Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two items in the news...

...this week reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington.

I don't know what prompted me to read it in the first place, but the 1918 novel made a big impression on me that has remained to this day. I'm a little surprised I never read it again or saw the movie. Oh, well.

From Wikipedia, the story traces:

...the growth of the United States through the declining fortunes of three generations of the aristocratic Amberson family in an upper-scale Indianapolis neighborhood, between the end of the Civil War and the early part of the 20th century, a period of rapid industrialization and socio-economic change in America. The decline of the Ambersons is contrasted with the rising fortunes of industrial tycoons and other new-money families, who derived power not from family names but by "doing things."

I highly recommend The Magnificent Ambersons. It's very readable; not at all a "slog" like you might expect from a classic.

The first news item that reminded me of the novel was, of course, the death this week of David Rockefeller (second from the left in the picture above). From his obit in the Times (my emphasis):

He was the last surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the tycoon who founded the Standard Oil Company in the 19th century and built a fortune that made him America’s first billionaire and his family one of the richest and most powerful in the nation’s history.

As an heir to that legacy, David Rockefeller lived all his life in baronial splendor and privilege, whether in Manhattan (when he was a boy, he and his brothers would roller skate along Fifth Avenue trailed by a limousine in case they grew tired) or at his magnificent country estates.

David grew up in a mansion at 10 West 54th Street, the largest private residence in the city at the time. It bustled with valets, parlor maids, nurses and chambermaids. For dinner every night, his father dressed in black tie and his mother in a formal gown.

Summers were spent at the 107-room Rockefeller “cottage” in Seal Harbor, Me., and weekends at Kykuit, the family’s country compound north of New York City in Tarrytown, N.Y. The estate was likened to a feudal fief. As Mr. Rockefeller wrote in his autobiography, “Memoirs” (2002), “Eventually the family accumulated about 3,400 acres that surrounded and included almost all of the little village of Pocantico Hills, where most of the residents worked for the family and lived in houses owned by Grandfather.”

It's true: when I was growing up in the 1960s and '70s the name "Rockefeller" was synonymous with almost unimaginable wealth. If I ever asked my parents for money, for example, they might reply with something like, "What do I look like, a Rockefeller?" (That translated roughly into, "No, you can't have any money.")

The obit goes on to mention that Mr. Rockefeller's net worth was estimated in 2012 to be $2.7 billion.

That's not chump change, by anyone's definition, but it pales in comparison with that of Bill Gates ($86 billion), Warren Buffett ($75.6 billion) or even Jeff Bezos ($72.8 billion). That's the second news item I was referring to, and it's from a piece in CNN.

So in 2017 the Rockefellers somewhat resemble the Ambersons from Booth Tarkington's famous novel. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!

P. S. In that same article Forbes estimated Donald Trump's net worth at $3.5 billion. Again, nothing to sneeze at, but from what I've read, if the Donald had merely invested his inheritance in the stock market and played golf every day instead of playing in real estate and casinos, he'd be way wealthier than he is today. ($13 billion, I seem to recall.) Never mind his tax returns or The Art of the Deal, I can tell just from that that he's not a particularly good businessman. If you can't beat an index fund, what's the point?

Mitt Romney was right about one thing: Donald Trump is a fraud.

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