September 12, 2006

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That's dancing

In today's SCMP letters page, Eric Wong writes:

Letter writer John Dainton should have kept his comments about HSBC executive Mimi Monica Wong to himself ("Ballroom follies appal", September 9). I'm not a fan of any kind of dancing, but how one chooses to spend one's wealth is strictly a matter of personal choice. Questioning Ms Wong's professional capability highlights an intolerance and bias that is becoming increasingly pervasive in our society. It's her life and her money, after all.

Besides, I doubt Ms Wong asked for media coverage. If Mr Dainton wants to blame anyone for this bad reality TV show, as he puts it, he should blame himself as much as the media. He's under no obligation to watch it.
Which is 100% true. But there's a broader truth here which no-one seems to have hit upon. Ms. Wong is perfectly entitled to spend HK$120 million on ballroom dancing lessons - as Mr. Wong points out, it's her money. But in an era where the richest in the world are falling over themselves to give it away to charity it becomes a matter of proportionality. Rich people have all sorts of follies and fancies in which they openly and not-so-openly indulge. But Ms. Wong's spending is simply disproportionate to the activity at stake. Again, as a supporter of free markets, I'm not saying there should be any interfering in her decision. But what I do question is the moral compass of a society that sees someone spending that money on dancing lessons, when the same amount given to charity could do far more good that getting the applause of 50 geriatrics at a Causeway Bay restaurant. In such an age, who's lost perspective - me or Ms. Wong?

posted by Simon on 09.12.06 at 05:59 PM in the Hong Kong category.


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What's the comparison of Mimi's indulgence? She didn't spend as much as wine connoisseurs or John Travolta on his jet and she won contests. How much did Lance Bass spend for spaceship lessons that he never used? Do you know how much money gets spent on jewels in this world?

I take it Mimi bought the best. Have you seen her legs? I don't bother to think about how much she spent because I would have to think from a perspective of her degree of wealth and I can't be bothered. If you think about the percentage of income that gets donated to charity, maybe most super richies don't measure up to more modest earners although there are HK moguls who have left everything to charity. I bet she's getting heat for being a single Chinese 61 year old who is very rich and for what she spent her money on.

posted by: Nanana on 09.12.06 at 10:52 PM [permalink]

However she decides to spend her 120 mil, it all goes back to the economy and will help countless people in immeasurable ways.

posted by: Vince A on 09.13.06 at 11:07 AM [permalink]

Simon, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on this post.

When talking about a moral compass, one has to ask what is the ultimate standard of value, attributed to that compass. Is it serving other people, or holding one's own life as the ultimate standard of value?

Dancing is of great value to Mimi Wong. It makes her life happier. The alternative is to ask Miss Wong to give up some of that happiness for the sake of people she has never met.

Free markets ultimately derive from a morality, that says each person is a sovereign individual, with their own life as the standard of value. Sacrifice as such, is inconsistent with free markets, and leads to other, crueler systems, those that force sacrifice as a way of life.

posted by: Hong Kong Capitalist on 09.13.06 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I don't begrudge her money, nor do I begrudge her right to do what she likes with it. But I don't go all the way on the libertarian path - sure her dancing lessons make her happy. The same amount could also make many people substantially happier - for example with the Mimi Wong wing of a hospital. Is 8 years of ballroom dancing really worth that much? That's what my problem is - the value she placed on the lessons and the opportunity cost of what that money could achieve. And yes, there are many other examples of such conspicuous consumption.

posted by: Simon on 09.13.06 at 05:56 PM [permalink]

How she spends her money is up to her.

But almost everyone says that her spending so much on dance lessons is foolish.

Then the next question usually asked is, how competent is she to make decisions in an senior managment role, let alone in a bank!

posted by: Joel on 09.13.06 at 08:47 PM [permalink]

With due respect to Hong Kong Capitalist, while I can't argue with Miss Wong's (or anyone else's) exercising her (his) basic freedom to do whatever she (he) whimsically pleases with her(his)own money, I would respectfully submit that a crucial flaw in capitalism is the over-emphasis of the word "self". There's nothing wrong with self-serving, but extreme self-indulgence as exemplified by conspicuous consumption with no compassion for the less fortunate (it usually follows) surely isn't something one should be proud of. If all wealthy and influential people could and would willingly follow the good examples of people like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton etc. in returning wealth or benefit to society, then, and only then, can capitalism claim to be serving societies well. The hard fact is: by far more capitalists only know how to take from society (and pass on to their next generation) and never think about giving back. Look at the U.S., where capitalism and free market are deemed sacrosanct, aren't they struggling with monopolies, oligopolies and wealth inequalities? On this issue, I would recommend people to read John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Affluent Society".

posted by: Alice on 09.14.06 at 01:31 AM [permalink]

I think if you look at the common thread here among the last three entries, it reflects a common belief today; that the individual sacrifice (at least some of) his values to those of others - especially where others see it as conspicuous consumption.

However this is letting other people select a person's values - saying that person should sacrifice their values for others. One has to remember, that Miss Wong (or her family) chose what goals to pursue, she reached those goals, and got rewarded for reaching those goals. She then decided how to spend this money. Ayn Rand answers J Gailbraith quite well. Her book The Virtue of Selfishness is a good start. She explains why (rational) selfishness is good.

posted by: Hong Kong Captialist on 09.14.06 at 09:22 AM [permalink]

We can all say that she can spend her money however she likes, as long as she isn't in a (J S Mill sense) hurting anyone else. I guess Simon's point, which seems fair, is that she is hurting other people by not spending it on the needy when she clearly has loads lying around.

I don't think this is about the fact that she's a 61-year old single woman at all. If she was a 40 year old man instead we'd think it was weird too. Regardless of the fact that she can do whatever she likes with her money, it's that it is sooooo far off from what we would do with our dough if we had that much that makes it so wacky.

I think it is because very few of us can relate to spending that much on dancing (whereas we could perhaps better understand a trip into space, or something of that ilk, or even a really amazing lover) that makes it so strange and disturbing. Capitalism does not trump communal values, and if the vast majority of people can't relate to such conspicuous consumption, they will face opprobrium, like it or not. That's human nature.

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