“I want a world of warm puppies, butterflies and sunny days,” writes our friend Uvarov, “a world where the makers of wealth are not dishonest, rapacious rascals. I’ve read up on very rich men (and in the case of Estee Lauder, women) to see if there is one who was not a rat (even if a charming one) somewhere along the line. I haven’t found one. (Well, maybe Gene Autry…but I don’t know much about him.) Bill Gates’s early public image was that of a clumsy, endearing nerd who…well, it seems that Lawrence Ellison is right when he says, ‘Gates likes to think of himself as Edison, when actually he is Rockefeller.’ Gates stole the Stacker technology outright — to name one nasty thing he did — and only after Stacker took Microsoft to court, did Microsoft start paying them a royalty.
“Richard Branson was the other hope for a right wing Republican trying hard to believe in Mom and apple pie. Well, I just read a book on Branson and he 1) almost went to jail early on for breaking England’s import/export laws 2) sold boot-leg Jimi Hendrix records that he bought from a dealer…and when the dealer drove up in his truck to sell his records to Branson for 1 pound each, Branson showed up an hour late and, since he knew the dealer did not know what Branson looked like, asked the dealer, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’ The dealer said, ‘I was supposed to sell these records to a bloke for a pound each, but he hasn’t shown up.’ Branson said, ‘Well, bad luck, mate. How about I buy them off you for 50 pence each?’ And the dealer said, ‘Okay,’ and Branson sold them through Virgin mail order for the intended 3 pounds each. 3) When Branson started Student magazine, he had the magazines printed on cheap pulp paper…except for the copies he gave to advertisers. Their copies were expensively printed slick ones, and the advertisers were led to believe that all copies of Student were constructed thus…meaning they paid higher ad rates than they otherwise would have.
“I had four close friends in high school (we are all in our mid-thirties now). They were all fun to be with. One now runs an antique shop, and his worst crime against humanity was that he could be snooty now and again. My second friend now owns a small screen-printing business…that provides a nice income, but certainly nothing with which he can buy and sell congressmen. And his worst crime against humanity was that he would brag about being a better surfer than he actually was. The third friend is now an electrician, and his worst crime against humanity was that he asked a girl we both liked to the prom before I had a chance to. (Okay, so it was a crime against me, not humanity.)
“My fourth close friend…MADE IT ONTO THE FORBES 400 LIST !!!!!!!! He has since plunged off it like a sky-diver falling toward a field of iron-ore with an electric magnet strapped to his chest. But even though his company has since hit a reef, he is still worth many tens of millions. (And, annoying to old friends like me…his head has grown right along with his bank account.) This fellow’s worst crimes against humanity were: a) shoplifting music tapes from a record store by stuffing them in his pants; b) stealing car stereos and reselling them black-market style. He once stole a car stereo from a girl he knew and who lived two doors down from him…and when she got a car alarm after the theft, my friend (who wasn’t so close a friend at this point) laughed with his accomplice in front of me at the fact that the alarm was the most expensive one she could find. He also actually approached my prom-date-usurping friend and said, ‘Do you need some seat covers? Because I know a car that has some neat sheepskin seat covers, and I could steal them and then sell them to you.’ c) He stole a lot more stereos to sell to other students. d) When he wanted to get into a certain college after two years of junior college, his brother — who looks very like him and was very academic — took his S.A.T. tests for him…and my old friend got into the desired college. (I’ve since read of a student serving six months in prison for having someone else take his S.A.T.’s for him).
“Now, for my one friend who had/has a serious criminal streak running through him to be the one to end up richer than God…it’s one of those moral lessons about life one would rather not learn. And to try to find at least one HONEST fellow in the world who is stinking rich, and failing in the attempt… What is your take on the men who have built up wealth?… Is there such a thing as a morally upright filthy rich man? Can one get up to that level without being a rapacious manipulator? Will the nice guy always finish, at the best, second?”
A.T.: Uvarov, Uvarov! What kind of attitude is this! Surely you are being too gloomy. Michael Dell is no pauper, and is he a rapacious manipulator? Warren Buffett has played honest and fair all his life, I expect. And yet while I like to think there are numerous examples of nice guys finishing first, it is intriguing what you say. In my elementary school class, the one boy I remember as being “socially maladjusted” (my mother’s term, at the time) and who, if memory serves, was expelled for something having to do with a magnifying glass and kindling (though memory may indeed not serve — this was a long time ago) recently resurfaced in the pages of Business Week, worth $100 million. None of my high school classmates is, to my knowledge, stinking rich, but there was the boy expelled from my older brother’s class — again, just a bit too rough, raw and defiant — who became one of Mike Milken’s junk-bond-financed band of centi-millionaires.
So there may be more to what you say than any of us would like to think. But I still believe you’re being way too pessimistic. It must be that baleful, fatalistic Russian soul.