When $1 billion isn’t enough, and one dollar is too much.

Eduardo Saverin

Eduardo Saverin

When Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship last year, with the apparent goal of saving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazilian native had no shortage of outraged critics.

“He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one example. “The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.”

But for all the furious accusations, Saverin seems to have been on the cutting edge of a growing trend. “U.S. citizens ditch passports in record numbers” was the headline on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece reporting that more than 670 U.S. passport holders gave up their citizenship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quarter since the IRS began publishing figures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total number for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daughter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christopher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.

This got me to thinking. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger question, implicit yet unaddressed. How much money is sufficient for any single person? Does someone like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on pushing until you have all the money in the world?

As I turn over these questions, I also find myself thinking about another man—one who could not be more different from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life savings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar.

Daniel Suelo

Daniel Suelo

“Unlike the average American—wallowing in credit-card debt, clinging to a mortgage, terrified of the next downsizing at the office—he isn’t worried about the economic crisis. That’s because he figured out that the best way to stay solvent is to never be solvent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details magazine summed up Suelo’s financial non-plan.

Born into an evangelical Christian family whose beliefs he’s long since discarded, Suelo’s personal philosophy eludes easy definitions. He lives in the caves and wilderness of Utah.  He forages, dumpster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t panhandle, collect food stamps, or accept other government support—not that he sees anything wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of public libraries—borrowing books, checking email, and keeping his website and blog. “He wants to have the smallest ecological footprint and the largest possible impact at improving the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as little and give as much as possible,” his best friend told writer Mark Sundeen, whose compelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012).

As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in opposites, I marvel over the vast elasticity of our concept of need. Saverin thinks he needs billions of dollars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objective facts. They reflect values and choices.

I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equitable place. What I am suggesting is that, in the meantime, we give ourselves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our convictions (which starts with knowing what they are).

Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgunas

For me, this perspective is liberating. Early retirement, single-family homes, college educations – these accoutrements of the American Dream are increasingly hard to come by. Do we simply redouble our efforts to achieve such established socially sanctioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our repertoire of options? (Another terrific example of someone doing just that is Ken Ilgunas, a Duke graduate student who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his experience into the wonderful memoir Walden on Wheels (New Harvest, 2013)

Few of us are likely to follow Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my dental cavities with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his journey. Rather it’s his capacity to find fulfillment while lacking things that most of us reflexively assume to be essential. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I sometimes muse, perhaps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].

There are those who attack Suelo for failing to contribute to some larger social good. (One exasperated fan finally got his detractors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donating her share to Suelo.)  But to my mind, his provocative life is contribution enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of possibility. And that, to me, is priceless.

Where is Aretha when you need her?

Aretha-Franklin-9301157-5-402So you go to a spin class in your progressive neighborhood, in your progressive city, at your progressive women’s gym—one that has as its stated mission to “empower women to be strong, both physically and mentally.”

You have never been all that keen on spin class—indeed, truth be told, you’d admit to having Facebook opined that “there are two kinds of people: Those who like spin class and those who do not like spin class.” Still, you are there. You get your bike set up, and soon class begins.

You are not crazy about the music (you are someone who joined this gym in part because it plays classical music in the locker room and also for the reasons described by Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams in a piece that, curiously enough, appeared just last month). But hey, it is spin class. You aren’t here for entertainment. You’re here because you’re feeling stressed and aerobic exercise improves your mood. That is until you hear the lyrics, when your mood takes a decided nosedive.

Shake that ass for me, shake that ass for me . . .

Seriously? This is the music of choice for empowered women? You try to ignore the words. You manage . . . for a while.

If good girls get down on the floor

Tell me, how low will a bad girl go?

She’ll probably pick it up, drop it down real slow

Either that or she’s upside down on the pole . . . .

And that’s when you get off your bike, collect your things, and leave.

* * * *

My friend Lynne Marie Wanamaker—a fitness trainer and anti-violence educator—wasn’t a bit surprised by my experience. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her to weigh in:

“We live in a rape culture and even the most progressive people don’t see it. I am told all the time that certain things are not a problem or are not a problem here. (i.e, teen dating violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia–I could go on and on.) It’s a QED of denial: We are a progressive community of good people on the side of good, therefore that isn’t happening. Even if it is. I have decided to call this ‘Progressive Self Congratulatory Disorder.’”

It feels important to say that my own reaction was in no way self-consciously political—it was immediate and visceral.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am far from being a political correctness queen. My concerns lie in the realm of human experience, not in abstract theory.

I’m also a woman who, in retrospect, spent way too much of my youth thinking about what men think of me—a willing if clueless collaborator on the larger social project of turning women into objects. Messages like the ones I heard in spin class? For decades, I absorbed them without thinking. The results were not good. (A fascinating side note: Research has shown that women who see themselves as objects are less able to count their own heartbeats—a finding that further underscores how music that objectifies women is fundamentally at odds with the goal of empowering women to inhabit their own bodies, “to be strong, both physically and mentally,” in the words of my gym’s purported mission.)

Finally: You know what? I simply couldn’t care less how low a bad girl can go—I’m way more interested in hearing about how far a smart one can. In my era, there was music that was energizing and enlivening without turning women into disposable body parts—think Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads, R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha. I assume—at least I profoundly hope—it still exists today. Next time I’m in spin class, I’d really like to hear it.

* * * *

Note:  In a subsequent email exchange, a Healthworks spokeswoman wrote that instructors, who choose their own music, are expected to play “clean versions” of the songs they select and to “use good judgment in choosing music that would not be considered distasteful or offensive” and that they would follow up with the instructor who taught the class I attended. I wrote back: “With all due respect, it doesn’t seem to me that you are providing adequate guidelines here.” I did not receive a response.