Are You Ready to Write "Thank You" Notes to Wealthy CEOs?

Apparently Ayn Rand worship is alive and well. Some still sing serenades and offer accolades, perhaps flinging Monopoly money just for show. Many Americans are struggling, and hardcore objectivism is a ridiculous -- and arguably vicious -- philosophy to defend right now. Yet my hackles went up when I saw proof that some hardcore Rand fans are still defending the acts of many of the wealthy, even going so far as to say we should thank them.

Business Insider's Henry Blodget recently interviewed one hardcore Ayn Rand fan, Forbes contributor Harry Binswanger, who made the bizarre contention that we owe the top earners thanks. He went still further, saying we should even give them super-special treatment by excusing them from taxes.

Binswanger's continuous and disparaging use of the word "collectivist" is Randian all the way. His angle: Millionaires make huge contributions to our society all the time.

Thanks? No thanks.

Meanwhile, Blodget's rebuttal was brilliant. I can't help adding some thoughts on whom we may want to thank, although many certainly deserve no thanks at all, much less special treatment.

I object
The financial crisis showed just how selfish people can be and how irresponsible with money and power (see: the historic Wall Street bailout). AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) , for one, made headlines and stirred up outrage during the financial crisis for its complete inability to understand why high pay and bonuses weren't appropriate for a publicly bailed-out company.

As I was working on this article, Paul Krugman revealed the continued disconnect, pointing out how absurd it is that AIG CEO Robert Benmosche recently looked back on that time and compared the public's reaction to a "lynching," saying the backlash against AIG's controversial bonuses was "just as bad and just as wrong."

Huh?

A flawed philosophy
Rand's defense of selfishness has seeped throughout our culture. It isn't limited to the bureaucratic, one-dimensional villains portrayed in Rand's books. Many large companies are just as bureaucratic and non-entrepreneurial as government agencies. It's in the marketplace (don't be fooled, the current one isn't free), and it resides in the halls of government and politics.

During the dot-com and housing bubbles, we learned that while many regular consumers were victims, many should have known better. It was all too tempting when everyone was doing it, and it felt rewarding. So the "me first" mentality can be seen on Main Street as well as Wall Street.

These days, though, the harshness of objectivism is indefensible. A massive number of Americans are unemployed, it's been a jobless recovery, and I doubt a large percentage of unemployed are truly "moochers." Despite entrepreneurship -- which can be seen -- some simply have few options.

A rare few might deserve thanks
Granted, I might thank a few of our wealthy entrepreneurs and businesspeople for their contributions. Their money often helps create great businesses that provide Americans with better employment options and more prosperous futures.

Some even exhibit an element that would make Rand shudder: looking at more than just their companies simple, straight financial bottom lines and aligning their businesses to treating the world better. Some even direct their wealth into trying to solve some of the world's biggest problems through philanthropy or even funding entrepreneurship.

Tesla's Elon Musk has made a marketable electric vehicle and put a bit of Silicon Valley into auto design. He is involved in SolarCity, which seems to be mainstreaming an efficient and long-unused resource. These are environmentally important goals. Of course he wants to make money, but his business is pushing us into the future.

Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) business has been built with social entrepreneurship in mind, and its massive success story hasn't been thwarted. The tech company has various environmental initiatives, worker-friendly perks, and other core factors that don't exactly scream Randian's defense of selfishness.

Co-founder Sergey Brin is indeed a millionaire, but he has used some of his cash to further some interesting initiatives of his own volition. Take his recent funding of an experiment in lab-grown meat. It's not just about fake meat; i's about the environmental ramifications of meat production, as well as humane treatment of real, living animals.

Brin is also involved in 23andMe, a genetic-studies company that he had personally spearheaded with Anne Wojcicki. Brin has financially funded the company, including studies regarding genes and a predisposition to Parkinson's Disease.

In other words, some millionaires and billionaires do invest in America's prosperity in ways that go beyond simple, short-term displays of riches. They're successful -- unlike the CEO moochers who are paid too much for too little corporate success, never get fired, and, if they should depart (see: resignations that are really firings), often receive millions in goodbye packages alone.

Are the latter the millionaires to thank? Forget it.

All is vanity
In death, Ayn Rand made a revealing statement about big money and the church of objectivism: She was laid to rest with much fanfare -- and a 6-foot-tall dollar-sign floral arrangement. Interesting aside: Alan Greenspan was in attendance.

She went out with a spectacle, but in essence, she showed that you can't take it with you.

