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A Manifesto On Success And Excess

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, September 6, 2009

There's a word we all need to live by.

It could alleviate the stress many parents feel every time their darling child's birthday comes around. It would put an end to the term "bridezilla." It might mean the cancellation of Bravo's successful "Real Housewives" television series featuring seemingly wealthy women wearing too much makeup and too-tight clothes prancing around with overpriced Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Versace whatevers.

It could have saved us from the recession.

"Enough."

That's the word.

This two-syllable word drew me to the Color of Money Book Club selection for September. It's the title of John C. Bogle's latest work, "Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life" (Wiley, $24.95).

Bogle founded Vanguard Group in 1974. In the interest of full disclosure, I own Vanguard mutual funds in my 401(k) plan and other investment portfolios. I've also had the pleasure of appearing on the stage with Bogle. He strikes me as genuinely caring about individual investors.

Bogle's book may seem a pretentious choice at a time when many people are barely able to pay their mortgages or rent or medical expenses. Or they have been unemployed for so long that they've lost hope. But "Enough" is an insightful reminder of the danger of building an economy too dependent on and dominated by the financial industry. Bogle laments that we've created a culture whose heroes are hedge-fund managers and moneychangers whose reckless decisions have damaged so many companies, families and retirement portfolios.

This isn't a book most people would pick up and read for leisure. Bogle spends a fair amount of space (but not too much for my taste) criticizing the financial world, though he acknowledges that it has brought him great wealth. "Enough" is divided into three sections: "Money," "Business" and "Life."

In the section on money, Bogle skewers his own kind -- the investment community.

"On balance, the financial system subtracts value from our society," he writes. "We have moved to a world where far too many of us seemingly no longer make anything; we're merely trading pieces of paper, swapping stocks and bonds back and forth with one another, and paying our financial croupiers a veritable fortune. In the process, we have inevitably added even more costs by creating ever more complex financial derivatives in which huge and unfathomable risks have been built into the financial system."

Amen. Hallelujah and all that jazz.

Because we no longer know what enough is, we are never satisfied. We are forever trading up or just trading -- stocks, bonds, cars, homes and even spouses -- to achieve what we think is something better. This is especially true with our investment expectations. Yes, the money handlers led us down a dark path. But we followed, demanding higher and higher double-digit returns, no matter the larger costs. Stock prices used to go up when a company announced major layoffs while continuing to pay top executives obscene amounts of money.

Bogle certainly has an agenda -- to make the case for low-cost mutual funds.

He lays out his wish for a better mutual fund industry. Bogle writes: "What I'm ultimately looking for is an industry that is focused on stewardship -- the prudent handling of other people's money solely in the interests of our investors. . . . We need a mutual fund industry with both vision and values."

My, wouldn't that be nice.

Finally, in his life section, Bogle asks: What are the things by which we should measure our lives?

"We focus too much on things and not enough on the intangibles that make the things worthwhile; too much on success (a word I've never liked) and not enough on character, without which success is meaningless."

Our confusion about enough leads us astray, Bogle writes. Bogle says he's not against success. Rather, he says, "I have come to realize that wealth is ill measured by mere dollars. Indeed, we ought to wonder whether the super-wealth we observe at the most extreme reaches of our society . . . is not more bane than blessing."

"Enough" is just enough mixture of critical analysis of our financial system and common-sense wisdom to help you become a better person and a better investor.

It's easy to be a member of our book club. We don't meet -- at least not in person. We come together for a live online discussion. Join me Sept. 25 at noon Eastern time at http://washingtonpost.com/discussions. Bogle will be available to take your questions about "Enough."

Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Enough," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

-- By mail: Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

-- By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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