Sunday, January 4, 2015

Michael Lewis in The New Republic

Michael Lewis review of Billionaire's: Reflections on the Upper Crust. A couple of quotes I would highlight - First, on Bode Miller's grandfather:
"When I was fourteen I met a man with a talent for restoring a sense of fairness to a society with vast and growing inequalities in wealth. His name was Jack Kenney and he’d created a tennis camp, called Tamarack, in the mountains of northern New Hampshire."... "He ran his tennis camp less as a factory for future champions than as an antidote to American materialism—and also to the idea that a person could be at once successful and selfish. (You can still hear his quixotic suspicion of conventional success echoed in his grandson, the Olympic champion Bode Miller, who grew up on the campsite.)" Jack Kenney’s assault on teenaged American inequality began at breakfast the first morning. The bell clanged early, and the kids all rolled out of their old stained bunk beds, scratched their fresh mosquito bites, and crawled to the dining hall. On each table were small boxes of cereal, enough for each kid to have one box, but not enough that everyone could have the brand of cereal he wanted. There were Fruit Loops and Cheerios, but also more than a few boxes of the deadly dark bran stuff consumed willingly only by old people suffering from constipation. On the second morning, when the breakfast bell clanged, a mad footrace ensued. Kids sprung from their bunks and shot from cabins in the New Hampshire woods to the dining hall. The winners got the Fruit Loops, the losers a laxative. By the third morning, it was clear that, in the race to the Fruit Loops, some kids had a natural advantage. They were bigger and faster; or their cabins were closer to the dining hall; or they just had that special knack some people have for getting whatever they want. Some kids would always get the Fruit Loops, and others would always get the laxative. Life was now officially unfair. After that third breakfast, Kenney called an assembly on a hill overlooking a tennis court. He was unkempt and a bit odd; wisps of gray hair crossed his forehead and he looked as if he hadn’t bathed in a week. He was also kind and gentle and funny, and kids instantly sensed that he was worth listening to, and wanted to hear what he had to say. “You all live in important places surrounded by important people,” he’d begin. “When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!” Here his eyes closed shut and his hands became lobster claws, pinching and grasping the air in front of him. “In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.” Eyes closed, talking as much to himself as to us, he described the life of not-so-quiet desperation until every kid on the hill wondered what this had to do with the two-handed backhand. Then he opened his eyes and finished: “You have a choice. You don’t realize it, but you have a choice. You can be a giver or you can be a taker. You can get filled up or empty. You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.” And then he moved on to why no one should ever hit a two-handed backhand—while every kid on the hill squirmed and reddened and glanced at each other, wondering if everyone else realized what an asshole he’d been. On the fourth morning, no one ate the Fruit Loops. Kids were thrusting the colorful boxes at each other and leaping on the constipation cereal like war heroes jumping on hand grenades. In a stroke, the texture of life in this tennis camp had changed, from a chapter out of Lord of the Flies to the feeling between the lines of Walden. Even the most fantastically selfish kids did what they could to contribute to the general welfare of the place, and there was not a shred of doubt that everyone felt happier for it. The distinction between haves and have-nots, winners and losers, wasn’t entirely gone, of course. But it became less important than this other distinction, between the givers and the takers."
Lewis also highlights research on the wealthy which is fascinating, but this quote to me is the most accurate and important, and one for all their bloviating is hardest to remember -
"Rich people, in my experience, don’t want to change the world. The world as it is suits them nicely."

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