Wealthy individuals are not necessarily Randian disciples, as we have discussed above. Rand was a vociferous opponent of altruism, yet many businesses prove that they don't have to be brutal and unfeeling about people and the planet.

Who really deserves the thanks? How about those who don't proudly wave the flag of selfishness but rather use their business acumen -- and their deserved wealth, earned from well-run, progressive, and economy-boosting companies -- for more than just their own pocketbooks and the short-term bottom line.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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Read/Post Comments (19) | Recommend This Article (24)

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  • Report this Comment On October 01, 2013, at 6:18 PM, sheldonross wrote:

    Wow, what a vapid and ignorant interpretation of objectivism. None of ills you speak of are products of it. The bailout of AIG is about as accurate an analog to what Atlas Shrugged demonized as you can get in real life.

    Then you even admit that that there is no free market.

    "It's in the marketplace (don't be fooled, the current one isn't free),"

    Cronyism != Objectivism by a long shot.

  • Report this Comment On October 01, 2013, at 11:34 PM, malclave wrote:

    Are some people really taking seriously Binswanger's statement that people earning a million dollars or more should be exempt from taxes?

    It's obviously satire. If the reference to "A Modest Proposal" wasn't enough, then how about the suggestion that the top earner should be awarded the nation's highest MILITARY honor?

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2013, at 9:35 AM, gskinner75006 wrote:

    It sounds like the entitled generation is one step away from forming a lynch mob. I guess the smart money will invest in rope manufacturing.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2013, at 4:55 PM, Roark2112 wrote:

    The author lives up to the title of a fool by assuming that Objectivists deal with monopoly money--even though Atlas Shrugged made it clear that the cronyism we see today are portrayed by James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, and villains in the novel. Ms. Lomax also assumes that by merely naming that Alan Greenspan was at Ayn Rand's funeral, we are to assume his failure as Fed Chairman is somehow a reflection on Rand, even though his actions totally contradicted her individual rights based politics.

    By calling Objectivism a church it is obvious that Ms. Lomax knows nothing about the philosophy and only wants to distort it. Objectivism is a reason based philosophy in which happiness (not hedonism) is the highest goal.

    Binswanger's point is that millionaires who attain their wealth by voluntary trade should not be taxed is a proper act of justice. He wins over Maria Bartiromo while demolishing Ms. Lomax's equivalent here: http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000202682

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2013, at 8:35 PM, wildeweasel wrote:

    I really don't understand the whole "CEO's make to much money" crowd. Top athletes, pop stars, A-list actors all command one year earnings that are more than most people will make in a life time. Yet how many jobs do these people create? how much wealth do they earn for investors?

    Yes, there are CEO's that earn more than they are worth. just as there are employees that are not worth the 30k they make. You can make your opinions known by not investing in those companies, or participating in shareholders meetings. To say that no one is worth million of dollars a year, is like saying a Van Gogh is only worth its paint and canvas costs. I personally look for "Well run" companies when investing, not whether there CEO is making more money than me.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinions, even if they differ from mine. If you only think that people that invest in "Green initiatives", and "worker perks" deserve thanks you are wrong. "Solar city" and Google would not exist without the pollution generating chemical and mining companies and the jobs and wealth they create. You can buy your organic produce all you want but your mere existence creates a negative impact on the environment. This seems to be more about feeling good than making smart money decisions. A while I can't take it with me I can leave it to my kids, charity and taxes, and that is not selfish.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2013, at 8:57 PM, solhls wrote:

    You have distorted and conflated the meaning of the ideas presented in Dr. Binswanger's OPED. If you cannot or will not understand that it is the great wealth producers who make possible the creation of the jobs that provide us with the highest standard of living the world has ever known, and so, by that fact, are the greatest benefactors of mankind the world has ever known, than all that is left for you are the obfuscations in your article. Rather than complaining that the wealthy need to "give back to society," which is what this controversy is fundamentally about, we need to recognize, instead, that we owe them much more than we can ever pay in terms of economic trade. Further, we owe them the recognition of the tremendous moral virtue involved in the actions required to produce great wealth. These businessmen, inventors, and scientists should be our heroes, and, certainly not, the Mother Theresa's of the world who wallow in human suffering. The fact that we castigate these great men is a black mark on our cukture, which I am yet hopeful that Ayn Rand's great philosophic system, Objectivism, still has time to overcome before we lose greatest and freest country in human history.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 3:41 PM, KBecks wrote:

