Why do we listen to wealthy people with rapt attention, especially the “self-made” variety of the rich when they’re barstool-pontificating about public economic policy? After all, we rightfully roll our eyes when a B-list actor is given air time to blather: When was the last time you listened to Gary Busey’s or Stephen Baldwin’s armchair policy musings?
Part of the answer may be our strange but growing distrust of experts. But in this particular case, I think, the answer lies well within the predictable confines of our human nature. Even the smartest among us – professors, physicists, poets, and yes, sometimes politicians – must have daydreamed about being well-heeled at some point in our lives, as have the “ordinary people” who form the very backbone of our society: middle managers, plumbers, teachers.
Because most of us have wanted at some level, and at some time, to be wealthy (it’s okay to admit it), but have never achieved this despite our other personal and professional successes, it is quite natural for us to conclude that it takes a special intellectual ability not available to us mere mortals. Because the wealthy have achieved what is denied to most of us, we naturally believe that their business or entrepreneurial insights can be translated into other important areas of public endeavor – namely the fashioning public policy.
This is an enormous mistake based on a powerful myth.
The myth is the archetype of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, who through passion, initiative, verve, and with that undefined spark of persevering individualism, makes it to the top. There are no shortages of these examples within the pantheon of American Horatio Alger-like success stories. Most of them, perhaps not too surprisingly, are bullshit. The far more realistic example of America’s self-made success story is Saul Bellow’s Augie March, who bumbles his way through life to reach his financial reward by way of war and a wealthy benefactor.
Business success and wealth are, like many other good things in life, mostly the product of luck, including the luck of the happenstance of one’s birth. There are too many examples to fully illustrate in a short essay, but two stand out to me. One is Donald J. Trump, who he and his acolytes recursively tout as being a self-made billionaire, when he is anything but. His claim is that he started out with a “small” loan of $1 million from his father Fred and built his real estate empire on it. Yet, not only was he a trust fund kid with zero student loan debt and a lavish lifestyle, according to his own statements in public and revealed in depositions, he sucked daddy out of some $14 million, including an illegal casino loan, and later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection six times, despite relying on special government tax breaks and inside connections. Moreover, according to Fortune, had Trump simply decided to invest his money in an index fund and sit poolside, farting his day away through a silk G-string, he would be far wealthier today, even if we were to believe his inflated estimates of his personal wealth. But his loyal consiglieres line up for cable news talk show interviews, eager to share why this “businessman” is the only hope for America because he can run the government like his business (apparently that means into the ground). Yet he’s never had to answer to a corporate board, much less shareholders. Why would anyone expect that he could effectively manage limited power within the framework of a tripartite government, which naturally requires political skill in building coalitions and allocating political capital in a disciplined way, even if he weren’t an egomaniacal fool with an obvious cognitive impairment? The answer is the cult of the self-made man, the genius of business success that must transcend the banality of bureaucratic government administration because the very belief in the dogma of laissez-faire, tooth and claw capitalist efficiencies requires it.
As they say in the restaurant industry, sell the sizzle, not the steak. Enough of the American body politic bought the sizzle, only to be left hungry, unable to eat the dry, fatty gristle that is Donald J. Trump. Trump, not surprisingly, is not immune to this psychological legerdemain, appointing his son in law Jared Kushner – himself a trust fund kid who inherited a New York real estate empire – to positions of responsibility for which he his wholly unqualified (but one must consider old-fashioned nepotism as well). Adding insult to injury, Trump recently defended appointing the richest cabinet in American history despite his campaign rhetoric railing against economic elites by saying, “I want people that made a fortune.”
Enter Peter Theil, the most prominent of Silicon Valley’s Trump supporters. Not unlike Trump, a privileged upbringing got him into an Ivy League school. He played it fast and loose in Silicon Valley, lost and made fortunes as a venture capitalist, co-founded Pay-Pal, and ran his now defunct hedge fund Clarium Capital Management into the ground. He is of course still unspeakably rich, and has lots of irons in the fire, including significant philanthropic works (to his credit no fake universities or fake charities). Unlike Trump, though, who isn’t smart enough to actually have a coherent political philosophy, Thiel is a devout Libertarian, which unfortunately – and almost by definition – makes him bat shit crazy. To cite one example, in 2008 he pledged a half million dollars to the Seasteading Institute, a harebrained initiative to create floating utopian communities beyond the jurisdiction of the laws of current nation states. A Silicon Valley visionary? No, just your average knucklehead given a platform because he has a fat wallet and the aura of a guru. And he’s thin skinned, too, not unlike the Tangerine Tornado himself. Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media to the tune of $10 million because he didn’t like their style of journalism (mostly hit pieces on the celebrities and the wealthy like himself). And now he’s under investigation for it.
He’s written books and is a favorite on the lecture circuit. Money buys one instant credibility, along with the presumption of being perspicacious. Like his Silicon Valley compatriots, he thinks that the world will be saved by technology. Well, Peter, technology is eliminating more jobs that the Industrial Revolution ever could (some 47% of current occupations will likely be gone in 20 years), and this blind troth in technology coupled with Libertarian fascination with neoliberal economic dogma is the perfect recipe for disaster.
Clearly, Trump and Thiel are more different than they are alike. But both bathe in the public perception of a false formula: wealth = economic acumen.
It’s time to finally abandon the myth that wealth is a cognate of intelligence or wisdom, or that the government should be run like a business or tech startup. The purposes of governments are many, but one of them is not to make money (notwithstanding the Trump administration’s attempt to transform our Republic into a third world kleptocracy). America has more than her share of problems, but they won’t be solved by the wealthy business class whose only fealties are to profit and technology. The long strange trip of our collective flirtations with business gurus – Nelson Rockefeller, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney – were near misses. Now we’ve finally landed ourselves the 21st Century version of Howard Roark-like contrarian in the form of a bag of orange flesh with severe cognitive limitations whose understanding of socioeconomic policy pales in comparison to Busey’s.
How’s that working out for us so far?
We need to get over our love affairs with Silicon Valley idiot savants, failed real estate developers from Brooklyn, and ideologues whose views on the role of government were cemented at puberty by reading The Fountainhead. (Now, even Mark Zuckerberg is flirting with politics.)
Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris. These men and women are not sexy. They are not gurus, or quants or idiot savants. They are not rich. They are progressive Nobel laureate economists, public policy experts, and legislators. Their political views are not radical and they are not contrarians. They do not worship at the altar of political ideology. They do not promise easy answers or miracle cures. But their economic policy ideas make sense – that is, if you believe that a country’s economic success should be measured by how well most of its citizens do, and not just the wealthiest.
If we could ever divorce ourselves from the cult of wealth worship and the inerrancy of the rich, the middle class and the poor might have a fighting chance.