Thursday, September 30, 2010

Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor

A couple earning well over US$300,000 a year, who own a house with big lawn and two nice cars should feel contented. Not necessarily, at least not in the case of a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Following Obama's proposal to let Bush's tax cut expire only on incomes above $250K, the law professor wrote and published on the internet an article explaining why he should, after paying taxes, mortgage, contribution to 401K, his children's private school education, etc., feel strapped. His article drew hate-mails from across the States. And, finally, "after a big fight with his wife", the professor deleted the article from his website. (Google "whining of the rich" or "whiny law professor" if you are interested.)

I guess the professor is not very smart. What made he think he should tell the whole world how much he and his wife are earning, how much taxes they are paying and how much they need to pay for their children's education is beyond me.

The whole episode gets me thinking though. Are there any comfortable-but-non-big-bucks options for the upper middle-class?

A few months ago a friend lent (gave?) me a book called 窮得有品味, Chinese translation of Die Kunst des stilvollen Verarmens by Alexander, Count of Schönburg-Glauchau. From the author's name, you can probably tell that his ancestors were members of one of the noble families in Germany. Now a poor journalist though, the author, by reason of family heritage, can tell an authentic Chagall from a well executed fake, the best champaign from the second best and know the top painters and sculptors. His book is about means to live like a noble in the most inexpensive way. Extremely entertaining and most inspiring, I really love the book. Strange that there is no English translation of it (I did a quick Wikicat and GoogleBook search and it appears to be the case. If I am wrong, please correct me). If you can read either German or Chinese or Japanese (there appears to be a Japanese version), I sincerely recommend it. It's so true that we don't need to live in the biggest houses, fly first class, go to the fanciest restaurants and drink Romanee Conti to live a good life.

Yesterday, a very good friend invited us to go to dinner at one of the most expensive restaurants in town to celebrate her birthday. Not that I don't want to go out with some good friends, but, what the point of spending many thousands of dollars to risk bumping into some celebrities who will spoil my mood? I don't fancy fancy restaurants and derive no satisfaction from going to places like Amber. Call me a cheapo but I prefer small restaurants with less than 20 tables that are owned by the chefs. I'm not sure whether I'm getting old or what (maybe wiser?) but I'm really tired of the rat race. Two weeks ago we sold our apartment and made a tiny profit. We have decided to move into a cheaper place. Moving into a smaller and cheaper place has multiple benefits: First, there are more options to us - my wife can choose not to work if she wants to and spend more time with Ho-Sum; I can have more time for books and music and can refuse to work with people I don't like. Second and perhaps more importantly, we do believe that we are doing our daughter a disservice if she lives too comfortable a life. It's about time she goes to school on public transport and takes care of herself. Living too ISFish won't do her any good.

富得有品味 is nothing; I prefer 窮得有品味.


Gweipo said...

well done! I read the op ed in the NY times about the rich whining about paying taxes and was quite disgusted.
A close friend of mine truly believes that paying tax is a privilege! I'm not quite as extreme as she is in the matter, but she works a lot in developing economies and sees what happens when the rich shirk their social responsibility.

W said...

Paying taxes in HK is more than a privilege - bearing in mind that the maximum rate is 15% only.

A friend's husband broke his leg in a soccer game a few years ago. Someone called the emergency service and an ambulance arrived in less than 5 minutes and took him to Queen Mary. He had a surgery and stayed in hospital for a few days. When he was discharged, he was presented a bill for HK$300, which covered everything. He then received free (not exactly free but the cost was negligible) follow up and physiotherapy. Since then he has been paying his taxes happily.

berje said...

I've found these both interesting sources regarding living a good life:

I don't understand the quest for more and more money once your needs (whatever they may be) have been met. No one on their death bed wishes they had purchased one more porsche or hermes bag. Life is about relationships, not about material goods. A birthday meal at a simple restaurant with good company is just as good as if it were held at an exclusive location.

There is too much emphasis on status in HK. Good for you for downsizing your flat. Children need our time, not better material goods.

ali said...

" Are there any comfortable-but-non-big-bucks options for the upper middle-class?"

How about living in Disco Bay and using state schools? Wouldn't that qualify as less than big bucks?

