While the British appear hopelessly trapped in worshipping the arbitrary lineage of royalty, in the U.S., our senseless obsession is the wealthy.
Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” captures perfectly that fascination:
And he was rich–yes, richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
While Robinson dramatizes the trite argument that money doesn’t buy happiness (“And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head”), the poem also reveals that the wealthy are far less than what the public has manufactured about them—notably that wealth somehow equals intelligence and universal expertise.
A poster boy for this nonsense is Bill Gates, who has parlayed his billions into his hobbies well outside of his computing background—specifically education.
As I have noted during the heydays of Gates as education expert: Without his billions, who would have listened to Gates hold forth on education? Or anything for that matter.
Gates depends on the false conflating in the U.S. that his wealth is a fair proxy for universal expertise.
Not nearly as successful or credible as a billionaire, Donald Trump has leveraged his own narrative that he is some great business man (he isn’t) along with his self-promotion as a celebrity (the hollow sort of Paris Hilton celebrity) into the presidency, a nearly perfect, although perverse, logical consequence of the hero worshipping of the wealthy in the U.S.
In a review of Brooke Harrington’s Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent, Sam Adler-Bell argues, “Americans have insufficient antipathy toward the extraordinarily rich,” adding:
We like them too much. Despite a short-lived blossoming of post-recession anger toward the “one percent,” and the efforts of anti-plutocratic politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Americans persist in seeing extreme wealth as a virtue—a sign of integrity, intelligence, merit. Those who have it garner respect and deference, even reverence. Being wealthy signifies that you have done something good, achieved something praiseworthy. More than any previous presidential candidate, Donald Trump made his net worth a centerpiece of his campaign, the proof he was worthy of the office. His opponent, in turn, sought to portray him as not quite as wealthy as he claimed: a boastful con man, not a real billionaire. We know how well that worked.
Adler-Bell confronts how the allure of great wealth is contradicted by ample evidence that the wealthy are likely ill-suited to be political leaders; their wealth, in fact, should be a political liability, not an advantaged.
Harrington’s book, Adler-Bell notes, “helps dispel two of the most pernicious myths underlying America’s overly tolerant attitude toward the extremely rich:first, that they deserve to be so, and second, that the rest of us might one day be extremely rich too”:
The first falls when we understand that the vast majority of these high-net-worth individuals—including our president and his children—have benefited from dynastic wealth. As legal scholar Lawrence Friedman has said, “An upper class is a class that inherits. A lower class is a class that inherits nothing.” In the next three decades, it’s estimated that between $10 and $41 trillion in private wealth will be inherited in the United States. Practically all of it will descend to a tiny fraction of the population. Eighty percent of us will inherit nothing at all.
The second myth is dispelled when we realize that, for much the same reason, the prospects that the non-rich will accumulate great or even significant wealth in their lifetimes are miniscule. This is Thomas Piketty’s central insight, made famous by his blockbuster book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. When the rate of return on capital (r) exceeds the rate of economic growth (g)—as has been the case for most of human history—wealth originating in the past inevitably grows faster than wealth stemming from work. The wealth you create from your labor (unless you’re Taylor Swift or LeBron James) simply cannot compete with wealth derived from inheritance. We’re screwed from the start.
And while these facts that contradict our fantasies about the wealthy remain important in terms of understanding Trump, his Secretary of Education appointee, Betsy DeVos, proves to be an even more powerful cautionary tale.
DeVos is the sort of ill-got wealth that we conveniently ignore in the U.S. Amway is at least a controversial business model, if not an outright scam (see here and here).
As Harrington details, the white wealth gap is not the result of hard work and some sort of white advantage of intelligence, hard work, and expertise, but the result of hoarded and inherited wealth (think Trump, again).
Wealth buys opportunities no one earned, guarantees margins that allow risk and failure, and cushions every aspect of the so-called struggles the wealthy want the public to believe they have suffered.
Devos represents not only that inequity but also how great wealth must necessarily come at the expense of others—whether by massaging the limits of a pyramid scheme (Amway) or on the backs of underpaid workers (think the Walton clan and Walmart).
Adler-Bell, then, offers a profound warning that instead of assuming the best about the wealthy, we are likely much closer to the truth to assume the worst.
Part of that transition, I believe, must be to stop prefacing criticisms of our uber-wealthy ruling class with “I am sure s/he has good intentions” because, first, good intentions are never enough, and, second, it is more likely the wealthy are being self-serving than seeking to do good by others.
The key to doubting good intentions comes back to how often the wealthy perpetuate and depend on the belief that wealth equals expertise, universal expertise.
If you have genuinely good intentions, you seek out experts to address problems that others do not have the capital to address.
To announce yourself both wealthy and the One Who Can Get This Done (despite having no background in This) is megalomania, not good intentions.
It is also naive, if not delusional, and deeply offensive to those who have worked to gain the expertise needed.
So as with gates, we must ask who would listen to DeVos—or nominate her for a cabinet position—if not for her enormous and ill-gained wealth?
We are currently confronted with an entire administration about whom we can ask the same.
If the U.S. had an expert class committed to generating great wealth, equitably distributed to all who participated in that endeavor, these are the sorts of people in whom we should place our trust, the sorts of people we should ask to sacrifice their time as our political leaders.
Instead we have the wealthy-as-royalty—wealth as an accident of lineage and power bought, not earned.
And unlike Richard Cory, these bastards are happy, laughing all the way to the bank at our great expense.
5 thoughts on “Misreading Wealth as Intelligence and Universal Expertise”
Money buys power, and Lord Acton (1834 – 1902) explained what that kind of power causes in the few that have it.
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
The more money one has, the more power they can buy and the more corrupt they become.
As ever, thank you for a highly instructive article.
Could this be the result of our Puritan heritage (a seminal element of U.S. culture)? (e.g. Max Weber, 1930. )
Oh, I love this language! You said concisely and eloquently what I have been thinking about these corporate reformers, “Gates depends on the false conflating in the U.S. that his wealth is a fair proxy for universal expertise.” Bravo!