The myth of the rich genius

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.

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.


  1. flex says

    I’ve been working as an automotive engineer in the Detroit area for almost 30 years. What Musk did with Tesla was to take innovative ideas which had been floating around the automotive engineering community, sometimes for decades, and built a vehicle with them. Why these ideas didn’t seen the light of day prior to being on a Tesla varied; in some cases surveys suggested the public didn’t like those ideas, in other cases they were too expensive to implement, in other cases they were already on the road to implementation but Musk got there first.

    Tesla certainly spurred electric car development, and I’ll give Musk a large amount of credit for that. But the credit I give him is that he provided a platform for the ideas which the engineers had already wanted to implement but were rejected. Further, I think if Musk did come up with unworkable ideas, the engineering teams would be able to show to Musk why it was either not feasible, or could not be done within the regulatory framework of the automotive industry. Trust me, the engineering teams at the big three automotive companies have had a lot of experience in explaining to management why an idiotic idea from management wouldn’t work.

    I honestly thought Tesla would fail before now. As soon as Tesla showed the other automotive companies that Tesla’s would sell, the other OEMs started their own development work. Again, I give Musk, and Tesla, a great deal of credit for pushing that development. But I didn’t think Tesla would last as long as it has. I’ve modified my thinking about the company now. I think that it’s created a brand which itself has some value, so it won’t just fail, it will be purchased. In today’s automotive industry I see Geely as the most likely buyer, but that’s just speculation.

  2. Silentbob says

    Cue Morales to point out Mano criticised Musk while linking to a tweet as though it’s a brilliant riposte.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    At least Epstein was smart enough not to provide a big flapping verbose target of inanity.

  4. mnb0 says

    “This makes the media pay undue attention to the utterances of such people”
    This is typical USA. I couldn’t name a single one of the ten richest Dutch people.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    I couldn’t name a single one of the ten richest Dutch people

    Interesting. Interesed, I looked up the UK top ten. I imagine most people have at least heard of Dyson and Branson. I’d heard of Ratcliffe and Currie, but then I’m a chemical engineer so this shouldn’t be surprising. I’d heard of Coates because I’d read an article about her. I’d heard of Grosvenor and assumed he was the richest simply because of his title. And I’d heard of the Hindujas because of their ahem involvment in UK politics. Seven out of ten ain’t bad. Only Dyson is ever touted as something like a genius, and he certainly doesn’t claim to be one or act like he thinks he is one.

  6. Tethys says

    Why would anyone think the entire US is as shallow as Hollywood, or suppose the media gossip about a particularly loud mouthed or morally bankrupt billionaire anything more than superficial infotainment?

    I’ve met some truly stupid people who have inherited huge fortunes, and some very intelligent and hard working self made wealthy people.

    Most billionaires are very privileged humans, but that doesn’t make them any less prone to poor judgement or believing nonsensical ideas than anyone else.

  7. friedfish2718 says

    The title “The myth of the rich genius” reeks of J.E.A.R. (Jealousy, Envy, Anger, Resentment).
    You know, “the rich are really dumb, really stupid, really corrupt, the rich are no geniuses in any way”.
    If anything, the rich are geniuses in getting, accumulating money and wealth; otherwise the rich would not be rich, so says Captain Obvious.
    Socialist farmer versus Capitalist Farmer. A neighbor’s cow produces much more milk. The Capitalist farmer sentiment: “I want to find out the neighbor’s secret”. The Socialist farmer sentiment: “I want the neighbor’s cow to die”. Socialist sentiment reeks of J.E.A.R. (Jealousy, Envy, Anger, Resentment).
    Are there people who believe that if someone is rich said person is expert in all fields? Answer: Yes and this is a poor reflection on the believers not on the rich person. The rich one who buys into the “rich genius” myth becomes poor pretty quickly. The rich do not have the monopoly on vice. The rich do not have the monopoly on virtue.
    There are the rich and there are the rich. Some people are born into rich families. Some people are born into abject poverty and become rich in various ways mostly honestly, ethically through personal effort. “The myth of the rich genius” makes no discrimination between the various types of rich people, mixing imaginary rich (depicted in movies) with Peter Thiel, Sam Bankman-Fried, Elon Musk, President Trump, Kanye West, Jeffrey Epstein. Mixing the imaginary with the real. Mixing the honest with the dishonest.
    Mr Singham and his kind are bothered by the rich not so much by the rich being rich but by the rich being RICHER than they. Inequality!!! Inequality that feeds the ever hungrier Envy. Inequality that feeds the ever hungrier Resentment. “The myth of the rich genius” view of the rich is similar to Nazi’s view of Jews. Is Mr Singham aiming to be merely a member of the mob?
    I am amused by the temper tantrums of the woke hearing the utterances (silly or not) of the rich such as Elon Musk and President Trump. Yes, the rich make silly statements. And so have Mr Singham and his kind made silly statements. Did President Trump become rich through silliness? No. Did Elon Musk become rich through silliness? No. Worse off than the blind are those unwilling to see. Envy and Resentment prevent the Woke to see (and learn) what made some to become rich. Envy and Resentment force the Woke to see only the silly attributes of the rich and to be blind to the non-silly
    attributes of the rich.
    The comments of Rod Hilton display the author’s shallowness. Elon Musk made silly statements about Electric Vehicles (EV) and yet he displayed a genius in assembling a team of hardcore EV engineering who outperformed competitor EV companies. Elon Musk made silly statements about Space Travel and yet he displayed a genius in assembling a team of hardcore Rocketry engineers who outperformed Jeff Bezos and Boeing. Elon Musk made silly statements about Software and Rod Hilton made no observation of the engineering team Elon Musk is bringing to Twitter. Rod Hilton may not make the cut at Twitter under Elon Musk. Can Elon Musk display a genius in assembling a top-rated team to rehabilitate Twitter? Time will tell. Elon Musk is not all genius: HyperLoop and the Boring Company are not doing well.
    Like the Socialist farmer, the woke wishes the death of Musk’s fortunes and of any rich’s enterprises especially if said rich people’s world view is against the Leftist Narrative.

  8. John Morales says


    The title “The myth of the rich genius” reeks of J.E.A.R. (Jealousy, Envy, Anger, Resentment).

    Your comment reeks of J.E.A.R.

    (Gotta love your ineffectual sniping drive-bys)

  9. Holms says


    Socialist farmer versus Capitalist Farmer. A neighbor’s cow produces much more milk. The Capitalist farmer sentiment: “I want to find out the neighbor’s secret”. The Socialist farmer sentiment: “I want the neighbor’s cow to die”.

    You may as well admit you don’t know what socialism is.

  10. sonofrojblake says


    the rich are geniuses in getting, accumulating money and wealth

    Yeah, not really. It’s only really since the internet made researching people’s backgrounds trivially easy that I realised that the rich, as a class, are generally geniuses in having the right parents. Take 100 millionaires in the UK, and it’s a safe bet that 95 of them had parents who were also millionaires, went to private school, and made their money due to connections and investment from people they’re only in touch with because of their already rich background.

    People like former council flat resident Lord Alan Sugar are very much the exception, not the rule. People like son-of-literal-owner-of-an-emerald-mine, Elon Musk are the rule.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *