Yes and no.
Back in the ‘Greed Is Good’ ‘80s, I observed Don Fisher and his wife Doris belly up to the famous bar in the ‘21’ Club. Fisher was founder and CEO of The Gap and its subsidiary Banana Republic and Old Navy chains of clothing stores. Fisher ordered a Perrier and Doris a margarita straight-up. For any cocktail with juice at the ‘21’ Club, the fruit gets freshly squeezed right in front of you. The glass rimmed with a wedge of lime then perfectly salted, Doris took a sip and, enraptured, pronounced it the best margarita she had ever had!
When Walter, the crusty maître d’, arrived to escort them to their table, Doris insisted the bartender make her another of the world’s best margaritas. Don paid the bar bill with his credit card as Doris marveled over the masterful preparation of her second drink. The question arose, as they went to their table: what kind of tip had Don left for the best margarita his wife had ever had? Don, it transpires, had left $3 on a $20 tab. Three bucks – not even double the tax. You’d have thought that he could have at least stretched it to $4, a 20% tip for the best margarita of his wife’s life.
But then you need to break down what that extra dollar actually meant to billionaire Don Fisher. To the bartender who made the world’s best margarita, the extra dollar would have been split five ways with his co-workers at the end of the night. So, for the bartender, that extra dollar was actually worth twenty cents. For Don Fisher, who maybe just returned from China where scaling down from 100% cotton to a blend in those million khaki shorts he ordered, every dollar actually represented a million dollars.
“Take care of the pennies,” John D. Rockefeller liked to say, “and dollars will take care of themselves.” In other words, every 1% slashed in costs means millions of dollars in pocket. A dollar in the hand of the average person means they still have to scrape together another 999 dollars to make the monthly mortgage payment. For average folks, money is not some abstraction, it is literally a matter of survival. For the well-to-do, money is figurative, a measure of who they are and what they can do.
I attended a boarding school along with the Johnson&Johnson heir who owns the Jets as well as the son of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign manager, both fairly representative of the student body. So it was unsurprising, when it came to pass, that a classmate wound up as finance director for Steve “Flat Tax” Forbes’ 2000 presidential bid. I had been an avid reader of Forbes magazine when Steve’s flamboyant father, Malcolm, was in charge. So I was disgruntled when the son dulled both look and content of the magazine in his own image.
In the run-up to his ’96 presidential bid, Steve had confessed, in the Wall Street Journal, that the most traumatizing experience of his life was being packed off to boarding school. I shared my doubts via e-mail about Steve’s fortitude and presidential qualifications with my classmate who, it turns out, had also been miserable in boarding school with its intolerance of dorks. “What is it you say you’ve done with your life,” he blasted back, “other than procreate?”
Yes, the rich get richer, they say, and the poor have babies. Having been born on third base, my old classmate and his patron Steve, think they hit a home run.
A psych prof at U Cal Berkeley who focuses on “Social Class as Culture” has suggested that the wealthy are less empathetic than others. After strapping subjects to physiological measuring devices, those from lower-class backgrounds, as opposed to more privileged, showed more intense vagus activation when exposed to pictures of starving children. Rich folks, the prof deduces, are more likely to think mostly about themselves. Doubtless, a tribal imperative is at play here, and “there, but for the grace of God” does not kick in when viewing starving kids.
What moral failings have contributed to these conditions? Probing minds of privilege have answers. To a ’96 query on crime and drug addiction presidential hopeful, Steve Forbes, proposed that a “flat-tax will spur growth and encourage savings, discouraging anti-social behavior.” “Values and economics,” Forbes believes, “are one and the same, indivisible.”
…with liberty, and justice for all…but only if you swear allegiance to the Flat Tax 2.0, lately making the e-blast rounds as ‘Fair Tax’, or the latest napkin version, 9-9/0-9, compliments of Forbes’ former campaign chair – Herman Cain. ‘The Hermanator’ is a perfect example of a Fat Cat courtier. These courtiers are embodied by the Religious Right. They intuit which side their tongues are buttered on and proceed to bash EPA standards for mercury emissions at web-sites like www.ResistingtheGreenDragon.com. Or, like Focus on Family, they utter nary a pious peep about Pharma running endless, lurid TV commercials for Viagra, et al, prompting young folks to just say ‘yes’ to sex.
In a world where money rules and crybabies drool, Karmic payback is probably the only consolation. Three months after chintzing the ‘21’ bartender, Don Fisher’s Gap holdings collapsed by 33%.
Main Image: The Empire Builders by Bernarda Bryson Shahn. From left, James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jay Cooke or Edward H. Harriman, and Jay Gould, wearing top coats, wearing or holding hats, in a room with a view of Trinity Church in New York City, N.Y.