Interviews with five people at five income levels, each with incomes five times the previous.
Amber Waves of Green
Guess what, compatriots? The gap between the richest and the poorest among us is now wider than it has been since we all nose-dived into the Great Depression. So GQ sent Jon Ronson on a journey into the secret financial lives of six different people on the ladder, from a guy washing dishes for 200 bucks a week in Miami to a self-storage gazillionaire. What he found are some surprising truths about class, money, and making it in America
Maurose Frantz, Age: 26
Frantz says he has never even seen a customer or a menu at the steak house where he toils in the kitchen. "If I get money," says the Haitian immigrant, "I'm going to leave."
How to Live on $625,000 a Week
As I drive along the Pacific Coast Highway into Malibu, I catch glimpses of incredible cliff-top mansions discreetly obscured from the road, which is littered with abandoned gas stations and run-down mini-marts. The offlce building I pull up to is quite drab and utilitarian. There are no ornaments on the conference-room shelves—just a bottle of hand sanitizer. An elderly, broad-shouldered man greets me. He's wearing jogging pants. They don't look expensive. His name is B. Wayne Hughes.
You almost definitely won't have heard of him. He hardly ever gives interviews. He only agreed to this one because—as his people explained to me—income disparity is a hugely important topic for him. They didn't explain how it was important, so I assumed he thought it was bad.
I approached Wayne, as he's known, for wholly mathematical reasons. I'd worked out that there are six degrees of economic separation between a guy making ten bucks an hour and a Forbes billionaire, if you multiply each person's income by five. So I decided to journey across America to meet one representative of each multiple. By connecting these income brackets to actual people, I hoped to understand how money shapes their lives—and the life of the country—at a moment when the gap between rich and poor is such a combustible issue. Everyone in this story, then, makes roughly five times more than the last person makes. There's a dishwasher in Miami with an unbelievably stressful life, some nice middle-class Iowans with quite difflcult lives, me with a perfectly fine if frequently anxiety-inducing life, a millionaire with an annoyingly happy life, a multimillionaire with a stunningly amazing life, and then, finally, at the summit, this great American eagle, Wayne, who tells me he's "pissed off" right now.
"I live my life paying my taxes and taking care of my responsibilities, and I'm a little surprised to find out that I'm an enemy of the state at this time in my life," he says.
He has a big, booming voice like an old-school billionaire, not one of those nerdy new billionaires.
"Has anyone said that to your face?" I ask him.
"Nobody has to," says Wayne. "Just watch what they're doing."
"You mean the Occupy Wall Street crowd?"
"Those guys are a bunch of jerks," Wayne mutters, giving a dismissive wave that says, They're just a sideshow."Politically I'm on the enemy list. I've lived my whole life doing what I thought was right, and now I'm an enemy of the state."
Is he, though? It's true that income inequality is a reliable applause line on the campaign trail. Here's Obama in a recent speech: "What drags down our entire economy is when there's an ever widening chasm between the ultrarich and everybody else." Romney, meanwhile, likes to call this rhetoric "the bitter politics of envy." As he told a receptive crowd in West Palm Beach, Florida, "I believe in a merit nation, an opportunity nation, where people by virtue of their education and hard work and risk-taking and their dreams—and maybe a little luck—could achieve great things."
But the reality is that rarely are enemies of the state treated so well. Except for a brief stint in the late '80s and early '90s, their tax rate is at an eighty-year low. In the 1940s and 1950s, the top tax bracket paid more than 80 percent. It was 70 percent when Reagan took offlce, 40 percent under Clinton, and now, under Obama, it's 35 percent. But the very, very rich don't pay even that. By taking full advantage of an investor-friendly tax code, which takes a much smaller bite out of capital gains and dividends than it does for salaried income, the 400 richest Americans pay, on average, 18 percent tax.
Wayne won't reveal exactly what he pays now that he's at the top, but he's happy to tell me he began at the bottom.
"Have you read The Grapes of Wrath?" he asks. "That was my family. My dad was a sharecropper in western Oklahoma. When the dust storms came and everything got wiped out, they came to California. The guys with the mattresses on the tops of their cars in the movie? That was the way it was."
They had nothing. His father got a job winding coils that went into refrigeration units. Wayne grew up in east Los Angeles, went to college, joined the navy, got married. For a while he worked for unglamorous-sounding businesses with names like the Frieden Corporation, but nothing stuck. He had a couple of children. He wasn't thriving. He had to do something.
