Private finances should be private
Private finances should be private Reuters

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers makes $25 million per year; film actor Robert Downey will reportedly earn $50 million for his next Iron Man movie; Major league slugger Albert Pujols signed a 10-year contract valued at $240 million to play baseball for the California Angels; and John H. Hammergren, the chief executive of pharmaceutical giant McKesson Corp., took home $131 million last year ($6.3 million in salary and bonus; plus $112 million from the exercise of vested stock options.)

I don't personally know Messrs. Bryant, Downey, Pujols or Hammergren -- and I never realistically expect to ever meet any of them in my lifetime -- yet I know how much money they make, as well as many other details of their personal lives.

In fact, I know, or can easily find out such details, of virtually any celebrity, athlete, business executive or politician anywhere in the world.

Given the omnipotent presence of the Internet, these personal tidbits data are easily available at my fingertips – privacy be damned.

I have never understood the public's obsession with the wealth and personal lifestyles of celebrities and the super-affluent.

Magazines, even serious publications, frequently print articles with headlines like “Highest-Paid Celebrities” or “Most Overpaid Athletes” or “Wealthiest Businessmen.”

These type of revelations are phenomenally popular because the greater public seems to have an unquenchable thirst for such initimate details – as much as they love stories about crime, murder and sex scandals.

I, for one, cannot understand this obsession about the finances and prosperity of total strangers.

Whenever a new film comes out, what is one of the first things we hear about? How much the lead actors are getting paid, and what the first weekend gross box office netted. When James Cameron's blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar was initially released in 2009, the media panted about the film making more than $1 billion. The underlying value and quality of the film seemed almost irrelevant.

The interest in athletes' incomes has almost completely subsumed discussions about their skills, abilities and statistics. I have a friend, a sports fanatic, who seems to be more interested in how much money an athlete makes, than how they perform on the field. He has said things like: “Do you know how much Barry Bonds makes per at-bat?,” or “Peyton Manning makes more than $1 million per game,” or “Kevin Garnett makes more in one month than I will in my lifetime.”

He is very angry over the huge salaries handed over to pro athletes – so I offered him a simple series of solutions: stop watching games on TV; stop going to ballparks and arenas; stop buying the products that athletes endorse; and boycott the companies that financially support sports franchises.

Will he do any of this? Of course not, he enjoys following sports too much.

What so many people fail to understand is athletes and entertainers amass enormous incomes because we live in a free-market, capitalist system that celebrates fun and games – it's all a matter of supply-and-demand.

Hollywood studio bosses will pay Tom Cruise $20 million-plus per picture, not because they “like” him, or because they think he's providing a “valuable” service for mankind. Quite the contrary, Cruise rakes in the cash because he's a global superstar who is guaranteed to attract tens of millions of moviegoers, thereby funneling huge funds back into the studio.

Indeed, if a Cruise film grosses half-a-billion dollars worldwide, his salary is quite a bargain.

I can kind of understand why the public would want to know the salaries of elected politicians since we, the taxpayer, directly pay their official wages. But even this argument is rather weak given that, for most of us, our taxes are taken out of our weekly paychecks and we have no say in how the government spends this money.

Thus, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, will receive the same pay this year, regardless of how much I paid in state taxes.

Moreover, many politicians are independently wealthy lawyers or businessmen, anyway – the salaries they earn in office is often a pittance compared to their real wealth.

Similarly, the wages of top corporate executives are far beyond the control of small shareholders, many of whom might express an impotent outrage over such salaries.

What I am trying to say is that the salaries of prominent people should not be publicized – it serves no good purpose from my vantage point. For one thing, the public dissemination of income represents an invasion of privacy; secondly, given the massive amounts of money celebrities earn, such knowledge only angers and depresses us ordinary folk.

The flip-side of this, of course, occurs when some wealthy celebrity loses all their money and files for bankruptcy – like Terrell Owens, Mike Tyson or Jose Canseco. In these cases, much of the public expresses tremendous glee and satisfaction, which I also find ugly and reprehensible.

Of course, this interest in celebrities' finances is not new. More than 80 years ago, the U.S. public learned that New York Yankee slugger Babe Ruth earned $80,000 – more than the president of the U.S. – and an unimaginable salary for a public crushed by the Depression and widespread unemployment. When asked by the press if he deserved more pay than the president, the Bambino replied in the affirmative, since he had a “better year” than Herbert Hoover (the Babe was probably right).

On a personal basis, I am always surprised and appalled when people I meet or know reveal their income, their rents, their mortgages, even how much debt they have accumulated. I regard all this as 'dirty laundry' that shouldn't be aired in public.

I have never told anyone how much I make, nor revealed my bank balance or the size of my credit card debt. Frankly, it's personal and should be irrelevant – except, of course, to close family members, significant others (and the nice lady who does my taxes every year).

Of course, I realize I am fighting a losing battle. People are greatly interested in money (how much they have, how much they don’t have, and, most importantly, how much other people have or lack). But I think it’s a pointless and distasteful obsession that does nothing but degrade our lives.