Monday, December 21, 2015

Is It Okay to Hate the Rich Yet?

Serial CEO Martin Shkreli would like to be known as a master
strategist. In fairness, lying and theft really are strategies.
Last spring, self-described “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday released his second book, The Obstacle Is the Way. This attempted updating of classical Stoic philosophy annoyed me from chapter one, when Holiday appropriated robber baron John D. Rockefeller to exemplify applied Stoicism. Rockefeller used many unethical or illegal practices, including predatory pricing to submarine competitors, union-busting to keep desperate workers underpaid, and dumping sludge into rivers.

Nevertheless, Holiday praises Rockefeller’s purported Stoic qualities. In my favorite example, Holiday extols Rockefeller’s immunity to outrage: “He could not be rattled… not even by federal prosecutors (for whom he was a notoriously difficult witness to cross-examine…).” Wait, Rockefeller got prosecuted? For crimes history now considers established fact? Holiday never blinks at this. Rockefeller’s inability to get upset sounds less like Stoicism than diagnosable psychopathy.

Bill Gates
I noted this inconsistency in my review. History believes John D. Rockefeller’s foremost philosophical standpoint was John D. Rockefeller. Nevertheless, Holiday’s encomium to wealthy privilege received multiple defenders, including this gem, dated September 2015:

For all your moaning, Rockefeller was not perfect, but in the end he did more good than bad. He sure wasn't a criminal, he gave to charity by the time he was 16, and he helped medical science very concretely, you half-baked sod
I recalled this naked bullshittery last week, when two news items crossed my desk simultaneously. First, notorious “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who achieved notoriety when he jacked life-saving drug prices over five thousand percent, got arrested for playing three-card monte to conceal massive corporate losses. Then, uncovered papers reveal how Google, among Earth’s largest corporations, spread money like margarine to make European antitrust cases go away.

Separately, these stories make chilling but ultimately disconnected anecdotes. But patterns accumulate: Microsoft’s late-Nineties antitrust case mysteriously vanished when George W. Bush, Bill Gates’ largest campaign contribution recipient, became President. Many Bush Administration appointees resented having to divest lucrative Enron shares, until Enron’s numbers proved founded on lies (see Greg Palast). JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon lauded his personal virtue in avoiding the 2007 banking collapse, before regulators zapped him for multiple market violations.

The chilling circumstantial evidence becomes difficult to avoid: one cannot become exceedingly rich in America without blithe disregard for ethics, rule of law, or the value of human life.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not discussing what I consider “the ordinary rich.” I’ve known people who become rich by local standards because they provide valuable products or services: the software developer, the craft brewmaster, the restaurateur. I respect these people because their wealth derives from, and ultimately returns to, the community that built them. No, I’m discussing financial superstars who become so massive that, like literal stars, their mere presence bends light, space, and the value of a buck.

Martin Shkreli, son of immigrants, successfully flipped money to become richer at twenty, than most people who offer services or build things become throughout their lifetimes. Fine, he has valuable skills. He arguably generated capital for young businesses and striving entrepreneurs. But evidence shows he started multiple companies partly to shuffle money and create the illusion of more value than actually existed.

Marcus Aurelius
Google has flourished partly by purchasing every possible service available. They own YouTube, Boston Dynamics, Zagat, and other services you use daily. (They also own my blog platform; I’m arguably biting the hand that feeds.) But they’ve gained their highest revenues not from services they provide ordinary customers; their largest revenue engine entails packaging our usage data and reselling it to corporations. Anybody’s guess who owns your last porn search.

And yes, sometimes the exceedingly rich give to charity. John Rockefeller gave liberally, as does Bill Gates, a century later. So do I. But nobody praises me for giving from my limited store (Mark 12:44). Rockefeller and Gates became very, very rich, at least partly through theft, then returned some fraction of their proceeds to the common good. If bank robbers put change in the Salvation Army kettle, is anybody particularly impressed?

As my pseudonymous critic notes, nobody’s perfect. Even Marcus Aurelius, probably the most famous voice of classic Stoicism, needed to compartmentalize his life. His Meditations, among my favorite books, notably never mentions his military campaigns to suppress insurgency among conquered peoples, nor his defense of borders with Donald Trump-like zeal. We’re all only human.

It’s human nature to admire the wealthy, the glamorous, and the pretty. But criminals are not to be admired. And, capitalist myths notwithstanding, let’s acknowledge: it’s hard to get very, very rich in America without callously disregarding the law.

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