And then, in 1972, he had an idea: People have too much stuff and nowhere to keep it. So he bought some land in San Diego and put up a building with 200 self-storage spaces. "After that it was just building the units up, one at a time. For years and years. That's all. You don't get money unless you have a lot of talent, which I don't have, or you work hard, which is what I do. We don't have any golden touch here."
"How many buildings have you got now?" I ask.
"Maybe 2,300," he says. "With 500 or 600 units inside each."
Wayne says he never once stopped to contemplate the amount of money he was making. "I was just looking at getting the best locations I could and getting the buildings opened and getting the tenants and getting the cash flow and on and on," he says.
"You never once thought, 'This money is cascading in. I am worth 4 BILLION DOLLARS'?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "I don't spend any time at all thinking about my personal wealth. I suppose if I had nothing, I might think, 'I have nothing.' But when we decided to go public and I saw how much money there was, I was very surprised."
In 2006, Wayne was America's sixty-first-richest man, according to Forbes, with $4.1 billion. Today he's the 242nd richest (and the 683rd richest in the world), with $1.9 billion. He's among the least famous people on the list. In fact, he once asked the magazine to remove his name. "I said, 'It's an imposition. Forbes should not be doing that. It's the wrong thing to do. It puts my children and my grandchildren at risk.' "
"And what did they say?" I ask.
"They said when Trump called up, he said the number next to his name was too small."
When Wayne is in Malibu, he stays in his daughter's spare room. His home is a three-bedroom farmhouse on a working stud farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
"I have no fancy living at all," he says. "Well, I have a house in Sun Valley. Five acres in the woods. I guess that's fancy."
I like Wayne very much. He's avuncular and salt of the earth. I admire how far he has risen from the Grapes of Wrath circumstances into which he was born; he's the very embodiment of the American Dream. I'm surprised, though, and a little taken aback, by his anger. I'll return to Wayne—and the curiously aggrieved way he views his place in the world—a bit later.
But first let's plummet all the way down to the very, very bottom, as if we're falling down a well, to a concrete slab of a house in a downtrodden Miami neighborhood called Little Haiti.
Dennis Pallwitz II, Age: 39
Pallwitz scrapes by on $900 a week—enough to qualify as middle-class but not to take his wife away for an anniversary weekend.
How to Live on $200 a Week
A young man peers into a crack of sunlight that emerges from behind one of the sheets that block out all his windows. His name is Maurose Frantz, but he goes by Frantz. He can't afford air-conditioning, hence the sheets, so it's very dark and stuffy in here. Frantz lives with five other people—his mom, stepdad, grandparents, and little brother—and the entire house is the size of a typical suburban living room. As it happens, the view down the dusty, potholed street includes not only used-car lots but also self-storage facilities—the idea that made Wayne his billions.
"Outside is dangerous," Frantz says. "One time someone pulled up and said to me, 'Do you need a gun?' He showed me a gun! I said, 'I can't hear you, man.' Another time my grandpa—they jumped him. They took his wallet. They slotted him. He cried, he cried, he cried."
Frantz is Haitian. His accent is very strong, and I'm constantly asking him to repeat what he said: "They did whatto your grandpa? They slotted him? Slattered him? Sorry?"
"Slapped him," Frantz replies. "Slapped."
Frantz washes dishes at the Capital Grille restaurant, a posh steak house near the harbor in Miami's financial district. He nets $200 for a twenty-seven-hour week and receives no food stamps or government assistance of any kind. That means he makes in an hour what I make in five minutes and Wayne makes pretty much every time he breathes in and out.
At the end of the week, Frantz gets an ATM card with his pay already loaded onto it. Sometimes when he clocks out at the end of the night, he says, he finds he's already been mysteriously clocked out by someone else. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a restaurant workers' advocacy group, launched a class-action suit against Darden—the restaurant conglomerate that owns the Capital Grille—for this and other alleged improprieties. Frantz says he's repeatedly requested some kind of paper breakdown of how many hours he's been paid for and how much tax has come off, but they never give it to him, so he's stopped asking. He's also stopped asking for a promotion to busboy. He says they told him they'd let him know, but they never did. According to ROC United, the Capital Grille regularly denies promotions to dark-skinned people. It's possible for a black worker to become a busboy, Frantz says, but he's never seen a black server. Darden, for its part, maintains that the Capital Grille pays its employees fairly and that the claims of discrimination are baseless.