W said...

berje: thanks for the links. Will certainly take a look of them. What you say about death bed wishes is very true. Me too have only heard about stories of men and women wishing they had taken better care of their health, spent more time with children and friends, etc.

ali: I love Disco Bay but my wife gets seasick very easily. She is fine on good days but if the sea is more rocky, no no. I've been through the whole public school system. Trust me, there is 10x more pressure in a public school. At ISF I can completely ignore my daughter's dictation results and school reports. No such luxury if she is in a public school. There are some real stories about public schools that are really scary and beyond my wildest imagination. For instance, there are parents who laboriously maintain some spreadsheets, updated at weekly interval with the latest tests and dictation results so that they can tell their kids' ranks at the end of the week. That's what some public schools in HK are like.

Ali said...

The idea public schools can be so competitive and pressurized is really shocking to me. I am from the US and had no idea HK public schools are like that. What about those who cannot afford to opt out of the public system - what happens then? What about if you are a below average student and attend you local public school? Surely you can be a "C" student and attend public schools? Very interesting to me as an American. In the US we pay for private schooling because public schools aren't challenging enough!

Ali said...

HK maximum tax is 15%!?
That too is amazing to an American!

W said...

Hi Ali, true that we have extremely low direct taxes on salaries and incomes and we don't have import duty or sale tax, but (and it is a big but) we are paying enormous sums on housing which is a direct result of the government relying on land sale as a major source of income. The most beautiful part of our system is, given that land value tends to rise in the long or very long run, people are saving for their retirement as they are paying off their mortgages. Some economists call our land premium a voluntary indirect tax. Voluntary in the sense that it is up to the individuals to take part in the game by buying their own properties (usually tiny pigeon holes to start with) and start contributing to public revenue and at the same time saving for their future by paying off heavy mortgages, or to pay a premium to rent a nicer place that they cannot afford to buy. Deferred or immediate satisfaction - it's really up to us.

Public schooling is another Hong Kong only phenomenon. Some public or semi-public schools are the most sought after here. If a school is called St.XXX or has the word "Diocesan" in its name, it is likely to be an extremely popular school, which parents will kill to get their children into it. As you can imagine, the most sought after schools cannot accept all the applicants (10 applicants for 1 place is a very conservative estimation), so competition is indeed very keen. It may sound crazy to non-HKers, but we have to pay a premium to opt out.

Gweipo said...

"which parents will kill to get their children into it" is part of the story,
they other part is the suicides that happen when their children don't get into it ...

Anonymous said...


What happens if the kids don't get good grades and exam results? If they achieve mediocre results, they scramble for a place for Form 6 in order to finish high school and have a chance at university education.

Otherwise, they are out of school and looking for work (or other educational alternatives) at the age of 16.

This is supposed to change in the next year or so with the implementation of 3 years of junior secondary school and 3 years of senior secondary school and then 4 years of university.

But, basically, public education in Hong Kong is aimed at winnowing out.

Ali said...

Such a different education system from the American set-up. By no means would I say the American system is better, but I dislike the idea of public schools being accessed via an application process. It seems to be the tenant of public schools should be to accept all. In the US admittance is based only on catchment area so if you live near a good school you automatically have entry. Of course it causes pockets of expensive real estate and, therefore, causes its own equity issues. Sigh, I suppose no system is perfect. Still, I had no idea the HK school system was so competitive and I'm sure if I lived there I'd opt for private as well just to avoid the scramble. Thank you for sharing the information, it's amazing the things you can learn by surfing the web. :)
Anon - the UK system is similar in winnowing children out. It seems a shame because at that age many children have no idea what they want to do with their lives. Absent guiding parents watching out for their interests, they could easily be funneled into an inappropriate track. If the HK system changes to 3 years junior, 3 years senior, how old will the children be when they are ready to attend uni? In the US the age is 18 and I believe the same for the UK. Start school at 4/5 finish at 18. Is it the same in HK?

W said...

The overwhelming majority of the public school places are allocated in what we can central allocation, which is similar to the catchment idea. But, here in HK public schools can reserve some places for "discretionary admission". Those discretionary places are what parents are fighting for. It is of course up to the parents not to join the game and rely on central allocation. But chances are that you won't find one or two sane minds out of a hundred parents who can resist the temptation/pressure to take place in the scramble for a place in one of the more famous schools.

Batung has a useful note on his website:

chris m said...

I heartedly agree with you, and the more people that begin to see through the never ending consumer culture the better.Spending your time with your family and enjoying the many pleasures that a less hectic and stressful life will bring is priceless.And in the long run those benefits improve your spiritual well being, which in turn improves your physical health.
Of course this option is not available to all, but once we have some kind of financial security there is really no need to continue amassing material goods and wealth.Our children will hopefully be well equipped to fend for themselves in their adult lives, and as they say 'you can't take it with you'.

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