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• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

July 06, 2012

America's Billionaires: Are They Crazy Enough?

Jon Ronson just wrote a long article for GQ for which he interviewed people at five different levels of income, starting at $10,000 and going up to B. Wayne Hughes, a self-storage magnate worth $1.9 billion.

Hughes apparently has strong political views, and has given $3.25 million to Karl Rove's American Crossroads. As is traditional with America's billionaires, he's also filled with bizarre fury toward all non-billionaire Americans:

Wayne talked to me about "derelicts on welfare" who check themselves into the hospital because they're "bored" and "want feeding," and "we're paying for all that activity." He said too much tax money is spent on "guys going to chiropractors, guys getting massages! On us! Give me a break. Guys getting Viagra!" He talked about "Los Angeles bus drivers who are on permanent stress leave because someone spat on them when they got on the bus, and now they're emotionally upside down. More than half the bus drivers are out on stress leave! Systems like that cannot work!" It seemed as if, for Wayne's philosophy to work, he needed to believe that those who don't make it deserve their ill fortune.

Later, I hunt for data that back up Wayne's feckless-bus-driver nightmare scenario. I can't find any. I do find something else, though—plenty of statistics showing that a guy with Wayne's level of wealth has never had it so good in America. And yet of all the people I interview, Wayne is the only one who seems angry about the politics of his situation. Frantz, Rebecca, Dennis—those at the bottom looking up showed no animosity for the rich at all.

These guys are totally sincere, which makes it even more terrifying. Recently Bush speechwriter David Frum explained:

When contemplating the ruthless brilliance of this system, it’s tempting to fall back on the theory that the GOP is masterminded by a cadre of sinister billionaires, deftly manipulating the political process for their own benefit. ...Yet for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that most propaganda like Fox isn't aimed at outsiders, or even the Republican base. In a very real sense it's generated by Rupert Murdoch & co. because they have a deep need to be told that they're wonderful non-stop 24 hours a day.

The psychology of this is straightforward and obvious: the Prime Directive of everyone's psyche is to believe they're morally good. (As Hughes says in the GQ article, "I've lived my whole life doing what I thought was right.") But there's no rational way for any human being in history to believe it's morally justified for them to have as much money and power as Hughes, Murdoch, etc. So people at the top must become crazy in this particular way. As my grandfather, a historian who focused on the Spanish conquest of the Western Hemisphere, always said:

The hostility of those who have power toward those who can be called inferior because they are different – because they are others, the strangers – has been a historical constant. Indeed, at times it seems to be the dominant theme in human history.

ONLY IN AMERICA: One weird thing about the GQ article is that of the five people Ronson talks to, three are in the richest 0.1%.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at July 6, 2012 06:26 PM

Your Grandfather was a smart man, Jonathan, as are you. The funny thing (or not so funny) about the rich is they truly believe that they are wealthy because they deserve it and those who are not deserve what they have through some kind of divine plan from heaven. By the way I enjoyed the way you nailed David “It’s Always Your Fault” Brooks.

Posted by: Robert Payne at July 7, 2012 12:46 AM

"the Prime Directive of everyone's psyche is to believe they're morally good"

Unless you are a psycho, in which case 'morally good' isn't even in the equation. And I bet a lot of them are. They just do what makes sense.

Posted by: abb1 at July 7, 2012 05:46 AM

The prime directive of everyone's psyche is to believe in they're own behavior. That is to say that we are exceptionally good at rationalizing and making sense of our own behavior. If we want to believe we are moral, then that comes to the focus of the prime directive's commentary.

Posted by: Justin at July 7, 2012 06:30 AM

The Three Laws of Meat Robotics

with a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov for the title

We, like all our fellow animals, are in a struggle for survival - we will inevitably fail on an individual level, but evolution has engineered us to keep the species going. Hence, we have very strong built-in drives for the Three F's - feeding, fighting/fleeing, and reproduction.

1) The Energy Economy - food is generally scarce - eat and store it when you can, and take it easy at other times (conservation of energy, in a physiological rather than purely physical sense).

2) Stayin' Alive - do unto others before they do unto you, or run and hide if you can't.

3) Be fruitful and multiply.

The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness
Douglas J. Lisle, Alan Goldhamer, 2006

Amazon reader M. Miller says In nature we lived in a condition of scarcity; hence, it was to our advantage to seek out calorically-dense foods and eat as much as we could find. For every day of feast there would likely be many days of famine. This otherwise healthy instict is sabatoged by the modern environment of plenty. Now we merely feast -- all the time! This key insight -- that our biology is ill-equipped to deal with the plentifulness of modern life -- can be applied to other areas of life, too. The book is both scientific and historical, and as a whole very compelling. Every person who cares about making rational decisions with regard to eating and living should read it. This book explains what many other books about diet and health leave unsaid. It filled a lot of gaps in my understanding of healthful living.

One observation: some reviewers have indicated that this book advocates moderation. That is false. Indeed, a whole chapter is dedicated to exploring how the myth of "all things in moderation" is dangerous in the modern world. This book is about thinking before acting and about rationally understanding the motives of our actions so that we may make better decisions.

Posted by: mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at July 7, 2012 08:17 AM

Indeed, at times it seems to be the dominant theme in human history.

If you look at history solely through the eyes of the top 0.1 percent, yes. With all respect to your grandfather, because that's been the normal approach to history, it might look different if you take a different perspective.

Posted by: Duncan at July 7, 2012 11:06 AM

And, what a surprise, the author is himself a member of the 1% club, with income from $250K-$500K annually.