Last night, one of Frantz's co-workers threw away his shoes.
"I checked everywhere," Frantz says. "I checked in the garbage, but I couldn't find them. I called the sous-chef and I told him, 'I put down my shoes. Somebody threw them away.' He said, 'Frantz, you know me. I'm cool with you. I treat you like a man. I give you all the respect you need. I talk to you about your life.' I said, 'I know, chef.' He respects me, the sous-chef. He said, 'I don't know what happened to your shoes. I can't tell you nothing.' "
Frantz talks a lot about respect and the opposite of respect—humiliation. It's as if he's lowered his ambitions to the level that he can take all sorts of awfulness as long as people talk to him with a little respect. It occurs to me that his life might be better if he spent less time worrying about feeling disrespected and more time actively working to improve his conditions, but then I realize he is doing all he can. Putting his head above the parapet to talk to me is a brave step. (ROC United asked for volunteers on my behalf, and he was the one to agree.) But I can't see how his life will improve anytime soon. He's so far down America's financial pecking order he barely registers on it.
I ask Frantz to show me his neighborhood. He says there's nothing really to see. He rarely goes out—only to work and to church and to play soccer. Everywhere else is too dangerous. When we head outside, I scurry from his front door to the car. A smashed-up police cruiser lies abandoned on the corner. We take a drive past the one place on earth he has some fun: the soccer field in the public park.
Six miles later, we reach the Capital Grille. Usually he catches the bus, which takes an hour. When he works late and misses the 1 a.m. bus home, he has to stand there until the next one comes at 4 a.m.
"Do you ever wonder what the customers' lives are like?" I ask.
"I don't know nothing about the customers," says Frantz. "I've never seen them."
I look at him. "You've never seen a customer?" I ask.
"Never," he says.
"Do you know how much the steaks cost?" I ask.
"I never saw a menu," he says. "They're in the restaurant, not the kitchen."
His last words to me, before I head off to visit someone who makes five times what he does, are "If I get money, I'm going to leave."
Nick Hanauer, Age: 52
The Seattle investor's taxable income is "$10 million in a bad year." He pays about 11 percent tax—but says he ought to pay nearly five times that.
How to Live on $900 a Week
Fifteen hundred miles from Frantz's neighborhood is a lovely leafy middle-class Des Moines suburb called Urbandale. There's mist and dew, and the lawns are so green they look painted. It's 7 a.m. and deserted and unseasonably chilly—a tornado warning will be issued in a few hours—but I'm sure in warmer circumstances I'd see children running around, in and out of one another's homes, and riding their bikes to school. The $900-a-week family who live here—Dennis and Rebecca Pallwitz and their two toddlers—have a ground-floor apartment in a tidy complex with a communal pool. Most of the properties here are detached family homes; theirs is an exception. I sit in their kitchen and tell them about Frantz.
"Oh," gasps Rebecca sympathetically.
"I know," I say. "Imagine living in Miami and earning a fifth of what you earn. The stress must be unbelievable."
"It's another world," says Rebecca.
The Pallwitzes' fifth anniversary is approaching. "We'd like to go to the east of the state where we had our honeymoon," Dennis says. "But—" he glances at Rebecca—"that would cost gas and food and a bed-and-breakfast stay, so maybe we'll stick around here, save the gas money, and get a hotel room for a couple of days."
"You can't afford to drive across the state?" I say in a startled screech. I sound like the Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey. Speaking of which, last night in New York City, I got to see something Frantz has never seen: the inside of a Capital Grille restaurant. (I'm guessing Dennis and Rebecca have never been to one, either.) There were stag heads and sculptures of horses and fine oil paintings of generic earls and lords and fox hunts. The milieu was very English country gentleman, although an English country gentleman would never put an e at the end of the word grill. It was delicious, and I didn't even think about what it cost. Almost every waiter was light-skinned, but I did see one dark-skinned man serving. So that was nice.
"But there's lots of stuff to do here in the Des Moines area that we still haven't done," Dennis says, brightening. "So..."
"I know what I want to do," says Rebecca.
"What's that?" says Dennis.
"The drive-in movie theater and then the Incredible Pizza," she says. "The Incredible Pizza's got games and a buffet. You can pay $30, eat as much as you want, then play games until the money runs out. They have this tunnel thing going on. That doesn't cost anything. Our son can take his shoes off and run in there for a while...."
