Are You Ready to Write "Thank You" Notes to Wealthy CEOs?
Apparently Ayn Rand worship is alive and well. Some still sing serenades and offer accolades, perhaps flinging Monopoly money just for show. Many Americans are struggling, and hardcore objectivism is a ridiculous -- and arguably vicious -- philosophy to defend right now. Yet my hackles went up when I saw proof that some hardcore Rand fans are still defending the acts of many of the wealthy, even going so far as to say we should thank them.
Business Insider's Henry Blodget recently interviewed one hardcore Ayn Rand fan, Forbes contributor Harry Binswanger, who made the bizarre contention that we owe the top earners thanks. He went still further, saying we should even give them super-special treatment by excusing them from taxes.
Binswanger's continuous and disparaging use of the word "collectivist" is Randian all the way. His angle: Millionaires make huge contributions to our society all the time.
Thanks? No thanks.
Meanwhile, Blodget's rebuttal was brilliant. I can't help adding some thoughts on whom we may want to thank, although many certainly deserve no thanks at all, much less special treatment.
The financial crisis showed just how selfish people can be and how irresponsible with money and power (see: the historic Wall Street bailout). AIG , for one, made headlines and stirred up outrage during the financial crisis for its complete inability to understand why high pay and bonuses weren't appropriate for a publicly bailed-out company.
As I was working on this article, Paul Krugman revealed the continued disconnect, pointing out how absurd it is that AIG CEO Robert Benmosche recently looked back on that time and compared the public's reaction to a "lynching," saying the backlash against AIG's controversial bonuses was "just as bad and just as wrong."
A flawed philosophy
Rand's defense of selfishness has seeped throughout our culture. It isn't limited to the bureaucratic, one-dimensional villains portrayed in Rand's books. Many large companies are just as bureaucratic and non-entrepreneurial as government agencies. It's in the marketplace (don't be fooled, the current one isn't free), and it resides in the halls of government and politics.
During the dot-com and housing bubbles, we learned that while many regular consumers were victims, many should have known better. It was all too tempting when everyone was doing it, and it felt rewarding. So the "me first" mentality can be seen on Main Street as well as Wall Street.
These days, though, the harshness of objectivism is indefensible. A massive number of Americans are unemployed, it's been a jobless recovery, and I doubt a large percentage of unemployed are truly "moochers." Despite entrepreneurship -- which can be seen -- some simply have few options.
A rare few might deserve thanks
Granted, I might thank a few of our wealthy entrepreneurs and businesspeople for their contributions. Their money often helps create great businesses that provide Americans with better employment options and more prosperous futures.
Some even exhibit an element that would make Rand shudder: looking at more than just their companies simple, straight financial bottom lines and aligning their businesses to treating the world better. Some even direct their wealth into trying to solve some of the world's biggest problems through philanthropy or even funding entrepreneurship.
Tesla's Elon Musk has made a marketable electric vehicle and put a bit of Silicon Valley into auto design. He is involved in SolarCity, which seems to be mainstreaming an efficient and long-unused resource. These are environmentally important goals. Of course he wants to make money, but his business is pushing us into the future.
Google's business has been built with social entrepreneurship in mind, and its massive success story hasn't been thwarted. The tech company has various environmental initiatives, worker-friendly perks, and other core factors that don't exactly scream Randian's defense of selfishness.
Co-founder Sergey Brin is indeed a millionaire, but he has used some of his cash to further some interesting initiatives of his own volition. Take his recent funding of an experiment in lab-grown meat. It's not just about fake meat; i's about the environmental ramifications of meat production, as well as humane treatment of real, living animals.
Brin is also involved in 23andMe, a genetic-studies company that he had personally spearheaded with Anne Wojcicki. Brin has financially funded the company, including studies regarding genes and a predisposition to Parkinson's Disease.
In other words, some millionaires and billionaires do invest in America's prosperity in ways that go beyond simple, short-term displays of riches. They're successful -- unlike the CEO moochers who are paid too much for too little corporate success, never get fired, and, if they should depart (see: resignations that are really firings), often receive millions in goodbye packages alone.
Are the latter the millionaires to thank? Forget it.
All is vanity
In death, Ayn Rand made a revealing statement about big money and the church of objectivism: She was laid to rest with much fanfare -- and a 6-foot-tall dollar-sign floral arrangement. Interesting aside: Alan Greenspan was in attendance.
She went out with a spectacle, but in essence, she showed that you can't take it with you.
Wealthy individuals are not necessarily Randian disciples, as we have discussed above. Rand was a vociferous opponent of altruism, yet many businesses prove that they don't have to be brutal and unfeeling about people and the planet.
Who really deserves the thanks? How about those who don't proudly wave the flag of selfishness but rather use their business acumen -- and their deserved wealth, earned from well-run, progressive, and economy-boosting companies -- for more than just their own pocketbooks and the short-term bottom line.
Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.
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Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American International Group, and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of American International Group, and Google and has the following options: long January 2014 $25 calls on American International Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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