We are living in an age when being really, really rich is considered really, really cool. It's not.
By Jason Gay
MARCH 1, 1999: On Tuesday, February 16, Ted Turner stood in front of a roomful of people and made a Polish joke.
About the pope.
Turner was speaking before the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association about one of his favorite topics -- population control -- when someone asked him what he'd do if he got a chance to speak to John Paul II on the subject. "Ever see a Polish mine detector?" Turner replied, raising a foot.
It was a stupid, somewhat perplexing crack -- not to mention a non-answer to the question -- but it was hardly shocking. After all, Ted Turner is a man with a penchant for ramming a hoof down his larynx, a man who has said, among other things, that Christianity is "for losers," that "the United States has got some of the dumbest people in the world," and that his difficulties in starting a network made him feel like "those Jewish people in Germany in 1942."
Despite being the American plutocracy's reigning enfant terrible, however, Ted Turner has been canonized in popular culture. And why not? Here's a guy who built the world's most successful satellite network from little more than small cash and popsicle sticks. He recently pledged $1 billion to the United Nations. He's married to Jane Fonda. His visage appears along with Mahatma Gandhi's and Albert Einstein's in Apple Computer's "Think Different" advertising campaign. So when Turner feels like taking on a world leader or a holy man, he does it. Because Ted Turner is not only a media mogul. He is also a celebrity. And we love him for it.
We are living in an age when being really, really rich is considered really, really cool. America has always had a certain soft spot for the entrepreneur, but today's wealthiest businesspeople are enjoying the kind of public adoration traditionally reserved for movie stars and sports heroes. Men like Turner, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, David Geffen, and Warren Buffett -- and a few women, such as Oprah Winfrey -- are cherished as much for their financial accumulations as they are for their accomplishments. Everyday people idolize these individuals, read about them, invest in their companies. Many aspire to be just like them.
Call it "mogul worship": the renewed American celebration of the industry titan. Mogul worship is manifested in the dozens of glossy magazines publishing breathless accounts of the latest superdealings of the superconnected superrich. It's the ongoing obsession with power lists and rankings, from the Forbes 400 to the Vanity Fair New Establishment to the Entertainment Weekly Power 100. It's the public's giddy fascination with expensive gadgetry and accouterments that most people will never be able to afford: Gulfstream jets, apartment lap pools, personal train cars.
Moguls, of course, can afford all this. And it's secured them a prominent place in the American celebrity Zeitgeist. If the age of the supermodel is dead, moguls -- spectacles, jowls, and all -- are the new supermodels. We even refer to them by their first names: instead of Cindy! Christy! and Naomi!, we now have Bill! Ted! and Rupert! Stories about moguls pop up in style pages and fashion spreads; perhaps in reaction, once-tweedy business publications are starting to look more like Gucci ads, with hip, flashy photographs of titans and titans-to-be dressed in smart, well-designed ensembles.
Even in the serious media, coverage of today's entrepreneurs is approaching the kind of kiss-blowing vapidity usually seen in the pages of Teen Beat. Consider this exchange from an interview with Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's chief technology officer, in an article on the "Top 50 Cyber Elite," published in Time Digital (a spinoff of Time) this past October:
Time: How are you spending your vacation?
Hot wings for everyone! Nathan rocks! You won't, of course, find anything in this obsequious coverage about Myhrvold's hand in Microsoft's various questionable business dealings, which have landed the company in the most expensive antitrust trial in US history. Neither will you catch anyone calling Myhrvold on his obnoxiousness, either. No one's going to point out to him that many Americans today can't afford a barbecue cooker sans microprocessor, never mind a dino-digging jaunt or a Mongolian fly-fishing expedition.
That's because moral outrage -- or any kind of moral stance -- has no place in mogul worship. Mogul worship rests on the belief that an individual's value to society can be measured on the basis of net worth and stock performance. That's the mindset behind the Apple campaign that puts Ted Turner and Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson on the same level as Martin Luther King Jr. It's also the mindset that allows people to actually care which pampered mega-millionaire makes it around the globe in a hot-air balloon.
The problem is, though, that moguls aren't just celebrities. No matter how much they get the movie-star treatment from the New York Times Magazine (which recently treated readers to an exposé of mogul home amenities, such as backyard putting greens and fake-ivy-covered walls) or the New Yorker ("In the increasingly corporate world of global entertainment, Geffen is a throwback to a more individualistic era. He's the free man in Paris, in the words of the song Joni Mitchell once wrote about him," John Seabrook wrote last year.), moguls can't really be viewed the same way as Leonardo DiCaprio or Gwyneth Paltrow. Mogul worship isn't harmless, frivolous fun, because moguls, above all, are businesspeople -- responsible first not to the public, but to the bottom line. When you worship a mogul, you're worshipping not just a person but a philosophy. And though that philosophy goes by a lot of names -- progress, entrepreneurship, "vision" -- after a while, it starts to look a lot like greed.
