the rich just ain’t what they used to be

Remember Robin Leach, the host of the television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous who charmed us with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”? Well, two decades later, it seems we’re all still hungover from the uber-affluent-extravaganza buzz we collectively endured. Celebrity gossip. The Fortune 500. Beltway politics. Who can sort through such porous distinctions anymore?

So is it really surprising that Donald Trump is deciding to run for President? He already has a tower, a board (bored) game, and a TV show. Is he supposed to just ride off into the sunset on his yacht, lounge on the beach of his own private island paradise, telling his martini cocktails they’re fired, never to be heard from again?

If only.

The uber-wealthy. Seems the more they get, the more they get in everyone’s face.

It’s tempting to reason that it has always been like this. “We seem to be made to suffer,” fatalist philosopher C-3PO reasons. “It’s our lot in life.”

But the reality is that today’s insane-ly rich have become even more brash than their power-wielding forbearers of yesteryear. (If that’s even possible. Which, unfortunately, it seems to be.) Commie-red rose-colored glasses aside, the rich just ain’t what they used to be. And an intriguing new study by (former Barnard College history professor) Thaddeus Russell, A Renegade History of the United States, makes that abundantly clear. 

Take, for example, Andrew Carnegie. Over one hundred years ago, during the appropriately-named Gilded Age, the “chief of the global steel industry … made himself into one of the wealthiest men in the world. And yet,” notes Russell, “he worked nearly every day of the year, normally beginning before first light and finishing near midnight, and rarely indulged in luxury. By the end of his life, he had given away almost all of his fortune to charities.”

Carnegie even wrote his own manifesto, “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he supported a hefty estate tax, suggesting that, to redeem “the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life” it was necessary to “have enormous sums paid over to the state from their fortunes.”

Which today sounds crazy, to the uber-wealthy. And crazy logical to everyone else. 

Perhaps today’s insanely affluent haven’t yet read Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth”? Perhaps they don’t subscribe to its tenets? Perhaps they can’t find a copy because the local library lost its funding?

But wait! (Gameshow voice.) There’s more!

“The only man wealthier than Carnegie was John D. Rockefeller,” continues Russell. “Rockefeller never smoked, drank, or traveled for pleasure. He neither attended nor gave parties. He taught his four children to abstain from candy, forced them to share a single bicycle, and dressed them in hand-me-downs. His son, John Jr., was the youngest and the only boy, and so until the age of eight he wore only dresses.”

Which, admittedly, all seems a bit extreme. Why accumulate vast sums of wealth and not partake in the leisure it affords?

“Curious that men with such great wealth refused to enjoy it,” ponders Russell, “the German social scientist Max Weber concluded that they became capitalists not so that they could enrich themselves, but because they felt a responsibility to manage society – to be superpatriarchs. To them, this was a religious “calling” that, if fulfilled, would grant them redemption and grace.”

It’s almost as if their capital accumulations (through whatever oppressive business methods they could afford – no pun intended) and their charitable giving were in a fight for their soul. (But we’ll save any further armchair psychology for another day.)

Bottom line (no pun intended – again), they felt that “rich men should be self-sacrificing patriarchs,” Russell notes, summing up with what could have been the mantra of the Gilded Age.

At least there was a sense of responsibility that came with their wealth accumulation. Even if theirs was a highly hierarchically unequal society.

Today, though, it seems we’re not even fortunate enough to have uber-affluent, power-wielding, “self-sacrificing patriarchs.” We’re stuck with insane-ly wealthy, power-tripping, brand-extensions of power-wielding men (it’s still mostly men) who can’t get enough of themselves, and are delusional enough to believe the rest of us crave their overbearing presence, too.

Seems there’s little we can do to escape them.

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1 Comment

Filed under Accountable Wealth, Class, Fair Taxation, Lifestyle Economics, Philanthropy

One response to “the rich just ain’t what they used to be

  1. Don’t get technical with me.

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