The Fiction of the Self-Made Billionaire
There’s a lot more to astronomical financial success than "hard work"
A few days ago, my daughter made an odd sound; actually, it was more of a noise. Whatever the classification, I’m sure it’s something every parent has heard before. It is the sound of disapproval, unique to young people transitioning from adolescence to adulthood — something between ‘pshaw’ and ‘ugh.’
I think we lose the ability to conjure this unique type of utterance once we leave our parent’s homes and strike out on our own. When I heard the sound, I had to investigate who or what brought on this response. Seeing she’d drawn my attention, my daughter looked up from her mobile phone, her upper lip wrinkled as if reacting to an unpleasant smell, and said: “Kim Kardashian.”
When I asked her what the woman famous for being famous did this time, she responded, as is her cohort’s habit, by texting me an interview of the Kardashian clan, by Variety, the entertainment magazine. The piece contained a video with the following Kim Kardashian quote:
I have the best advice for women in business. Get your fucking ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days…You have to surround yourself with people that want to work…So if you put in the work, you’ll see results. It’s that simple.
Implicit in Ms. Kardashian’s comment is the opinion that anyone can achieve her enormous financial success—if only they work hard enough. Moreover, her theory is that more of us haven’t risen to her rarified financial heights due to laziness. In other words, those of us who aren’t rich have only ourselves to blame. We just aren’t doing it right.
Interestingly, none of the Kardashians acknowledge their tremendous head start on the road to billionaire status. Indeed, their share of the late Robert Kardashian’s rumored $100 million trust fund provided one hell of a safety net—not to mention being raised by a step-parent (Caitlyn Jenner) reportedly worth $100 million.
In reality, the entire lot of Kardashian/Jenner siblings were born into the pinnacle of wealth and privilege. Riches like that make working for a living a choice, not a necessity.
Putting aside the fact that Kardashian‘s “nobody wants to work these days” quip makes her sound like a boomer, bitterly yearning for the ‘good ole days,’ her comment doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Her misguided sentiment is part and parcel of American exceptionalism ideology.
The fictional rugged individual succeeding on their own steam is essential to the self-made billionaire allegory. The self-made man, or woman as it were, is a subset of the American exceptionalism ideal, as necessary to the country’s collective mythology as the notion that industrious patriots, with little more than grit, built the United States from the ground up, while conveniently omitting the enslaved laborers who built its infrastructure free of charge.
The media reinforces this billionaire-as-superhero fiction by fawning over the one-percent-of-the-one-percent’s every move, elevating the chosen few to superstar status based on nothing more than their balance sheets. Rarely does the media explore the downside of the massive accumulation of financial resources by a single individual, instead choosing to marvel over its accomplishment.
Forbes raised numerous eyebrows in 2019 when it crowned twenty-one-year-old Kylie Jenner “The Youngest Self-Made Billionaire Ever.” The piece put forth the narrative that Jenner single-handedly achieved her status with barely a mention of the fact that at birth, she was rounding third base, heading to the proverbial home plate.
More recently, a gushing puff piece in Business Insider focuses on the wealth, beauty, and whiteness of Elizaveta Peskova, with just a passing mention of her father’s connection to Putin’s kleptocratic regime [emphasis added]:
At just 24, Elizaveta Peskova is by any measure successful. She is the founder of a communications firm and the director of a historical foundation, with a master's degree in international relations…
Her Instagram page suggests that she is at the very least not struggling to make ends meet. Blonde-haired and hazel-eyed, Peskova's social media is replete with photos of her in high heels and designer dresses at art galleries and relaxing in the resort beach city of Sochi, alongside a thirst-trap workout video set to music by 50 Cent.
The belief that hard work is the primary determinant in financial success is such a large part of the American mindset to such an extent it’s hard to blame those who perpetuate this line of thinking.
But to paraphrase Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price, in almost every case, the billionaire phenomenon is a result of the exploitation of a systematic flaw, the mistreatment of a massive number of workers, the inheritance of obscene amounts of money—or some combination of the three.
The story of hedge fund manager John Paulson underscores a component of Price’s point. In 2005, in one of the greatest trades of all time, Paulson made a series of bets against the sub-prime loan market with the help of Wall Street investment banks.
As a result of the housing market’s collapse, Paulson made his firm $15 billion in 2007 alone. The following year, he made another $5 billion by betting against the very financial firms that facilitated his initial sub-prime mortgage strategy.
In 2020, Forbes estimated the Walton family’s net worth at approximately $247 billion. Walmart, the source of the Walton fortune, had an annual gross profit in 2021 of $138 billion, an increase over the previous year of more than seven percent.
Meanwhile, employees at Walmart, the nation’s biggest employer, are among the largest recipients of SNAP and Medicaid benefits in eleven states, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s non-partisan watchdog.
Kardashian may believe the accumulation of vast wealth by the few is a function of elbow grease, but as The Nation’s John Nichols writes, even during the pandemic, the scales tipped in favor of those that needed it the least:
While the pandemic has been hard on the vast majority of Americans, it’s been nothing but good times for the billionaire class. Elon Musk was worth $24.6 billion when Trump issued his pandemic proclamation in mid-March of 2020. Today, he is worth $234 billion—an 851 percent spike that adds up to roughly $209.4 billion. During the same period, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin doubled their wealth, to nearly $114 billion and $109 billion, respectively. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos enjoyed a more modest increase in his fortunes, gaining a mere $52.1 billion during the period. But Bezos still finished this remarkable run for the billionaire class as the second wealthiest man in America, with a net worth of $165.1 billion…
No one is saying all billionaires are evil villains, and indeed, hard work is a factor in financial success. But contrary to what Kim Kardashian would have us believe, the road to obscene wealth results from a lot more than individual labor.
In reality, it’s much easier to win a marathon when one begins the race miles ahead of everyone else.
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