The current frenzy isn't America's first brush with mogul worship, of course. Historians and social critics like to point out that some of the titans of the 19th century made contemporary moguls look like a bunch of plebes. When American Heritage magazine last year named its 40 wealthiest Americans of all time, Gates, the Microsoft chief and currently the world's richest man, came in a paltry fifth. (Though with his net worth currently approaching $100 billion, Gates seems intent on rising in the ranks.) Stock-market kingpin Warren Buffett, number two on the Forbes 400, lumbered in at 13th. By comparison, Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller -- essentially, the first American-born-and-bred mogul -- came in first with a net worth of $189.6 billion in today's dollars. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie finished second on the list, at $100.5 billion.
Vast industrial accomplishment has always stirred a certain amount of national pride. To many, self-made tycoons are an affirmation of the capitalist system -- and the notion that individual smarts and discipline, not birthright or class, can create financial opportunity. The more common an upbringing a mogul has, the better. Men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Henry Ford -- poster children for social Darwinism -- were the embodiment of American possibility: if they could do it, the theory went, so could anyone.
"Instead of wealth being seen as a sign of a profligate life, or vice, it became a virtue," says Boston College sociologist Paul Schervish, director of the school's Social Welfare Research Institute. "Given that, the new hero of the age was no longer the prince or nobility, but the entrepreneur."
General prosperity, of course, fuels the fire, not only by allowing the growth of huge new industries, but by creating a substantial "business class" of consumers whose jobs and finances are directly tied to the performances of companies and their respective leaders.
"If you look at the '20s, the '50s, and then the '90s, there are a number of characteristics that I think form the backdrop to mogul worship," says Ron Chernow, the author of Titan, the recent biography of John D. Rockefeller. "You need a sustained economic boom; a roaring stock market; often the introduction of new technologies, whether it's radio in the '20s or the Internet in the '90s. That creates a lot of excitement -- there's a sense that the economy is not only growing, but is being transformed before people's eyes."
There's another important factor fueling mogul worship, too. While the business world churns with excitement -- the mergers, the venture capital, the rapid blossoming of the new high-tech/infotainment industry -- the political world is offering . . . nothing. You don't have to live in Washington to sense a leadership void; the landscape isn't exactly dotted with budding Churchills. Nor are there any prominent social activists or reformers tugging at the culture. The closest thing we have to a national conscience right now is probably Jay Leno's nightly monologue. The country's energy, clearly, is in commerce. And right now, Americans place more faith in businesspeople than in other kinds of leaders.
"The driving force for change in the world is business," says Alan Webber, cofounder and editor of the Boston-based business magazine Fast Company. "It isn't government, or social action, or legislation -- it's people creating change through technology or corporate activity."
But more than anything else, moguls are allowed to become de facto social leaders for one simple reason: people want to be like them.
"I think that the underlying dynamic of all of these periods is a culture of envy and emulation," says Chernow. "People see their neighbors getting rich, or they see someone on television who has just made a fortune, and so people who might not have felt that money madness before, they're suddenly infected with the fever -- there's something contagious about the scramble for money."
Indeed, everyone likes to talk about America's growing pool of wealthy people. Nearly one in 36 American families is worth a million or more; a current best-selling book, The Millionaire Next Door, touts the prevalence of seven-figure assets (another bestseller, Die Broke, touts losing those seven-figure assets before you kick). The new mogul culture doesn't put the superrich on a pedestal: they're everyday people, only more so.
"That's why the criticism is muted," Paul Schervish says. "Most of these people are not robber barons. They are the millionaires next door."
Schervish is right about the public's perception. Yet this idea is not only fraudulent (Bill Gates is not like you), but it helps corporations and their leaders disguise the obvious: that the gap between them and the rest of us is only widening. Real wages are down, many people cannot match their parents' standards of living, debt is skyrocketing, and personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high.
What's more, business, by definition, does not set out to solve those kinds of social problems. Moguls themselves are hardly political creatures: we can't elect them, and we can't vote them out of office. In fact, moguls are more or less imposed on the public -- we build their wealth with our buying decisions, but even then, we're picking a product, not an individual.
But that doesn't matter much, you see. As long as the moguls have those personal movie theaters and private islands -- and as long as people get just a whiff of possibility -- we want a piece of the action.