Dennis smiles, but I can tell he thinks Rebecca has evoked a crappy way to spend a fifth anniversary.
Dennis installs, maintains, and repairs "a wide variety of home medical equipment, oxygen equipment, wheelchairs, a smattering of everything." Rebecca stays home with the children. She says their problems are twofold: taxes and health insurance.
"He gets paid every two weeks," says Rebecca. "For state and federal taxes they take about $180. Then for health insurance they take about $375."
"The health costs go up every year," says Dennis. "And not just the regular 4 percent for inflation. It could be 10 percent, 17 percent..."
I ask them if they feel worse off than they did a few years ago. Rebecca says, "Yes, a little. The cost of everything, like health insurance, gas, and groceries, has been going up by leaps and bounds. Some things have even seemed to double. Versus our income not changing that much."
I tell them about the health system in my native UK—free health care for everyone. I say I remember Glenn Beck trying to scare America by saying that if ObamaCare went through, things would end up like Britain, with a savage, failing socialist health care system. "But it's not failing," I say. "It's great. And nobody has to pay anything." (Actually, it's funded by taxes, and some parts of it work more efflciently than others, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a Brit who doesn't feel proud of the system.)
Dennis and Rebecca look at me warily, as if I might be pretending for some nefarious European socialist reason that the UK's National Health Service is a functional thing. But I'm not a socialist, and it really is.
The Pallwitzes have started seeking help at the local Food Pantry, a charity offering food to the needy. Rebecca says she was amazed that somewhere like Urbandale even needed a Food Pantry. But it does. And when she lines up, she doesn't see only derelicts. She sees middle-class families just like them.
Dennis says he wishes they were better off, but there are positives about being poor. It makes people community-spirited, he says. Plus, money can turn a man wayward. He runs a church support group for sex and drug and alcohol addicts. Why did some of those men fall into a hedonistic abyss? "Because they could afford to," he says.
This is a little heartbreaking to hear. It reminds me of Frantz. He rationalizes his place in America's economic ecosystem by saying it's manageable as long as people talk to him respectfully. Dennis rationalizes his position by saying that if he had more, who knows what pleasure-seeking temptations he might succumb to?
And there's something else the Pallwitzes have in common with Frantz. They, too, say they leave the house only for work and church and to go to the park. They haven't been to the movies in a year.
"I hope you're not offended," I say, "but your lives seem unexpectedly similar to Frantz's."
"I'm not surprised that we have the same struggles," says Rebecca.
"How do you feel when you hear stories of the superrich getting away with paying hardly any tax?" I ask them.
There's a short silence.
"I'd probably do it, too, if I could," Dennis shrugs. "But I can't." He pauses and shrugs. "So."
Wayne Hughes, Age: 78
Hughes, a Kentucky billionaire and horse breeder, says the debate over income inequality makes him feel like "an enemy of the state."
How to Live on $5,000 a Week
Five times Dennis and Rebecca, there is me. I make about $250,000, double that in a good year—if, say, Hollywood is turning one of my books into a movie. Which doesn't happen often. Just the once, in fact (The Men Who Stare at Goats). Being a panicker, I live my life convinced poverty and disaster lie just around the corner unless I constantly and frantically work. Which I do.
But I have none of Dennis and Rebecca's struggles. I can vacation anywhere. I haven't noticed rising gas and grocery prices other than hearing myself murmur a vague, "Oh. That seems a bit more," and then forgetting all about it. I have never felt so rich and so fortunate as I do when I drive away from Urbandale that morning. But the feeling doesn't last.
How to Live on $25,000 a Week
A couple of weeks later, I meet the woman who makes five times more than me—$1.25 million in a bad year, up to $3 million in a great one. She wants to remain anonymous. I'll call her Ellen. She's a New York producer: movies, TV, Broadway. I meet her in London. She's over on business. She's brassy and loud and restless and alarmingly energetic and tough-looking, and she talks incredibly fast. She says it would be "too weird and stressful" to reveal her name, given what she earns. If you're superrich or superpoor, everyone can see that. But in the top middle, one stays covert. Plus, she doesn't want letters begging for money. She once had one from her father, who is a "pathetic gambler."
"How does it feel to make what you make?" I ask her.
I notice a strange tone in my voice. The usual chirpy sense of inquiry isn't there. Instead I sound weirdly tense, as if the true reason for our meeting is for me to discover what I'm missing out on.
"Good," she says, nodding. "Happiness is having 20 percent more than you imagine needing. The trick is not to betoo rich."
