Telling It Like It Decidedly Is

Last Sunday, Washington Post contributor (and one of my go-to opinion writers) Jennifer Rubin addressed one of my long-time pet peeves. Okay, not the longest peeve, but prominent since the 2016 election: the evidently widespread, naive belief that very rich people are smarter than the rest of us.

I’ve previously quoted a stanza I love from “If I Were a Rich Man”–the one in which Tevye says that, if he were rich,  the important men in town would call on him, “posing questions that would cross a Rabbi’s eyes.” And we know he understands the way the world works, when he follows up with “And it wouldn’t matter if I answered right or wrong. When you’re rich they think you really know.”

Rubin’s essay underscores that observation.

“The idea of a self-made American billionaire is the super-sized version of all other self-made myths, and outlandish to the point of being at least mildly insulting,”, a blog about business schools, explained. “Individual achievement still deserves recognition. But these things don’t operate in a vacuum — and massive wealth is never solely attributable to the actions of a single person.”

As we have learned again and again this year, sometimes the self-appointed “genius” billionaire is simply a crank, a con man or a beneficiary of familial wealth and luck.

 Rubin proceeds to elaborate. There’s Donald Trump (currently facing four criminal indictments and civil liability for exaggerating wealth that was built on inheritance and inflating his property values), Sam Bankman-Fried  (facing a lengthy prison sentence for fraud), and of course,  Elon Musk (who has now lost more than half of Twitter’s value, and most recently “self-incinerated in a now-viral interview in which he crassly told off advertisers.”)

When outside the protective shell of sycophants and propagandistic media, these characters often reveal themselves to be petulant, deranged and shockingly out of touch with reality.

Rubin explores the historical bases of this very American enchantment with individualism, including the myth of the cowboy, and his celebration by Movement Conservatives, who–as Heather Cox Richardson has pointed out– saw that cowboy as “a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future,” .

President Barack Obama in challenging the myth (“You didn’t build that”) attempted to remind these characters that they’ve reaped the benefits of government (which builds the infrastructure, educates the workforce, ensures public confidence in medicines, etc.); for that he was demonized as somehow un-American and anti-capitalist. The episode underscored the degree to which American oligarchs and their political surrogates depend on delusion and denial.

This myth lives on, in large part because the uber-rich are adept at self-promotion, which our celebrity culture gobbles up. “Portraying themselves as rugged individuals who overcame poverty or ‘did it on their own’ remains an effective propaganda tool for the ultrawealthy,” wrote former labor secretary Robert Reich. He continued, “Billionaires say their success proves they can spend money more wisely and efficiently than the government. Well they have no problem with government spending when it comes to corporate subsidies.” And the lure that the ordinary person can achieve the same ends — if they just work harder or put forth the next clever idea — holds a certain attraction while discouraging policies that seek to equalize the playing field (e.g. a progressive tax system, public investment in education).

Rubin’s essay reminded me of my favorite Elizabeth Warren quote:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Are there people whose drive and intellect allow them to achieve more than their neighbors? Of course. But individual achievement is either limited or facilitated by the legal and economic systems within which that individual expends his or her effort. And–as Rubin’s essay also reminds us–financial status doesn’t necessarily reflect wisdom or virtue or the possession of other admirable qualities.

Some people are admirable. Some are not. One’s finances, however, are rarely an accurate indicator.


  1. Todays discussion reminds me of Henry Ford. He had many successes but was one of worst anti Jewish people on the face of the earth. Hitler and his staff had pictures of Henry on their wall during the run up to WWII. Success in one area does not make a person great. Lucky for use Edsel Ford was both smart and good and was an amazing force for good. Through his efforts (with a LOT of help) the US built bombers at a rate never seen before or since.

  2. An old saying, which I will paraphrase at best, “We must all do something to justify our existence.” The wealthy didn’t do the work that resulted in their vast amounts of wealth; neither do they do the work adding up all those numbers to seek the total of their “worth”. Looking at Trump, Lord will we ever reach an end to looking at Trump, it is quite obvious it doesn’t take brains or work to amass vast wealth, they simply pay others to do the thinking and the work and send a summation of monetary amounts, most of which sits doing nothing but making more money for them. No one benefits from the amounts of money and it definitely does not make them any smarter.

    “Some people are admirable. Some are not. One’s finances, however, are rarely an accurate indicator.”