The most startling element of contemporary mogul worship is its intimacy. Whereas the titans of past ages zealously guarded their privacy, most of their modern counterparts are happy to let us in the front door and give us a tour of their lives. One minute, we're pricing Gulfstreams with Microsoft's Myhrvold (who unsuccessfully tried to remain anonymous in a memorable 1998 Vanity Fair piece about plane-shopping), and the next we're chilling seaside in the Virgin Islands with Richard Branson, who lent his personal paradise, Necker Island, for the 1999 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and received a gooey profile in exchange. ("Whether it's ballooning across oceans or in a dogfight with British Airways, Richard Branson lives, works, and plays on the edge.")
Or we're dining at a nearly-empty Indian restaurant in a Seattle strip mall with Bill Gates, as Time magazine executive editor Walter Isaacson did in 1997:
Even while eating, he seems to be multitasking; ambidextrous, he switches his fork back and forth throughout the meal and uses whatever hand is free to gesture or scribble notes.
Moguls, of course, do not award this kind of access without knowing something's in it for them. Magazines may put their faces on the cover to move copies, but the moguls are selling something too: themselves. Executives have concluded that promoting an individual personality gives a company and its products a more customer-friendly feel. Disney, for example, sugarcoats its famously cutthroat reputation with the silk-tied visage of Michael Eisner, who slays his enemies in the boardroom and then shows up for movie premieres in mouse ears.
Daddy Warbucks is gone; now everyone wants to be Ben or Jerry. Even Fidelity Investments, long the epitome of the faceless financial powerhouse, has started using its most prominent face, Peter Lynch, in television ads, despite the fact that the white-haired ex-whiz of the Magellan Fund hasn't picked a stock in eight years.
You can almost put a finger on the moment when the corporate monolith began to wear a human face: in 1979, when a former Ford executive named Lee Iacocca took control of the struggling Chrysler corporation. Not only did Iacocca turn it into a winner, but he starred in the company's commercials playing an aw-shucks-friendly CEO who was just trying to sell you a good old American car. His 1986 autobiography, Iacocca, was the number-one-selling nonfiction book of the decade. Iacocca also helmed the restoration of Ellis Island -- the physical embodiment of the American Dream if there ever was one.
"Iacocca was a classic case of the right moment," says Brandeis University social historian Stephen Whitfield. "During the Reagan years, the notion that an American business could come back struck very deep chords . . . he was able to personify not only a company, but an industry."
In addition to giving Chrysler a face, Iacocca proved that a successful CEO could still seem like one of the little people. Many of today's moguls, too, display a kind of accessible informality: Intel CEO Andrew Grove sits in a cubicle, just like all of his drones; Branson shows up in drag to announce the opening of a Virgin megastore. The other day, I watched Gates and Buffett on C-SPAN talk to students at the University of Washington School of Business. Both men wore khakis, cotton polo shirts, and casual shoes; despite a combined wealth of more than $100 billion, they looked like a couple of overaged clerks at Sneaker Stadium.
And this informality extends to the corporate image as a whole. This is the generation of business leaders that has brought us casual day, the company retreat, and the cube-to-cube masseur. We deify the laid-back company and the chilled-out executive. Every magazine editor seems to love the wacky tech start-up where the employees wear Tevas and tie-dyes, shoot Nerf guns at each other down the corridor, and get a little sloshed when the boss (known only by his or her first name) rolls out a keg on Friday afternoon. The more a mogul can drape himself in this culture of informality, the better for his public image. (Hey! Aren't you the boss of that company where no one has to wear socks?!) Not only does it make him seem fun and sexy, but the unbuttoned image helps defuse class resentment. "If you have the right style, and if you don't seem to be putting on airs, you can get away with screwing the masses and living like a king," says New York University media-studies professor Mark Crispin Miller.
It's not enough just to be casual, either. A mogul -- and especially a would-be mogul -- must claim some higher purpose than just selling something. In a recent issue of Success magazine ("The Leading Magazine for Entrepreneurs"), there is an article about Gary Hirshberg, the president of the Stonyfield Farm yogurt company. Hirshberg, a handsome man with thick black hair, a square jaw, and blue eyes, is photographed sitting in a pasture in a plush turtleneck sweater, gazing into the distance. The article touts Hirshberg's attempts to compete with the big boys by selling something more soulful than just bacteria-curdled milk. The caption next to one photo reads: Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg creates an emotional bond with his customers through socially aware messages printed on the lids of his yogurt cups.
The whole thing is so over-the-top that you almost forget it's about, well, selling yogurt for profit. Indeed, the focus on the personal and the philosophical gives readers the sense that moguls are interesting, important, noble people, while cloaking their most irrefutable attribute: their desire to make money.
