Monday, March 1, 2010

The Rich Are Different Than You And Me — Sometimes They’re Stupider

Silicon Valley is currently reeling from the loss of five people in two small-plane crashes just a few days apart. Three engineers from electric car manufacturer Tesla died when their plane apparently lost power in the fog and clipped an electrical transmission tower. A biotech lawyer and his fiancée died when their plane went down just one-eighth of a mile from their destination.

I have never — never — understood the rich's fascination for certain toys. Take golf courses — all that grass, all the water to keep it green, and all those fences to keep other people out. Take sailboats — they cost a fortune to buy and berth, and you spend more time maintaining them than actually being out on the water.

Let me make clear that I'm no populist, communist, or socialist. I'd like to be wealthy myself. I like flying first class. I like staying in hotels that overlook the Grand Canal in Venice. I like six-way adjustable leather seats.

But this fascination with small planes baffles me the most. I was in New York City the night of July 16, 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. (pictured), his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren took off in a small plane piloted by Kennedy headed for Martha's Vineyard for a wedding. They never made it. Some trivial matter delayed them, and they ended up flying at night, for which Kennedy, a licensed pilot for less than two years, was apparently both untrained and incapable.

Before I left the following morning, I thought about asking the taxi driver to take me down to Kennedy's apartment building in Tribeca to see the flowers piling up outside, but that seemed a waste of time. We went, instead, straight to Kennedy airport (irony strikes again).

When it got dark, Kennedy could have just gotten on a commercial flight to Martha’s Vineyard, or taken one the following morning. Would that have been so terrible? The Tesla engineers were flying from Palo Alto to Hawthorne, in southern California. Had they flown commercially, they would have had the choice of not one, but two airports: LAX and Long Beach. You can't tell me that, even with security lines, it takes longer to fly to southern California on a Southwest Airlines 737 than it does in a Cessna.

As for the biotech lawyer, okay, he was headed to Groveland, which is out near Yosemite National Park, far from any commercial airports. Still, I don't see the attraction of taking your life and that of your loved ones into your own hands. Wouldn’t the litany of celebrities who’ve died in small plane crashes — Jim Croce, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Cory Lidle, Paul Wellstone, Aaliyah, Payne Stewart, Otis Redding, and Will Rogers, among others — be a deterrent? Life seems to be dangerous enough as it is without coming up with new ways to tempt fate.

Or is tempting fate what made them rich in the first place?

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