The Myth of America's Self-Made Man
A closer look at all that grit and determination.
The picture above is my cameraman (mentioned below) and me at some Arabian Nights party thrown by this billionaire oil sheikh. I don’t remember much of the party except that my cameraman was in the bathroom when the sheikh came out of the stall and didn’t wash his hands. The whole rest of the night, he couldn’t get over it. “All that money and the guy doesn’t wash his fucking hands.”
There are three kinds of journalists: established ones, connected ones, and those who—like child predators—run around trying to nab unsuspecting victims.
I was the third kind.
I lucked onto a billionaire at a Hard Rock Cafe while covering the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I went over with my lollipop and tried to convince him that his parents had asked me to drive him home from the conference. He didn’t buy it but gave me his business card.
It was made of black metal with an etching of a white rabbit on the front, and a URL on the back. No name. No company. No aspirational quote.
I showed it to my cameraman and asked, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”
He reached out, poked the corner of it, and shrugged. “Kill yourself?”
Later that evening, we went to the URL that was on the card. It came up with a black screen and a text box that said: “Login.” We tried all of the obvious options: 80085, PEN15, and iluvbecky1. Nothing worked. It felt like if we could have gotten through that barrier we’d’ve opened a door to all of the secrets of wealth.
This wasn’t mansion wealth, penthouse wealth, or Gucci wealth. This was: ‘it doesn’t matter if anyone knows because you know’ kind of wealth. And it has always irked me that I didn’t know, that I kept that card, that sometimes, late at night, I take it out, put it in my mouth, self-flagellate, and wonder:
How? How does someone obtain that kind of wealth?
The prevailing theory of “wealth” among people my age (millennial scum) is that it is inherited, whereas, the prevailing theory among older wealth-chasers is that millennials are a bunch of jealous little shitsticks.
To this end, if you try to look up how wealth is created, you're met with statistics like this: 79% of the ultra-wealthy are self-made. This statistic was given time and time again in numerous articles I found based on a study that only 21% of the ultra-wealthy2 inherited their wealth.
These articles always begin with the same punchline: “The American Dream is alive!” and ended with such conclusive smack-downs that you’re meant to walk away saying: “Shucks, guess I better dust off them ol’ bootstraps.”
But let’s take a look at what they leave out of that statistic.
To start, what’s left out is that the majority of billionaires (86%) and millionaires (67%) are men.
Okay–so it helps to inherit a penis, too.
So, fine, fuck, okay–so a penis and white skin.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone–but it should make us concerned about the narrative of the self-made and of the American Dream. The problem here is that if you sell the narrative that 79% of wealthy people are ‘self-made’ only through intelligence and grit, but do not talk about why it is made up of predominantly white men, the implication is that women and BIPOC must be lazy, dumb, less-than.
You see how that works, right?
Because that’s how that works. Not to shoehorn in another pedo joke, but if the newspapers only ever read:
Man Brings Neighborhood Children Out For Ice Cream
We’d all sleep a lot better at night.
And boy, do we.
Now folks might say, “Yeah, we know, okay, we were racist and sexist before–but now we’re not! Most millionaires are 65+ so it must skew the data since only two percent are between 30-39, and we’re all equal now!”
It turns out that racial segregation through wealth disparities among millennials has gotten even worse. But how could this be?
Maybe it is because over the past two centuries 90% of the world’s millionaires have been minted by investing in real estate. There’s a term I’m trying to think of…Rebranding? Wait–wait, no, aha! Redlining. One of the many forms of housing discrimination defined by the intentional decision not to provide mortgage loans in minority communities. Y’know, the chalk outlines of non-white neighborhoods4.
Recently, I saw a conservative talking head on The Problem With Jon Stewart claim that there was no inequality in America. When someone pointed out that housing discrimination based on race is a well-documented fact, he said, “Well, yeah–yeah, that’s one, but that ended.” And when he was pushed about why there is still so much wealth disparity, he said, “It’s a cultural difference!” Translation: White culture is a culture that succeeds. It has values.
The thing is, even if housing discrimination had ended (it didn’t), any idiot can see: Wealth disparity is increasing. Investments in real estate are how wealth has been created. BIPOC have been victims of housing discrimination for centuries.
