting the lottery--does that mean that we should all want to be millionaires?

Not so long ago greed and envy were listed among the Seven Deadly Sins. And even though Richard Nixon once argued that "greed is good" because it fuels the engines of our capitalist economy, there is something unsettling about our society's endless appetite for wealth--and about the attention (positive and negative) we give to those who have lots of it. And there is something even more unsettling about the inattention we show to those who don't have any of it.

Indeed, for all their claims that the average millionaire is very much like the guy next door, Stanley and Danko knew that their book would make them millionaires-and Philbin knew his show would be a hit--because we treat the rich as if they are somehow better than the rest of us. They knew we would rush out to buy The Millionaire Next Door and The Millionaire Mind if we believed that by reading it we could become rich ourselves. How many of us would have grabbed a book promising to make us more compassionate, generous, or loving--or would tune into a show called Who Wants to Be a Saint?

In Luke 18:24-25 Jesus notes "how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

That is a particularly hard saying in a country that is among the richest nations in the world, and in a land where the gap between the rich and poor is greater than in any other industrial nation.

And it is a hard saying in a place where "the American Dream" has always been about achieving wealth--where Alexis de Tocqueville once commented on Americans' "inordinate love of material gratification" and where the answer to "Who wants to be a millionaire?" seems like a no-brainer. But it is still a saying we need to wrestle with, at least during the commercial break.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:commentary on greed and wealth in America
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:Outward signs.

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