Secular Saints

Secular Saints October 14, 2016

“To understand the mind-set of the super-elite,” writes Chrystia Freeland in Plutocrats, “your starting point should be the reality—and their own self-perception—that they, too, lead anxious, overworked, and uncertain lives.” Unlike the super-rich of earlier ages, most of today’s billionaires didn’t inherit wealth, and they aren’t a leisure class. They make money because they work hard. They are the “working rich.”

There are perks, mind you, among them the chance to be regarded as heroic, nearly saintly: “the super-elite also bask in a culture that, at least until the 2008 financial crisis, was happy to regard them as the heroes of our age. Their virtue need not manifest itself in any of the traditional Judeo-Christian values—Steve Jobs, who currently dominates the iconostasis, was an egotistical jerk who often treated employees, family (including his daughter), and ordinary mortals who dared to e-mail him with cruelty or disdain. But we do need them to succeed in business because of their sheer superiority to everyone else—part of the appeal of the Jobs story is his second coming at Apple, when he showed up the mediocrities who had ousted him.”

Many work their long, intense hours not to make a billion but to make the world better. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Freeland: “It’s not possible in tech to frame your ambitions aside from those who are making the world a better place. . . . I think it has a lot to do with the way Silicon Valley was formed and the university culture. The egalitarian culture. The liberal culture there. People are often surprised by that. . . . And I always try to explain to people that people actually came to Google not to get wealthy, but to change the world.”

(Photo by matt.buchanan.)

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