Not surprisingly, moguls love this stuff. Who wouldn't love such unbridled, unquestioning ink -- the ability to build your own mythology? Alan Webber, the Fast Company cofounder -- who says his magazine actively avoids profiling moguls -- says the notion of the publicity-shy titan is pretty much a myth: most industry leaders covet feature stories, and scan the magazines and power indexes like a budding pop band checking out its rank in the Billboard Top 100.
"It's a phenomenon that started to feed upon itself," says Webber. "The more CEOs started to see themselves turned into celebrities, they more they started to like it."
Moguls haven't always been treated so well. The titans of the late 19th century, for example, accumulated critics in droves. They were condemned by the government for being too powerful and monopolistic, and by the clergy for being ostentatious and immoral. Their accomplishments may have been prized in certain quarters, but they didn't get the sweeping rock-star adoration that most of today's moguls enjoy.
"These men never really went through a honeymoon," says Ron Chernow. "They tended to be controversial from the outset of their careers. Rockefeller starts Standard Oil in 1870, and by 1872, he's being burned in effigy in Western Pennsylvania amid calls for a congressional investigation. It went on that way for 40 years. There was not just the unmixed love and hero worship that, for instance, Bill Gates enjoyed for many years. Until about a year or two ago, you could scarcely find a syllable of criticism about Gates, while the moguls of the Gilded Age never went thought that kind of a period."
Rockefeller and his peers, of course, were reaping the benefits of an industrial economy that thrived on a large, poorly paid work force. The separation between the highest and lowest economic levels was staggering; moguls became an aristocracy in a nation founded by people who'd fled the aristocracy.
This disparity did not go unnoticed. It was attacked by the muckraking press, which coined the term "robber barons"; by Christians, who were religiously and morally suspicious of excessive wealth; and by socialists, who considered the capitalist system exploitative. People listened, too. "Socialists have largely disappeared from the landscape now," says Stephen Whitfield. "But in 1912, [Socialist Democratic Party presidential candidate] Eugene Debs got nearly a million votes." And such criticism left its legacy in progressive social movements, particularly organized labor.
Today, however, the critics are much harder to find. Part of it is the aforementioned barrenness of the political landscape. And part of it is attributable to the media -- the more that articles and TV segments extol moguls and their private lives, the less people focus on their business practices.
But there's also something else at work: mass participation in the stock market. In the 1920s, there were roughly two million people investing in the market; today, there are 100 million. That means that more people's livelihoods are linked at least in part to the performance of corporations and, by extension, their leaders. And that builds an interested -- not to mention a sympathetic -- audience.
"[The market] is a really big thing, because a hundred years ago, there was more of a sense that great fortunes were being made at the expense of the people, and that if someone was getting very, very rich, then someone else must be getting very, very poor," says Ron Chernow. "Whereas today, people might say, 'Well, Bill Gates is guilty of monopolistic practices, but I can buy Microsoft stock, so I can profit with him.' There's this sense that you can actually share in the good fortunes, and I think that when people invest in the stock market, there's a tendency to root for the companies and identify with the people who are running the company, and there's also a tendency to see the work from the point of view of the company."
Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that the reason today's moguls get off so easy is that so many people have a piece of the action, no matter how small that piece actually is. It makes people protective not just of the specific corporations and individuals they invest in, but of the market as a whole. We're all eating off the same plate, the theory goes, so no one should upset the table.
"There is this feeling that the economy is more democratic than ever," says Alan Webber. "And to the extent that people put it down as a casino economy, it's a casino economy in which anyone can win."
Not everyone wins, of course. Not everyone can afford to invest, and if they can, the relationship between CEO and shareholder can hardly be called equal. If Ted Turner makes a profit, you might get a few bucks; Ted Turner, however, gets to do what he wants with the culture at large.
Still, the "If Ted wins, I win" mentality propels a worshipful attitude, especially within the media. Publishing is driven by demographics, and media decisionmakers have concluded that a sizable segment of the population wants to know how Michael Eisner and Mike Ovitz spent their vacation (biking in France together, in 1996). Let's ignore for a moment the fact that many of the media decisionmakers are moguls themselves, or at least work for Rupert Murdoch. After all, it's not just rich people who read the Robb Report ("For the Luxury Lifestyle"). And more than 400 people buy the Forbes 400.
And if we can share a bit of the money, why not a bit of the lifestyle, too? A whole segment of consumer culture is dedicated to making the rest of us feel like moguls, at least a little. Think of cell phones, pagers, PalmPilots, laptop computers, and speakerphones. Think of the Sharper Image, or of cigar bars, martini lounges, and downtown clothing stores where $400 "casual day" sweaters are arranged like canapés.
