How Do You Tell Your Kid That He’s Rich?

The U.S. Trust Corporation has weighed in with another ad aimed at raising the self-esteem of the superrich. Earlier, Chatterbox expressed misgivings about U.S. Trust’s “Go ahead and say ‘I am rich’ one more time” ad, pointing out that its appropriation of Jesse Jackson’s “I am somebody!” and James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” seemed in questionable taste. For Chatterbox to draw attention to the next ad in the series will no doubt invite criticism that this column is fomenting class warfare. To this, Chatterbox replies: Hey, they started it!

The latest ad is headlined, “‘Daddy, Can I Have a Trust Fund?’ And Other Interesting Questions Your Children May Ask.” (Click here to see it.) As with the previous ad, the main objective is to rid the wealthy of crippling self-consciousness:

“NOT MY KIDS!” you shriek. “They’re just not like that. They grew up babysitting and mowing lawns for pocket money. Every summer they sold pizza, waited tables or slaved away in some other job. And the only free ride we gave them was the limo to their prom.”

It’s that annoying, in-it-but-not-of-it Big Chill attitude that baby boomers have clung to ever since Jerry Rubin started networking on Wall Street two decades ago. (Chatterbox assumes this series is aimed at rich, Woodstock-haunted plutocrats aged somewhere between 45 and 55.) U.S. Trust’s task is to persuade aging pseudorebels that embracing their wealth won’t undermine the ‘60s generation’s moral exceptionalism:

Forget all the moral baggage about “trust fund babies” for the moment, and approach the matter with simple logic. Trusts and transfers, made during your lifetimes, are some of the most tax-efficient instruments available to you for preserving your wealth and passing it on to your heirs. Furthermore, this is something that can be achieved without your children knowing anything about your financial affairs that might dampen their own ambitions or curb their natural potential [italics Chatterbox’s].

Chatterbox highlights this last passage because it deftly sidesteps the question raised by the ad’s headline. Do you tell your kids they’ll get a trust fund, or don’t you? This turns out to be a matter of some controversy within the coterie of people who make their living thinking about inheritance. The economic view, championed by Thomas Stanley and William Danko in The Millionaire Next Door, is that rich kids should grow up not knowing they’re rich. “Never tell children that their parents are wealthy,” they advise, arguing that if children are conned into thinking they need to work for a living they’ll develop a stronger work ethic. The 12-step view, championed by Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter to General Motors President “Engine” Charlie Wilson, in her book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, is that secrecy about wealth, like secrecy about anything else, can create “toxic shame.” Both arguments sound extremely plausible. If you’re damned if you tell the kids they’ve got a trust fund and damned if you don’t, what’s the solution? Well, raising the inheritance tax might be a good start. …