How can you tell a really smart rich guy from a really silly one? The really smart one would never spend four years writing a book that tries to justify the incredible riches of incredibly rich people. Mega-millionaire Edward Conard has done just that.
Conard amassed his immense fortune — estimated in the hundreds of millions — working the private-equity circuit alongside his close friend Mitt Romney. Now Conard is reinventing himself as a “public intellectual.” He has just published a new book, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, that will be featured this Sunday in the New York Times magazine.
Don’t go looking for anything new in Conrad’s tome. His themes — as highlighted in the upcoming New York Times profile — regurgitate the same pap we’ve been hearing for generations, ever since Andrew Carnegie penned The Gospel of Wealth in 1889. Carnegie argued back then, in America’s original Gilded Age, that we average Americans should welcome the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
By dint of their “superior wisdom, experience, and ability,” Carnegie assured us, these rich few can put their wealth to work for the benefit of us all.
Conard gives Carnegie a 21st century gloss. Mammoth financial rewards, he posits, give our most talented the incentive to go out, take risks, and nurture the innovations that benefit society as a whole. The prime problem in America today? As a society, Conard contends, we’re not offering our talented few large enough rewards. We’re underpaying our “risk takers”!
Conard’s New York Times interviewer, Adam Davidson, “kept raising” various critiques of wealth concentration during his chats with the private-equity superstar. Don’t vast amounts of wealth, Davidson wondered, give the super rich the power to crush innovations that might threaten their privileged positions?
And doesn’t the chase after outrageously large fortune create an incentive to behave outrageously — to squeeze workers and consumers and even place an entire society’s economic well-being at risk?
Conard refused to engage with any of these critical questions. He “repeatedly,” notes Davidson in his profile, “waved them off.”
Nor, predictably, did Conard try to rebut any of the critical research on inequality that comes from researchers outside economics — from political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and epidemiologists, the scientists who study the health of populations. Over recent decades, these scholars have detailed how vast concentrations of income and wealth are eating away at our democracy and social fabric — and even limiting the length of the lives we lead.
I surveyed this compelling research in a 2004 book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives. Greed and Good, an American Library Association Choice magazine “outstanding title” of the year, now appears online for free perusing.
More recent books have updated the case against concentrated wealth. In the just-published Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality, Canadians Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks neatly demolish the sorts of facile rationalizations for grand fortune that the likes of Edward Conard insist on making.
Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, veteran egalitarian activists with United for a Fair Economy, zero in more closely on one particular rationalization for grand fortune in their new book, The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed.
And my Institute for Policy Studies colleague, Chuck Collins, places these rationalizations in a broader context in his recently released contribution to the inequality debate, 99 To 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It.
All these books make for enlightening reading, on May Day or any other day. But none of these books will ever get the attention that Edward Conard is getting for his new tome. Conard, after all, has mega millions. That “earns” him the national spotlight.
We only have word of mouth. Let’s use it.