Friday, March 23, 2007

Hetty Green: World's Greatest Miser

Go and read the Wikipedia entry on Hetty Green (because I don't want to reproduce it all here, and she's a very interesting character). Briefly, born in 1834 Hetty grew up to be arguably the world richest woman, by essentially being the world's greatest miser. From Wikipedia:

Green was mainly interested in business, and there are many tales (of various degrees of accuracy) about her stinginess. She never turned on the heat nor used hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out. She did not wash her hands and rode an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that she spent a night looking around her home for a lost stamp worth two cents.
And from H.G Wells in 'The Work, Wealth & Happiness of Mankind':
Her habits were miserly from the beginning, and they became more so; in her phase of maximum business energy she wore newspapers in winter to avoid buying warm underclothing, and she lived in cheap lodging houses, moving from one to another in order to evade taxation.

...She had grown up in a community which held the getting of money to be the test of a satisfactory life, and where want of money was considered more hideous than any deformity. She was ego-centred, responsive to the standards about her, and capable of great sacrifices, so far as immediate satisfactions were concerned, to the ruling ideas in her mind. In happier circumstances she might have had altogether different ruling ideas; she might have been a fanatic of faith or works; or, if money had really been a fair measure of public service, even her avarice might have become an incentive to vigorous efforts for her community. As it was, she became a morbid accumulation and an arrest of spending power. She stimulated no wholesome human activity.

She was misguided. It is the way in which she was misguided that concerns us. She was misguided by our monetary-credit system and by our reliance upon competition in getting as a test of worth. Her significance in this study of human work and wealth lies in her demonstration of the entire ineffectiveness of that money-credit system. The money-credit system should be a system for stimulating and rewarding productive energy. Here we see in the plainest way how its fluctuations can be diverted entirely to unproductive accumulation. That is the fundamental unsoundness of the money motive. We see the surplus profits of the activities of city and rail road converging upwards to this sordid, clutching old woman, who desired no progress, imagined no increase in the grace and sweetness of life, opposed any development that touched her monopolies and securities. Slowly, inevitably, her fortune grew. She was a patient, implacable creditor. Only her death arrested the growth and concentration of her property. An immortal Hetty Green would have become step, by step, and in strict accordance with the rules of the money-credit game, the owner of an economically arrested world.
Finally I present one of Aesop's' fables (and Aesop himself was a Greek slave executed over 2000 years ago):
The Miser

To make sure that his property would always remain safe and protected, a miser sold all that he had and converted it into one great lump of gold, which he hid in a hole in the ground. Since he went there continually to visit and inspect it, one of his workers became curious and suspected that his master had hidden a treasure. When the miser's back was turned, the worker went to the spot and stole the gold. Soon thereafter the miser returned, and when he found the hole empty, he wept and tore his hair. But a neighbour, who witnessed his grief, told him, "Don't fret any longer. Just take a stone and put it in the same place. Then imagine that it's your lump of gold. Since you never meant to use it, the stone will be just as good as the gold."

The value of money depends not on accumulation but in its use.