I have written many times before about the strange tendency of people to ascribe qualities of cleverness and depth, even genius, to very wealthy people. This makes the media pay undue attention to the utterances of such people, even on topics that they know nothing about. The examples are too numerous to list. The deference given to them. by the media and the constant presence of acolytes who feed their egos in this way, seem to result in them actually buying into the myth themselves.
Calder McHugh writes about this tendency but be warned that his essay contains spoilers for Glass Onion. The following passage is free from them.
In reality, rich people are no smarter than everyone else; their plans and even downfalls are simple. Peter Thiel is funding artists in New York City and politicians in Arizona because he thinks they’ll influence culture and politics toward his vision of a new right. Neither is going well for him. FTX founder and large political donor Sam Bankman-Fried at some point bought the boy-genius myth that he was selling to everyone else, lost a lot of money and landed himself in court. Musk made an offer for Twitter because he was addicted to the platform and thought it would be good to have an even bigger megaphone and now, his companies and his own brand seem to be in freefall. Donald Trump ran for president so that he could watch himself on cable television more, stumbled backwards into the job, tweeted through it and is now hawking NFTs while he tries to dodge prosecutions. Ye, better known as Kanye West, embraced shocking behavior until it lost him lucrative business deals and, reportedly, billionaire status.
At some point, all of these men accrued enough capital that they found themselves surrounded by people who fanned their egos in the hopes of a kickback. But as they settled into these carefully constructed worlds that were built to reinforce their supposed genius, any creative spark or understanding of business or American culture that helped them in their journey to the top is bound to dim.
The assumed causal relationship between genius and wealth seems to go only in one direction, in that if you are very wealthy, you are thought to be very clever whereas we all know that there are every clever people who are not wealthy. But most of us are outsiders to that world and cannot really judge whether the claims to genius are valid or not.
I recall the case of another wealthy person who, like the tech entrepreneur in Glass Onion, also had his own private island where he entertained his friends and enablers. I am talking about serial sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein who used his wealth to cultivate celebrities including scientists. He managed to persuade them that he was a ‘leading thinker’ and had a ‘great mind’ and was even asked to contribute an essay to a book that had the title What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty. Here is Epstein’s essay in its entirety.
I believe that the mechanism for the human perception of time will be discovered. Almost another sense—the ability to distinguish past from present, in intervals long enough to convey a thought and create memories—will establish a new boundary of consciousness.
There will be found (in addition to entropy) a cost, or friction, for just moving through time. Steady states will be the classical limit. We will uncover the formula for time’s relationship to life, which will be as unique as time’s relationship to space.
Since it dealt with science, I had some expertise to judge his alleged brilliance and did so in a blog post:
That’s it? What the hell does this even mean? It is Deepak Chopra-esque levels of pseudo-profound inanities.
I wondered how and why Epstein was picked as a contributor since he has not, as far as I am aware, written anything of value or significance in his life. And yet he had been identified as a ‘leading thinker’ and a ‘great mind’ and asked to share his wisdom. I wondered if any of the other contributors might have promoted him as a great mind, so I looked through the list … and there are some possible suspects. Physicist Lawrence Krauss and biologist Robert Trivers who have both defended Epstein are contributors as is Stephen Pinker who has hobnobbed with Epstein and even flown on his private jet that has been nicknamed the Lolita Express. Did they vouch for Epstein having a great mind? And if so, on what basis? The editor of this volume John Brockman is now deceased but the publisher’s editor Sarah Lippincott may be still alive and Ian McEwan who wrote the introduction is still alive and may be able to answer.
It is quite extraordinary how some ascribe great personal qualities to people whose main distinguishing feature is that they have a lot of money and are willing to spend it on them.
When it comes to Musk’s expertise, people are now beginning to question it.
My son, who is a software engineer, just told me that people who know software just had their Elon Musk realization. pic.twitter.com/eEFBuoHREm
— B Graham Disciple (@bgrahamdisciple) December 26, 2022
On a slightly tangential note, the responses to the film Glass Onion seems to be between those who love and those who hate it, with few being ambivalent. As far as I can tell, the reaction seems to depend upon whether you like to see rich pretentious people being skewered (as the film does) or not.