When we talk about the ultra rich that run much of our world, we’re not really describing the one percent. It’s more like one percent of the one percent. We’re talking about the multi-billionaires, the ultra rich. Left-leaning Americans see the ultra rich as calculating money hoarders. The right sees them as clever entrepreneurs who have insight into capitalism that the average person does not. But both liberals and conservatives alike have all too often made the assumption that the people at the top of the food chain must be wildly intelligent. How else could they have rigged politics, finance, and energy markets so blatantly in their favor? Perhaps a better question to ask is, what evidence really exists to suggest that these people really are that smart?
It could be argued that in reality, many billionaires aren’t as bright as we imagine. They may just be rich. We are so quick to think of Washington’s bailout of Wall Street’s big banks, for example, as a carefully orchestrated move by America’s banking elite. We’ve heard time and time again about how Wall Street saw the 2008 financial crisis coming, and knew that it would be bailed out because of the lobby-power it wields in Washington.
What no one ever seems to ask is that if these people are smart enough to control so much of the federal government, how come they were stupid enough to tank the U.S. housing market with securitized loans in the first place? It certainly didn’t help them any. Yes, CEOs got away with giving themselves bonuses with bailout money from taxpayer dollars, but that certainly isn’t an effective long-term way to make any company a profit, especially for supposedly free-market thinkers who oppose government handouts. Doesn’t a group of people who almost single-handedly wreck the global economy have at least a chance of being just a little bit stupid?
An honest mistake
The odds were also stacked wildly in their favor. So even with the world of politics and finance set up to make America’s richest people succeed, they still managed to screw everything up. Sure, we can say that investors got greedy, but a greedy person eventually wants to make money. Does a congressional bailout package for the world’s finance titans, even a planned one, really sound like the sum of many carefully crafted moves by a group of brilliant people?
It’s not to say that there aren’t intelligent billionaires. Of course there are. In the 21st century alone, the explosion of big tech has certainly been proof that very smart individuals can build titanic new industries and reap great financial rewards. Few could argue that the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill gates, or Mark Zuckerberg are anything less than exceptionally intelligent. But let us not forget that all three of these men were products of the middle class. They were not born ultra rich.
Even the Koch Brothers—the oil, chemicals, and shipping billionaires who have bought more political influence than anyone—aren’t necessarily brilliant, or even well rounded people. Their sponsorship of the Tea Party is certainly proof of that. They too had a rich father who built a fortune that they have since expanded, and now use as a means of funding their political interests. Money coming out of Koch Industries has sponsored roughly half of Congress with the aim of lifting government regulations, particularly on the energy industry. It may seem smart, for example, to support lifting government regulations on pollution if you are trying to save money as an energy company. But in the long term, isn’t ignoring the damage caused by pollution actually a fairly unintelligent move? More obviously, if politicians need money for their campaigns, a billionaire doesn’t have to be a genius to understand that they can attach required favors to the money that they contribute.
The examples continue on, but the fundamental truth of the matter is that anyone born into billions or even hundreds of millions of dollars has a high probability of making lots of money in the future. Even an idiot in such a situation would have the ability to hire the best CEOs and financial counsel in the world to advise their monetary decisions. Of the many brilliant people hard at work in the corporate worlds of finance, lobbying, energy, real estate, shipping, and even tech, most of these individuals are not valued in the billions or even in the millions. That is a privilege reserved for a select few in those industries. Those few can employ the services of the smart, which then makes them appear smarter as a result.
Knowing how to make money does not make you brilliant, especially if you have a multitude of financial and human resources already at your disposal. The collective game of Monopoly among America’s ultra rich often incites behavior more similar to a pack of wolves than that of perceptive primates. If society truly wants to start addressing the issues that foster economic inequality, we need to start by recognizing that the ultra rich can be at least as shortsighted, erroneous, and one-dimensional in their views as anyone else. Billionaires may be impressive people, but at the end of the day, that still just makes them people. Let’s treat them that way.
To view more from this author, follow @Jvanmo on twitter.