This week I am speaking on several investment panels at FreedomFest at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. (For more information, click here.)
But I’m particularly looking forward to my debate with Lanny Ebenstein, a highly regarded political scientist, educator and author of several books, including biographies of libertarian economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.
Our debate topic? “Can Anything Good Come From Being Super Rich?”
No doubt most readers would like to find out from personal experience. Pollsters regularly find that Americans list “getting rich” as one of their primary goals in life.
Let me confess upfront that I’m one of the detestable 1% that some folks are always banging on about.
Though I’m not sure why, really.
Speaking from personal experience, I’ve never inherited a dime from anyone.
I’ve never had any special connections.
I didn’t get a “legacy admission” into an Ivy League university.
I’ve never founded, run or owned my own company.
All I’ve done is work, save, invest and reinvest over a period of decades, just like most of the folks featured in Dr. Thomas Stanley’s classic work, The Millionaire Next Door.
And there are quite a few of us, actually. As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, the number of American millionaires is at an all-time high.
In May, Spectrem Group, a market research firm, reported that the number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more hit a record 11.5 million in 2017. (Include home equity and there are several million more.)
Moreover, there are 156,000 households with a net worth of $25 million or more – the “Ultra High Net Worth” market.
Notice that “wealth” is not calculated by determining how much you earn, how much you spend or how much stuff is in your garage. It’s determined by adding up all your assets – stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. – and subtracting all your liabilities – mortgages, car loans, credit card debt, student loans, etc.
Most “rich people” did not win the lottery, make a platinum record or become a first-round draft choice.
No, their route was more pedestrian. They maximized their income, kept a sharp eye on their outgo, and religiously saved, invested and reinvested the difference.
Ultra High Net Worth individuals did pretty much what the everyday rich did, although many of them did found or run successful companies.
That is often the difference between being rich and ultra-rich.
Yet I’ve always considered that something to admire, not resent.
There are plenty of hardworking people who are poor, of course. They deserve our respect and appreciation too.
But poor people don’t start businesses, hire employees, pay corporate taxes, fund community events or engage in philanthropy.
Throughout my life, I’ve known a lot of great people with little or no money. But rich employers were an unalloyed blessing.
As a teenager with few skills and no resume, I worked for Jake Smith, the founder of Smith’s Transfer, the eighth-largest trucking company in the nation at the time.
After college, I got a job at a firm owned by Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn.
When I got into the money management industry more than three decades ago, I was hired by Diego Veitia, a successful investor and entrepreneur.
Even today, I write for The Agora, a private publishing company majority owned by Bill Bonner.
I have no idea how much Bill is worth. But the marketing material for his Bonner Family Office once described him as “a near-billionaire.” (And he may no longer be merely in the proximity.)
Some folks believe Honoré de Balzac’s famous quote “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
This may well have been true in the French novelist’s day and age (Europe in the early 1800s). But the opposite is the case today.
Our capitalistic system promises you can have anything you want if you just provide enough other people with what they want. That means the richest people are generally the men and women who have done the most to meet our wants and needs.
Take Bill Gates, for example, the founder of Microsoft and creator of the MS-DOS operating system that may have run your very first personal computer in the ’80s.
If not, you have almost certainly benefited from Word, Excel or PowerPoint, all features of Microsoft Office.
Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, gave us the convenience and low prices of Amazon with its one-click ordering system.
These individuals haven’t just affected the lives of millions or tens of millions of people… but billions.
It’s not hard to discern a cause-and-effect relationship. When you make life better or easier for billions of others, you may wind up a billionaire yourself.
But what about inequality? Is it fair that some have so much in a world where others have so little?
And what about taxes? Is it true that the super rich don’t pay their fair share, as even Warren Buffett argues?
I’ll address just those questions in my next column…