What these stores are really selling -- and what the media are peddling in all those fawning mogul profiles -- is false hope. It's the idea that if we have the toys, if we can walk the walk, we're somehow on the winning end. If we know what's in Ted Turner's head, or how Nathan Myhrvold operates his barbecue, we've got a share of their success.
What's most dangerous is that apart from the occasional academic or iconoclast (Noam Chomsky, et al.), contemporary mogul worship lacks any kind of meaningful, organized challenge. Unlike titans of the Gilded Age, most of today's superrich entrepreneurs enjoy a happily unquestioning public, even as the chasm between the haves and have-nots widens. How much attention, for example, is paid to the fact that the vast majority of moguls are male? Or white?
But mogul worship isn't about substance. It's about star power. When you're a mogul, all that matters is that people pay attention -- not to what you say or do, but to you.
"We have come a long way from the idea of the idea," says Joseph Boskin, an American social historian and the director of Boston University's Urban Studies and Public Policy program. "The written word and abstract idea no longer have power in the way they did at the turn of the century. What matters now is show -- showing you have truly arrived."
As widespread as mogul worship is in contemporary society, it's as fragile as the economy itself. The recent volatility in the stock market -- along with economic unrest in Asia, Russia, and South America -- has already started to rattle public confidence. Anxiety about a crash looms.
That could take the shine off the moguls' image. When times are good, Ron Chernow believes, the middle class identifies with the upper class; but when the economy sours, the middle class panics and begins to identify with the lower class. That's what happened in 1929, of course. "When the economy is contracting, more of the fears and anxieties come out," Chernow says.
It might not even take an actual crash. There are some moguls who the public already thinks are just too big. Bill Gates, in particular, is increasingly under siege. Whether or not the Feds win their antitrust case, Microsoft is now seen as more of a bully than an innovator. There are Gates-bashing books (Jennifer Edstrom and Marlin Eller's Barbarians Led by Bill Gates), and Web sites purporting to demonstrate that Gates is the Devil (http://www.zejn.si/~natan/666.html). Last year, Gates was memorably "pied" by a gang of political activists while visiting the Belgian prime minister in Brussels. (Noel Godin, the mastermind of the creamy attack, said that Gates got the dessert-in-the-face treatment because he "chooses to function in the service of the capitalist status quo.")
As Gates has learned from Microsoft's travails, no mogul -- no matter how well liked -- can fully separate his or her image from his or her company. Nike CEO Phil Knight can attest to this. Once hailed as a hippie/boomer icon, he has lately been pilloried for Nike's international labor practices. Mike Ovitz, once the Hollywood agent with a Midas touch, has been slammed in recent years for his post-firing severance package from Disney (allegedly worth $200 million, after 14 months of work) and for his ill-advised takeover of the theatrical production company Livent, which plunged into bankruptcy shortly after Ovitz took the reins.
Moguls are hearing it from the public in the area of giving, too. To his credit, Ted Turner set an impressive standard with his $1 billion pledge to the UN, but others have not been so generous. In fact, one of Turner's motivations for publicly pledging ten figures was to inspire other tycoons ("old skinflints," he called them) to pony up. Gates recently calmed the cheapskate charges by committing several billion dollars to libraries and world-health issues, but others, like General Electric CEO Jack Welch, continue to give a relative pittance. The New York Times reported in December that Welch earned $138.6 million in 1997 but gave away just $134,168, the largest single donation being $25,000 to the Sankaty Head Golf Club on Nantucket to provide college scholarships to caddies.
Indeed, says Paul Schervish, the BC sociologist, the public should question not just how much today's moguls are giving away, but whom they are giving to. There's a difference between using wealth in a way that benefits society as a whole and using "philanthropy to advance status privilege and advance institutions they enjoy themselves, and to set the agenda in a way that advances the status quo and their own interests," Schervish says.
Whatever the case, there are many reasons to hold titans to higher standards than movie stars. There's no question that moguls could and should be held more accountable for their actions (and inactions). Business dealings should be scrutinized before they are celebrated. Philanthropy should be expected, not coached. Ideally, there would be less obsessiveness about ranking and list-making, and more focus on the societal contributions of business.
But until the current good times end, the age of mogul idolatry is likely to continue. Mogul worship, ultimately, is less about fame than it is about the public's faith in continued prosperity. Moguls themselves, then, are less celebrities than they are canaries in a coal mine: when they sing, we sing along. When they expire, we're all in trouble.
Jason Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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