America’s rich are now under greater scrutiny than at any time since the era of muckrakers and Robber Barons. What the rich are guilty of, it seems, is making money and being rich. It is certainly true that wealth is concentrated in relatively few hands, with just one percent of the country possessing 34 per cent of the country’s wealth.
Conservatives say this concentration derives from reaping the rewards of enterprise and ingenuity, and prudently and ably husbanding the results. Leftists complain of special interests, undue influence, insider trading, self-dealing, accounting sleight-of-hand and foreign bank accounts.
I agree with everybody!
However, what interests me about America’s rich is whether we, the public, are receiving an adequate return on our investment in them. As suppliers—and now in some cases owners—of their fortunes, we are entitled to some assurance that the rich are worthy of it, and that they benefit from them. I fear we have created a culture of the undeserving rich.
“The rich are different than you and I,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Could it be that mediocrity and dullness are their most distinguishing features? After all, Bernard Madoff drove a cheap Korean SUV to his arraignment. He wore a down jacket, corduroy pants and a nondescript, “migrant worker” baseball cap.
John Ruskin, the celebrated art critic, had no interest in visiting the United States. Why would he? The country was, he lamented, without castles.
Where are America’s palaces? Where are its follies, mazes, fancies? The great homes of Newport—famously called cottages—resemble giant double-wide trailers with pillars. This playground of the great industrialists looks as if it were conceived by a tool-and-die maker with a classical education.
Our awe on seeing America’s great houses—if we feel any—comes from imagining the size of the heating bill, rather than any sense of pageantry or grandeur. Little wonder Walt Disney looked to Spain for the palace that symbolizes Disneyland.
It is true that some American financial and industrial dynasties have amassed great art collections. Treasures of European, Asian and primitive art now fill our museums, and for this we are grateful. Yet for a Gilded Age tycoon to buy a Botticelli, or his present-day counterpart a Basquiat, is hardly a triumph of the imagination. It requires as much imagination to purchase a Vuitton purse, or book a table at Le Cirque. Means, not imagination, are what is required.
Furthermore, American dynasties are impoverished not only in their art and architecture. Where, we ask, are the creative innovators and eccentrics? Where, for that matter, are the great diarists and letter writers?
Never shy of looking to England for inspiration, our rich have overlooked that quintessential trait of the English: character. Their literature is filled with treasures created by those of nobility and wealth. The Earl of Clarendon, Sir William Temple, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Lady Louisa Stuart have created works remarkable for their brilliance and refinement.
France’s privileged have produced Madame de la Fayette, the diarist Saint-Simon, the Marquis de la Fayette, Madame de Sévigny and Marcel Proust. The Austrian aristocracy produced the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (“We should remember that every buyer is also a seller.”) and his brother Paul, the greatest one-handed pianist of all time. Russia’s nobility has donated Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Turgenev and Count Tolstoy—who was also a great gardener.
America’s dynasts have produced only a handful of creative prodigies. Few names come to mind. There are the novelists Edith Wharton and Henry James, the architect Stanford White, James McNeill Whistler, Francis Parkman, the botanist Oakes Ames, poets Robert Lowell and James Merrill, futurist Buckminster Fuller—a constellation that orbits around Boston.
It might have been a good idea, in ages past, for plutocrats to import, not painting, sculptures, medieval abbeys or objects d’art (“Darling, not another Sèvres vase!”), but artistic and scientific creators.
Think of how our country was enriched by refugees from Nazism and Communism. This parade of émigrés transformed the landscape of American culture. They include Einstein, de Kooning, von Neumann, Hannah Arendt, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Rudolf Serkin, Jan Valtin (who was chased by both the Nazis and the Communists). Give us your brilliant, your inspired, your geniuses yearning to be free! Human capital doesn’t come much richer than this.
If American grandees have come up short with remarkable individuals, they have been exceptional at creating and supporting … institutions. America is unique in the multitude of universities, museums and foundations created by private individuals. People from around the world marvel that private individuals and families—voluntarily, willingly—devote their time and money to improve life around them.
Our gilt-ridden one-percent endows the chairs of professors who not only disdain their benefactors, but deconstruct them. They support universities that preen themselves on rejecting their patrons’ children’s applications for admittance. The problem with our rich is that they’re not merely idealists—they’re socialists.
Those with a strong distaste for the existence of the wealthy, take the long view. The axiom “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is infallible. By the third generation or so, pride of possession is overtaken by a sense of unworthiness worthy of the most fervent anchorite. Internal gilt, so to speak. Will to power devolves into will to failure. Drive has given way to decadence, after a too-brief stopover in civilization. Why despise the rich when they will eventually despise themselves?
We have yet to hear cries of revolution, with demands to confiscate the wealthy’s bland booty. Should that day come, we Americans might ponder our dull, colorless, dutiful rich as an indispensable part of our country’s cultural ecosystem—something like a coral shelf—and let them be.
We can assure ourselves they aren’t having any fun.