"Why not?" I ask her.
"People want to go on your private plane," she says. "You fall asleep in the middle of conference calls. There's a certain discombobulation when you have too much."
Maybe Ellen's right. Maybe it would be bad to have your own plane. But for a second, Dennis flashes into my mind, with his own imagined perils of having more money. I remember that Karl Marx line about religion being the opium of the people—his idea that the elites keep the masses subdued with illusory visions of heaven. But Dennis and Ellen have both suggested to me, surely fallaciously, that greater fortune might lead to unexpected sadness. In America, it seems, one's economic standing can be its own kind of opium.
Personally, I wish I were better at opiating myself. Instead I'm sort of glaring at Ellen in a hostile manner, wondering how I might scramble up to her level.
"So what can and what can't you do in terms of luxury living?" I ask her.
"If you're really rich, you can buy your doctors," she says. "Mike Ovitz famously bought a couple of cardiac surgeons."
"You don't have anything like that, do you?" I say.
"No, of course not," says Ellen.
Thank God, I think. Becoming aware of what's just out of your reach can be disconcerting. It's comforting to know that having my own doctors would be massively out of my reach.
"But I know a guy who knows a guy," says Ellen. "I'm at a level where I don't have to suffer. I've been sick. I had cancer. If you have money, you call the guy who knows the guy who's the head of the department. The truth is, rich people with cancer versus everyone else with cancer? Longer life! And I didn't think about bills at all! I have a bill? I throw it in the box. And that box goes to my business manager. This is a key item if you have money. You don't look at the bills. When I got money, I vowed, 'Never again will I suffer the small stuff.' To me paying a bill is the small stuff. 'I don't care how the fuck it happens; someone pay that fucking thing!' It's a good feeling."
I listen and nod and think, I very much need a business manager. "How much do you pay your business manager?" I ask.
"A very small amount of money," Ellen says, "$100,000 a year."
There's a silence. "That's a lot," I say.
Ellen looks at me, surprised. "No, it's not," she says.
She explains that her business manager does many things for her: He runs her offlce, does her bookkeeping, oversees her investments, files her taxes. And even though she pays him what can amount to nearly 10 percent of her income, she has some money in the bank, so she can afford him.
Rarely has an interview awakened in me so many dormant desires. Before meeting Ellen, I had no idea I needed a business manager and a friend who knows top surgeons personally. I was a lot happier before this interview began.
"I still worry about bills," I say sadly. "And I get knots in my stomach when the tax is due. Really big knots. Have you worked out how to pay less tax like really rich people do?"
"No," Ellen replies. "I pay 35 percent."
"Good," I say.
How to Live on $125,000 a Week
Nick Hanauer's taxable income is, he tells me, "tens of millions. In a bad year it can be $10 million."
His parents made good money in the pillow trade, and after college he set up a few okay businesses. But then one day he met a girl who was dating a guy. She said, "You two are going to be friends."
The guy had a business idea. Nick loved the sound of it. He invested all the money he had on hand—$45,000 cash. The guy was Jeff Bezos, and the business was Amazon.com.
Nick and I speak via Skype. I'm in London. He's at his home in Seattle. What little I can see of it looks lovely. He's in some kind of an offlce-den with an electric guitar in the corner. Nick asks me about the woman beneath him on the income scale. "Is Ellen a highly paid salary person?" he wonders.
"Yes," I say.
"She has to go to work every day?"
"If she stops going to work, she's out of business?"
"She has a bit of money saved, but basically yes," I say.
Nick smiles. "While we sit here, during this charming conversation, I will make $25,000," he says.
"That's terrible," I say.
Nick roars with laughter. "That's the difference between me and her! Hahahaha!"
Nick has just been holidaying in Cabo. His life is ceaselessly luxurious and always will be, because of one insanely clever realization—that Jeff Bezos was onto something—and the smart ways he invested his Amazon profits.
"Ellen says she doesn't want to be any richer because you've got problems," I say. "People want to go on your plane. You fall asleep during conference calls."
"Hahahaha!" Nick literally slaps his thigh. "People do want to come on my plane, and my wife and I make every effort to bring everyone we can."
"How much tax did you pay last year?" I ask.
"Eleven percent," says Nick.
"Do you feel awful about that?" I ask.
"Yes," says Nick.
