Saturday, 4 September 2010

Out of sheer envy

In the United States being well-off is a reason to be proud, in Poland if you’re well-off, you’re dodgy. In the United States to be a successful politician one has to get ahead in personal life and be resourceful (in a positive way), in Poland you can become a prime minister without having a bank account, which incidentally guarantees transparency (in developed countries). “If you succeed in running your own business and pursuing your own goals you are likely to be able to run a country effectively” – this rule doesn’t necessarily have many advocates in Poland, but let’s brush aside politics (I’ll go on at that topic later on) and get down to earth, where ordinary Poles live.

I know I’m an immature observer, but I’ve been looking at Poles’ attitude towards money and wealth for some time and came to a conclusion this attitude is probably the biggest collective oddity in my country. The Polish nation had to live through forty five years of socialist economy, in which people theoretically were meant to be equal. It goes without saying that that system had two major pathologies: blue collar workers earned as much or more as university graduates and the people were divided into equal and more equal. The system fell apart mostly for economic reasons and the shift to free-market economy was quite abrupt. Masses slid into poverty, individuals could strike it rich within weeks. Under the new system, one’s material status depended much more on achievements (which were to a considerable extent conditioned on one’s parentage, family’s material and social status and genes that determined drive, intelligence, readiness for sacrifices and hard work). Today when I see myself at the bottom of the ladder of my professional career I strongly feel my own success hinges in 80% upon my own commitment, other factors seem less important. My life is in my hands, but still many people prefer to shift responsibility for their lives into someone else’s hands. It’s generally an easy option, because you can blame someone else for your failures. I can’t blame PRL for providing its citizens with social security on a satisfactory level (actually I’m even kind of grateful to the lame Polish state of that time, because it enabled my parents who came from very poor families to study for free and break away from poverty), but I blame the socialist system for teaching people to be passive and instilling in them the “I deserve” stance towards life. But generations pass and things are slowly changing…

Ask an American how they are and they’ll tell you “great”. A Pole would treat such question as an invitation to start a big whinge, including “I earn too little” as a main grudge borne against the world. Poles are a nation of grumblers (alright, this is partly a stereotype).

When six years ago my parents decided to buy a house it was a bigger problem for them how to explain to family and friends they had managed to set aside a considerable amount of money than to how to actually finance the house. To many people, setting aside as much as an equivalent of four middle-class cars at that time was out of reach. Coming into such amount of money, not really big, must have involved moonlighting, bribery, etc.

According to a popular belief being in possession of a significant amount of money means you must have come into it an not fully legal and honest way. Maybe this stems partly from the early 1990’s when some businessmen would earn fortunes quickly and to many people it seemed if they had worked hard for years didn’t reach as much as someone else within a few months, there must have been an element of crime in it. In fact some of the fortunes were not amassed legally, some were raised legally but immorally, this has surely taken its toll on Polish society, leaving many who couldn’t benefit from capitalism disgruntled.

A simple way to have a lot of money is to (not necessarily scrimp and) save, not spend what you earn foolishly, seeking out wise and profitable investments. Some investments, such as land in good location, start-up companies can be profitable with a bit of luck and often with a considerable dose of risk. But hey, nothing ventured – nothing gained.

In Poland if you succeed people are more likely to envy you than to be happy that you’re getting ahead. Often they pretend to be happy that you’re doing well but deep down they’re green from envy. “Don’t stand out, keep a low profile” is a catch-phrase in Poland, though its importance in social life is on the wane. The worst thing in it all is that quite often seeing someone else pulling off doesn’t motivate to strive to reach a higher lever, but rather prompt to think how to pull a successful one down.

Envy holds strong in Poland. Polish tax office receive thousands of denunciations from “affable” neighbours, friends, colleagues, all pleased to inform fellow taxpayers live beyond their means. Around 50% of the denunciations are legitimate and help Polish state raise money from dishonest taxpayers, but remaining round about 50% are groundless accusations arising from envy that someone else prospers, not the senders.

In politics there also two fringes which rose from the same anti-communist movement. But some had more accomplishment before 1989 and fared better in independent Poland, some didn’t have so many merits, didn’t go down in history and feel envy. Now it’s time to make up for it and rewrite the history, if necessary, also out of sheer envy.

Times are changing, people are changing. My generation is no longer ashamed of having money, I have money, given my age surprisingly much, some put aside by my parents, some inherited after my grandfather, some earned, all not spent foolishly, but wisely invested. I’m proud I managed to amass it and make it work effectively. I heard accusations that I came to some of these money in an obscure way, since those are profits from playing the stock market. But stock market is for people, one has to know how to handle it to reap profits. Besides, my capital gains tax on stock market transactions for 2010 will probably hit four digits so I’ll be pleased to share my wealth with fellow taxpayers. May other Poles fare even better than me, their happiness will be my happiness.

1 comment:

PolishMeKnob said...

I think Nicholas Nassim Taleb would disagree with you a little. He claims that most people gain wealth through chance.