    In these recent years of concentration on the monetary worth of interest to the media, and obviously many voters; I have seen THREE vast wealthy people state publicly that they should be paying more taxes (which would be put to good use by this government). They are Warren Buffett, President Barack Obama and Stephen King. The others must be hiding behind tax shelters and glorifying themselves viewing those many pages of huge numbers identifying their worth.

  3. Yes, people buy into the myths… all the time. “The Great Gastsby” down to the slime balls of today prove that point. And then some of those gullible fools, buy into those myths and put these spoiled idiots (and psychopaths in some cases) in positions of power as their “representative”. What could possibly go wrong.

    Lest we forget, Elon Musk is the scion son of an emerald miner. He, like Trump, will find a way to allow their hubris to screw things up. No wonder Musk has sided with the orange hairball. Like the wonderfully ironic movie and its title: “We’re Twins”.

  4. My family, in fact, all of my families, ours, my family of origin for the generations that I know about, and the families we leave in our wake, were fortunate to be Goldilocks wealthy. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

    Of course, that train of families goes back to Africa, and for 200,000 years, and I can only see a few of the cars.

    The facts that those who I have known intimately tell me that we had our share of happiness and sadness, function and dysfunction, tolerance and intolerance. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

    I blame education (which is hard work).

    Who can ask for more?

  5. Elon Musk might have axed the value of Twitter, but he did reveal, with the help of journalist Matt Taibbi, that former Twitter was a beehive for government censorship. So was Facebook, according to Zuckerberg. There was too much truth and independent media for the government (Obama). The owners willingly went along.

    As for weighing one’s success by their economic stash — hogwash; there are always many variables, and most started on third base via inheritances, ala the ego-fulfilling Trump. He might be falling off someone’s list at the rate of his lawsuits.

    Sam Brinkman-Fried was a self-made fraudster, a conman from the beginning. Started with nothing and grew through one scam after another. It was a modern-day house of cards. He even conned politicians (Biden).

    Give me the paupers any day…

  6. My favorite “you don’t have to be smart to be rich” story is about Rankin Smith when he owned the Atlanta Falcons NFL team. He wanted to paint field stripes in two directions so he could double the number of premium 50-yard line seats and collect more revenue. See, the teams would play in one direction for the first half, then in the other direction in the second half. Simple, right?

    True story. You can’t make this stuff up.

  7. Anybody can get rich in this society. All you need is a certain level of cunning and an absence of empathy. With those two qualities you can do damn near anything, get away with it, and laugh all the way to the bank..

  8. Theresa, right on.

    Trump’s father taught him to be a predator but hire armies of lawyers rather than Crusadors to have his back.

    My father taught me my ABC’s instead. Always be curious. Always be considerate. Always be careful. Always be kind. (Ok, that last one was a word that only sounded like a “C” word.)

    Who’s wealthier?

  9. Elizabeth Warren’s quoted statement puts things into a healthy perspective. In regard to the lone cowboy “making” his future, all by himself…did he make the saddle with which he rides his horse off in to the sunset? Did he breed the horse, in the first place? Hey, who made the pants he’s wearing?
    Myths abound, and some of the time they serve a valuable purpose, while at other times they do just the opposite.

  10. Bringing this closer to home, it reminds me of Braun using his wealth and claims of business success to influence Hoosiers that he is the smartest and best candidate to run the state. All he does is spout off how great he is at everything but in reality, only looks to benefit himself. Sound familiar?

  11. the majority of the rich,new rich,not inherited,is by design of how the system of who gets what. the fair credit reporting act 1984/85 achived a new standard of who can have what, and for what.
    maybe i could use X Y Z. the system is based on how much one is allowed to have. like powell who wanted a corp world of rule over a democracy,(boardroom style) the idea was to expand the corp grip over people while allowing the minions to survive under such(without revolt) a rule. fair credit was devised to lure the senseless to be intangled in debt while merely spending what the few now get in for this intrapment. the credit scam, while stagnating wages for work done,and whats is purchased thats over priced.ive watched as a blue collar worker in the big city how unions disappeared and the known,pay scale for such work. that known pay scale was a graph that a non union job paid maybe 20-30% less. but it held a valuble tool to decide the jobs worth and your life style. hense credit made the diffrence,while,dimon eyes like at chase (now chasing your kids to be in debt)and his ilk began thier full assault on the working class. buying up a whole political party for their needs. and of course the corp demos who follow,er,suit. it may seem like a easy answer,try living as such a blue collar and be under the influence of this corp/bank greed then see Americans gleefully elect a asswipe like trump for any thing above used car sales in some alley.. the commercial media has done well in selling us out for,the ad buck,remmeber the VP of CBS, telling us how much revenue CBS gathered allowing trump to distroy our democracy and furthering our working class demise for a few trinkets. but in all, wall street now rules, dimon eyes wants haley and now the kochs. if trump goes to the ballot for pres, he looses, if any other republican gets it, we have a bigger issue,Biden. Im all for the demos,since we havent any other choice. but its about time many here decided to get some T shirts and blue jeans back in Congress. edcation is fine,but it now has become a authoritarian regime of who get what,and why..