There's something unusual about Nick. For a multimillionaire, he doesn't have your average multimillionaire view. In fact, he's come to believe that the system he benefits so richly from is built on nonsense—specifically, the idea that "the markets are perfectly efflcient and allocate benefits and burdens perfectly efflciently, based on talent and merit. So by that definition, the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. We believe this because we have an almost insanely powerful need to self-justify."
And the biggest nonsense of all, he says, "is the idea that because the rich are the smartest, and because we're the job creators, the richer we get, the better it is for everyone. So taxes on the rich should be very, very low because we're essentially the center of the economic universe, the font of productivity." Nick pauses. "If there were a shred of truth to the claim that the rich are our nation's job creators, then given how rich the rich have gotten, America should be drowning in jobs!"
"So if the rich don't create the jobs," I ask, "who does?"
"The middle classes!" Nick roars. "A huge middle class will produce an unbelievable opportunity for capitalists."
I tell Nick about Rebecca and Dennis in Iowa, about how their health-insurance costs are preventing them from driving across the state to celebrate their anniversary, thus denying them happiness and small businesses across Iowa their money.
"I fly around in a $25 million Falcon 2000," he replies. "And they can't afford to drive across the state to celebrate their anniversary? It's not fair, and it's terrible for business. The best ideas in the world aren't worth jack shit unless you have someone to sell to."
"I don't even know how much my health care costs are," he continues. "It doesn't matter! For them it's the difference between celebrating an anniversary and not celebrating an anniversary." The solution, Nick says, is to raise taxes for the rich. He says a 50 percent rate for people like him seems about right.
"If you're so concerned about it, why don't you write a check?" I ask.
"You can't build a society around the effort of a few do-gooders," he replies. "History shows that most people would not do it voluntarily. People have to be required to participate."
So instead, he says, he's trying to convince everyone that the system needs a radical change. He co-authored a book about it: The Gardens of Democracy. (Amazon sales rank, at press time: 2,674.)
"The view that regulation is bad for business is almost universally held," he says. "But in every country where you find prosperity, you find massive amounts of regulation. Show me a libertarian paradise where nobody pays any taxes and nobody follows rules and everybody lives like a king! Show me one!"
How to Live on $625,000 a Week
And so I journey to a place where that free-market ideal is imagined in a soft, warm glow: the unassuming offlce where B. Wayne Hughes works when he's in Malibu. As it happens, Wayne is a substantial donor to Republican causes. For example, he has given $3.25 million to American Crossroads, a super PAC started by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie that pays for GOP campaign ads. You'll see a lot of "Paid for by American Crossroads" on your TV in the coming months. But I didn't know his politics when I approached him. My first inkling that his philosophy is practically spiritualist in its passion comes when he happens to mention some old novel from 1939.
"Read Dr. Hudson's Secret Journal," he says. "It'll tell you how to make your life a very satisfying thing. But it doesn't have a damn thing to do with money."
"Oh, okay, thanks, I will," I reply politely. Then I instantly forget about it. The recommendation of a silly-sounding novel doesn't seem at all relevant to my story. But later, just as I'm about to wind down the interview, a weird thing happens. It's when I ask him if he has any advice for wannabe billionaires.
"I don't know anything worth knowing," he says. Then he pauses. A mischievous look crosses his face. "I gave you a secret in this interview already on how to make your life way better, and you went right by it."
I look at him, befuddled.
"Hahahahaha!" he says.
I furrow my brow. "Was it that thing you said about Mister Hudson and the...?" I say.
And so I order it from some secondhand-book place. It's out of print. It arrives, ancient and battered. It's kind of pulpy, the story of a Dr. Hudson who encounters a mysterious gravestone engraver named Randolph.
"I now have everything I want and can do anything I wish!" Randolph tells the doctor. "So can you! So can anybody! All you have to do is follow the rules!" Randolph hands Dr. Hudson a "magic page" upon which is written the secret, the rules for "generating that mysterious power I mentioned."
You can imagine how excited I am when I get to this part of the novel. But the secret turns out to be underwhelming. It is this: If you perform anonymous good deeds, greatness will visit you. But the philanthropy must be carried out with "absolute secrecy." That's the key.
When I reread my B. Wayne Hughes transcript, I see that it's peppered with veiled references to the teachings ofDr. Hudson's Secret Journal. When I asked Wayne which charities he donates to, he said, "I have over the years supported charities." Then he fell mysteriously silent. Then he said, "If you talk about things you've done that you think are worthwhile, you subtract from yourself. And so therefore I will only say my principal charity is children's cancer, and I've been doing it for twenty-two years."