Posted by: Chris at July 7, 2012 06:28 PM

At the risk of being completely redundant, I believe a man named Karl Marx wrote extensively on this very subject. His buddy Frederick Engels mentioned a few lines on the subject also, IMHO.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 7, 2012 09:53 PM

Great piece, and great point.

2 comments, in re "3 people are in the top 0.1%." One is that you mean 2. The author is in the top 1%. Even that would vary depending on the figures you use, the year, and his income, which varies by 100%. FWIW, the $250 HH income he uses as a tagline is often reckoned to be the top 3%.

The second is that, to be fair, his whole article is built on a logorithmic scale: each person makes roughly 5 times more than the person before, starting at the working poor bottom of $10k a year. I think he choose that for simple and defensible reasons, and that it was actually kind of inspired. He wanted there to be huge obvious gaps between people's experience that would stand out clearly at the eye level of journalism. He wanted to make it from the lowest end to the highest end in 5 interviews. And, lastly but not leastly, log scales, multiples and percentages are generally supposed to be nearest to the way we intuitively compare ourselves when it comes to income: does he have twice as much as me or half or a quarter as much? Not where does he fall on the income distribution scale and where do I fall. Ir'a precisely because the income distribution scale is so skewed and hard to get an intuitive grasp of that it isn't the basis of immediate intuitions for most of us non social science professionals.

In short, this isn't sociology, this is journalism, and he's trying for a panorama of subjective experience, not a map of social reality. For that purpose, I think he structured it kind of brill. You certainly wouldn't want this to be the only thing you read on the subject. But for its niche, I thought it was pretty neat. Perhaps sociological tourism would be the right term. I certainly enjoyed the trip.

Posted by: Michael Pollak at July 8, 2012 04:43 AM

How embarrassing. Strike my first paragraph. I wrote it when I was half way through the article and thought the author was the middle guy.

Damn FB where you can delete. Dulled my self-preservatory reflexes.

Posted by: Michael Pollak at July 8, 2012 04:51 AM

Now that I've read it all, I agree with you. Even on an entertainment scale, the first half is much more interesting than the second. The 5x scale doesn't finally work.

Well hopefully the huge embarrassment I feel will teach me never to comment again on a real blog until I've finished the article. Ouch.

Posted by: Michael Pollak at July 8, 2012 05:02 AM


But seriously, if the most embarrassing thing you ever do is supply slightly incorrect information in a blog comment, you're doing better than the rest of humanity.

Posted by: Jon Schwarz at July 8, 2012 03:31 PM

Hi Jon, and everyone else.

Thanks for posting the link. It was quite an interesting article, though of necessity the treatment was superficial. I though the short interview with Nick Hanauer (who I had not previously heard of) was particularly interesting.

It is nice to know that there are rich people out there that don't have illusions about how they got their wealth, even though they are probably in the minority.

Posted by: Faheem Mitha at July 9, 2012 04:28 AM

One of the problem with great wealth is it disconnects you from the rest of humanity. You live apart from the rest of mankind. You start to think that you belong to a different group and before you know it you start to think of the rest of mankind as prey.

Posted by: peter john at July 9, 2012 11:48 AM

"you start to think of the rest of mankind as prey" - more precisely, as sheeple.


the Military Industrial Congressional Financial Corporate Media Complex - a conspiracy to use, abuse, and confuse the people; speaking metaphorically, to milk, shear, and slaughter the sheeple - except that the slaughter is literal, not metaphorical.

The reason that perpetual war is American policy is because it maximizes the power and profits of the MICFiC.

Posted by: Urban Dictionary at July 9, 2012 12:51 PM

Dennis Perrin quotes Jon Schwarz as having said approximately

There is enough intelligence and talent to not only rebuild the US infrastructure, but to reform and possibly reshape American reality.

Of course, there are massive corporate forces keeping us from having say, a 21st century rail system. But the know-how is there. Waiting. Dying on the vine.

"When you look at the space program, you see what's possible," Jon said.

Dennis Perrin concludes

True. Human ingenuity is constant. It's the political/financial context that dilutes much of it.

Henry told me how lucky I was to have grown up during that time. "We've got nothing like that," he added. Not yet, son. But the possibilities are closer than you know.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at July 9, 2012 04:42 PM

Can't keep up with all of it, but like trying... Especially how "mistah charley, ph.d" ties so much of it together.

Going to have to read: "The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness," by Douglas J. Lisle, Alan Goldhamer, 2006

Posted by: Grandpa Ken at July 10, 2012 08:08 AM

Hey, Ken. Good to see you around.

There's an hour-long video of a lecture by Lisle to the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii -

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at July 10, 2012 09:15 AM

The key to great success at anything, putting aside luck, is single-minded, intense, complete devotion to one goal. Not a bunch of goals, but one goal. (ergo, you cannot serve God and mammon)

In business, that goal is making money, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that people who spend all their time and effort thinking about how to make more money can be stupid and/or batshit crazy on other topics, especially with regard to politics, where freeloaders and lefties and labor organizers and environmentalists and such riff-raff are correctly perceived as threatening the one all-consuming goal of making money.

The ironic thing is, that intense single-mindedness necessary for commercial success often generates so much craziness and mind blindness that it creates serious risks of collective insanity and collective suicide. See Hitler et al, nuclear weapons, global warming, overpopulation, endgame capitalism, mass extinctions.

Posted by: N E at July 10, 2012 10:27 PM