Our Boring Billionaires
“The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” —Christopher Hitchens
In the decade and change since the 2008 financial crisis, America’s billionaire class has been a subject of increasing punditry. Some say this class is criminally greedy, or criminally selfish, or that the acquisition of such great wealth is inherently criminal. I have a different concern: most of these people are criminally boring.
With the obvious exception of Elon Musk, the most notable thing about America’s richest citizens is how pedestrian their imaginations are. They have access to nearly unlimited resources, yet all they do is buy islands, yachts, and rockets. Jeff Bezos hasn’t been able to think of anything to do with his money besides buying a newspaper and a new body; Mark Zuckerberg tries so hard to be normal that it’s almost parodic. It’s telling that our most eccentric rich person after Elon is Warren Buffet, the normcore billionaire. In a sort of rich person horseshoe theory, his aggressive normality becomes its own form of eccentricity.
Even the stereotype of the rich eccentric has faded. In the middle of the 20th century, the most prominent rich person in popular culture was Thurston Howell III, the eccentric millionaire on Gilligan’s Island. Now it’s either Tony Stark, who uses his riches to become a superhero—the least creative goal anyone in the 2020s could hold—or the Roy family on Succession, whose outlandish wealth doesn’t make them any less susceptible to the pettiest of squabbles. Billionaires: they are—unfortunately—just like us.
Of course, I can’t definitively prove that the billionaires of today are duller than their equivalents a hundred years ago. Eccentricity is inherently subjective, and once you get past the top few slots, it’s actually surprisingly hard to figure out who the richest people in America were in the past. But look:
At the turn of the 20th century, the list of America’s richest was dominated by men like John D. Rockefeller, who carried a bag of dimes everywhere he went and distributed them at random to people he met, and who continued teaching weekly Sunday school even after he became the wealthiest man in the world. Or Andrew Carnegie, who was so devoted to his mother that he refused to marry until after she died, and who loved organ music so much that he had multiple pipe organs installed in his home. Or Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had his wife and son committed to a lunatic asylum when they got in his way, and who attempted to use mediums to communicate with his (other) wife after her death. Terrible people, most of them, but they were also terribly interesting.
Even in the middle of the century, we had people like Henry Ford, who used a secret police force to control his employees’ personal lives and attempted to establish a city named after himself in the middle of the Amazon rainforest; or J. Paul Getty, who hand-washed his own underwear and personally negotiated his grandson’s kidnapping ransom; or Howard Hughes, whose eccentricity needs no introduction.
But by the1980s, the richest Americans were Walmart founder Sam Walton, whose Wikipedia “Personal Life” section is only eight sentences long, J. Paul’s son Gordon Getty, who inherited his father’s fortune and did nothing of note with it, and shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig, who was so boring he’s probably the only person on this list you’ve never heard of.
And it’s more than just the top three in each of these eras. Go down the list in the 1920s and it’s all swashbuckling industrialists with undiagnosed mental illnesses and romantic wastrels destroying their inherited wealth in the most delicious ways. Go down the list today and it’s mostly unimaginative tech tycoons and carbon-copy financiers.
And I have a few theories as to why this might be happening.
The first is the increasing ease of getting rich. Obviously, it’s far from easy to become ultra-wealthy now, but it’s certainly easier than it was 100 years ago. (To take just one example: John D. Rockefeller had to invent new ways of stitching various state-based trusts together, since the concept of a national corporation literally didn’t exist.) The incredible difficulty of building wealth at such a scale likely acted as a filter that kept all but the most dedicated weirdos out.
A related factor is the increasing number of the ultra-wealthy and the ease, thanks to globalization, with which they exist in their own shared social circle that supersedes national borders. Andrew Carnegie only knew a few other super-rich people, because there simply weren’t that many to know, and he spent most of his life in Pittsburgh. When he decamped for New York in his later years, it was seen as a dramatic move.
Now there are almost no billionaires in Pittsburgh, and pretty much every super-rich person maintains a residence in New York, usually one that stays empty most of the year as its owner bounces between places like Aspen and Davos. Carnegie of course socialized with other industrialists, but he also maintained deep ties to his community. Most of today’s super-rich, on the other hand, exist in a community made up entirely of others like them. These bubbles suck them into intra-class status competitions that have a homogenizing effect. (If you want a really depressing example of this, read this New Yorker article about super-yachts. You’ll never be happier you aren’t a billionaire.)
So why does any of this matter?
In one sense, of course, it doesn’t really matter at all. Of all the billionaire activities one might be concerned with, their boring hobbies and personal lives have to rank well below their dark-money political contributions or papered-over labor law violations.
But I can’t help but feel like the dullness of our richest is a symptom of an overall lack of imagination in American life today. These people are the billionaire equivalents of the straight-A college student who gets a job at McKinsey because that’s just the default path. They have every possibility open to them, and they can’t think of anything cool to do with that.
If I were a billionaire, the first thing I’d do would be to give away enough of my money that I was still incredibly wealthy, but wasn’t burdened by the attention and ostracization that full-on billions bring. But the second thing I’d do would be to, I dunno, pay municipal governments to have all their grey bridges and overpasses painted bright colors, or donate a bunch of money for a new building to Harvard on the condition they call it “Buttface Auditorium.”
That’s the most galling thing about these boring billionaires—how inexplicable their lack of imagination is. Sure, I’d like to live in a world where every billionaire supported steep progressive taxation, ran their businesses as models of corporate stewardship, and donated the entirety of their wealth on their death. But it’s pretty obvious why most of them don’t want to do that.
It’s not so obvious why so many of them seem to be having next-to-no fun with their untold riches. Buying a hundred million dollar yacht is disgusting, yes—but it’s also so incredibly uninspired. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Bernie Sanders and say that billionaires shouldn’t exist. But boring billionaires certainly shouldn’t. If you’re going to be obscenely wealthy, the least you can do is have a little fun with it.