    You're generalizing about all CEO's to hate them and engender class envy. This is the best contributor the Fool has to give us? Meh. I get that Fool HQ is close to D.C. but try to give us less editorial and more news. I'd love to see a different columnist featured.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 3:42 PM, KBecks wrote:

    These opinions are useless to my investing goals.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 7:36 PM, strat91 wrote:

    We could write a thank you note to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and other CEO's that built companies, created jobs, changed the way people live, and contributed to the overall human experience. Yes, they got rich, but everyone is richer for it. HOWEVER, I cannot send a thank you note to Lloyd Blankfein (who is "Doing God's Work" in making a small few rich), hedge fund managers like Bill Ackman (who all but ruined JC Penney because of his own arrogance), and the leveraged buyout specialists who take debt free/low market value companies and turn them into their personal bank accounts.

    Binswanger implied that hedge fund managers and CEO's of investment banks playing with other peoples money were as worthy of praise as folks like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates is ridiculous.

    FWIW

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 8:04 PM, Saintmark01 wrote:

    As usual, I enjoy Ms. Lomax's perspective.

    I am a middle manager of a Fortune 100 company who, like most of my peers, labor long and hard to keep our company at the top of its game. Our CEO makes (not earns) approximately 100 times my salary - plus options and other perks. He didn't start the company, our stock has performed well below the S&P 500, and he certainly doesn't work any harder than most of my peers.

    Should he be "thanked"? I don't think so. The problem is, to replace him the Board will find someone similarly "qualified" and pay him/ her even more.

    BTW, among the CEOs who are deserving of praise - Howard Schultz displays a terrific mix of social conscience, business savvy, and shareholder consideration. Starbucks is one of my core holdings for this very reason and I have never begrudged him a penny of his compensation.

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2013, at 12:40 PM, Truth2Power wrote:

    Love the title of the article, Alyce!

    What's fundamentally missing from Binswanger's analysis (and I hope that malclave is right and it's really just satire) is that if, truly, everyone is "justly compensated" by their wages for the work they produce, and neither owe anything to society nor are owed anything from society (save the aforementioned work and wages, respectively), then why should an entrepreneur be exempted from this rule for starting a large company, when his/her wages are already vastly higher than average?

    The contention that without entrepreneurs, everyone would just sit around doing nothing is absurd. If there had been no Steve Jobs to "invent" the iPod, there would still be work in manufacturing...manufacturing CDs instead of MP3 players. If anything, Mr. Jobs' and Apple's advancement put a lot of people OUT of work in the CD, jewel case, and CD player industries...not to mention people who once worked at the record studios whose business model was disrupted, individual "one-hit wonder" recording artists who now sell a 99 cent song instead of a $15 album, etc. etc.

    I will agree that a good business leader (whether entrepreneur, founder, or CEO) deserves much thanks. Several noteworthy CEOs (Jobs, Buffett, Sinegal, Bezos, Brin, etc.) have, through their leadership and through the stock price appreciation that leadership engendered, personally contributed to my financial well-being. Do I think they owe me anything further, personally? No. Do I think they owe the IRS, like everybody else? Of course.

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2013, at 3:21 PM, TXObjectivist75 wrote:

    You really don't understand objectivism at all. Rand would have celebrated men like Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Brin, Page, etc. They created businesses out of nothing, created innovation on their own, and should be rewarded commensurate with the value they provide to others. She would consider men like Jeff Immelt and Warren Buffet the James Taggarts of the world, removing competition using the power of government (Immelt: green subsidies, Buffet: BNSF benefitting from the delay in Keystone).

    And she wasn't against altruism. Her statement that a man owes nothing to another save the honest transactions of a free market isn't an endorsement of vulgar selfishness. Notice that she uses terms of ownership. A man owns the product of his own labor and intellect. In that paradigm, he may choose to keep it all to himself, or to give it away, of his own free will. He just does not OWE it to society or an individual to do so. Forced altruism is not altruism. Forced taxation in the name of fairness or "spreading the wealth around" is a moral abomination because it requires taking what has been produced by a man, that being produced by an exchange of intellect or labor time, which is essentially partial enslavement.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 10:23 AM, FoolishNature wrote:

    I think that Lomax is spot on. The vast majority of CEO's didn't start the company they run and have no legitimate claim to it's fortunes. Many are clueless privileged cronies who are promoted into their Princely status by others who all sit on each others boards thus protecting their status much like the unions they all claim are dragging this country to the gutter. There are many like Jobs, Gates, Musk etc. who truly do create jobs and wealth and feel the obligation to give back to the society that MADE IT POSSIBLE for them to be successful. There is NO ONE in this country who did it all by themselves, and to claim it as such is simply delusional. Ayn Rand, followers are the clueless offspring of selfishness and idiocy.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 5:17 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    I heard that on the day Ayn Rand was born she jumped out of the womb ready to take on the world based on her talents and intellect. I heard she even bartered for her first life sustaining gulp of milk.

