How much would you spend on your home if your net worth was estimated by Forbes a few months ago to be around $43 billion? If you were Mukesh Ambani, you would spend a couple of billion dollars on a place you’d like to call home. Sounds reasonable to me. For most people, their home is the most valuable possession, often accounting for a very significant portion of their net wealth. Mukesh Ambani is spending a very small — almost insignificant — part of this wealth in building a home.
Yet it is easy to get outraged when you consider not the relative amount but the absolute amount. That absolute amount relative to the wealth of the average Indian is obscene. I got an email which pointed to “the extravagant and vulgar display of the wealth in a very poor country, where millions go without food and shelter.” Not the most astute of observations but certainly very accurate. The adjective “vulgar” is quite appropriate.
The outrage begins with the rhetorical question “how dare Mukeshbhai build such an expensive home for himself considering that there are people who are homeless?” Then it continues on with a reference to his recent statement in his address at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York reported by rediff.
Business leaders across the world must come forward to correct the ‘imbalance’ in terms of incomes of the rich and the poor, Mukesh Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Industries said.
“We cannot have islands of prosperity in the oceans of poverty and squalor, and for businesses to win respect, they have to come with new business models that balances the world.”
Building a billion dollar home in the middle of squalor and then talking about the inadvisability of “islands of prosperity” certainly exposes one to charges of unparalleled hypocrisy. But here’s the irony: most of those who point to Mukesh’s hypocrisy are pretty hypocritical themselves. Mukesh’s hypocrisy is vulgar in the sense that it pertains to a lot of people, something that is common, banal or ordinary.
The senders of outraged emails need to ask themselves how much the value of their own homes rises out of the reach of the poor they so patronizingly speak on behalf of. To the really poor, a half a million dollar home is as remote as a billion dollar home. So if they wish to throw stones at Mukesh’s fancy house, they should do so from outside the confines of their own glass houses.
This display of hypocrisy is a specific instance of a more general tendency that I have noted about do-gooders. They want others to part with their wealth for the general good — but they themselves feel that their own above average wealth is entirely deserved and they don’t have any obligation to share their wealth. I find it especially galling when rich politicians lecture rich businessmen on the merits of simplicity, frugality and generosity.
My take on this is simple. If you got ‘em, smoke ‘em. Do what you will. If you have accumulated wealth by playing by the rules of the game, you decide what you want to do with it: give it away or build yourself a Taj Mahal.
Until the day that I have given away my wealth so that I am at the level of those on whose behalf I plead, I don’t think I can honestly point a finger at Mukesh or anybody else for doing whatever they want with what they have.