The New Class Envy

By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in | Comments (0) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »

Kevin Drum says that "it's nice to know that there are a few rich people who aren't complete a--holes, but it seems safe to say that the majority fall pretty safely into this category."

What brings about this severely tetchy writing? The following passage from this story:

The new tycoons describe a history that gives them a heroic role. The American economy, they acknowledge, did grow more rapidly on average in the decades immediately after World War II than it is growing today. Incomes rose faster than inflation for most Americans and the spread between rich and poor was much less. But the United States was far and away the dominant economy, and government played a strong supporting role. In such a world, the new tycoons argue, business leaders needed only to be good managers.

    ....That changed with the arrival of "the technological age," in [Lew] Frankfort's view. Innovation became a requirement, in addition to good management skills -- and innovation has played a role in Coach's marketing success. "To be successful," Mr. Frankfort said, "you now needed vision, lateral thinking, courage and an ability to see things, not the way they were but how they might be."

Drum responds by saying that when this kind of talk "comes from some guy who thinks he practically risked life and limb by climbing to the top of the corporate ladder and then engineering a couple of big mergers, it almost makes me want to retch. These guys wouldn't know risk if it hit them in the kneecaps with a two-by-four."

Hmmm. Is that all the story says? Let's see what it tells us about former Citigroup chairman Sanford Weill.

Read on . . .

. . . A son of immigrants from Poland, raised in Brooklyn, a so-so college student, he landed on Wall Street in a low-level job in the 1950s. Harnessing entrepreneurial energy, deftness as a deal maker and an appetite for risk [emphasis mine], with a rising stock market pulling him along, he built a financial empire that, in his view, successfully broke through the stultifying constraints that flowed from the New Deal. They were constraints not just on what business could or could not do, but on every high earner's take-home pay.

This doesn't exactly constitute "risking life and limb," of course, but it does and should cause us to feel a great degree of admiration. After all, we have a story about a guy who practically did pull himself up from his bootstraps and make a huge financial success out of himself.

Doesn't that kind of achievement merit at least some respect? I thought that part and parcel of the American Dream was being able to achieve prosperity. And yes, this achievement does require a great deal of vision, innovation and even heroism. That the life of people like Sanford Weill can be summed up with statements like "He Engineered A Couple Of Big Mergers" is bizarre beyond belief. Conclusory much?

To be sure, there is a great deal of good luck involved in making it big in America. And I wouldn't be surprised if the tycoons interviewed and profiled in this story knew that, said that and just had their comments lost in the flood of references to "The Gilded Age" that were used to define and frame the story. But "chance favors the prepared mind" and as a certain American President once said, "the harder I work, the luckier I get." (Others have made similar comments.) I have no problem with people pointing out that the rich benefited from their great good fortune of having been born in the United States and having been able to thrive in an environment that is generally quite favorable indeed to the entrepreneur. But that doesn't mean there wasn't personal innovation and initiative at play in helping these tycoons make their fortunes and their roles in the economy were and are a great deal more consequential than "They Engineered A Couple Of Big Mergers."

Of course, I really didn't need to write much of the above. You can get the short version in this comment to Drum's post. It's well put.

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