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,” BSchools.org, 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.