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2013, at 3:09 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    I appreciate so many of your comments! Very good discussion and I'm glad to see balance in it.

    I don't believe Binswanger's statements were satire, actually, although they're so extreme it feels as if they should be. He is from the Ayn Rand Institute and I did watch the video interview with Henry Blodget and he appeared to be extremely serious to me. If it was satire, it was so deadpan that it's lost in the delivery. It didn't appear that Blodget believed he was part of some bizarre Objectivist satirical performance art or something. (I suppose anything's possible, but...)

    I have read Rand and actually do understand her philosophy, this article isn't coming out of thin air as if I'd just heard of her in passing. I truly believe that many are not critical enough of its fatal flaws and outright unpleasantness. I believe that whether people believe she is misinterpreted or not, the misinterpretation results in ugliness. I see some feel the same way here.

    Saintmark01, I agree that Howard Schultz is truly one of the best. He does make a lot of money, but he has created a great company with all the attributes you described, and they are great ones. Including good, old-fashioned values like providing health care and having empathy for people who lack that security. I believe his ratio to worker pay as theorized is pretty astounding, BUT, yes he has built a great company and contributed a lot to the world. Schultz really doesn't fill me with indignation. As opposed to so many of the others with eye-popping salaries -- for too many I do NOT get the impression of intense productivity or even investment performance. (Thank you for your real-life observation too. That is so frustrating -- indeed. Many if not all employees work really, REALLY hard like you say and very often aren't paid enough for what they do. The discrepancies you mention are not fair at all, and way too often the case.)

    I appreciate opinions though. Thanks for the discussion, everyone.

    Best,

    Alyce

    hbofbyu, that's funny.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 3:41 PM, mjmce wrote:

    CEOs who get shockingly high compensation for running failed companies and engaging in questionable activities (John Corzine anyone?) should receive no thanks and should be banished by stockholders. Taxpayer bailouts of such companies (Solyndra et. al.) are the very injustice that Ayn Rand warned about in Atlas Shrugged. CEOs and others who start companies, create jobs and create wealth for themselves and investors without being picked as winners by government subsidy deserve admiration if not thanks. Most of all they deserve to be unfettered by foolish populist punishments by regulation and ruinous taxes. The internet has now made it possible for anyone to see what CEOs and other senior management are paid. If you don't like what you see, take your money elsewhere. while you are at it, stop buying tickets to see overpaid actors and athletes and see how fast things change. No one in the media seems to express outrage at Hollywood movie subsidies and taxpayer supported stadiums.

  • Report this Comment On October 14, 2013, at 2:40 PM, AnnefromBelgium wrote:

    Strange.. did you actually READ Atlas Shrugged? Of course a lot of the content is in contrast with the extreme communist culture Rand came out. But is is a plea for a 'human' capitalism. Opposed to the nagging bureaucracy. A very actual theme.

    The desscription that is given here about these 'objectivists' looks more like one of baghwan disciples or followers of Gurdjieff ;-))

  • Report this Comment On October 14, 2013, at 4:09 PM, Pr0metheus wrote:

    Binswanger is correct that the wealthy owe society nothing. However, he is incorrect that the wealthy are owed something.

    If a wealthy man owes nothing to his teachers because they were paid for their services, then the reverse is also true: teachers owe the wealthy man nothing because he was paid via profits for the value he created.

  • Report this Comment On October 17, 2013, at 12:41 AM, 650nm wrote:

    One thing I learned from the comments here is that Ms. Lomax can really take vitriolic criticism in stride. That's a feat I have difficulty learning.

    Not to add to the criticism, but I think the Business Insider link you posted had the best, most useful perspective:

    "We pay our employees as much as possible while still achieving our financial goals. As the CEO of the company — and as the entrepreneur who co-founded it and an investor who funded it — I don't hallucinate that all of the company's success is due to me. It is a privilege to lead our team, but it is the hard work of the ~130 talented people on the team that make us successful. And it is the revenue we receive from our readers and clients that sustains the 130 jobs at Business Insider — not me. The overall mission of Business Insider, meanwhile, is not to "make as much money as possible." It is to produce a great product for our readers and clients, produce a compelling return for our investors, and provide excellent jobs for our team."

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