I was never much good at racist math but it seems pretty clear what all this adds up to.
So maybe the next time a politician or businessman comes out to say, “Everyone just needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps!” someone should remind them that many people can’t reach them; they’re attached to the boot you’re using to hold their heads underwater.
But…but…it doesn’t matter. Wealth has nothing to do with inheritance. Right?
I tried to start a business a few years ago. My uncle gave me a dollar and said, “When this takes off and you’re a millionaire that’s gonna be worth a lot of money!”
I owe my uncle a dollar.
But what if he’d given me $100,000? $200,000?
I moved on from (totally unbiased) studies done by wealth management firms (who used “proprietary databases”) and took a look at the big leagues: Forbes 400, an annual list (since 1982) of the richest Americans 5
When this list comes out, inevitably, that term comes back:
I know, you’re eager to find out exactly what this means. Spoiler: It does not mean they went back in time and banged their moms as I originally thought.
It was a phrase coined in 1842 by Henry Clay who used it “to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions.” This was much more eloquently put by Frederick Douglass:
"Being possessionless and unencumbered by authority is the necessary beginning state for the potential self-made man. One cannot be ‘made’ by the help of a father, teacher, mentor, etc. ..., but must rise by one's own grit, determination, discipline, and opportunism.”
So Forbes came out in 2021 to tell everyone that 71% of their 400 were “self-made.” Shucks. Better dust off those bootstraps.
The metric they used–again—was “inheritance.”
That goddamn word.
Here’s the thing–inheritance, by definition, means someone needs to die and leave you something. Nothing else gets factored into how these magazines label someone as “self-made” (including massive loans from family members, influential parents, and privileged upbringings).
But this is not what self-made means.
Either Forbes doesn’t know what self-made means, or thinks people are stupid, because they gave a breakdown of how they judged this by ranking billionaires from 1-10:
“A score of 1 to 5 means an individual inherited their wealth, while 6 to 10 indicates they built their own company or established their fortune on their own.”
For each number, they listed two individuals as examples. I’m going to start with “8” because this is where they tucked Mark Zuckerberg (who received $100K from his parents) and Jeff Bezos (who received $245K [$462K in 2022]).
Look at all that grit, determination, and discipline!6
This is how they described people with a score of 8:
8: Self-made who came from a middle-class or upper-middle-class background.
What’s odd is that Forbes knows this is horse shit. In an article on the benefits of generational wealth, they conclude:
The burden of having to scrape enough money together and the anxiety that revolves around funding for new businesses put entrepreneurs who come from money at an advantage.
Then they quote Tony Robbins to make the poors feel better.
Because of course they did.
Quick Note: Mom, Dad–I don’t know if you still read this newsletter because of how often I say, “fuck” and make incest jokes–but if you get a chance, could you send me the combined total of your life savings. I’ve got a nifty idea for a website.
Alright, so the 8’s are not–by any reasonable definition “self-made”.
Forbes even admits in their breakdown:
“Much of the list—160 people—comprises people who scored an 8, indicating they are self-made, but came from a middle-class or upper-middle-class background. In other words, even many of the self-made members of The Forbes 400 grew up with at least some advantages in life.”
In other words:
“Yeah, we know it’s shit, but we’re still going to call it chocolate.”
With the 8’s gone7, that leaves only 78 people (19.5%). So–I took a look at the 9’s. This is when things get weird.
9: Self-made who came from a largely working-class background; rose from little to nothing.
Forbes’s examples for this category were Sergey Brin and Patrick Soon-Shiong. Now, the (not-so) funny bit is that after Sergey Brin’s Ph.D.-educated family escaped the Soviet Union, they were given $2,000 (~$15K in today’s dollars) from the community. His dad became a University professor and his mom worked for NASA.8
Soon-Shiong’s grandfather owned a number of businesses in South Africa, one of which his parents inherited and his father was a herbal doctor.
It seems–and I can’t be certain–but it seems like Forbes thinks that anyone who was an immigrant automatically came from nothing and that all immigrants are working class.9
That isn’t to say that these men or their stories aren’t impressive. My point is that calling these men “self-made” from a “working-class” background is a lie. Stop selling us piss by calling it Gatorade when there are plenty of great things to say about piss.10
Let's take a step back and look at the average American. When you call someone “self-made” who achieved, “The American Dream”, you must look at the context of the society in which you’re making this claim. If everyone in America had highly-educated, financially secure, well-connected mommies and daddies then I’m sold.
The average savings account of an American is $41,000 (a number massively skewed by high-net-worth outliers. Most Americans have savings of less than $10,000). This gets drastically worse when you break these statistics up by race.
Without even accounting for inflation, it is easy to see how the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t be able to afford to send their kids to college, never mind inject $100K into their startup.
The narrative these companies and magazines are selling is a fantasy. And not the fun kind with lots of leather and butt baubles and Mr. Rogers.
No, the bad kind.
The kind that creates resentment of poor people and the glorification of unearned wealth through cherry-picked statistics like “79% of the wealthy are self-made” without any sort of serious investigation of the truth.
I had to go all the way back to 2012 to find the last time someone with more resources than me decided to do a full breakdown of the Forbes 400 and discovered that only 35% of them were from the “lower or middle class” and received less than $1,000,000 from their family.
So this is a well-known and already-proven lie. Yet, each year, people are inundated with headlines about all of our incredible “self-made” rich people.
A better headline for articles about these men would be:
It Takes a Village: How America’s Wealthiest Men Were Supported By Their Friends, Families, and Communities to Grow into the Wealthiest Men in the Country.
See, the message there is that we all need to help each other. I know, it’s silly; it encourages community values, family togetherness, and shared goals. How Un-American.
But then maybe we’d take a harder look at the gross disparities, racism, sexism, and rampant dishonesty surrounding America’s wet dream over rich dudes. Maybe we’d ask questions. Like why, if it’s ‘the land of opportunity,’ does America rank 27th in terms of upward Social Mobility, and why you can pinpoint the potential for someone to rise out of poverty based on their fucking zip code?
And then maybe—at the very least—we could all go ten goddamn minutes without a news headline about Elon Musk.
None of this has anything to do with why I am not rich. I am a white-skinned penis haver—penis holder...penis person? I’m just lazy.
I’m a lazy penis person.
When I used to write my column, my editor would always encourage me to argue with commenters when they shared on Facebook to increase engagement. There would sometimes be hundreds of comments and they fell into two categories: encouraging emojis and people telling me how much of a piece of shit I was. Out of all of those comments, I only remember one: a man just put, “tooooo sArKaSTik.” And I always think of this when I do something like write about ‘80085.’ And I hope that most readers are perceptive enough to understand that I am not a total fool. I did not, for example, actually offer the man a lollipop (as I hope is clear)...but I 100% put 80085 into that login box.
The study that was mostly used categorized ultra wealth as being worth more than thirty million.
I couldn’t find data on the percentage of white billionaires. Seriously, try to Google it. It’s infuriating. So I extrapolated from Forbes 400 (out of 724 total billionaires in the US). Though they conveniently leave race out of the data they publish. You just have to read through it and estimate.
Redlining is the illegal discriminatory practice in which a mortgage lender denies loans or an insurance provider restricts services to certain areas of a community, often because of the racial characteristics of the applicant’s neighborhood.
96.5% white, 91.5% of those, men
Forbes does not list the others in this category–but it’s fair to say that by using Zuckerberg and Bezos as the examples, they’re setting a bar
Their story is actually super interesting and they seem like awesome impressive people who went through a lot. In fact, many of these pseudo-self-made folks had parents who actually were self-made.
Working-class: the socioeconomic group consisting of people who are employed in manual or industrial work.
I went down a bit of a rabbit hole with the 10’s on Forbes list. One example was Geroge Soros who has a fascinating story. The other was Noubar Afeyan who is pretty mysterious. There is no information available about his family or much about his past other than that he fled Lebanon during a civil war there.
What I’m Reading:
Fiction: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino - Super short. Excellent.
Nonfiction: The Uses of Literature by Italo Calvino (Idk why I’m on a Calvino kick. A lot of his books are short or made up of short works. This, for example, is a book of essays on literature. It is great if you like that sort of thing.)
Article: The Mindfulness Conspiracy - an excellent takedown on mindfulness bullshit.