In his new book, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, Michael Kinsley tackles the toughest subject: What defines a life well-lived? Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1993, Kinsley converted that challenge into an opportunity to preview a future that his Baby Boom cohort is just beginning to grapple with — “Having Parkinson’s,” he notes, “is very much like growing old” — and the result is a wise and funny journey that manages to make mortality itself an energizing subject. And that, of course, does include some thinking about money. (Full disclosure: Back in the early 2000s, I spent a few very enjoyable years writing for Kinsley when he was the founding editor of Slate.)
You make short work of the “he who dies with the most toys, wins” cliché, writing: “Is there anything in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue—or even listed on realtor.com—for which you would give up five years? Of course not.” I can’t imagine who would disagree. And yet, few of us act accordingly. Why do we have such a hard time keeping material possessions in proper perspective?
That’s an excellent point. It’s all in our genes, isn’t it? I’m a Bob Wright acolyte in that regard: You can know what’s right, and still not do it. [Robert Wright’s books on evolutionary psychology and other subjects include The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God.] But you could practically go through the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog, or whatever, and calculate: If I’m willing to not own this, then I could do that.
You were editor of The New Republic and then Harper’s when you were quite young — certainly a very successful career from my point of view. So were you ever obsessed with the “toys” and the spending?
I am very cheap. I was obsessed with not acquiring things, socking money away. At Harper’s I was offered $85,000, which was a lot. But I told the board of trustees – I wanted to prove my dedication— that if they would increase the editorial budget, I would take a $25,0000 pay cut. I thought: “That’ll make them really cooperative.” It had exactly the opposite effect: “This guy must not think very highly of himself.”
[Laughter] And you ultimately went back to The New Republic. Is that attitude toward spending a result of your upbringing?
Yeah, more so than of Parkinson’s disease, certainly. My father was a doctor. We were comfortable, but not wildly rich. We lived below our means, and I inherited that habit. My dad died quite young, and my mother was a widow for a long time. Because they were so careful with money, that was never a serious problem.
You write that after the Parkinson’s diagnosis, you “succumbed to financial panic,” and starting doing speaking gigs that you’d previously turned down.
Sure. I had no idea how it was going to progress. So John Sununu and I would basically replicate Crossfire in front of, say, steel industry executives. They’d pay a ton of money. Or it seemed like a ton — others made more, I’m sure.
I had defended this sort of thing, but I’d never done it. And Jacob Weisberg invented this term — “buckraking” — that we had used in a New Republic cover story. So we were regarded as puritanical sticklers trying to ruin everybody’s fun.
I’ve always appreciated money, but there are some things you’ll do for it and some things you won’t. The ones I would do — the list got longer for a little while.
It lasted about a year. I didn’t really enjoy it, and I realized I didn’t need it. Plus I was involved in a project where I was having the time of my life — you were involved, too. Would you rather have worked on Slate or put on a show for a bunch of executives?
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Fair enough. Here’s a question I ask everyone: When you notice a penny on the sidewalk, do you stop and pick it up?
That’s an interesting variation on a joke that’s supposed to illustrate efficient-market theory. If you see a $20 bill on the street, do you pick it up? The efficient-market economist would say: “No — because it can’t be real; if it were, someone would have picked it up already.”
But would I pick up a penny? I think in the past few years I’ve passed that line. Less because I have more pennies than I need, and more because American coins are a scandal. I wrote about this once. If you compare how much value you get per ounce, our coins are ridiculous. We’re children about it. It’s fear of change.
Literally! I’ll end by coming back to the Hammacher-Schlemmer epiphany: Realizing that acquired stuff isn’t the best way to measure a life. Does that occur to everyone eventually?
When you say “eventually,” if you’re talking the last five minutes of life—
— then yes, it probably does. If you’re talking about the last five years of life, maybe not. I’m actually fascinated by the question of why billionaires continue to accumulate money. It’s completely illogical.