  12. Myth tells us that cowboys were the original libertarians, and that Braun, Trump and Musk are rich because they are smart. Piketty, the brilliant French economist, explodes such mythology with his books that feature extensive treatment of inherited wealth. When cunning and criminality are added to the happenstance of birthright, you have ordinary people whose outlook on life may have been poisoned by possession of such riches sans their individual efforts.

    Take Musk, for instance, who even bullies advertisers on X from his emerald-mining stance of inherited wealth, or Don the Con, who inherited a bundle from a predatory and racist father. One need not be “smart” to have wealth via probate; indeed having such troves bestowed effortlessly can, as we have seen, result in multi-divorces and bullying, among other manifestations of social disabilities. See Trump and Musk.

    We and the society we inhabit are probably better off to be born of middle class parents who encourage us to pursue education, work for our bread, and be sensitive to the wants and needs of our fellow citizens.

  13. Gerald speaks wisely:

    “We and the society we inhabit are probably better off to be born of middle class parents who encourage us to pursue education, work for our bread, and be sensitive to the wants and needs of our fellow citizens.”

    That’s the kind of background I came from, and I would not trade it for having been “born rich.” A lot of trust babies are good folks who try to use their wealth (relatively) wisely, but they are as susceptible to ignorance, selfishness, and delusions as anyone. As for the ones who aren’t good folks (named in comments above), well, we are seeing just how dangerous they can be.

    On a different tack: I have not seen anyone comment here on the role wealthy German and some US and European industrialists and their companies played in arming and enabling the Hitlerian nightmare. Many of the involved corporate names front major, wealthy corporations today (Bayer, for example). We cannot assume that American companies would not follow a far-right wing MAGAnation into the abyss.

  14. TFG actually could be a true billionaire if he’d just invested in an S & P 500 index fund. Not very smart of him, was it?

  15. Peggy > You’re right, but Trump, if you’ve noticed, doesn’t like to lose control over anything he touches, and while his money provides the environment for such control, the index fund with its long term answer to ups and downs in the stock market given his control complex would not be his cup of tea. His idea on how to get richer, inter alia, involves lying about the value of his real estate that was given him or that he subsequently acquired in order to obtain favorable rates of interest and other favorable terms of such loans lenders made based on his phony evaluations with, of course, different evaluations for the tax man. With such reduced costs of financing he was one up on his competitors in the housing and golf course businesses. Stiffing contractors also helped his bottom line, and having been party to over 4,000 lawsuits suggests that lawyers are cheaper than plumbers and electricians.

    Few litigants can match his over 4,000 lawsuits record, which is continuing today in his quest for total power over our beleaguered country in which he recently and openly stated his intention to become a dictator “on day one,” if elected. Our task? Elect someone else.

  16. Even our myths explode our myths, if you look.
    Sure, the cowboys of the movies of my youth were the lone heroes, but more often than not, we were cheering the cavalry – the US Government to the rescue. It has been asked who bred the horses, but what hasn’t been mentioned today, is who drove the American Indians off to provide those “wide open spaces” for our “heroic cowboys”.

    One other, often neglected, set of laws that skew wealth is patent law. In WWI, American pilots flew French or British planes. Why? The Wright brothers, mostly Orville, insisted that he owned the rights to anything that flew. American planes were junk, but the Europeans ignored his claim. Fortunately, the courts more recently did rule that you can’t patent a human gene.

    Ever notice how big-pharma keeps extending their patents, even when the original ideas were cooked up on the government’s dime?
    Laws skew wealth distribution in many ways.

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