Pity the Poor Billionaire, with Unions and Monopoly Laws to Endure

How to Be a Billionaire by Martin S. Fridson

We know from television that becoming a millionaire is a meritocratic procedure based on an impartially administered test. But the process of becoming a billionaire is still shrouded in uncertainty and myth.

In How to Be a Billionaire, Martin S. Fridson provides a roadmap into the depths of greed fantasies. Billionaires, he writes, are “gold medalists in the field of accumulating wealth.” To become one requires “subordinating other goals to an all-consuming quest…to be superrich.” But willpower is not enough; hence Fridson—the author of one of the most useful investment books ever, Financial Statement Analysis: A Practitioner’s Guide—lays out the 12 Key Principles and 9 Fundamental Strategies of self-made billionaires.

Shockingly, Fridson actually delivers. But in so doing he inadvertently transforms a traditional biz-lit self-help exhortation into a Swiftian satire on the whole concept of skewed income distribution. Drawing on case studies of tycoons past and present, he is at pains to dispel illusions about the economic and social utility of wealth accumulation. The path to riches emerges as a form of enlightened parasitism encapsulated in such maxims as “Copying Pays Better Than Innovating” (Fundamental Strategy #3) and pointed reminders about “taking full advantage of the tax code” and “presenting a company to the stock market in the best possible light.”

Would-be billionaires must struggle on the one hand to overcome The Menace of Competition (“one alternative is to fix prices and hope not to get apprehended”) and on the other to surmount The Obstacle of Social Conventions, which “envious types” and “latter-day socialists” will use against them. The chapter on “Invest in Political Influence” gives a primer on The Modern (Lawful) Approach to bribing officials. In the “Resist the Unions” chapter, Fridson-noting wistfully that “it is considered passé to arm goons with machine guns”-advocates the modern “corporate family” approach of suggestion boxes and company picnics (if all else fails, union shops can simply be closed down and relocated to friendlier climes.)

For sheer grotesquerie, none can top ur-billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who in his dotage hired wet-nurses to give him suck.

Even more appalling than the devastation billionaires wreak on the surrounding world is the human cost they inflict on themselves, illustrated by the many nightmarish profiles of individual billionaires. The poster-boy is, of course, Bill Gates. To the familiar portrait of psycho-Gates – the opaque gaze, the weirdly fluting voice, the autistic rocking – Fridson adds chilling new details, like the “physics vacation” on which Gates and his girlfriend do nothing but read physics texts and listen to taped lectures by bongo-playing idiot-savant Richard Feynman.

Gates doesn’t stand out in a collection that includes J. Paul Getty, who installed a payphone in his mansion to keep houseguests from running up his phone bill. But for sheer grotesquerie, none can top ur-billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who in his dotage hired wet-nurses to give him suck. Fridson has unearthed a photograph of Rockefeller seated atop a chainless bicycle, frantically gumming the air as he is pushed along by a young valet, a gut-wrenching tableau of stunted human potential.

In the all-consuming drive for a ten-digit net worth, all higher mental functions must be sacrificed, leaving only the grasping, chiseling, battening reflexes of an infant. Yet it’s a hollow sacrifice, for not even the billionaire is exempt from the law of diminishing returns. As all billionaires poignantly attest, “it isn’t the money” – one can live as well on $200,000, said oilman H. L. Hunt, as on a billion. A single human psyche can’t register the impact of a billion dollars. By chronicling the futile ravings of this Olympics of Freakdom, How to Be a Billionaire ends up as an oblique but profound argument in favor of steeply progressive taxation. I’m often asked how I can still be a leftist in the New Economy. Well, Sweetie, here’s the answer.

How to Be a Billionaire by Martin S. Fridson (John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 310 pp., $24.95; ISBN: 047133202X)

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