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What does it mean to live the good life?

April 22, 2021 - 1:17pm
David Surdam
Money in Wallet

            By anyone’s estimation, the recently deceased Vernon Jordan was a “mover and shaker.” A commentary on his life referred to him as, “a civil-rights leader, Washington insider, Wise Man, power broker, deal maker, rainmaker, Wall Street banker and, as an interviewer put it a few years ago in the Financial Times, ‘the most connected man in America (Peggy Noonan, “America Loses a Wise Man,” Wall Street Journal, March 6-7, 2021, A13).’” Whew!

            I am not planning to comment on Mr. Jordan’s life. I am not a big fan of Washington insiders. What I am more interested in was commentator Peggy Noonan’s anecdote. Some of Jordan’s friends related how the husband had bought a fancy imported car. The wife thought the car too flashy and sold it. Jordan asked her, “Did your husband steal the money for the car?” Jordan, of course, knew the husband was an honest and honorable man. He then advised her, “Then he earned it. Don’t be afraid, don’t worry about what people think, live your life.”

            From a business ethics standpoint, simplistic as Jordan’s point is, if a person did not steal their wealth, then they earned the “good things” in life and should be able to disburse the money any way they see fit. Some wealthy people will emulate the characters on Robin Leach’s obnoxious but popular 1980s television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Leach extolled the glamorous and exciting lives of allegedly rich folks.

            Contemporaneous with Leach’s show, two researchers, Thomas Stanley and William Danko (The Millionaire Next Door), pointed out that many people leading lives of ostentatious consumption were often broke. To mis-quote Henry Thoreau, these people were leading “lives of not-so-quiet dissipation.” Professional athletes in the NFL and NBA often end up bankrupt, despite earning millions. Most millionaires live relatively unobtrusive lives. In fact, their willingness to live “beneath their means” is the foundation of their amassing millions of dollars.

            The second part of Jordan’s statement, “don’t worry about what people think, live your life,” operates in two directions. First of all, if the husband wanted a fancy car after working hard all those years, then he should not worry about what the neighbors would think. The reverse is true, too; all too many professionals think they need to maintain a certain showy lifestyle to be accepted by their peers and potential clients. Warren Buffett, on the other hand, lives a relatively simple life, just as do the millionaires in Stanley and Danko’s study.

            I suspect Jordan’s “live your life” meant, live your life to please yourself. The cliché of whether you like to see yourself in the mirror each morning is a simplistic but useful guide to ethical behavior. Your consumption patterns reveal much of your personality and values. Years ago, one of my high school buddies claimed one had to have a fancy car in order to get dates. I always thought that a fallacious belief. Why would I want do date someone, who was mostly impressed by my car? As a teenager, I drove the family’s hand-me-down car. If a female friend chose to be seen with me in this crummy car, I knew she must really like me and not my car.

            Presuming Mr. Jordan adhered to his own advice, I suspect he was, as Noonan described, “a profound presence in many lives, and I keep thinking of the simple old phrase, ‘the pleasure of his company.’ ….He acted as if life was delicious, and if you were lucky enough to be here, you had a kind of moral responsibility to have fun. Take pleasure in your accomplishments, admit your mistakes, face problems, accept all the blows, but remember how delicious it is.” Not a bad epitaph for anyone.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

Author

David Surdam

David Surdam

David Surdam received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. His dissertation, "Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War," was supervised by Nobel-Prize Winner, Robert Fogel. Professor Surdam has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Oregon.

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