When the news broke that Los Angeles Clippers owner and creepy racist misogynist billionaire Donald Sterling would be banned from the NBA for life (perhaps resulting in him selling the team) and fined $2.5 million, a lot of people probably said, "$2.5 million? The guy's got a couple of billion dollars! Why not give him a fine that'll hurt?"
Frankly, I think any fine at all is a little strange in this case. We usually think of fines as punishment for violations of some rule or law, not as a response to someone just being a horrible human being (though there could well be some clause in the the secret NBA owner bylaws about behavior that reflects poorly on the league). The ban, on the other hand, seems perfectly appropriate, even if when he sells the team he'll net a few hundred million dollars on his original $12 million investment. But the fine—and the weird fact that he was about to get a "lifetime achievement award" from the NAACP for his contributions to the welfare of black people—remind us that although the super-rich have a fundamentally different relationship to money than the rest of us, we still treat them as though their feelings about money are similar to ours.
Here's what I mean. Back in the day (and maybe still, I'm not sure), when the United Jewish Appeal was soliciting contributions, they used to tell people, "Give till it hurts." The idea was that if your contributions hadn't actually had an effect on your life that you could feel, you could still give a little more. But for someone like Sterling, it would be almost impossible to give till it hurts, whether it's a contribution to the NAACP to get people off his back about those pesky discrimination lawsuits, or a fine from the NBA.
This reminded me of a memorial service I attended a few years ago with a few hundred other people for a billionaire who had just died. All the speakers discussed how moving and inspiring his generosity was, and he had indeed given away hundreds of millions of dollars to a variety of worthy causes. But all the encomiums to his extraordinary character as evidenced by his financial contributions had me shaking my head. He could have given away 99 percent of his fortune and still lived like a king. It wasn't as though, when he signed a $10 million check, he said to himself, "Well, no going out to dinner this month." He still had a bunch of homes, a staff to attend to his every need, and pretty much anything he wanted, even if he had parted with half his assets before he died.
To a billionaire, contributions that make people stagger with gratitude are meaningless, no different from tossing a quarter to a beggar. A billionaire who wanted to undertake a truly inspiring act of generosity would give away all but, say, $5 million of what they had. I don't remember hearing of a single case in which someone did that. And as it happens, poor people actually donate a greater proportion of their income to charity on average than rich people do.
Of course, the NAACP wasn't going to give Donald Sterling a lifetime achievement award because they were actually bowled over by his generosity and wanted his lifetime of service to inspire others, but because it's good fundraising practice. When someone gives you a bunch of money, you have to flatter them, tell them how much you admire them, give them a handsome plaque. And lots of the super-rich are narcissistic or insecure enough that when they make a large contribution they want to see their names on the side of the building, so everyone knows how wonderful they are. Likewise, the NBA isn't fining Sterling $2.5 million because that amount will make him reflect on what a jerk he is and lead to a change in his outlook on the common threads joining all of humanity, but because it sound to the rest of us like a sizeable number, so they look like they're serious about delivering a serious punishment. But Silver won't even feel it.
On the other hand, given that he is now one of the most (rightfully) hated men in America, he may have a slightly harder time finding women in their twenties who'll agree to screw him if he buys them a car. Or at least we can hope.