"You don't want to say how much you've given away?" I asked.
"I don't want to subtract from my pleasure," he said. "I especially don't want it written up. It would be a disaster for me. It would hurt me."
"Why?" I asked.
"It would subtract from me," he repeated.
Then, later, he said, with an anguished look, "Don't you think I have an urge to say, 'I did this and I did that and I got studies going in twenty hospitals...'? I have an urge to say that, but I'm sitting on it. Why? Because once I say it, I've lost it! It's gone. Forever. The whale doesn't get harpooned until it rises to the surface to blow. If you do a good deed, a deed you're proud of, and you don't tell anybody, it will be the most difflcult thing you've ever accomplished, but with the highest payoff. You feel good about yourself. It gives you happiness and satisfaction. It makes you different to other people in ways people don't realize. If you follow the rule, I promise you it is a life-changing event."
It was a lovely, engaging, strange philosophy. But there's another side to it. Dr. Hudson (and Wayne) choosewhom to bestow their graciousness onto. It's entirely their choice. Taxation takes that decision out of their hands and gives it to the state. It screws up the formula completely.
Wayne's avuncular manner deserted him when he talked about what to do about the have-nots. "I remember an advertisement with an Indian in a canoe in a river," he said, "and tears are running down his face because he sees all the trash in the water, and he sees what's happening. That's how I feel about America. It's an emotional thing for me." He paused, and that's when he said, "I'm a little surprised to find out that I'm an enemy of the state at this time in my life. They talk about your 'fair share.' 'Are you paying your fair share?' Fair is in the eyes of the beholder." He paused. "I hope I don't come off like some big person...so conservative.... I believe in spreading it around, but I believe in doing it myself."
"So the trash in the river is higher taxes?" I asked.
"It's the idea of entitlement," he snapped. "That idea wasn't there in the history of this country. When the politicians said, 'Everybody is entitled to a house,' you saw what happened. And now you have 'Everybody is entitled to go to college.' Which is stupid! When I went to college, I had to drive a truck to pay. I had a partial scholarship, but I took care of myself."
"So you're saying everybody is entitled to college but should have to pay his or her own way?" I asked.
"Some people don't belong in college!" he said. "That should occur to you."
I understand why Wayne's great love in life is his stud farm. There's something very thoroughbred-horses about his view of the world. Perhaps the different ways Nick and Wayne made their money helps explain their politics. Nick sees an economy of luck. He got lucky, and he understands that fragility for what it is. Wayne sees an economy of earning, where those with exceptional talent or exceptional grit rise, as they should, to the top.
Wayne talked to me about "derelicts on welfare" who check themselves into the hospital because they're "bored" and "want feeding," and "we're paying for all that activity." He said too much tax money is spent on "guys going to chiropractors, guys getting massages! On us! Give me a break. Guys getting Viagra!" He talked about "Los Angeles bus drivers who are on permanent stress leave because someone spat on them when they got on the bus, and now they're emotionally upside down. More than half the bus drivers are out on stress leave! Systems like that cannot work!" It seemed as if, for Wayne's philosophy to work, he needed to believe that those who don't make it deserve their ill fortune.
Later, I hunt for data that back up Wayne's feckless-bus-driver nightmare scenario. I can't find any. I do find something else, though—plenty of statistics showing that a guy with Wayne's level of wealth has never had it so good in America. And yet of all the people I interview, Wayne is the only one who seems angry about the politics of his situation. Frantz, Rebecca, Dennis—those at the bottom looking up showed no animosity for the rich at all.
The government used to tell people like Wayne exactly what to do with huge chunks of their income: Hand it over and we'll decide how to use it. Today, America's richest citizens have won the right to control most of these decisions themselves, and that's a big reason why income inequality is so dire. For every secret philanthropist like Wayne, there are presumably countless who give little or nothing back. Meanwhile, Dennis and Rebecca continue to tread water—and might even drown—in a rising red tide of health costs, groceries, and five-bucks-a-gallon gasoline.
Wayne isn't some selfish monster. He's not parsimonious. He started from nothing and he wants to give back; he just wants to choose how. He genuinely believes that higher taxes ruin society. But I can't help thinking that when he talks about bored derelicts and emotionally weak bus drivers, he's really—even if he doesn't know it—talking about Frantz.
Jon Ronson's latest book is The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry.