The Myth of the Ultra-Rich Job Creator

You would think from watching “Downton Abbey” that the only reason enormous estates existed was to provide jobs. Every time a change comes up, the lord of the manor bemoans its possible deleterious effect on his tenants and servants. And a remarkably high proportion of those servants seem happy to live their entire lives in the basement and the attic, never getting married, never having kids. Life as a servant is just such a meaningful identity, it seems.

Oddly, no mention is made of actual history, of the mansions in which servants had to turn their faces to the wall whenever a master or mistress passed them. In many cases, servants were essentially human machines and human furniture whose lives and even names were almost unknown to their employers.

Similar whitewashing is going on with the ultra-rich of today. We have heard a certain proclamation so often that we’re in danger of believing it: “enormous wealth makes people ‘create jobs.’” It’s almost as if starting a business, like owning vast holdings and a noble title, were essentially a charitable enterprise. And along with the first assumption, comes another: that those jobs created will be American jobs.

Recently, a Silicon Valley start-up begun by several Americans and Indian nationals (or possibly dual citizens) interviewed a friend of mine. They let him know that their business was so India-centric that every engineer was expected to be available for a 10:00 pm meeting nightly to correspond with the team in India. If there’s another economic downturn and profits aren’t as high as expected, they are poised to jump ship and do all their work in India. Sure, the headquarters might be here, but except for a few plum positions, the labor will be there. Let’s face it: people start companies in order to make money, not to give money away or to help the poor (with the rare exception of a Voltaire), and if they can make more money in China, they will.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Hewlett and Packard: none were ultra-rich. And for that matter, Andrew Carnegie was not rich at all. Remember that wonderful Bill Moyers series on creativity? One of the most fascinating episodes involved a 1989 interview with Fred Smith, founder of FedEx. Smith inherited some money, not an enormous amount, something like six million dollars, and decided to start a company. During the program, he and his co-investors joked about how their salespeople’s American Express cards were all revoked during the early years when the company struggled. When Moyers asked one of the partners, “Do you want to do it all over again?,” he replied, “no.”

“Why not?” asked Bill Moyers.

“Because I’m not financially motivated to do so.”

The ultra-rich will always need gardeners, nannies, masseurs, housekeepers, chauffeurs, tax advisers, and yacht-repairers, and in some cases prostitutes and drug dealers, but beyond that, they are no more likely to create jobs than anyone else.

It’s also true that billionaires invest in businesses—they have to put their wealth somewhere—but the businesses they invest in may be cutting the local labor force and exploiting the one abroad in order to offer the huge profits people have decided they can no longer live without. Fred Smith is now heavily invested in China with major Fed Ex operations there; he mentioned South and Central America as areas of future expansion. Nothing at all requires the super-rich to create jobs here. Why? Because of the bottom line, profit.

It’s the people who are not extremely wealthy, who have good ideas and just enough capital, that start businesses, for example, the full-time factory worker who invests in a food cart. Without government playing a part to level the playing field, entreprenuers who pay well suffer a disadvantage, while the unprincipled race to the bottom.

Many of the ultra-wealthy are so insulated from a life of need, living in a world so different from most of us, that they can’t imagine or identify with struggle; they may deny it exists, or feel no urgency to change it. (That, however, seems to be a natural human tendency, no matter where we are, to focus on the next rung up and feel discontented rather than focusing on the situation below and feeling troubled.)

A job I once had put me in contact with a wealthy woman who could donate $70 million and not feel it. Her money made her dependent before her time (she never drove at all, but needed a chauffeur; she also needed someone to dress her though countless eighty-year-olds dress themselves). Worst of all, her money kept her living in a 1950’s mindset. She said to me in all seriousness, “It’s so hard to get good help,” and went on to complain that her maid who was black, “but light black,” had made the crazy decision to get married and move out. To this woman, lifelong servitude was perfectly acceptable. Maids existed to make her life easier, and unlike Lord Grantham, she’d have been extremely unlikely to arrange for her servants’ medical needs. Having been surrounded by sycophants and others who wanted her money, she was able to maintain openly racist attitudes while the culture around her grew and changed. Was she a job creator? Hardly. Her life was a  routine of eating the same meal at her club every evening, watching sports on the best of TVs, activities she could easily have done with one-hundredth of her wealth. Her wealth left not only her financial, but her moral and physical capacities unused. Her wealth harmed her.

Do the ultra-wealthy create jobs? Ask a millionaire, the former CEO of Striderite, son of an immigrant and small businessperson who became wealthy: “The myth of millionaires as job creators being turned off by higher taxes is the creation of some members of the House and Senate who are funded by these same millionaires. Many millionaires never create any jobs at all.”

4 Responses

  1. Pete Daly
    Peter Daly

    My own family had very negative experiences with the British class system. Fatal experiences actually.

    But, I remain optimistic in a very long term sense concerning class in the US. I think we have passed through a 30 year period of conservatism in the US that is now on the wane. The US tends to alternate between 30 year periods (one generation) of liberal and conservative but with the overall direction being progressive over 100 years time. Two steps forward, one step back. We just took one step back the last 30 years in many but not all ways. I expect the next 30 years to be progressive. 5 of the last 6 popular votes (but not electoral college votes) have gone to Democrats. Moderate Republicans like David Brooks stated he was disappointed in the Republican response. He pointed out that clearly the free market is creating a huge wealth gap and to state that this is the total solution is disappointing since the evidence is clearly the other way. I think Warren Buffett got it right when he said “a rising tide lifts all yachts”. David Brooke’s concern is that if Republicans continue to espouse this view they will lose more and more seats. I certainly hope so. My understanding is that the majority of people voted Democratic for the House seats but the gerrymandering resulted in a majority Republican house. The next congressional election in 2 years will be very telling. The Republicans today complained his speech is standard progressive boiler plate but the polls show this is now what the majority of Americans want.

    I think a lot of people are happy once they have about $50,000 in income for a family. Happy to the point that they become apolitical and that allows the most power and money hungry to get away with a lot. I am always perplexed by the somewhat mindless respect many people have for power and wealth no matter how it was obtained. Either people don’t think about the unfairness of it once they have enough, or they have an over romanticized view of wealth. I suppose that is the fascination and false romantic view the program Downton Abbey has made use of.

    My own family felt the opposite of this British class system depicted in Downton Abbety. It’s a pretty whitewashed view of things. The man who writes it is a member of the British Aristocracy.

    Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford DL (born 17 August 1949), known professionally as Julian Fellowes, is an English actor, novelist, film director and screenwriter, as well as a Conservative Life Peer. (from Wikipedia).

    For my own family this class system resulted in 2 adults dead in the Anglo-Irish war that raged from 1916 to 1922. One shot by firing squad after a kangaroo trial. One child, my grandmother, abandoned for being the wrong class, the wrong religion, (Roman Catholic), and the wrong race (Irish). Her mother was a maid in a wealthy London home who married one of the sons. He was disinherited for this so they moved to New York City where both died of tuberculosis and my grandmother was raised in an orphanage. Her wealthy grandparents in London were contacted but refused to help even though she was without parents, and only 4 years old. She lived a long life and lived with us and helped raise me as a child. Her view of class systems was pretty negative, to say the least.

    Although this behavior can cut both ways. My father was the only conservative member of our large extended family which tends to be very liberal and his father (my grandfather) disinherited him for being conservative. When he found out my father voted for Eisenhower he slammed his fist on the table, turned bright red, walk out and slammed the door. We were later in financial distress within 2 years and my grandfather would not help despite the amount of money he made as a civil engineer involved in building the New York City Subway system and the Holland Tunnel. So much for liberal machine politics (Jersey City).

    Ben Franklin wanted a constitutional amendment limiting an American’s net worth to what would now be about 10 million dollars. He believed more than that would give too many people unfair political power. I think he would have been horrified by the fascination and respect with European royalty and the American “royalty” based on wealth, that developed in the US from about 1880 onwards. Some of the most wealthy of Americans try to replicate this royalty system in the US and have everything but the titles which are unconstitutional. But they certainly have the attitude. People like Warren Buffett are admirable because they don’t have the attitude and he has not spent his money but is giving it away.

    So I think it will take hundreds of years to get rid of the class system, which we inherited from Britain. It will be a slow process but worth it. It took hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands if you count ancient Greece and pre Cesar Rome to get democracy to become mainstream but now it is just expected in many countries. It’s a fight worth fighting but it’s going to be a long, frustrating, and slow one.

  2. Lita Kurth

    Many many thanks for your eloquent response. What an interesting rejoinder your actual experience was to the “chauffeur (and Irish at that!) marrying the heiress” motif in Downton Abbey! The way they all so smoothly integrated was beyond incredible. I’d love to share your “essay” with my students if that’s fine with you.

    1. Peter Daly

      Feel free to share with your students.

      If you are going to going to use it for class with students you deserve more detail.

      My grandmother’s name was Cecelia Reynolds. An over the top Irish nationalist with an English name due to her English father. Later, after marriage, she was Cecelia Walsh. Perhaps if I had lead her life I would have been an over the top nationalist also. She lived until 1963 and died when I was 7 years old. Wonderful person to have lived with and known.

      The man shot by firing squad was Edward Daly. Type “Edward Daly 1916” into a web browser and his name will come up. The current Edward Daly is the Archbishop of Northern Ireland. Not a close relative. After the “Easter Rising” Ireland was temporarily ruled by the British upper class by martial law. It was ruled by General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell and Ivor Churchill Guest, 1st Viscount Wimborne. They started the rapid trials and summary executions. The House of Commons and the Prime Minister were horrified and put an end to it But not until 16 men were shot by firing squad. The poet Yeats wrote two poems about the event: “Easter, 1916” and “Sixteen Dead Men”. The overreaction by the upper class rulers converted 10% of the country in favor of violent revolt to 90% in favor of violent revolt. Before that the House of Commons had voted twice to separate the 2 countries but the House of Lords had vetoed the moves. Good thing the commoners are now in charge. A good movie accounting of the events is “Michael Collins” with Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts. It opens with the Easter Rising and the executions. I am always uncomfortable by how violent the whole thing was but I do not judge him. Yeats comment on the violence in Easter, 1916: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” 700 years is a long time. His other option would have been to risk dying on the western front of World War 1 fighting a war he did not believe in.

      My grandfather was also Peter Francis Daly. One tough machine politician in Jersey City. You did NOT dare break the democratic block vote the way my father did. My father remembers in 1925 when he was 10 years old going with him to visit coal companies and food stores one day when his mother wasn’t feeling well; so his father was taking care of him. He was the county engineer for Hudson County and could condemn any building he wanted and destroy your business, which he was quite willing to do, and did do at times. He would present a list of building violations; the owners would say “What do you want?”; he would then present a list of people who were too poor to afford coal and food to make it through the winter. The response would be “OK”. He would then go to those people and tell them he had gotten food and coal for them and then give them a list of who to vote for in the next election. Nasty business but there was no welfare then. A very different time then when I grew up. But his split with my father for being conservative has given me a lifelong aversion to being too judgmental or intolerant of people with different political views than mine. Probably why I could never put all my friends in the same room with each other. It always struck me as sad how my father’s conservative views alienated him from his extended very liberal family. Although as I drifted from apolitical to political left after age 21 my father became uncomfortable with me. That was sad too.

      Some people I know started watching Downton Abbey and telling me how good it was. The acting and the story and the detail to costume and the appearance of the time are very top notch. They story would be nice if only it were true. But it isn’t. Many diaries kept by servants of that time period detail how badly they were treated. They worked from 5 AM to midnight and rarely had a chance to bathe and were treated as if they were a machine. When the passed the owners of the house they were supposed to turn to the wall and remain silent so as not to make eye contact. They whole idea that the owners of these estates cared about them as people is ludicrous. Yet that is the image being presented in this TV series.

      And it’s not just in the past. Many illegal immigrants are treated just as badly as undocumented servants in today’s wealthy USA homes. There are articles that break out into the news all the time about this. And these must only be the tip of the iceberg.

  3. R M Jackson

    Frankly, all this wailing and gnashing of teeth is a bit cloying. Mr. Daly’s experiences with the class-ism of England has nothing to do with whether or not the “ultra-rich” create jobs. I exist today because one of my ancestors stayed home to cook a meal, while the rest of the (Irish Catholic) family went to church, … and were burned to death when the Protestants lit the church. Does that really have anything to do with job creation? No! It’s just a fact of life.

    Injustices, petty hatreds, mistreatments, abuses, massacres are as old as humankind. It’s what we seem to do best. But it is irrelevant to the issue of job creation. Or should I say, it is relevant only to the extent that we have created a job or two along the way despite all that, and some people have not just made a living but prospered.

    The fact is, the ultra-rich do create jobs. It is a concept closely tied to an economic priciple called the velocity of money. If you understood economics, you would right that simplistic nonsense.

    You scratched only the first level or tow in your statement “The ultra-rich will always need gardeners, nannies, masseurs, housekeepers, chauffeurs, tax advisers, and yacht-repairers, and in some cases prostitutes and drug dealers, but beyond that, they are no more likely to create jobs than anyone else.” Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that what you say is correct, that for their own personal needs, that’s all they need in the way of direct help. The economic principle of money would show you that each of those direct-hires would spend and invest their money.

    They all need to eat (including the ultra-rich), so butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are secondary beneficiaries of that wealth. They all must wear clothing … at some point … so we now have dress makers, tailors, seamsters and seamstresses all benefiting from that massive wealth. Oh, and unless they are stoics, they all need beds to sleep in, chairs to sit on, telephones to communicate with, and occasionally entertain themselves in some fashion, even if it’s strictly electronic as most music is today. So, now we have carpenters, mattress makers, weavers (for clothing, linens, etc.), cabinet maker, electricians, musicians, on and on and on.

    Are you starting to see the point here?

    Someone did a study back in the late 70s. In the later part of the 19th Century, the “wealthy” kept an average of 128 people employed directly in the household. A century later that number had been reduced by 100 or more. Why? Not because the wealth are cruel and just wanted to leave all those people unemployed, …no, no!

    Let me give you one example of why that happened. In the late 19th Century, the wealthy did not ride in motorcars. They drove in horse-drawn carriages. That required people to take care of the horses and stables, people to maintain the carriages, drivers (usually a pair), an occasional visit by a farrier, if there wasn’t one on the property, and all the people peripherally involved in providing fodder for the animals (farmers/farmhands, etc.).

    A century later, the wealthy, like everyone else, … you, me, your neighbors, a lot of folks hardly considered wealthy by anyone’s standard … are transported in automobiles. The advent of the auto caused all those people to lose their jobs, not the whims of the “ultra-wealthy”.

    Another example: in the 19th Century, when the wealthy through a party, the music was live (I’ll not go into the food and its provision, preparation and serving). That meant at a bare minimum, four musicians were hired, but usually more … on a semi-regular basis.

    A century later, most party music for the unltra-wealthy, as with party music for the rest of the masses, is electronic – usually performed and produced by the ultra-wealthy likes of Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Micheal Jackson, … just to name a few. But rarely do live musicians perform at parties these days (though, that might be the one exception to the rule).

    And the yacht-repairers, … and captains, and deckhands, and longshoremen, and fuelers,and provisioners … how do they get and what do they do with their money? Oh, and I suppose the yacht itself somehow magically appeared on the scene without having to be built by craftsmen?

    The fact is, those folks were lucky and happy to be employed, even though they might have had to turn their face to the wall. Because the level of wealth in those days dropped off pretty rapidly, so the number of people hired by other people went down even faster.

    Now, whether or not they were treated with any respect is not relevant to the issue of job-creation. Another fact many of your ilk are squeamish with is that people do not go into business with job creation as their primary motivating factor. They go into business so they themselves can become wealthy, as has happened many times, especially in this country. They hire (and fire) people as they are need. Supply and demand for labor rises and falls on the same economic tides as any other commodity.

    And, as one of Mr. Smith’s coworkers pointed out, quite eloquently (but you were, and Mr. Moyers, were to thick to understand) business-startup can be a very stressful adventure. Once done, once succeeded at, why would someone want to experience that again? They’ve attained success, why do it again. He was financially motivated because he didn’t have it back then, but he has it now. Why do through the trials and tribulations of start-up all over again?

    Sorry, Ms. Kluth, your communist anti-classist manifesto is what it is – simplistic, uneducated tripe – and it may resonate with those who feel the world “owes” them simply because they exist, or the likes of Mr. Daly, who live constantly in unassuaged guilt for things that happened in the past, but not with people who understand basic economic principles.

    The sad fact is, as Dinesh D’Souza pointed out, the wagon-pullers (the wealthy, and the not so wealthy but highly motivated types) are becoming fewer and fewer, and the wagon-riders (those who think they deserve to be given, and not have to earn) are becoming more and more. They with whom your screed may find support are in the wagon. Soon, if you (and they) have your way, there will be no more wagon pullers, and all will starve in the cold darkness after the lights go out.

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